Opinion - Our Transformers Masterpiece Rant
What is a masterpiece?
Well, the dictionary will tell you that it is a work of outstanding artistry, workmanship or skill.
Here in this little corner of nerd-dom, we use it to refer to a particular brand of Transformer. The facts of this line are easily found (check out tfwiki.net), but that’s not exactly where this conversation needs to go. You see, the line itself, a high end collectors’ line aimed at faithfully recreating classic Transformers characters, has seen its focus change over the 17 years it has been in existence (having started way back in 2003). And it goes back to how I chose to describe the line: faithfully recreating classic Transformers characters. In what way? Being a multimedia franchise, these characters, even from their earliest inception, have been interpreted in different ways. The art style of the old Marvel comic didn’t match the Sunbow cartoon…and neither of those lined up exactly with the toys’ appearances. You see, I’m writing this now at a time where multiple things are happening to make me question “What is a Masterpiece?” Is it something that’s animation accurate…no matter the engineering needed to accomplish that? Is it something that retains some transformation kinship with the original toy? Is it something that looks more like a blend of the toy and the animation? Obviously, in writing this, I know where I’m going to end up. This is an opinion piece after all. But I want to take you along for the ride…perhaps to foster a discussion, maybe to get you to ask the same questions. Ultimately, though, I think how you answer these questions reveals what you love about this franchise, how in particular you have bonded with it. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers here. Well, unless you liked Takara’s first attempt at a Masterpiece Rodimus. That thing sucked…and that’s the only right answer. Come with me now on this descent into madness and see where our “Masterpiece Theater” feature will be headed from here on out.
A Personal Rorschach
There’s no question that without the multimedia support, Transformers would’ve never taken off the way that it did and certainly wouldn’t have stayed as popular as it has. Kids are fickle and there have been countless toy brands and play patterns that have fizzled out over time…some of those even with multimedia support. That being said, if you don’t have a strong core play pattern though, well, you likely won’t have the staying power that other toy icons have had. This is where I end up. It’s great that I know who Optimus Prime is, and I love that every time I see a red cab over engine semi that I immediately hear Peter Cullen’s voice…but the Primes I value the most are the ones that have a transformation scheme similar to the 1984 original. Of course, they don’t need to be slavish to it as goodness knows you absolutely have to take into account the technological advances in toys that allow for greater articulation and better engineering. But having grown up in that disparate trifecta, with three simultaneous interpretations of the same character hitting me at a tender age, it’s the one that I could touch and feel and do myself that ended up resonating strongest with me.
As such, when Masterpiece began with MP-01, a 20th anniversary Optimus Prime (and at around the same time came Alternators Smokescreen), it truly felt that it had earned the title. Yes, there were engineering improvements and of course he looked more like his animated version…but there were details present that harkened back to the toy because…well, they were details and in animation, the less details, the better. Thus, MP-01 managed to straddle that line of being close to the animation while fully being aware that it was an updated toy for the modern generation. Most importantly though, it FELT like Optimus Prime. The arms still folded in to form the sides of the semi, the head still flipped back into the torso and the legs still flipped back to be the rear of the truck. Even though there were new bits of engineering, the old muscle memory from childhood still got used. And for me, that’s just as important as the appearance qualities, be it show accuracy or toy accuracy or, my preference, a blend of the two.
Do You Want a Cartoon Or Do You Want a Toy?
It all started at a Japanese toy show.
Any Transformers fan can relay it to you: Hasbro exec sees Takara’s Diaclone and Microman lines, wants to import them to America, hands the toys off to Marvel Comics to come up with a storyline for the multimedia blitz then made possible by President Reagan’s relaxing of regulations dealing with marketing to children and…viola…Transformers is born. Now, both comic art and animation (at the time) were hand drawn…the more details, the longer it takes to animate because the more there is to draw. [Not too different today really, except now it’s not drawn, just programmed and, as such, still takes time the more you have to program into the animation model. – Ed.] And while the old toys didn’t have a lot of the molded detail that we have in some of the lines today, they certainly had the decal sheets to provide additional details nonetheless. Whether it was the Marvel comic book or the cartoon that most of my generation were enamored with (and still are), for either of these hand drawn products to get out on schedule, said details needed to be thinned out. Thus, the long sticker on Optimus Prime’s forearms was absent from both the comics and the cartoon, replaced only with two yellow rectangles and a yellow triangle at the bottom of his forearm, just above the wrist.
I have to admit, I loved the detail that the decals provided. I didn’t like having to apply them, mind you, as my hands have always been unsteady and, as such, much of my G1 collection has crooked stickers…but without them, the toys did indeed look naked…unfinished.
That being said, don’t get me wrong, comparing G1 Megatron the toy to G1 Megatron the cartoon…I’ll choose the toon version every time…hands down. Same thing with Ratchet and Ironhide. And even with the more successful G1 toys…the Autobot cars, the Seekers, Soundwave and of course Optimus himself…sure, they were great, but the cartoon and comic designs just gave them that little bit of spit and polish to finish the effect. So, yeah, I get the whole push for animation accuracy…but I don’t want them to look EXACTLY like the cartoon.
Because since the G1 days, we’ve had that very thing…at least 4 times now: Transformers Animated, Transformers Prime, Transformers Robots in Disguise (2016) and most recently Transformers Cyberverse. Each of these toylines rooted the look of their figures deeply on show models…each one looking like it more or less jumped off the screen and into the home. [With varying degrees of success, of course. – Ed.] And, of course, as a Transformers fan…well, I bought all of Animated and Prime. With RiD and Cyberverse though, I’d gotten a bit choosier. To be fair, part of it stems from the fact that yes, these lines were geared more toward children while the concurrent Generations lines were producing figures more in my interest. [Of course, another part of it is that neither of those latter animated series really grabbed your interest in terms of story all that much either. – Ed.] But also, I’ve come to understand something about myself. Of all the toys I choose to display, both at home and at work, none of them come from any of those animation accurate lines. Instead, I always tend to opt for the more technical looking mainline or Generations figures that end up being a mix of both the animation models and the more technical aspects of the original toys. Sure, you could levy a charge of bias, but given that my favorite Transformers media yet (at the time of this writing) is Transformers Prime, well, that disproves that.
The current form of the Masterpiece line, however, is leaning too much into the ‘animation accuracy’ department at the cost of everything else. Sure, there have been hints at it with Grapple/Inferno, Ironhide/Ratchet and Shockwave, but with the recent MP-44 Optimus ver. 3.0 and MP-45 Bumblebee ver. 2.0, we find ourselves retreading perfectly good molds in the sake of getting as animation accurate as possible. And at a premium too…as Optimus carries a heavy price tag of between $400 and $500 and Bumblebee, who’s barely the height of a deluxe class, runs $100-$120. MP-47, Hound, is carrying a price tag of generally $150-$200. Do I really want to make serious investment into a style that I’m just not that into? Because, ultimately, for me, these are characters that are supposed to be living MACHINES…not living animated interpretations of living machines.
Boy, you must love the Bayformers then, huh? I can hear you asking.
No. And here’s why.
Engineering Vs. Over-Engineering
As I mentioned earlier, the other thing I want in a Masterpiece is for at least some vestiges of the old transformation scheme to still be there…even if it’s in some small way. Take most of the Autobot cars for example. While there are some new nuances to them, Sideswipe’s vehicle mode hood still becomes the chest, Prowl’s car doors still from wings, Wheeljack’s feet are still the front of the vehicle mode and even the updated MP-10 holds on to some of the engineering of MP-01 with Prime’s arms still folding up into his sides, the semi’s windows still becoming the torso and the legs still being the rear of the cab. It’s different, but familiar. Now, I get this isn’t going to always be the case, Megatron has to be a little more complicated, I get it, and Ironhide and Ratchet have to rebuilt from the ground up in order to have any semblance to their animation counterparts. But here’s the thing and what ties us to how the previous section ended: the transformation HAS to be FUN.
That’s why I hate the Bayformers. (Okay, also, not a huge fan of the aesthetic.)
I don’t envy the Has/Tak engineers in this regard…I really don’t. They have to take the movie robot designs and stuff them into a licensed vehicle mode that can’t have too many panel lines breaking up said vehicle mode so as not to piss off GM or whomever. Those are a lot of hurdles to clear…and it shows in the engineering. A lot of the time, you end up with either ‘panel-formers’ or ‘shell-formers’ (transformers that end up having bits of their vehicle mode hanging off of them wherein a skilled origami exercise is needed to fold up the bot to get all the panels to line up EXACTLY right to pull off the vehicle mode). And for me, those transformations have NEVER been fun. Instead, they range from frustrating on the low end to HULK SMASH on the high end. And, yes, it’s this subset that has a nigh monopoly on toys I’ve vowed never to touch again.
But it’s not a total monopoly.
No…unfortunately, Masterpiece seems to be headed in this direction as well. Exhibit A: MP-36 Megatron. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hell of an improvement in appearance over MP-05…the original take on Megatron. And, like I said, in some ways, I accept that with him, there are going to be engineering challenges in order to achieve anything that comes close to his animation model. But the transformation is not fun…and there’s DEFINITELY nothing that translates over from his old transformation. But…again, with Megatron, it makes sense and really does need to be forgiven. That’s where I am with that. However, to see this kind of over-engineering in Prime? Where it really doesn’t need to be??? And for $500??? No. Just no. If I wanna fork over half a grand to have pain be inflicted on me, shit, I’m pretty sure I can find a dominatrix for that. [Great. Now I’ve got an image of Prime in a leather corset. Thanks. Off to call the therapist. – Ed.] I’ve watched many reviews for the new MP-44 and all of them have said the same thing: the robot mode is spot on animation accurate but getting there is a huge pain in the ass and the back of the semi looks like crap as it serves as a clearinghouse of leftover bits and bobs. Sure, a fair counterpoint is that the trailer will hide all that…but no. Not a single MP Prime up to this point has opted for that out…and neither do the best mainline or CHUG (Classics/Henkei/Universe/Generations) Optimuses. [Optimi? – Ed.] Sure, MP-10 isn’t perfect and yeah, MP-44 has articulation that is better, but again, if the transformation isn’t fun…if it feels like work…then, honestly, I don’t want it. Sure, these things are expensive and, as such, I don’t necessarily play with them or transform them as much as I would a Generations figure…but in the event that I do, I don’t want to have to either dig for the instructions or search for a YouTube video to walk me through it. That’s not fun for me. That’s work…and that’s the opposite of what a toy…and that’s ultimately what these are…TOYS…that’s the opposite of what they should do. At their core…these should be FUN. If they aren’t…they fail. And, for me, that ends up making that $500 so-called “Masterpiece” no better than a mass-market Bayformer.
Yeah. I went there. Get over it.
There Are Other Options
Thankfully, Has/Tak aren’t the only game in town anymore. While the current Masterpiece line continues to go down this overpriced, over-engineered road, current Third-Party offerings, while residing in a shady legal gray area, have gotten to the point where some of the leading companies (Fans Toys, MakeToys, Perfect Effect, Mastermind Creations to name a few) are offering product that is either equal or superior to the official stuff. While I’m fine with Takara’s offering, my preference between Fans Toys Quakewave or the official Shockwave will change from day to day. Has/Tak to this point has only done ONE single Dinobot, Grimlock, while several companies have completed the set. And, to drag MP-44 through the muck again, many reviewers have said that Third-Party company Transform Element’s version is equal or superior to Has/Tak’s offering in terms of both engineering and value. (Although, to be fair, TE-01 doesn’t come with a trailer. Still, TE-01’s $100-$200 price range vs. MP-44’s $400-$500? Yeah, I know which side I’m on here.) Also, while Has/Tak seems to be hung up on this ‘animation accuracy’ kick, Third-Party offerings run the entire gamut, some animation perfect, others more focused on the toy aesthetic. But, again, I can get a Third-Party Mirage for $100…while MP-47 Hound is gonna cost me twice that? And of comparable quality? Look, ordinarily, sure, I’d take the high ground…and I have for all of the Masterpiece line up to this point. Back when the Autobot cars ran the range of $70-$100, yeah, I was happy to stay on the legal straight and narrow and give Has/Tak my business. But between the increasing costs, the engineering circle-jerks and an aesthetic that doesn’t quite grab me, well, put simply, I’m not gonna pay a premium price just to be annoyed. And having been pleased with each and every Third-Party purchase I’ve made up to this point, all of them with lower price points than the current Has/Tak offerings, an aesthetic that’s more appealing to me and, most importantly, a very comparable quality of product…yeah, I think I know where my dollar is going.
Sorry, Has/Tak…but it looks like I’m buying that MakeToys Jazz. If you ever get your shit together, maybe I’ll be back.