Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Toy Review: Machine Robo Series 01 - Bike Robo / Gobots Masterpiece Cy-Kill

With the ever-increasing number of 3rd party toys and their ever-increasing range it was perhaps not totally unforeseeable that someone would have a look at updating a couple of Gobots as the line is gradually rehabilitated. What was perhaps more surprising was that the licence would be officially picked up by Action Toys, a small premium outfit from Hong Kong. They seem to have specifically licenced the 1986 Revenge of Cronos anime which bundled most of the classic Machine Robo toys in with a few newly repurposed figures and was a small success - it's enjoyed a few premium market figures in recent years, most famously the Soul of Chogokin Baifanku but also including the EM Gokin version of Blue Jet, also by Action Toys. However, the Action Toys interpretation seem to be made at least partly with an eye on being a backdoor Masterpiece Gobots line; for those not in the know Hasbro actually own all the Gobots trademarks (such as the character names) via their takeover of Tonka but not the physical likenesses or toy moulds, which were only loaned by Bandai.

The tail end of 2016 saw two batches of three figures released in the series - the first consisted Bike Robo, Rod Drill and Eagle Robo. Bike Robo was perhaps inevitably one of the earliest; the original version was the first Machine Robo toy released by Popy back in 1982, was one of the few to be revisited within the line's life with a Big Machine Robo mould and in the West became Renegade leader Cy-Kill - a major factor with the export market for this sort of toy. The character also had a moderate supporting role in the Revenge of Cronos anime, where all the Machine Robo were good guys.

The resulting figure is largely a success, capturing the look of the original with mild stylisation (designed by Awaken Studio), a pleasant relief considering the exaggerated look of the actual anime model and its' overtly phallic helmet. The design actually does a good job of drawing the disparate looks of the original toy and the animated version together. There's not much influence from Cy-Kill unsurprisingly but it looks as much like him as the original toy did and really Hanna-Barbera's cartoony face would not blend well with the toy. So the robot mode retains the clean, neat red/white/blue colour scheme that always seemed far too heroic for a bad guy anyway. The only shame is that silvery-grey has replaced chrome on the limbs - inevitable perhaps to keep the costs down and probably for simple reasons of durability. That said, there's a nice solid hunk of diecast for the upper torso which really adds to the feel of quality.

Articulation and detail are all to Masterpiece standard or thereabouts. The arms are nicely dynamic with good movement at the shoulders, elbows and wrists while the legs move nicely at the hip and knee. Foot movement is variable due to the legs slightly overlapping them but overall the figure has decent balance while there's also a simple rotating waist. The only weak point is sadly the neck - the rear cowl of the head overhangs just by enough to limit movement, meaning that Bike Robo can only really look to a few degrees either side and down to his chest. This sadly the number of practical display poses he can achieve without looking weird. The figure also comes with a battle axe for some strange reason; I don't really recall him using one in the anime and there wasn't one with any of the previous toys so it seems to just be bunged in to look cool. It's harmless but a harbinger for Action Toys' apparent decision to do one really weird thing for each figure.

Transforming the figure to bike mode is a slightly convoluted process, partly due to the incorporation of the engine into the sequence. On the original small figure it was a removable part that had to be put somewhere safe when in robot mode and on the larger one it rotated around to the back to form a giant clumsy backpack with the wheels as well, greatly detracting from the final look even if it meant there was no chance of anything getting lost. Here the unit is split in half and secreted inside the lower legs; it's a nice solution but combined with the need to fold the feet away, get the exhausts in just the right place and remember to pop one of the wheels in between leads to a slightly fiddly piece of work. It's not a complex puzzle exactly but neither is it a fantastic amount of fun; while the rest of the transformation isn't bad Bike Robo's change is probably the worst of the six released so far if nothing else. The wheels are fair game as removable parts as this allows them to neatly be placed on the robot's shoulders to complete the look but the handlebars are also additional parts; they can be stored on the back of the feet in robot mode if you don't want to remove them completely.

The resulting bike isn't the best either; again I'd say it's arguably the weakest of the line with the caveat that the line has been very good so far. It's recognisable immediately for what it is but the problem is the original looked - more than a little intentionally as the whole 'robots in disguise' thing wasn't part of Popy's original ethos - like a crouching robot gripping a couple of motorcycle. The more curved proportions of the update make this just a little more obvious especially the tops of the legs towards the back. And it's a shame, considering they worked it in for Mixer Robo, that the race can't be rotated away - there's nostalgia value in having the character's face not particularly well hidden just behind the front wheel but a cleaner fix would have been nice. The mode also gets a removable kick-stand for display.

All of which sounds like a lot of griping. And it is; the problem is that Bike Robo's a difficult character to get right with his unrealistic alt mode and extreme simplicity of the original figure are something which wouldn't necessarily translate well to this style of toy. It's to Action Toys' credit that they've stayed faithful to the original despite the restrictions but the result feels very much like the first toy in a line with a few problems that need addressing. Bike Robo is a good figure but not a great one and at £45 I'd think twice; I got mine at £25 from Kapow! Toys and that's about right compared to, say, the RRP of the deeply flawed Transformers Titan Returns line. It's just a shame as due to Cy-Kill's profile and the simple dint of being the first released Bike Robo is likely to attract some attention and he's not the greatest ambassador for the series. 


Monday, 30 January 2017

Comic Review - Red Rover Charlie


Garth Ennis takes a dog's eye view of the apocalypse. The main catastrophe is apparently covered in another of his series, Crossed, which I have yet to read but it doesn't hurt Red Rover Charlie. In fact the abstract and incomplete perspective on man's seemingly total downfall as everyone is turned into psychotic zombies actually works in its' favour, adding an unpredictability and elliptical quality that adds to the confusion - there are various occasions when events are simply beyond the dogs' comprehension and that's where they're left.

That is one of the book's great strengths; there's a determined attempt to think everything through from the point of view of the three dogs we follow - Red, Rover and Charlie. They all have scant knowledge of anything they haven't seen in person, relying only on the fragmented word of mouth picked up from other dogs they've met in their largely urban lives. This extends to vocabulary, with the dogs speaking only the words they'd have picked up from day to day and frequently suffering headaches as they try to comprehend their lives being turned upside down.

Characterisation is the other big strength; the lead trio are quickly fleshed out and make for an engaging if imperfect trio, leading to a fantastic character arc for former helper dog Charlie as he gradually realises humans aren't perfect and shouldn't be the end goal for their quest. The dogs they meet on their travels are well-mapped as well and there are a few glimpses of other species too, notably some absolute bastard of a cat.

It all sounds a little silly written down but this isn't a kids' story; Ennis puts a considerable amount of gore in naturally and in his typically unflinching fashion canines aren't spared just because they're the good species in the book. But overall it's a mature and fascinating read, maybe perhaps undone by an ending which runs against the grain of the flashback narration from Charlie.