Sunday, 31 May 2009

Revenge of the Fallen Optimus Prime

It's rather unfair that I'm blogging about this toy before the original live-action movie Leader Class Optimus Prime because, as good as that model was, this one is far, far better. From the shaping and sculpted detail to the engineering of the transformation, this thing easily represents something near the pinnacle of TransFormers toy design. A good part of this is the fact that the designers at TakaraTomy had only pre-production artwork to work from for the toys in the first movie. They had to guess which robot parts became which vehicle parts, and figure in the limitations of toymaking back in 2006/7. Now, for the second movie, they have the luxury of having already seen most of the robots in action, and have improved likenesses and worked out upgraded transformation schemes for the new characters and returning players such as Optimus.


Vehicle Mode:
I honestly had no complaints about the vehicle mode of the original movie Prime. In some ways, it's still better than this one (rubber tyres, anyone?). It was a solid, realistic-looking Peterbilt truck, and even featured it's own mode-specific sound effect (a horn, I seem to recall). It was flawed, however, in that the proportions were slightly off, and one rather important piece of details - the large chrome rack behind the cab - was conspicuously absent (for good reason, mind - that's where 2007 Prime kept his gun). This version is surely getting on for perfection. Just as solid, better proportions, angled or curved in all the right places, even the paint job is more thorough. The exhaust pipes are still rubber, but I guess that means they're still concerned about kids impaling themselves on protruding parts, or snapping them off through carelessness. This may leave you with a truck whose exhausts are, like the righthand pipe on mine, slightly droopy. Nevertheless, a sterling piece of work, and the only obvious signs that this is a TransFormer at all are the seams on the front grille, and through the cab... The rest isn't very obvious except when looking close-up.

There is a sound effect specific to this model's vehicle mode but, to be honest, it's really not that great. I think it's meant to be an engine sound but, coming from the tiny speaker embedded in the belly of the truck, it lacks the throaty roar one would normally associate with such a large truck.

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And here's a funny thing: Due to one of the improvements in the transformation, vehicle mode is now expressive! I wonder if anyone will repaint this guy as Mack from Cars...

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Robot Mode:
And here's where we start to see the kind of improvement in engineering 2 years and full access to the film's design materials can bring. This thing is, quite simply, awesome.

Not that I dislike the 2007 version at all, it was an excellent model considering it was made largely by guesswork. Everything looked right enough, but there were some significant shortcomings - not least that the head looked very little like the character in the movie - being rather too blocky and squared-off. Not so with this one - it's slightly taller than the original and all-round better proportioned - more like the broad-chested humanoid robot from the movie.

The level of detail is much improved, and it manages to look good from just about any angle. I have to admit that, when I first saw images of this toy on the internet, I couldn't quite believe it turned into a truck - it seemed too irregularly-shaped, and far too close to the movie model which, as we all know, cheated on some parts of its transformation.

It does have several drawbacks, of course. My main bugbear is the choice to use twin swords, rather than giving him a gun of any kind. OK, the twin swords are prominent in the trailers, but that's no excuse to focus so heavily on them. After the original movie toy was re-released with a resculpted head (which looked too small for the body, and required slots to be cut in the roof of the truck to accommodate the lengthened antennae) and a flip-out sword rather than the gun, I remained unconvinced by the sword. It wasn't particularly movie-accurate and looked even more incongruous sticking out of the back of the cab in vehicle mode. This one is better, but the swords are so long, then end up hindering the arm movement by clashing with the shoulder panels. Bad enough that Prime has large panels of truck nose folded up on his forearms, he now can't even stand with his arms straight unless the swords are deployed. One positive note is that, while the hands are fixed, both have slots that suggest some kind of gun weapon could be made for this model - more likely by fans than Hasbro/TakaraTomy.

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He's also a little back-heavy and, with ball-jointed ankles, that's a big problem. Without batteries, he'll stand well enough, and can be posed quite dynamically, but the batteries tip the balance and make him more liable to fall over backwards.

Transformation could be considered a drawback - it's far more intricate and fiddly than the original, largely because it's a far more accurate model. Just to start with, his feet fold out lengthways allowing everything from toe to hip to become the full length of the truck. Seriously, his hips are right at the back, between the wheels, and his toes are folded up behind the front grille. The chest ends up in the middle, and the arms form the nose. Sounds simple? It's really not. I rarely have to refer to instructions on TransFormers toys, but this one had me foxed on how the arms become the nose (tip: sort out the chest first, and plug the fake nose pieces into the slots at his elbows, then fold the nose flaps over) and precisely how the chest works (lots of cheating - bits unclip from the torso and shoulder, enabling the head to fold forward and down into the nose of the truck). Overall, it's tricky, but brilliantly elegant and, while the transformation sound is always welcome, it possibly comes at the wrong moment in this model.

Articulation is generally good but, as previously mentioned, the swords do get in the way. The ankle balljoints don't have a great range, either, so action poses can be a little limited. The absence of waist movement is understandable but still disappointing, and the rotation of the head is hindered by the truck cab panels.

In terms of decor, this iteration of Movie Optimus Prime probably requires less paint to bring him closer to his big screen counterpart, but I can't help thinking that the blue is a little light - too much like other recent Primes, rather than the dark blue of Generation One and - curiously - the movie.

Mech Alive:
Were it not for the new movie range gimmick - replacing the poorly-executed Automorph of the original movie range - this could have been an almost perfect model truck, but the moving parts occupy the chest and are very visible in truck mode. Still, it's an interesting feature: flip down a piece on his waist (the very same piece that activated Automorph in the original) and Optimus Prime... kinda breathes in. Lights flash in his chest and he speaks his name (not Peter Cullen's voice). It seems odd that he just says "Optimus Prime", rather than "I am Optimus Prime" or some other, more interesting soundbite, and it would have been nice if they'd followed Animated's example with Leader Class figures, and included a couple more phrases. Technically, Mech Alive is not limited to this feature - upon examination, the upper arm joints are molded in such a way as to show different mechanical details as the arm twists.

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Two little supplemental points:
  • The way the rear lights have been built seems to be daring some enterprising kitbasher to add lights. It looks to be a simple enough job - wires could be run from the existing batteries to a set of low-power LEDs. Three, maybe four would do it.
  • While the design of the trailer hitch is such that it triggers a transformation sound when changing between robot and vehicle modes, it looks - even more than the original - as though there might be plans to make a trailer. If not, Hasbro/TakaraTomy are making it far easier for the kitbashers to make one that fits snugly.

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