Tools of the Imagination — Alec DeLeon

Exosquad Alec DeLeon
by Playmate Toys, released 1993

Exosquad: Mecha’s Unsung Hero

In a genre overrun with the newest Transformers, Robotech, and Gundam series, it’s easy to overlook some of the less-successful franchises that still managed to deliver beautiful work.  One such example is the Exosquad series which delivered some truly fantastic toys to go along with their excellent – though sadly oft-forgotten – animated series.
The Exosquad Franchise has generally been little more than a footnote in the annals of animation and mecha history.  The story is about a war between planets and between humans and their artificially-created offshoot, the Neosapiens.  The story is set in the future when Venus and Mars have been colonized with the help of powered suits called E-Frames.

The story of ExoSquad drew heavily from classic sci-fi, including the works Issac Asmov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.  While it certainly had its stylistic and near-superheroic qualities, this series was far more rooted in real and believable science than many of its sci-fi brethren on TV in the early to mid-1990s.  Sadly, Exosquad didn’t survive past one season and has more or less disappeared from the collective consciousness.  All that remains, aside from a few VHS tapes on eBay, are some very fine toys that managed to do a whole lot right.  For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll be talking about the series’ Alec DeLeon.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
The E-Frames and the figures they came packaged with were pretty standard fare for toys of the day, though the figures were slightly smaller.  The 3” figures were about as mobile as the ubiquitous 3.5” GI Joe figures they were clearly patterned after and equally detailed, though a bit on the stylized side (read: cartoony).  The E-Frames themselves were colorful and had some noteworthy detail.

Construction – 2 out of 5
Unlike their appearance, the E-Frames and their figures were just on this side of cheaply made.  The plastic looks sturdier than it turns out to be once you’ve got the packaging open and the figures’ paintjobs often left something to be desired (paint that should stop at the joint would continue across it; etc).  Bolts, screws, and seams were quite visible on most of the toys.
It’s worth noting that the E-Frames had handles that were absent from the show (as the vehicles were completely enclosed in the show).  Getting the character to hold these handles is quite a chore and is one of the major drawbacks of these toys.

Movement – 5 out of 5
While the human characters were fairly mobile and flexible, the E-Frames were a little on the stiff side.  This would be more of a problem except that the figures can easily fit into the E-Frames and its mobility is completely unaffected.  The E-Frames, rather than have strictly linear joints for the shoulders, actually have ball joints, allowing them a great amount of arm mobility.  The leg joints are limited but with hip, knee, and ankle joints to the legs, the limited range is hardly a big deal.  As such, it is this trait that makes this combination toy really stand out against many of its peers.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The Exosquad toys really are remarkable because of what they came with.  Rather than just a figure or a vehicle, you got both, as well as two weapons for the figure (a pistol-sized weapon and a rifle-sized weapon), along with the assorted missiles for the E-frame.  This really was a fantastic deal because you were for all intents and purposes getting an entire playset with each figure.  On top of that, most of the E-frames had one or more little features (the Alec DeLeon model had a rotating communication disc, a detachable data terminal, and ammo belt).  All these little extras added up quickly to make these some engaging toys.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
The packaging for the ExoSquad toys were unique to each figure (making finding in the toy store which figures were available all the easier), with not only the individual’s face and E-Frame on the front, but also a character bio and mecha statistics on the back along with an overview of the story.  Inside, you had a bio card, stickers, and a guide to the toy.  The package itself was also a solid rectangle with a lifting flap that revealed the figure inside.  This really was some of the best toy packaging that’s been produced.

Overall – 5 out of 5
A superb toy that has sadly been somewhat forgotten by the industry, the Exosquad toys were really stellar and some of the best toys made in the 1990s.  These toys were really fantastic and they set a great bar for future toys to live up to (which few did).  So until the action-figure-packaged-with-a-mech industry picks up the clues, we’ll have to just remember fondly of the days when these toys graced the shelves.

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Our Line of Work is Entertainment

Billionaire Ted Turner once told Vince McMahon that he was starting his own pro-wrestling circuit, World Championship Wrestling (or WCW).  Vince McMahon, president of the then-WWF, famously responded “Have fun with your wrasslin’ company, Ted; I’m in the entertainment business”.

I’ve taught a few writing classes and writing workshops, at conventions, libraries, and other places.  I’ve also consulted with writers off and on since I was first published in 2001.  A common trend I’ve noticed is a little bit of confusion as to what it takes to be a good writer.

Discussions of how you define being good at something aside, many people seem to think its originality.  Most writers – specifically aspiring writers – seem to think that they need to have some new concept, some new story, like something no one has ever seen.  And originality is great, don’t get me wrong.  If you’ve got originality, you’ve got a leg up on your competition.  But what defines a truly successful writer, what makes them good, is being entertaining.

Writing as a profession is being an entertainer.  We exist to engage, enthrall, and generally entertain our readers.  Originality is wonderful, a following is a plus, and skill at writing never hurt anybody.  But at the end of the day, what will determine whether or not you are any good is if you entertain your readers.

The old adage that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ may be accurate (I don’t believe so), but it doesn’t mean there aren’t new and engaging ways to tell the same stories.  ‘Boy meets girl’ is about as trite as it comes and yet everybody has their personal favorite versions of that story that came along long long LONG after that story had been worked to death.  Somewhere between the true essence of the story and the window-dressing, you find the writer’s skill at entertaining.  And that’s what matters.

Don’t neglect skill.  Don’t underestimate novelty and originality.  But at the end of the day, what you need to ask yourself is if the reader will be entertained.  Because if they will, then you’ve done your job as a good writer.

Tools of the Imagination — Robocop

Robocop
by Toy Island, released 1993

Cyberpunk’s Last Hurrah

Part man, part machine, and all cop, Robocop is an iconic figure in the cyberpunk genre.  Its story is one of the struggle for personal identity and integrity in the face of an increasingly impersonal and even disposable world.

The Robocop franchise has enjoyed sporadic success, but typically fell to the wayside about as quickly as it appeared.  This was certainly the case with this toy line which came out shortly after the release of the third movie.  There had been Robocop toys before, but they were more exaggerated as they were based off the cartoon series rather than the live-action movies (a second toyline based off the sadly short-lived live-action TV show likewise came and went without anyone noticing).  While Robocop 3 was the lightest fare of the three theatrical movies, the darker tone than most toyline fare was still represented in these action figures by means of their greater detail, greater realism, and higher quality materials.

The story of Robocop is that of Alex Murphy, an honest cop, who is killed in the line of duty.  He’s then turned into a cyborg police officer by an at-best-ambivalent corporation, but stripped of his identity and elements of his humanity.  Aside from the trilogy of movies, there have been several television series (including the aforementioned cartoon series) and a few straight-to-video films.  A reboot is rumored to be in the works, but where the franchise has really survived is in the realm of comic books where its popularity has waxed and waned but never really fallen away.  These toys are clearly meant to appeal to fans of the comics and the movies as much as the younger fans.

Appearance – 3 out of 5
The appearances of these toys are unremarkably good.  They have a nice texture and definitely look the part of the character, but there is nothing outstanding about any of them.  The color schemes are good and simple, the accessories look the part, and the figure itself is a good representation of the character from the movies.  Unfortunately, their appearance is a bit generic, which makes telling the different figures apart a little difficult.

Construction – 4 out of 5
While the toys aren’t anything to write home about appearance-wise, they are solidly made.  Action figures typically aren’t the sturdiest of toys, but these prove to be the exception.  A very high quality plastic was used and it gives the figures some heft, making them feel very solid.  These toys are noticeably heavier than many of their peers, allowing the to stand up to the proverbial – and sometimes literal – beating that comes from frequent play.
One distinct characteristic of note is that the toys, having sound effects, come with batteries.  The batteries are generic watch batteries and the slot for them is closed with a screw.  This is a godsend.  You don’t have to worry about the port coming open during play and the batteries are easily replaced.  This kind of forethought makes for a good toy.

Movement – 2 out of 5
If there’s anywhere that these toys fail, it’s in movement.  The toys have four joints total – shoulders and hips.  There are no elbow or knee joints.  The shoulders and hip joints move along a single axis, making the figure incapable of taking most dramatic poses.  Replicating movements or postures from the movies or the cartoons are pretty much out of the question.
It’s worth nothing that each figure can remove both forearms to allow the equipping of a gunpod accessory that comes with one of the figures.  Unfortunately, there’s an obvious lack of versatility to this as there’s only one weapon that can be changed out and it’s only available with one figure.  This makes this hand-removing feature more of an oddity than anything else.

Extras – 3 out of 5
Each action figure comes with Robocop’s signature gun (a modified Beretta) and a different set of accessories: a jet back and stabilizing arm guards, a recharging station, or a collection of several additional guns.  Not only that, but each figure has a button on the central chest that activates a sound effect corresponding to the accessories (gunfire for the guns, a computer processing sound for the recharging station, and a take-off sound effect for the jetpack).  The accessories are all completely interchangeable and it’s possible (read: extremely likely) that you would use all the accessories on just one Robocop action figure.
Since its pretty clear that the action figures are meant to be interchangeable in using the accessories, it’s a bit disappointing that the accessories weren’t better designed with each other in mind.  For example, Robocop can’t stand in the recharging station while wearing the jetpack.  That’s not a big deal and makes sense, but it would have been nice for the recharging station to have some kind of harness to hold the jetpack while Robocop’s recharging.  Likewise, one of the action figures comes with four guns and it’d be nice if the recharging station had a place to hang those guns.  This lack of compatibility is all that keeps this rating from bumping up to 4 out of 5.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
There was nothing special about the packaging for these toys.  The back information was pretty much identical and the front cover was just about the same: a hand-drawn image of Robocop using whatever accessories came with the particular action figure pretty much made up the front.  There wasn’t even a particularly good explanation of the character, the world, or the story.

Overall – 3 out of 5
These action figures are beautiful illustrations of getting some things very right and some things quite wrong.  The construction value of this toy is clearly very high and the accessories are all quite nice.  Unfortunately, since the accessories don’t work together and the toy is almost immobile it’s so stiff, there’s really only so much you can do with these.

Stop it with Evangelion

You know what happens Friday?  Pacific Rim happens Friday.  For those of you who don’t know what Pacific Rim is…you need to get right with the Lord or something, because seriously?  Check this s#!t out:

And everybody’s talking about, because why wouldn’t they be!  It looks awesome.  But the one complaint I have is that everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – seems to be comparing to Neon Genesis Evangelion.  And if you don’t know what Evangelion is…then you need to stop playing games because you don’t need be telling them lies that you don’t know what Eva is.  Google it and buy some DVDs.  That’s like not knowing the plot of Star Wars; it’s 2013.  Get your act together.

If Pacific Rim is derivative of any classic mecha series, it’s not Evangelion; it’s the Power Rangers.  It’s a big-budget, ‘grown-up’ version of Powers Rangers.  I don’t understand why Evangelion’s even beginning to come into the discussion.  So quit it!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to count the seconds until the midnight showing Thursday.

Tools of the Imagination — Jetfire (Classics)

Jetfire
Produced by Hasbro, released 2007 as part of the Wave 2 of the Transformers Classics

Quite Possibly The Perfect Toy

We’re finally going to get away from the anime/cartoon reviews and begin to explore some of the OTHER tools of the imagination.  Next to playgrounds themselves, toys are probably key.  And so, we venture to the kings of toys, action figures.
To celebrate Habro’s 20th anniversary, the company began their Transformers Classics toy line as a way to connect the original line of toys with modern audiences.  This meant that all the classic characters were going to receive facelifts and even a few full-scale overhauls.  The Transformers had already gone through several incarnations since the close of the original toy line (colloquially referred to as Generation One, or G-1), but the Classics line was meant as both a re-imagining of – and tribute to – the original series.

Jetfire has been a fan favorite in the Transformers since the first incarnation in 1984.  Redrawn and named Skyfire in the animated series (allegedly due to unconfirmed legal issues stemming from use of a Valkryie toy mold from Robotech – a rival cartoon at that time), Jetfire’s tale is one that usually brings a little bit more reality to the story of transforming alien robots.  In the original series, he was saved by an old friend and Decepticon named Starscream.  Jetfire would join the evil Decepticons out of loyalty to his friend but he’d quickly find his beliefs conflicted with their goals of conquest.  By the end of the episode, he defects to the Autobots, an action that nearly costs him his life.  This tale of defection in order to preserve one’s morals is echoed in later incarnations, even up to his most recent incarnations in the 2009 live-action film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
This toy is simply beautiful.  It does a fantastic job of hearkening back to the original 1984 toy, while at the same time being its own original work.  It’s so detailed that even rubbing your fingers over its surface reveals every crevice and jut, but not in a manner that is visually distracting.  What’s especially noteworthy is just how fantastic this toy looks and feels like the original Jetfire toy.  It even transforms in a fashion similar to the original toy – evoking a sense of tactile nostalgia – but at the same, the transformation is different enough to preserve its sense of uniqueness.

Construction – 4 out of 5
Habro has a deserved reputation for making quality toys and Jetfire is no exception.  The plastic used feels solid and sturdy, but not overly heavy.  The joints don’t feel taxed under the weight of the limbs, but there is still some heft to this toy.  All the detachable pieces come off with ease, but don’t fall off and when a limb is moved in any direction, it stays there.

Movement – 5 out of 5
The original Transformers, for all their accolades, were not the best toys ever.  Many of the figures couldn’t actually move beyond the transformation from vehicle to robot and back.  Anything above the ability to rotate the arms was actually pretty remarkable.  The correction of this problem in the Classics toy line is easily one of the biggest selling points.  Jetfire is incredibly easy to pose in a wide variety of positions.  Each joint is very flexible and easy to move, yet still sturdy so that the toy doesn’t fall under its own weight.  The body moves very easily and it can flow from jet mode to robot mode without any trouble.

Extras – 5 out of 5
The toy comes with a detachable backpack, two detachable arm rockets, a laser weapon (that separates into two for dual-wielding), and even a detachable helmet (allowing the toy to resemble both the character from the animated series AND the original toy at the same time).  The arm rockets fire missiles (with about two or three feet range, making them strong enough to fly nicely but not strong enough to put out somebody’s eye) and the backpack has spring-mounted gunpods that can be angled in the robot mode.  This means the already fun-to-play-with jet has a plethora of additions that provides a whole new level of playability.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
The packaging that Jetfire comes in is pretty average.  There’re no built-in diorama, though the packaging graphics are pretty nice.  There’s a brief character bio that includes the usual Transformers statistics (ranking things like speed, power, and rank, on a scale of one through ten), but there’s little else of note.  Inside, you’re treated to a rather frustrating maze of twisty-ties that keep the toy securely in place, and instructions on transformation.  In other words, the usual fare.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This really is an excellent toy; one of the best I’ve ever seen.  It’s well-made and sturdy, it’s easy to play with and comes with a lot of little extras, it’s very detailed, and it invokes the memory of its earlier incarnations while still being unique in its own right.  Classics Jetfire is probably one of the best toys Hasbro has ever made, and that is really saying something.