Tools of the Imagination – Drago

Drago
Dragonzord by any other name…
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

In 1984, Transformers addressed the age-old of question of ‘what’s cooler than alien robots that turn into cars’ with the answer ‘alien robots that turn into dinosaurs’.  The next logical step, of course, was to embrace not the prehistoric but the fantastic.  Dragons, the icon of fantasy, would come to the forefront of robotic animal-like warriors in more shows than not.  Probably the most iconic in the children’s entertainment arena would be the Green Ranger’s Mechagodzilla-like Dragonzord in the first two seasons of Might Morphin Power Rangers.  Other shows would follow in its iconic footsteps and the Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad would be no different.

Background
Xenon was not the only aid that Servo had in the battles against Kilokahn.  Fighter jet Torb and flying bazooka Jamb could combine to become Servo’s dragon friend cleverly named ‘Drago’.  While Xenon was Servo’s stronger, more mighty companion, Drago was meant to be more ferocious and animalistic.

 

Appearance – 5 out of 5
Much like Synchro, Drago looks pretty much spot-on to his character in the show.  While the Drago in the show is a little stouter and a little, well, filthier, the toy still matches his overall colors and proportions very well.  The feel of little details is especially captured as you run your fingers over the toy, feeling like how you might expect the character in the show to feel.

Construction – 4 out of 5
Very solid and very sturdy, this figure is probably the single best figure in the entire line.  Both pieces (Jamb and Torb) feel very solid and sturdy and can stand up to a beating.  All the connection points are rugged and give when they should give, and stay when they should stay.  There are a few joints here and there that can feel a little loose, but they are far in away nitpicking issues and not major problems.

Movement – 3 out of 5
This is a little hard to score because the toy itself isn’t terribly mobile, but then neither was the character in the show.  The hips, knees, and ankles move linearly and the arms have multiple joints, but they also only move linearly.  The head can rotate up and down a bit, but not much.  While some lateral or rotational movement might have been nice, there’s not much that the Drago in the show does that this figure can’t replicate.

Extras – 1 out of 5
Like Xenon, Drago cannot hold any of Servo’s weapons nor is there any place for him to store any of them either.  He comes with no additional parts for Servo (not exactly; see next week) or anything for Xenon either.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
As with Xenon and Servo, the packaging was vividly colored with bright, vibrant colors against a blue background.  The Drago packaging was especially outstanding because of how the warm-colors jumped out on the toy shelf.  It may help to explain Drago’s generally higher popularity versus Xenon’s.

 

Overall – 3 out of 5
Drago is kind of the opposite of Xenon.  While Xenon’s individual pieces of Borr, Tractor, Vitor weren’t much to write home about, Jamb and Torb are almost more fun than Drago.  Drago looks cool, but can’t really move all that much.  Torb is an intimidating-looking fighter jet that can play air support to good guys and bad guys alike, depending on the disposition of the kid playing with them.  And Jamb just looks badass.  Without Servo, don’t be surprised if Drago remains in his individual pieces more than combining them.  But with Servo… well… 🙂

Tools of the Imagination – Servo

Servo
Ultraman for the new Millennium
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

The 1990s were an interesting time in entertainment.  The march of computer technology had reached a point where TV shows were able to offer special effects that could rival the effects of blockbuster movies from even just a decade ago.  While computers were becoming more common place, they were still largely misunderstood.  As a result, throwing the term ‘digital’ in front of just about anything made it sound edgy and near-futuristic.

So it’s little surprise that a TV show would come along setting super heroic antics in some vague ‘digital world’.  Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad was one such show, marrying the Godzilla-meets-Power-Rangers of Ultraman to the New Age of Computers.

 

Background
Appearing just a decade after the first Godzilla film, Ultraman was a space hero of gigantic proportions who used his martial power and energy attacks to combat the forces of evil (read giant monsters sent on a weekly basis).  While Denkou Choujin Gridman (the basis for Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad) isn’t technically part of the Ultraman franchise, it has all the hallmarks of Ultraman and is generally considered to be a related cousin.

Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad follows a group of teenagers (because this is the 1990s we’re talking about and the Power Rangers ruled kids’ entertainment for most of the decade) who enter the digital realm in order to combat the monsters created by the bad guys, Kilokahn and Malcolm Frink.

The show itself is worth discussion (and maybe we will in a later episode), but right now, we’re talking about the central toy to the franchise, our hero, Servo.

 

Appearance – 3 out of 5
Servo the toy looks a great deal like Servo the character from the show.  A lot of the little details are captured in the armor, especially around the head.  The figure is more than a little blocky, though, the result of having no abdominal joints of any kind as well as having abnormally broad shoulders.

 

Construction – 3 out of 5
The Servo figure is okay.  It’s not great but it’s not spectacular.  The figure is hollow, which makes it feel a little flimsy.  The plastic shell is very sturdy and tough, but it’s still a shell.

 

Movement – 2 out of 5
The figure has 19 joints, almost all of which are on the arms.  The neck rotates, as do the lower legs.  The knees bend and the feet tilt.  The hip joints, while there, have a very limited range of movement, just barely even justifying their inclusion at all.  The arms, are capable of an almost ludicrous amount of movement and positioning angles.

Curiously, both arms have two little notches on the upper arm, just below the armpit.  They fit into tiny holes in the body itself for no really identifiable reason.

 

Extras – 3 out of 5
Servo comes with a wrist band (which is narratively important), two swords, an axe, and a shield.  In theory, the different weapons are combinations of the basic sword and shield (in the show, the shield folds and slips onto the sword; high up for the axe and nearer to the handle for the super-sword).  It would be neat if they included these combining features, but as it is, this means there are at least two loose pieces at all times.  That the toys are all the same gray plastic with no color doesn’t help either.

 

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The packaging of the toys is extremely colorful, with each package being distinctive and vivid.  A light blue with yellow-and-orange overlayed made them stand out on the toy story shelf.  Since each package was distinctive, the artwork was always unique and what was displayed (as far as other toys available) was likewise varied.

 

Overall – 3 out of 5
This is a pleasantly middle-of-the-road toy.  It comes with some neat weapons and its arms are mobile, but it’s lack of stability and mobility in other joints is a little frustrating.  It has no real weaknesses but also no real strengths.  Not in this toy, anyway.  As we’ll see next week, the strength wasn’t in the single toy but in the whole toyline.

Tools of the Imagination — Dragon Dagger

Green Ranger Dragon Dagger

 Green With Awesome

Bandai, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, 1994

 

 

Our culture has some fascination with the odd man out, the ‘Plus One’ in any situation.  You have a regular team, and then you have the specialty figure that complements and adds onto that team.  You have some people claiming to be the Fifth Beatle.  In basketball, you have a six-man starting team.  And in Nerdom, we call it the ‘Green Ranger Syndrome’.

Back in the early 90s, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were unstoppable.  If you weren’t around for it, words can barely express the awesomeness.  One-part Godzilla, one-part cheap kung fu flick, and one-part… well, let’s face it, Voltron, all mixed together in an extremely colorful and rather campy sci-fi show.  It was beautiful and it would (believe it or not) turn into one of the longest-running sci-fi/fantasy franchises in television history.

 

Background

The Green Ranger started out as a bad guy, an evil power ranger directed to destroy the good guys.  He was powerful, diabolical, and (thanks to martial-artist-turned-actor-turned-MMA-fighter Jason David Frank) had a hysterically over-the-top evil guy laugh.  Seriously, that laugh couldn’t have been made more evil than if he’d had a top hat and a monocle.

The Green Ranger came with a mech (a zord, in MMPR vernacular) known as the Dragonzord, which was basically a super-colorful version of Mechagodzilla, complete with the telltale roar.  And this zord was summoned from the depths of the ocean by the Green Ranger’s weapon of choice, the Dragon Dagger.  A combination flute/bowie knife, the Dragon Dagger could pipe several tunes as well as shoot laser beams.  So it was only a matter of time before Bandai turned out a role-play version of the weapon.

 

Appearance – 4 out of 5

The thing is spot-on.  It looks flawlessly like the prop from the show.  Yeah, sure, plastic has replaced metal, but it’s a toy so it’s quite forgivable.  The golden Green Ranger emblem in the crossbar is an especially nice touch.

 

Construction – 4 out of 5

Bandai does some good work, no doubt about it.  In something of a precursor to the melee toys of the modern era, such as the NERF swords that I am determined to review, this weapon has a soft plastic edge, rendering all but the most serious of hits as little more than an annoyance.  It’s not a perfect defense against injury, but it’s a sizeable one.  The plastic is relatively sturdy and the buttons have little give so as to ensure no problems from play.

 

Movement – 3 out of 5

I’m not sure how to score a toy that’s meant to be wielded like a knife.  It’s not supposed to have much in the way of moving parts.  But because of its sturdiness and sheer fun to handle, I feel comfortable giving it a middle-grade just because.

 

Extras – 1 out of 5

This toy comes with no extras whatsoever.  Not even some little cardboard cut-out men for you to knock over.

 

Packaging – 3 out of 5

The Power Ranger line was quite distinctive in the coloring of the packaging, so there’s that.  I’ve always enjoyed the consistency with the look of the characters and it continued through this toy and into the next several generations.  Nice, but there wasn’t much to write home about.

 

 

Overall – 3 out of 5

I really wanted to give this toy a ‘4’ but it just didn’t quite make it.  It’s lacking any appreciable bells and whistles, but otherwise, it’s an excellent toy that’s really reliable and well-built and it’s a fantastic example of a solidly done product.

Tools of the Imagination — Steins;Gate

Steins;Gate
produced by White Fox, directed by Hiroshi Hamasaki and Takuya Sato, available on Funimation

Big Bang Theory meets 12 Monkeys

Steins;Gate is a series that will likely fall under a lot of people’s radar because it isn’t your typical anime series.  There are no mecha or ninjas; really no superpowers or angsty teens doing a lot of screaming.  In fact, there really isn’t all that much action at all.  It isn’t overflowing with fanservice, though it’s got plenty of nerd references and not the ones would you think.  Most of these are deep-culture references (for example, do you know what OTP is in reference to fanfiction?) or out-right scientific ramblings.  Some get translated for the audience and some do not.

Without many of the hallmarks of traditional anime, what remains is a unique and distinctive series that is aimed at a very niche market.  The show challenges a viewer’s intelligence with complexity and subtlety and rewards them with an unsettling but plausible series of events.

Story – 3 out of 5
A team of post-college adults, led by self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintarou Okabe, manage to accidentally invent a time machine using a cell phone and a microwave.  Once confirming this discovery, they begin working to understand the implications of time travel.  However, they quickly garner the attention of a malevolent international conglomerate (a fictionalized version of CERN, spelled SERN for the series).  This results in a deadly chess game of time travel and similar events, with Okabe trying to protect his friends and his own reality, but at the possible cost of his own sanity.

The story is inventive and unique, especially in anime, though some viewers may feel parallels to 12 Monkeys or even Magica Madoka.  While similar plots have been walked, this particular garden is far from heavily traveled.  The problem, though, is the speed at which the series moves.  It would be unfair to compare it to the US released version of Dragon Ball Z, where a single fight can span whole episodes, but the plot does move at a snail’s pace, with usually only one or two single plot-relevant events occurring over the course of the whole episode, with various charm-of-life tidbits occurring in the interim, which often becomes formulaic fast.

Art – 4 out of 5
Steins;Gate has some great character art that is distinctive and unique.  The show balances a realism to the characters with anime’s idealism.  Characters are visually quirky and unique, making them easily identifiable.  Likewise, backgrounds and objects themselves are perfectly captured.  Outdoor scenes and scenes in public are especially well illustrated.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is very smooth.  There’s a real attention to detail in the movements of characters, but nothing that becomes distracting.  Given the lack of action in the series, it’s surprising how well the characters are animated and how well the life of the city beyond them is captured.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There isn’t too much to the characters, especially in the early episodes.  It isn’t clear why the various characters put up with the demanding and obnoxious Okabe, but half a dozen episodes in, we start to see they’re more or less as crazy as him.  Plus, we do witness some validation to his intelligence.  The characters do evolve and grow, but much like the story itself, it is done so at a snail’s pace.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Given my propensity to watch anime in the original Japanese, I thought I would take the chance to watch the English dub this time and I was not disappointed.  J Michael Tatum delivers a very compelling and brilliant performance as Okabe.  He’s paired off against Trina Nishimura (as Kurisu Makise) who delivers a really strong but understated job.  The rest of the voice actors give really stellar performances, performances that rival some of the highly-lauded classic Streamline dubbing.

 

 

Overall – 3 out of 5
Three out of Five seems too stingy, but the show’s extremely slow pacing and likely niche appeal really keeps it from being more highly ranked.  The reality is that not everyone will enjoy this show, no matter how well its constituent parts prove to be.  The plot is quite smart, the characters are engaging, and the art is at times breathtaking.

Of special note is the translation itself of the script.  Without a line-by-line comparison between the Japanese and the American casts, it can be hard to say just how well translated the script is.  Some English dubs suffer because lines are translated more literally and the wording becomes stilted and forced.  That isn’t the case here.  Whether by virtue of the quality performances or whether the dialogue rather than the words were translated, the English dub is very approachable and very easy to follow, even for non-anime fans.  For dub fans looking for a new show to promote as a good example of the potential for English dubs, consider this a new arrow for your quiver.

Tools of the Imagination — Grimlock (Gen-1)

Grimlock
Transformers toyline, by Hasbro, released 1984

Him No Bozo, Him King

Given the uproar that’s been kicked off by the release of the first official trailer for Transformers 4, much of which is centered around the dinosaur-like figure that appears at the later-half of the trailer, it seems like now might be a good time to study up on our resident dino-leader, the King of the Dinobots, the incomparable Grimlock!

 

Quick question: what’s more awesome than robots that turn into cars and planes? If you said robots that turn into dinosaurs, you’d be right. Such was the thinking when it came to the first sub-class of Transformers, the Dinobots. With a wide variety of origins ranging throughout the different variations of the story, everybody seems to have their own spin on the Dinobots. But one thing that is never questioned is who is in charge: Grimlock.

Grimlock, who transforms into a Tyrannosaurus Rex, is always the leader of the Dinobots and is often jockeying for leadership of the Autobots themselves, typically leading to friction and even out-right confrontation with Optimus Prime. While he is the brains (sometimes a dubious claim) of the Dinobot operation, he’s often the most physically powerful as well.

Oh, did I mention he breathes fire? Because he’s an alien robotic T-rex. Why wouldn’t he?
Appearance – 3 out of 5
This is a pretty average toy. The character looks pleasantly similar to the character from the cartoon and is nicely proportioned. Screws and joints can be seen but they’re not garish and tend to be worked into the overall look and feel of the toy. There are some nice textures but nothing that truly stands out.

Construction – 2 out of 5
Once again, we have to confront an unpleasant truth about the Gen-1 Transformers toys which is that they were not the perfect toys overall. This toy is considerably top-heavy in robot mode and you find you have to extend his arms fully forward just to keep him from falling over. This lack of balance, coupled with some weak joints (principally the knees and the flaps of his dinosaur-mode torso), makes this toy a little unlikely to survive years and years of play.

Movement – 2 out of 5
Grimlock is deceptively disappointing when it comes to movement. At first, it appears like this toy has some pretty decent mobility. But upon inspection, most of the mobility is more due to the transformation process than to simulate movement in robot mode. The hips and knees move only in line with their transformation process, the arms have no elbows, and there are no hip or neck rotators.

Fortunately, in Dinosaur mode, things improve. The tail doesn’t move and the head has a range of motion of maybe 15 degrees, but the legs (the arms in robot mode) sprout knee joints (that go both ways for some reason) that can simulate some varieties of walking and running. This is keeping with the Gen-1 nature of more accurately representing the transformed mode rather than the robot mode.

Extras – 2 out of 5
Grimlock comes with two weapons: a gun and a sword. The weapons aren’t terribly well-made or uniquely designed which, when you consider that there’s nowhere for them to go when he’s in dinosaur mode, makes them feel sort of slapped onto the toy. The gun is pretty standard for Transformers (and most toys) of the era, but the sword is really kind of poor and is little more than a shard of plastic. Add these passingly adequate weapons to his lack of elbow or wrist joints and one almost asks ‘why bother’.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
Transformers packaging was the yardstick back in the day and many toy makers can (or at least should) still learn a lot from them. The ID card with a personal quote, character description, and stats was frickin’ brilliant. The beautiful artwork was just that; art. And the proof-of-purchase points that could (in theory) be redeemed to buy Reflector just added to the near-mythical nature of the packaging.

Overall – 3 out of 5
Like my Devastator review, I’m sure this will cause some controversy. Lord knows, I feel a little ashamed. But this toy, when viewed objectively, has its faults. Mostly in the form of its mobility, there’s a lot left wanting. My single biggest complaint might actually be a little surprising but it’s the lack of size. The Dinobots are supposed to be huge, even compared to the other giant robots they are surrounded by. And they turn into dinosaurs, with their leader being the king of the giants, the Tyrannosaur Rex. Grimlock doesn’t convey that sense of size here. True, most of the Transformers toys were originally fairly uniform in height, but I figure this should have been the first toy to break with that. Optimus Prime might be the beloved child of the Transformers franchise, but this is Grimlock we’re talking about here. This is the King. And the king should’ve been bigger, dammit.