Tools of the Imagination – Ripley

Space Marine Lt. Ellen Ripley
by Kenner, part of the Aliens toy line, produced 1992

The Cart Before The Horse

20140806-092605-33965725.jpg
(Image courtesy of collectiondx.com)

Aliens is one of the best movies ever made.
It’s an intelligent action movie. It’s an ambitious visual tour de force. Good acting. Great sets and special effects. Nominated for everything from Academy Awards to passing the Bechdel Test. Pretty much, the question is just ‘how much does someone like aliens’. It’s never a matter of whether or not they do like Aliens.

In the wake of the 1986 film, the franchise had become a staple of science fiction, especially comics. Dark Horse Comics had produced a slew of titles for years, each more popular than the last. With the 1992 third installment, it seemed the franchise was going to heat up all over again, and so it’s little surprise that merchandisers would want to get in on it.

What is a little surprising is that those merchandisers would include children’s entertainment.

Background

Continue reading “Tools of the Imagination – Ripley”

Tools of the Imagination – Ultraman

Ultraman
Ambition does not always equal success
DreamWorks toys, Ultraman: Towards The Future toyline, 1992

It seems fitting to transition from Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad to Ultraman: Towards the Future.  Both were westernized versions of Ultraman (or Ultraman-inspired).  Unfortunately, in many ways, Servo and his buddies were able to learn from the failures of this toyline, for they were many.

Background
In the early 1990s, Tsuburaya Productions would partner with the South Australian Film Corporation to produce the first foreign-made Ultraman series.  13 Episodes of this very ambitious western-adaptation of the Ultrman story were produced, with a second season discussed by never produced.  The series followed astronaut Jack Shindo as part of the Universal Multi-Purpose Agency (or UMA) in fighting off giant monsters with the help of Ultraman.  Each story had a strong ecological undercurrent, as environmentalism had come to the forefront in the 1990s.

The show would never really catch on.  It would often get buried on the pre-cable early-morning Saturday schedule in most territories and the toys were frightful.  Though a rare example of a toyline that had more bad guy figures than good guy figures, it still ended up making just about every mistake a toyline can make.  As demonstrated below, most of the figures could barely move and the line was never fully released, which is almost always a hallmark of an unsuccessful toy line.

 

Appearance – 4 out of 5
Pretty much the only thing this toy has going for it is that it looks like the character in the show.  Given the mask and lack of facial features, not to mention the solid colors, that doesn’t seem that hard to accomplish, but at least the toy looks the part.

Construction – 2 out of 5
The plastic used to make the toy is pretty sturdy, but it’s hollow.  The joints are pretty rugged, but if a limp pops off its joint, it won’t be returning without tremendous force, almost guaranteeing the toy breaks.

Movement – 1 out of 5
This toy isn’t a statue, but it’s pretty close.  It has five joints: neck, shoulders, and hips (what appears to be a waist joint in the picture does not actually move).  The hips do not rotate easily or smoothly, in many ways invalidating them as functional joints.  The shoulders rotate along one axis only, much like the head does.  The figure is almost completely incapable of any real movement.
This isn’t even the worst of the problems, which are primarily the figure’s feet.  The tiny, awkward feet render the figure very unsteady and likely to fall over with the slightest push or even the subtlest breeze.

Extras – 3 out of 5
Ultraman comes with a miniature Jack Shindo figure, complete with stun gun.  While the figure does not look bad, he is very generic and is too small to fit in with other toy lines (he’s just under 3 inches, making him noticeably smaller than GI Joes).  The figure is also not to scale with Ultraman, which isn’t a dealbreaker but is worth noting.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging was adequate, even a little distinctive.  It had a purple and green color scheme exterior with an orange interior and clear plastic wrapping to allow seeing into the box (and see the figure).  The problem with the packaging, however, was it seemed to be made independent of the show.  The explanation of who Ultraman is, what he does, and the plot of the show was grossly misrepresented, making the figure sound more like Voltron, like some planet-hopping space hero.  The inclusion of toys that were never released (namely the Saltop Jeep), the exclusion of toys that were available (a cheap playset), and the omission of the main villain (Goudes), all undermined the already mediocre packaging.

 

Overall – 1 out of 5
As much as I love Ultraman, this figure is awful.  It’s barely an action figure and more a cheap statue.  While the TV show that inspired it was ambitious, this toy really fell short.  Even the other toys in the line – monsters that Ultraman fights – were more interesting just by virtue of at least having more texture to them.  But as the main (and only) protagonist in the toyline, this figure had an obligation to be the best and he fell short in almost every regard.

Tools of the Imagination – Phormo

Phormo
When all else fails, use a giant gun
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

Most toys about combineable superheroes have a linear progression: five individual robots become one giant robot, who maybe is then joined by another (or others) to become even more powerful.  But rarely do you see diverging paths of combining sets, where the heroes can choose between two equally powerful combinations.  It is in this way that the Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad may have broken the mold.

Background
With Xenon’s individual parts (Borr, Tracto, and Vitor) combining with our main hero Servo to become the super-powerful Synchro, Drago’s two parts (Jamb and Torb) joined with Servo to become the arguably more powerful Phormo.  Actually, Jamb really didn’t combine; it just sort of become a giant gun.  Torb did all the combining.  And while there’s much speculation among fans of the show as to which combination is the most powerful, there is one issue not up for debate: Phormo may very well have the biggest fun of any toy mech ever made.

 

Appearance – 5 out of 5
Perfect.  Spot-on.  Almost a direct replica, it’s so close to what is presented in the show.  Aside from lacking a little bit of color complexity compared to the character in the show, this figure looks directly proportional.

Construction – 5 out of 5
While all the toys from this line are surprisingly sturdy, this combiner is the roughest of them.  More sturdy and reliable than Synchro, it’s probably the most rugged of all the toys – combiners or no.  You could set a box on this toy and it won’t break.  The only way it could be stronger is if it was made out of metal.

Movement – 3 out of 5
The toy suffers a little in the movement department, largely owing to the Servo toy’s own limitations.  That being said, it’s still capable of more movement and taking more poses than just about any combiner or giant robot toy ever.  The only thing keeping this from being a four is the lack of head movement.

Extras – 1 out of 5
While it is true that Phormo can hold Servo’s weapons, it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t come with any toys or weapons on its own.  This is especially disappointing when you consider the giant gun that is Jamb has plenty of room for storage, or just firing a foam missile or something.  Of all the toys in the line, this one suffers the most from its lack of accouterments.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
Just like Synchro, Phormo was not sold as a set and therefore can really only be judged by what appeared on the Drago and Servo packaging.

 

Overall – 4 out of 5
Phormo is a masterful toy and deserves mention among some of the greats, especially in the combiners/giant robots avenue of toys.  It really only falls short of being a perfect five because of A) its lack of additional weaponry or tools or any other types of extras and B) it’s inability to combine with Xenon.  The lack of a truly masterful super-combination of Servo, Drago, and Xenon would have elevated this entire toyline to a new level.  But as it, this toy – much like the toyline that produced it – remains a quiet and unsung work of art.

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 – Synchro

Synchro
By your powers combined…
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

Even from the early days of toys, toymakers have known that if pieces are interchangeable (if two dolls can wear the same clothes, if two action figures can hold the same accessories, etc), then that will drive sales.  In the 1980s, however, toymakers discovered that they could leverage still more sales by having toys that combine.  Toys like Voltron, the combiners of the Transformers, and a litany of others from that era would become so popular as to almost demand that future toylines incorporate this feature.

Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad did not disappoint.

Background
Servo was the main hero of the show, and Xenon his mighty-if-bulky companion.  However, by initiating the proper program, the two figures could combine into Synchro – Tracto became the legs, Borr became the arms and shoulders, while Vitor would become the torso and head.

 

Appearance – 5 out of 5
The Servo toy didn’t look quite as agile as the character in the show.  The same was true for Xenon’s toy compared to his show counterpart.  This was not the case with Synchro.  The character looks IDENTICAL to the figure in the show.
Moreover, the figure is visually very balanced.  The repetition of colors is nicely done.  Most combiners have really garish color schemes (much love, Voltron, but I’m looking at you), but Synchro is really heroic yet understated.

Construction – 3 out of 5
The combined parts of Xenon and Servo don’t really detract or add to the stability of Synchro.  Servo’s mobility really isn’t that impinged by adding Xenon’s components onto him like power armor.  Likewise, Xenon was only adequately sturdy, which carries over to Synchro.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Much like the construction, the combined parts don’t really hinder or improve the whole.  Synchro can’t really move anymore than Servo, but his broader feet and thicker legs (thanks to the addition of Tracto) means the character is less likely to tip over (even with the added weight on the shoulders).  The figure loses some mobility in the legs and in the head, but shoulder and arm movements aren’t really impeded.  This isn’t that big of a deal with Synchro as it is with Servo because the purpose of the character is that hand-to-hand fighting is largely over and it’s overkill time.

Extras – 2 out of 5
Because this is a combined form of two other toys, there are no additional pieces that aren’t included in the previous sets of Servo and Xenon.  Servo’s wrist communicator/watch comes off for the transformation and has no place on the Synchro toy.  However, while Xenon’s fists couldn’t hold Servo’s weapons, Synchro can hold swords, axe, and shield alike.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
Because Synchro was never sold as a set, his packaging is largely isolated to what was promoted on Xenon and Servo’s packaging.  A plackard in yellow with black writing appears on the Xenon toy, talking about how Xenon and Servo can ‘samuraize’ (it was the 90s; don’t hate) to become Synchro.  A nice, vivid flourish to otherwise very solid packaging.

 

Overall – 4 out of 5
Just as Xenon’s 2 felt a little stingy, this feels a little generous, but I just can’t deny how incredibly satisfying this toy is, both to play with and to dismantle and reassemble.  It’s a shame the toy didn’t combine with its counterpart Drago (more on him next week) into a super-superhuman samurai, but Synchro is a solid toy all on its own, an impressive capstone to collecting the series.