Tools of the Imagination – M.A.S.K.

M.A.S.K.
produced by DIC Enterprises, originally aired from September 1985 to November 1986, available on DVD and YouTube

GI Joe meets Transformers…what could possibly go wrong?

M.A.S.K. is a classic cartoon from the 1980s cartoon boom that is more fondly remembered than actually enjoyed.  Many of the episodes are recalled with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia because, upon re-watching, the show really doesn’t hold up.  Part of that may be due to the toys being excellent (more on that, perhaps, in future weeks) and part of it may just be to the novelty of the series itself.  A lot of what we know to be trite and cliche now were still quite new in the mid-1980s.  But whatever the case, M.A.S.K. is not a cartoon that has aged well.

Background
M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) is a quasi-secret organization of do-gooders who primarily oppose V.E.N.O.M. (Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem).  M.A.S.K. is led by super-rich philanthropist Matt Trakker who founded the organization and filled its ranks with the 1980s’ version of cultural and ethnic diversity.  It’s not really clear where Trakker got his money, or how he hasn’t spent all of it already, but generic rich guy is a staple in these sorts of shows.

Counter to this, V.E.N.O.M. is as evil as M.A.S.K. is good, with a similarly vague origin and goal.  Founded by Miles Mayhem, a crime boss that looks more like a corporate CEO than an 1980s cartoon criminal mastermind, V.E.N.O.M. is engaged in various criminal activities around the world.

The show has some gaping plot holes right from the start.  Even though M.A.S.K. is supposed to be secret, just about everyone seems to know Matt Trakker is the founder of M.A.S.K. or is at least connected to it.  On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be much of an origin to M.A.S.K.  It just sort of came into existence to combat V.E.N.O.M., except V.E.N.O.M. exists because of stolen M.A.S.K. technology.

Likewise, V.E.N.O.M. doesn’t seem terribly ambitious in its criminal goals, at least not compared to its 1980s counterparts.  While Cobra from GI Joe was bent on world domination, V.E.N.O.M. seems perfectly fine with random exploitation and money-making schemes.  A lot of their crimes seem downright petty at times.

Another major problem with the show is the inconsistent power and technology level, namely in the form of the powers found in the titular masks/helmets.  The M.A.S.K. vehicles make sense as a sci-fi element; they’re exaggerated and over-the-top but not entirely unplausible.  A car that can reconfigure into a small airplane?  Sure, why not.  A helmet that embues flight or anti-gravity properties powerful enough to push a falling aircraft the size of a harrier jet out over the ocean?  That’s stressing the believability of a show that, otherwise, seems to inhabit the real world.

 

Story – 3 out of 5
M.A.S.K. combats V.E.N.O.M.’s newest dastardly plot to make some money.  The vast majority of the plots are pretty typical cartoon tropes, with very few surprises.  By and large, each episode is by the numbers.  There’s nothing too surprising, but with 75 episodes, the show manages to cover some ground.

Art -3 out of 5
Pretty typical for the 1980s.  The heroes and villains are all pretty colorful, especially when in their M.A.S.K./V.E.N.O.M. get-ups.  All the male characters are in phenomenal shape with huge, broad shoulders (though, thankfully, not He-Man exaggerated) while the token women are noticeably curvy without being too overt.  The vehicles themselves are quite distinctive in their look and are well-drawn.

Animation – 3 out of 5
Nothing really outstanding but no real weaknesses either.  The show was pretty uniformly by-the-numbers.

Characters – 2 out of 5
The characters are, as stated above, the 1980s’ version of diverse.  For example, the token Asian on the team, Bruce Sato, Asian, talks almost exclusively in enigmatic Confucian riddles that no one by Matt Trakker understands.  The one female on the team, Gloria Baker, is the only character without a call sign.
There’s a token effort to provide some diversity to the characters’ backgrounds (Hondo MacLean is a history teacher while Brad Turner is a rock star), but this has little effect beyond showing us what they’re doing when they get the call from Matt Trakker to drop whatever they’re doing (which they always do without fail).  Once the actual adventure begins, pretty much all signs of character diversity is limited to their accents.

Acting – 2 out of 5
Bad.  While not truly terrible, not a single performance is at all remarkable or anything more than simply adequate.  Part of this is likely because the characters are never given much of a chance to meaningfully emote, leaving the voice actors with very little to work with.  Some of the accents are truly over-the-top but some of them aren’t too bad.
The single biggest problem is Matt Trakker, voiced by Doug Stone.  While he’s a decorated voice actor, he’s summarily terrible in this show.  Maybe it was the directing, maybe it was the technology, but his performance is always a low monotone, to the point that when Trakker is speaking, you often have to turn up the volume to understand what he’s saying.  The performance is consistently lacking in any real inflection and drags down whole segments of the show.

 

Overall – 2 out of 5
The only thing that saves M.A.S.K. from a One is that the formula it relies on works fairly well.  There’s nothing really good about the show beyond the premise, while the superficial plot issues and flat characters really kill whatever good it might have had.  It’s easy to see why this show didn’t last long, no doubt carried predominantly by the above-average toyline.  If you were a M.A.S.K. aficionado, I urge you not to rewatch the show, lest you find yourself wondering what in the world you were thinking as a kid.

Tools of the Imagination – Xenon

Xenon
Ultraman’s Robotic Friend
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

At first glance, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad looked like a high-concept knockoff of Power Rangers or Ultraman (for the few in the US that watched Ultraman: Towards the Future).  You have a high school teenager who uses his magical (or so-super-futuristic-as-it-might-as-well-be-magical) device to turn into a superhero.  But what do his teammates do.  Well, depending on the episode, they try to guide him with high-tech input.  Or, they Samuraize (hey, it was a kids’ show in the 90s; don’t judge) and become superheroes too.

Background
The Xenon Program (this takes place inside a computer, remember?) is made up of the vehicles Borr, Tracto, and Vitor.  Each is piloted by a different teen in the show.  However, much like the lions in Voltron, they don’t amount to much individually, especially when compared to their combined form of Xenon.

In the show, Xenon appears to be a slower-but-stronger version of Servo.  He appears to lack the agility of his mainstay counterpart, but is shown as far more durable (usually because he takes the abuse).  Xenon has little bit any personality, and the individual vehicles get very little face time.  The one exception to this, however, is in a single episode where Xenon and Servo end up having to fight one another.

 

Appearance – 3 out of 5
The toy’s representation of Xenon is simply okay.  Adequate.  While the individual vehicles look, more or less, appropriate, the figure of Xenon looks far blockier and unwieldy compared to his counterpart in the show.  The toy’s proportions are so different from what we see in the show, it almost demands a double-take to make sure it’s the same character.  The figure looks almost like a building while the character in the show looks more like an action hero.

Construction – 3 out 5
Playmates is more known for their children’s toys, so it may not be a surprise that this toy is fairly sturdy.  The plastic isn’t the heaviest, but it’s well put together.  The joints are all solid and when a joint is turned, it stays turned.  There are some issues with the transformation-related movements, where it can be a little hard to tell if Peg A is aligned with Hole B, but it’s nothing too bad.

Movement – 2 out of 5
The figure has nine joints – the rotation of the neck, the rotation of the shoulders, the adduction of the arms, the adduction of the hips, and the rotation of the leg joints.  There is movement of the hands, but as this is more connected to the transformation process than an actual articulation point, and seeing as the hands can’t hold anything (which is a shame), they aren’t included.
In fact, all the joints (save for the rotation of the neck) are as much a function of the transformation process as they are mobility to the figure.  That the toy was designed to benefit from these movements twice is impressive, but it does leave the figure wanting in terms of posing.

Extras – 1 out of 5
Nothing.  Xenon comes with no extra attachments (except for himself; more on that next week), no additional weapons for he or Servo to use.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The one area where the toy does excel is in its packaging.  Just as with Servo, the packaging is brightly colored and distinctive, as well as being unique to the toy.  It brilliantly shows with just a glance who Xenon is, what he looks like, and gives a vague idea of just who he is.

 

Overall – 2 out of 5
This feels a little harsh.  Xenon’s not a bad toy per say and the ability to break down into three vehicles is kind of neat.  But the lack of point to the vehicles, plus the lack of much mobility or accessories to the combined figure, just makes this toy too much of a letdown.  The toy ultimately proves to be just what the character on the show is: a vague Megazord to Servo’s Ultraman.
But as we’ll see next week, there was one saving grace to the Xenon figure, and it was the inherent strength of the entire Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad toy line.

Tools of the Imagination — NES Power Glove

Power Glove

 The Holiest Of The Holy

Mattel, Nintendo Accessories Line, 1989

 

 

Okay, I know what you’re saying: ‘But Robert, the Power Glove isn’t exactly a toy.  It was a peripheral for the Nintendo Entertainment System’.  And I’ll respond by making three points.  One, I was looking for a non-Hasbro toy in my collection to review and this was about all I could come up with.  Two, I think it’s worth taking a look at this (extremely) early attempt to bridge the gap between electronic entertainment and tangible entertainment.  And third, the hell it ain’t a toy.

 

Background

When Thomas Goldsmith made the first video game was made back in 1947, he opened a door to an industry that would eventually come to the forefront of the entertainment and even artistic world.  But games have always been a unique fusion of technology, art, and entertainment.  And while they have been more often than not geared towards children and seen as children’s playthings, they have seen some ambitious attempts at some truly staggering technological milestones.

Our case in point today is the Nintendo Power Glove.  This was Nintendo’s first attempt at motion controls (roughly seventeen years before the Nintendo Wii would be released in 2006) as well as one of technology’s first attempt at recreating human movement within a video game realm.  While the Power Glove was a dubious work (more on that below), as a first attempt, you can’t deny its ambitiousness.

The Power Glove worked (in theory) in place of a regular controller.  You would plug the cord into the Nintendo and slip the glove on over your right hand (rumors persist to this day of left-handed Power Gloves but no substantial proof of their existence has been found… not that a great deal of effort’s gone into the search).  The glove could then be used to input controls using buttons on the forearm portion or using some of the most bizarre hand posturing this side of a using sign language while being struck with lightning.

 

Appearance – 5 out of 5

I’m going to come right and say this: the Power Glove looks badass.  That’s it.  There’s no two ways about it.  You can dress it up however you want, but at the end of the day, the thing looks frickin’ awesome.  End of story.

 

Construction – 4 out of 5

The 80s were not a great time to be a toy and video game peripherals were no different.  Many a game controller proved unable to endure the rigors and abuse of quality, hardcore gaming.  The Power Glove is not one of them.  This is a sturdy and well-made tool that has time and again endured decades of wear and tear.  The plastic is flexible and reliable and the whole product is actually quite comfortable to wear.

 

Movement – 1 out of 5

Enough praise.  Sure, the toy looks cool and feels comfortable.  But it doesn’t actually do all that much and what it does, it does poorly.  In this case, I’m using movement to meaning how well it performs its functions mechanically.  Not even whether or not doing ‘ABC’ translates appropriately onto the screen; just doing ‘ABC’.  And the truth is, no.  Attempting to perform the hand movements necessary to input commands into your Nintendo was an exercise in futility and that is at least in part due to the Power Glove’s terrible play design.

Breaking it down a bit, the problem comes mainly with the two sensor lights over the index and pinky fingers.  With the way the glove is designed, as well as just natural human kinetics, interacting with those sensors (which seemed to be the purpose of the controls) is pretty much impossible.

 

Extras – 2 out of 5

The Power Glove did come with a game: Super Glove Ball.  Do you remember playing?  No, of course you don’t.  Why?  For the obvious reason: it barely counted as a game.  You had more fun playing ping-pong against a wall.

 

Packaging – 3 out of 5

Nintendo accessories were packaged quite well and were the height of 80s commercialism.  They were stark, sleek gray-and-black-and-neon affairs that appealed to every child of the 80s.

 

 

Overall – 2 out of 5

Reviewing this toy was a bit unorthodox for me because I want to stick to toys and not delve into gaming.  The Power Glove, and its small circle of peers, is the bridge between those two worlds and is as close to reviewing video games as I’ll be getting on this site.

As a gaming peripheral, for all of the Power Gloves phenomenal reverence, it was terrible.  You couldn’t play a game with this thing.  Oh sure, you could CONTROL a game with it, but you weren’t going to be beating Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out with this thing… and certainly not by actually punching as indicated in the advertising.  That would have to wait for the Nintendo Wii.  But as a toy – a prop or costume accessory, really – this thing was so frickin’ cool.  More role-playing toys needed, and need, to be made with this level of quality.

So the ball’s in your court, Nintendo.  Give us the 2014 version of the Power Glove this Christmas.  Just for the love of god, make it awesome.

Tools of the Imagination — Cy Kill

Cy Kill
Challenge of the Go-Bots toyline, by Bandai, released 1985

The Black Sheep of the Mecha Family

It’s a pretty simple equation that if one thing is popular, a lot of it should be even more popular.  After all, look at all the games in the wake of Pokemon, vampire books in the wake of Anne Rice and now Stephanie Meyer.  The list goes on and on and on.  Such was the case in the 80s with Transformers and the cheap knock-off, Go-Bots.

There’s not a lot that can be said about the Go-Bots, except that they were such a blatant rip-off of Transformers, its little wonder that they didn’t last.  Moreover, they weren’t even that good of a rip-off.  MASK was kind of a rip-off of GI Joe, but a good one.  Inhumanoids was a rip-off of…well, I don’t know.  HP Lovecraft and Centurians maybe?  But Go-Bots was the gas station boxed wine to Transformers’ Crystal.  There just wasn’t much a competition.

A few characteristics of the story do still standout, however, one of which was their bad guys’ leader Cy Kill.  I’m pretty sure there were others, but like Leader-One (the leader of the good Go-Bots), he’s about all anybody remembers.  So, seeing as how I reviewed Starscream last week and that was the third Transformers review, I figured it was time to give these guys a shout-out.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
Cy Kill looks very much like he did in the cartoon, with the exception of the menacing scowl (here replaced with a vacant generic robotic look). Otherwise, the proportions are very well preserved and the character looks like he did in the show.

Construction – 4 out of 5
Somewhat similar to other die-cast mecha toys, this one is part metal and part plastic. However, unlike some of the Transformers, the joints and limbs are plastic whereas the main body is metal. This makes the toy feel a little better balanced and sturdier. There’s a pretty admirable amount of texture included in both the plastic and metal parts and some details (such as the machinery-looking details inside the main headlight) that really stand out.

Movement – 2 out of 5
The die-cast trunk pretty much seals the fate of any joints on the body (there’re no waist or neck joints, so you can forget about turning Cy Kill’s head). There are simple joints for the shoulders, hips, and knees, but with the exception of the shoulders, these provide only enough mobility to allow for the transformation process. This translates into a bare-minimum amount of motion for an action figure.

Extras – 1 out of 5
Zip, zero, nilch, nada. This toy comes with no weapons, add-ons, side-cars riders, nothing.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The packaging is impressive. True to 1980s aesthetic, you have airbrushed robotic figures engaged in explosive combat. Cy Kill is depicted as a larger-than-life daunting figure, since every package showcased the figure itself distinctively. The images on the box are gorgeous and the box itself comes with an opening flap that reveals the figure itself. The back of the package is devoid of character information or any distinctive elements, but the front artwork more than makes up for that.
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Overall – 3 out of 5
This is a very sturdy toy that does represent the character that inspired it, but unfortunately that’s all it has going for it. The lack of meaningful mobility and utter absence of any kind of extras really keeps this as median figure. The toy has little personality (and certainly nothing that would indicate the character from the show) and it isn’t even clear (his name aside) if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Even the impressive artwork of the packaging couldn’t save this toy that was part of a toy line that will forever be remembered (and rightfully so) as the ugly cousin of the Transformers.

Tools of the Imagination — Ken Masters

Ken Masters
Street Fighter toyline, by Jazwares, released 2004

Player 2 Goes Nowhere

It’s not clear to me why the action figures of fighting game tend to have such a terrible track record, but boy do they.  Going back to the Street Fighter II line of GI Joe action figures to the most current figures on the market, the entire genre of video game-based action figures seems cursed to look terrible, handle terrible, and just generally be full of Teh Suck.  It doesn’t really make sense, because it seems like tangible incarnations of action video games – and especially fighting games – would be absolutely rife with opportunities to make some kick-ass toys.  Sadly, the theory rarely pans out to reality.

Ken Masters began as the palette-swapped second character in the original Street Fighter video game.  He hailed from the US, so naturally he was white and had blonde hair.  Dressed in red, he was identical to the 1st player option from Japan, Ryu.  Aside from the colors of the character, the decision to be Ken changed the starting opponents slightly, fighting the pair of US opponents first and the two Japanese opponents second.  Otherwise, the decision was essentially irrelevant.

With the arrival of the now-legendary Street Fighter II, however, Ken began his gradual evolution to becoming his own distinctive character, separating himself from Ryu in the annals of gaming history.  Ken would develop a more flamboyant style, reflecting the character’s personality but necessitating a more all-or-nothing playing style.

In the Street Fighter narrative, Ken is the wild ‘brother’ to Ryu, both having trained under the same karate master.  Ken is generally seen as an exceptionally well-rounded character, with solid offense and defense options as well as a wide repertoire of maneuver options.  He’s usually a little more flashy and high-risk/high-impact than his more conservative counterpart, reflecting the ideal in-game use of the character.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
This is a nicely colored toy with good texture and a solid representation of the character that inspired it.  Ken’s almost comically stereotypical ‘American’ appearance is held strong with the blonde hair and dark eyebrows, the solid jaw, and rippling muscles.  The detailed folds and creases of the red karate gi he wears are also quite well done.

Construction – 3 out of 5
This is a very sturdy toy, made out of solid plastic.  Nothing about it feels haphazard or unable to stand the rigors of play.  Even the black belt that Ken wears feels sturdy (at least for a comparatively thin strip of plastic).  The obvious joints and seams, along with the blind-person-can-tell color discrepancy between the face’s coloring and the rest of the skin, is what keeps this toy from ranking higher in the construction department.

Movement – 2 out of 5
What the toy gains in construction, it loses sorely in mobility: the figure can barely move.  The shoulder joints move on one, slightly angled axis, with only the rotation of the upper arms and the extension of the elbows giving any real mobility.  The hands are both clinched into fists and do not rotate at all.  The neck rotates, but only within a very narrow range.  There is no waist and while there are clearly hip joints, the sturdy plastic so praised in the construction portion of the review hampers all but the smallest amount of movement.  The knees bend slightly and the feet rotate (for some reason) but do not extend.  The character is largely impossible to pose and is saved from a ranking of One in this category solely because of the arms’ rotation.

Extras – 1 out of 5
None.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  This toy comes with nothing, not a stand (even though there are openings in the heels to place the figure on pegs), not a cap to go onto the fist to simulate Ken’s flaming dragon punch (for which he’s so well known), not a fireball attachment, nothing.  This is nothing to say about other colors of karate gis (this is intentional as at least one repaint of the character exists as a ‘Player 2 figure’) or even other costumes.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging is nice, but completely uninspired.  There’s very little to distinguish from one figure to another aside from the name on the front plate.  The back is identical between all characters and offers no explanation as to the story, the character bio, or anything useful.

Overall – 2 out of 5
In a lot of ways, this isn’t a toy but a statue that can be posed ever so slightly (and ineffectively).  Seriously, the legs might as well not even move and the arms’ movement is incredibly awkward.  The figure looks good, yeah, but not impressively so.  And when you take into account that this character is from a fighting game, the lack of any accessories hurts but it’s really the utter lack of any meaningful mobility that really is just unforgivable.