Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on 25th Anniversary Optimus Prime

The original Optimus Prime is the most iconic of Transformers toys, nicely representing both a popular character and exemplifying the brilliant simplicity of the early Diaclone toy designs. He's instantly recognizable even to the general populace as a 1980's icon, and has influenced countless pop culture references (both blatant and subtle) throughout a wide variety of media over the years. There was, in short, no better toy to reissue under the 25th anniversary banner. Even though this same toy was reissued only seven short years ago, and the seventy-dollar MSRP is nothing to sneeze at, there are enough differences and extra added incentives to make this version worth owning—particularly if you're a diehard Geewun collector like me.

The packaging itself is worth a mention here, as it was designed to really grab the consumer's eye. The box is actually about twice as big as it needs to be, with interactive elements that invites shoppers to "TRY ME!" and "OPEN HERE!" (and, of course, touching the box and picking it up exponentially increases the odds it will wind up in their shopping cart). Prospective buyers can listen to the electronic Autobot symbol accessory by pressing the forehead of the robot face, and the front flap swings open to reveal the reprint of the comic book that's included. There's a visually dynamic illustration of Prime on the front flap, who in typical Dreamwave style seems to be simultaneously squatting and leaping, while grasping in mid-air for no real reason other than the fact that it looks kinda cool. There's also a choking hazard warning sticker slapped on the front of the box as an afterthought (given that the production run on these was probably very limited, I doubt there were corrected versions with the warning actually printed on the box).

What's interesting is that the toy pictured on the back of the box is not the 25th anniversary toy at all; instead they used stock photos of the Takara reissue from Japan. The toy as pictured on the packaging has long, G1-style smokestacks, short Combat Deck missiles, and a silver-painted Roller. Needless to say, the Hasbro version of this toy has the short smokestacks and longer missiles. What's really interesting to me, though, is that the inner plastic tray in which Prime sits is designed to accommodate a toy with long smokestacks! Was Hasbro actually planning to sell the long smokestack version at one stage, or was somebody working from the wrong toy when they designed the plastic inserts? Given the enormous hullaballoo the shortened smokestacks initially caused among the fandom, the ramifications of this are particularly significant. (I've been saying this for years, but I think Hasbro should have cast the smokestacks in a soft, vinyl plastic instead of the brittle vacuum-metalized stuff. That way Prime could still have the full-length smokestacks without them snapping in half when little Timmy accidentally drops Prime on the kitchen floor.)

If you're only familiar with the original 1984 version of Optimus Prime, then you're in for quite a few changes. Early Prime toys had vestigial Diaclone elements, like a grey-colored Roller and metal plates on the inside of the trailer to accommodate the Diaclone drivers with magnetic feet; but the plates were later removed and Roller was cast in blue. In 1992 when the toy was released for Transformers: Generation 2, the hole in the front of the trailer was enlarged to accommodate the electronic sound and light pack, and a slot was added to Prime's back because he was designed to wear the electronic unit as a very large and cumbersome backpack. Takara took the same production mold and modified it further for their 2000 reissue, raising the grips on Prime's fists to allow him to hold his rifle more easily. (They also undid some changes that Hasbro made for the G2 release, but the enlarged trailer hole and the notch in Prime's back were retained.) Takara also changed the length of the factory-applied silver stripe stickers on Prime's chest and arms so that they no longer wound around to the sides of his arms and his back. They added longer bolts to the axles holding Prime's front wheels in place (probably so that the Ultra Magnus reissue cab would fit more securely when he combined with his trailer) and increased the height of his front bumper slightly. Finally, they also added an indent for the rub symbol on the panel on the top of his cab. For the Hasbro 2002 reissue, the smokestacks were shortened to pass drop testing, and a metal pin was added to reinforce the strength of the shoulder joints. The length of the Combat Deck's missiles was increased to conform to current safety regulations, which means that they're ridiculously long—but unlike the G1 or G2 toy, they can actually launch. These are all fairly minor changes; the only ones immediately noticeable are the length of his smokestacks and missiles.

This release is very similar to the Hasbro 2002 release in almost every way. The most readily apparent change is the altered color scheme; the previous Hasbro reissue was mostly faithful to the colors of the G1 toy, with a deep red robot body, dark indigo fists and feet, and a silvery metallic trailer. This latest version has a much brighter, almost fluorescent red; a bold blue reminiscent of his animation colors; and a much lighter, flat grey that lacks the swirly metallic quality of the previous toys. For the first time ever, Prime also has tampographed Autobot symbols on his shoulders, which means that you don't have to worry about the consumer-applied stickers refusing to lay flat on the faux bolts covering the fronts of his shoulders (or cutting off the bolts to make the surface flat, which is what I've done the past couple of times). Of course, this also means you no longer have the option of applying only one Autobot symbol to his left shoulder, as he appeared in the cartoon. (The Autobot symbols are still on the consumer-applied label sheet, if you want to apply them anyway...or stick them somewhere else, like on Roller and the artillery robot module.) The new colors make this a much less faithful reissue of the original toy, but it's a nice way of improving the toy's appearance and helping to distinguish it from the previous reissue. (I haven't yet applied the stickers to my toy, as shown below with the 2002 Commemorative Edition.)

There are a handful of new changes to this specific version of Prime. The holes in the fists have been enlarged slightly, so that Prime's grip on his rifle is looser. The stickers on the sides of his trailer have also been changed from metal foil labels to thicker paper labels, probably to more effectively hide the screw holes behind the stickers. The width of Roller's axles has been increased slightly, presumably to prevent them from breaking. The missiles have also changed again, with larger, rounder warheads and a thicker diameter which means the new missiles are no longer compatible with the earlier releases (see the comparison shot below). Hasbro added a date stamp to the bottom of the trailer (as well as the Autobot shield); the stamp on my toy reads 82211, which means the toy was produced on the two-hundred and twenty-first day of the year, or August 8, 2008—well ahead of the actual 25th anniversary date.

This toy is especially significant in that it's the first American release of a fully-functional Roller launcher. The original G1 release had been altered by Hasbro so that the launcher would not deploy to its full length, greatly reducing the distance Roller would travel (presumably for safety reasons); the G2 toy followed suit. Takara restored the launcher for their reissue in Japan, since their safety regulations are somewhat less stringent. When Hasbro did their own domestic reissue in 2002, they altered the launcher again, this time removing the spring and blocking off the clip for the launch tab so that the launcher wouldn't lock in place. This version of Prime has a restored launch tab and includes the spring, which means that Roller is finally able to launch as he was originally intended to. The spring is fairly weak so Roller only travels a foot or two, but it's still the only time domestic consumers have been able to buy a launcher that works as Takara originally intended it to. (Hasbro used the same instruction booklet from the 2002 reissue as a template, which means they actually had to include an addendum along with the instructions explaining how to launch Roller.)

Optimus Prime also comes with a three-inch high electronic sound box with an Autobot symbol on the front and a stylized numeral "25" on the back; it can either act as a free-standing desktop unit or clip to your belt. (At long last, Optimus Prime joins the esteemed ranks of toys that can be worn as fashion accessories, like Soundwave and Enemy, the Transformers Voice Changer.) It plays six different digital sounds: a sample of the first-season Transformers theme song (the same one used for the Ultimate Bumblebee toy); two transformation conversion sound effects (robot-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-robot); and dialogue clips of Prime saying "I am Optimus Prime!" and "Autobots, transform and roll out!" and "Megatron must be stopped, no matter the cost!" These are not samples from episodes of the cartoon, but new dialogue recorded by Peter Cullen. (Back before the 2007 movie came out, there was a web site where fans could listen to a series of ten different lines of Prime dialogue like "That's how I roll!" and vote on which ones they wanted to hear in the movie. This might be the source of these new recordings, but it's been a while since I've heard the online clips so I'm not sure.) Something that I found terribly amusing was the fact that the three "AAA" Pow-R-Fuel brand batteries that come with the device actually have the official Hasbro logo on them!

To help offset the ridiculous $70.00 price tag, they also threw in a DVD of the cartoon pilot episode, "More Than Meets the Eye," and a reprint of the first issue of the Marvel comic book. The print of the cartoon pilot is the same one from Rhino's DVD release (it's the same incomplete version of the episode that's missing the background in one scene during Starscream's final attempt to usurp Megatron aboard the space cruiser) and includes the extra sound effects that Rhino added to the 5.1 track. Unfortunately, this print of the DVD seems to only have a single audio track, so there's no way to revert to the original soundtrack if you'd rather watch the episode without the new sound effects invading the episodes. The episodes have actually been spliced together into a single 70-minute movie, without commercial bumpers, and each episode continues into the next one without being interrupted by ending credits or the opening theme song. The disc also includes three different desktop wallpaper images (all of them early Dreamwave comic book covers) and some character artwork for Megatron and Optimus Prime (see below). This is a great way for casual nostalgic fans to experience the show again (and the pilot episode features some of the best animation in the entire show), but it's superfluous if you already have the Rhino box set.

The comic book is pretty much a straightforward reprint of the original Marvel Comics version, with some minor concessions made for legal reasons (the Marvel logo was removed from the front cover, the 25th anniversary logo replaces the UPC bar code, and a disclaimer was added to explain that the "#1 IN A FOUR-ISSUE LIMITED SERIES" headline was from the original comic and that the reissue is not part of a series). The comic was printed on high-quality glossy paper, rather than the newsprint that Marvel used in 1984, so there's a general look and feel of much higher quality. Unfortunately, the artwork in this particular issue is among the worst of the entire series (Nel Yomtov mentioned in the editorial column that wholesale, last-minute changes were made to this first issue, and it shows), with the Autobots appearing in an odd amalgam of either toy-based designs or the Sunbow animation models, and multiple characters being badly miscolored throughout the entire issue's 25 pages. There are two in-house interior advertisements for transformers.com (one on the inside front cover featuring the 2007 movie Ratchet toy and the other on the back cover featuring movie Jazz) but aside from that the book is free of advertisements. The comic was scanned from an original issue, which means there is some noticeable digital pixelation to some of the art. The line art and solid colors look fine, but the mechanical tints that were used for some of the secondary colors are reproduced in a checkerboard pattern, probably due to the pages being scanned at too low of a resolution. I think I would have preferred the approach Dark Horse Publishing took with the Marvel Comics adaptations of the Star Wars films, going back to the original line art and coloring it using modern technology. Of course, that assumes the original artwork still exists—and one could argue that printing the comic in all-new colors would completely defeat the point of reprinting the comic in the first place.

On the whole, this reissue seems to be targeted at casual fans who don't already own an Optimus Prime toy, don't have any of the Marvel Comics, and haven't bought the cartoon on DVD (or watched it on YouTube), and yet are willing to plonk down a considerably good chunk of change in the name of reliving their childhood. To me, the price tag is by far the biggest drawback; a lot of online shops had this toy on clearance after Christmas, which is when I got mine. If you already have an Optimus Prime in your collection, though, there's probably no need to get this one, unless you're a die-hard fan or completist.



LBD 'Nytetrayn' said...

I'd have loved to have gotten this, but as noted, the price was a major deterrent. And by the time they got marked down, I was back in Canada. :P

Regarding the comic, I think it might have been neat if Hasbro had gotten some guys from IDW or Udon or something to basically redraw the original comic, but in a newer style. Granted, that would run against the "reprint" notion, but that didn't stop them with the cartoon, and for something as bad as the first issue was done, I think it's best if that remains strictly in the domain of collectors.

--LBD "Nytetrayn"

Jimtron said...

That's a great review. Extremely thorough. I've been toying with idea of picking up this toy, and it's great to see the differences in such detail.