Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on the Encore Mini Autobots

Takara probably grossly underestimated the demand for the original Mini Autobots reissue set, which was released in 2004 and included a retooled version of Bumblebee with an all-new cartoon-style face. To this day, the set is in enormous demand on the secondary market (with eBay prices easily exceeding $100) and prompted TakaraTomy, as they're called now, to release a second set of Mini Autobots as part of the Encore series of reissues, this time with most of the characters from the 1986 assortment, once again including the ever-popular retooled Bumblebee. In addition to Bumblebee, the set also comes with Outback, Swerve, Tailgate, and Pipes; the only two characters left out are Wheelie (who is available separately with the Kup/"Chear" reissue) and Hubcap (who was probably left out by TakaraTomy due to his complete lack of media appearances). It's clear who the real star of the show is, since Bumblebee's package artwork dominates the front of the box, and is nearly two or three times bigger than the portraits of the others.

In 1986, Hasbro was quickly running out of workable Diaclone and Microman toy designs that hadn't yet been appropriated as Transformers characters. They had a choice of either continuing to recycle the available toy designs, or creating new Transformers that weren't based on previous Takara toys. As it happens, they did both. For the Mini Autobots assortment, they took the existing designs of toys they had been selling during 1984-85 and modified them, creating retooled versions to represent new characters. Bumblebee was the only toy from the Microchange series to remain unaltered, since he was a popular character who had also starred in that year's The Transformers: the Movie, earning him a spot in the case assortment for that year.


Bumblebee remains one of the most popular characters from the original cartoon, and he holds the distinction of being the only Transformers character who was available at retail for every single year of G1 (the original toy was sold from 1984-86; Goldbug was in stores from 1987-88; Pretender Bumblebee was introduced in 1989; and Action Master Bumblebee was sold in 1990). The character also appeared in two different forms for Generation 2; perhaps ironically, the character's name never came up during Beast Wars. Bumblebee (or an alternate version of the character) also starred in the 2007 live-action movie and was a merchandising favorite for young kids. This is, then, not the first time the original toy has been reissued; a keychain version has been widely available at retail in recent years on the domestic front, thanks to his widespread release as a Fun-4-All licensed toy. What makes the TakaraTomy version special, though, is the all-new head sculpt for the toy, which is modeled after his appearance in the original cartoon show. The disparity between Bumblebee's original toy and his appearance in animation is discouraging for fans of the show, since the two look virtually nothing alike. Some heavy creative liberties were taken with Bumblebee's look for television, taking a rounded helmet design with a pronounced visor and mask, and turning it into a geometrically-simplified hexagonal-shaped helmet with a regular face that's arguably far more easy for the target audience (i.e., humans with eyes and a nose and a mouth) to relate to. The toy remains otherwise unchanged, though there is some evidence that some minor clean-up work was done to the windows and front and rear bumpers, probably to account for the inevitable mold degradation (this mold has been used for over a dozen separate production runs, assuming it's the same production mold every time), and the color of the yellow plastic is slightly more orangey than the domestic keychain version. Obviously, this iteration of Bumblebee lacks the loop on his bumper for the keychain accessory to attach.

The new head sculpt for Bumblebee is very attractive and captures his animated persona nicely; this is only the front half of his helmet, but the reflective mirror-like quality of the Penny Racers style plate to which his head is attached helps to create the illusion of a fully three-dimensional helmet. His eyes are, of course, painted light blue, which was typical of Autobots from the cartoon. He does have a handful of other new paint applications, like red tail lights and silver headlights, and a tampographed Autobot symbol on his chest, replacing the metal foil sticker from previous releases. (His rub symbol is on the back of his Penny Racer plate; it had originally replaced the foil sticker on his chest.) His front and rear bumpers are also silver for this release, which helps to distinguish the toy somewhat from the previous reissue that was part of the Transformers Collection TFC-12. What would have been really cool and incredibly fanboyish is if TakaraTomy had also included a yellow version of Outback's turret gun to mount on Bumblebee's roof in vehicle mode, as seen during his role in "Five Faces of Darkness." Of course, that was in all probability an animation mistake—and would also leave a rather unsightly hole in Bumblebee's chest in robot mode, but surely there would have been a way around that (by clipping it to his roof, Super GoBots style, perhaps). Not like fans needed another excuse to buy the already highly sought-after version of this toy!


Outback is a retooled version of Brawn, effectively having replaced him both in the fiction and in the Mini Autobots toy assortment. In addition to his new tan and brown color scheme, Outback differs from Brawn in that his roof-mounted spare tire is shorter, his claws were replaced with more normal-looking hands, and that his entire undercarriage with his robot head, chest, and pelvis were completely redesigned. He also comes equipped with a removable turret gun, making him the first and last Mini Autobot with a detachable weapon, though he is not able to carry it in robot mode. (The turret gun seems like it was almost deliberately designed as a miniature version of Megatron's fusion cannon—which makes it a perfect accessory for Action Master Megatron if you don't mind gluing the accessory to his arm.) Despite the apparent indent for his rub symbol on the roof of his Jeep mode (which previous versions of Brawn have also had), Outback's rub symbol is actually on the side of his vehicle mode, covering one of his driver's-side windows. He has a matching Autobot symbol on the other side. This symbol placement has always bothered me; the panel on his hood with the Microchange insignia would have been an eminently better place than covering up his vehicular windows!

In robot mode, Outback is one of the more oddly-shaped Autobots, with spindly, stilt-like legs, stubby arms, a fat body, and a head nestled inside his brick-shaped torso. (Unlike the animation design for Brawn, which seemed to gloss over these design abnormalities in favor of portraying him as nearly humanoid, Outback's animation design makes no apologies for his appearance and presents him very much as his toy appears.) Oddly enough, the instructions still use illustrations of the Brawn toy, only with the turret gun attached (a mistake made 23 years ago with the G1 instructions). One minor change made to the reissue is that his wheels are held on with pins instead of bolts, which is actually enormously beneficial since the old bolts tended to interfere with the movement of his legs during transformation (particularly sliding them up into his hip sockets to lock them in place for robot mode). One new change made for the reissue is that TakaraTomy painted his eyes blue. Normally I would applaud any change like this, particularly if it brings him closer in line with his cartoon potrayal, but in fact Outback is one of the few Autobots who didn't normally have blue eyes in the cartoon (originally the toy's entire head and face was painted silver and his first appearance in "Five Faces of Darkness" reflected this). Outback does have an alternate animation color scheme used in the Korean-animated "The Quintesson Journal" in which his eyes are blue, though, so perhaps the change made to the toy is not completely unwarranted.


Pipes was the most heavily altered of the original Microchange vehicles; not only was the appearance of his vehicle mode heavily retooled, but his entire transformation sequence was completely reinvented. Where Huffer had strange, V-shaped smokestacks, Pipes has more standardized round ones. Huffer had square-shaped headlights; Pipes' headlights are round. Pipes also got a different front grill and an elongated tail section, which goes a long way to help distinguish him from Huffer. The most significant change, however, was altering the vehicle-to-robot conversion so that Huffer's back actually became Pipes' front. This necessitated the introduction of a new robot head, the removal of Huffer's old one, and some minor cosmetic changes to the tabs that hold the vehicle cab in place (which, by accident or design, now look more like seats than ever before). All of Huffer's vestigial robot elements are still present, though, and remain visible on Pipes' back. (Like Outback, he's got "M" logos on either side of the cab left over from his Microchange heritage.) His rub symbol is in the same place that Huffer's was when he started wearing one, but Pipes also gets a nice, big Autobot symbol on the back of the cab, off-set to the left that's plainly visible in robot mode. One change that's new to the reissue is the silver paint applications on his headlights.

As a robot, Pipes is even cuter than Huffer, with an adorably tiny little head framed by this gigantic truck-cab backpack. He's a little taller than Huffer at the shoulders due to the extended rear truck section, but his arms are bent at a more natural angle due to the reversal of his shoulder joints, though he remains one of the only Mini Autobots without discernible hands or claws of any sort. His original sticker was replaced with a tampo-printed Autobot symbol, though it seems a bit pinkish rather than the vibrant red that would have been expected. Pipes also got his bolts swapped out for pins holding his wheels in place, but unlike Outback this doesn't significantly affect the toy's functionality. Pipes was the only one of the Mini Autobots from 1986 who originally had painted eyes, so TakaraTomy made no changes to his paint deco, and his visor remains red. (Pipes actually had blue eyes in the cartoon, but he would have required a Bumblebee-style remold to make him look like he did in the show. Pipes is notable as the leader of the Mini Autobots in the cartoon, commanding the intercept squad that attempted to stop Trypticon's attack on the volcano base. This is a far cry from the mechanic-slash-junk-collector he's described as in his toy tech specs.) The color of white plastic used on the reissue Pipes is actually brighter than on the original, which was more of an eggshell white.


Swerve looks very much like Gears as a vehicle, though in addition to his alternate color scheme, he's obviously wearing a different camper shell for his truck bed. Oddly enough, his rub symbol has always been applied to his roof sideways, right on top of his sun roof. (If this is a factory error, then TakaraTomy reproduced it faithfully on the reissue.) Somehow it seems befitting, somehow, for the poor little mixed-up absent-minded Autobot. Swerve is perhaps one of the lesser-known Mini Autobots due to his absence from Marvel's TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profile collection and his lack of a prominent role in the original cartoon. He was a member of Pipes' intercept squad to defend Teletraan I, but his most notable involvement in that battle was firing off a few shots with his weapon before getting stepped on by Trypticon, who buried him in the ground neck-deep with a single stomp.

Swerve transforms exactly like Gears, though his uninspired pull-the-arms-out and flip-the-legs down transformation style has been used repeatedly (both within the Transformers line and in contemporary competitors like Tonka's GoBots) and offers nothing unique or innovative. He's not entirely dissimilar to his mold brother; though his robot face and torso were redesigned, it doesn't particularly change his overall appearance as much as Outback or Pipes. The most welcome change is a detailed robot helmet design with proper eyes, nose, and a mouth, a far cry from the fairly abstract, generic face design on Gears. Swerve's original paper decals were replaced with metal foil stickers for the reissue, which sit against his body flatter with less chance of peeling off. He also got not one, but two new paint applications; where the head on the original toy was painted entirely red, the reissue has blue eyes and a silver face. One particularly thoughtful change, which isn't readily evident unless you're peeling off stickers (or fixing ones that were misapplied), is the fact the screw hole that's covered up by his Autobot symbol has a plastic plug in place. This makes the surface area more even and gives the Autobot symbol something to stick to (and prevents the symbol from falling into the hole, which was also a problem on Gears). Like the others, Swerve got his bolts swapped out with new pins holding his wheels on, which is a change for the better since the old bolts tended to scrape the chrome off his upper legs (and transfer unsightly rust spots to the sides of his chest). The assembly of the bolts on Swerve's legs was reverse so that the head of the bolt is now visible from the outside, above his rear wheels inside the wheel wells. Like Pipes, Swerve has a brighter shade of white plastic this go around, rather than the creamy white used on the original toy.


It seems like every one of the 1986 Mini Autobots had some kind of fundamental personality problem, and Tailgate is probably the most deeply-disturbed of the lot. He believes that everyday Earth devices are in fact sentient machines that have been enslaved, and he's passionate about their rights to the point of lunacy. It's a small wonder that this character was never approached in the contemporary fiction, since he would have been a very difficult character to write for. He made a cartoon appearance in "Five Faces of Darkness" along with the other Mini Autobots, but his role was so small as to be completely insignificant Unlike Swerve, Tailgate did at least get a TRANSFORMERS UNIVERSE profile, though he was never featured in any of the Marvel Comics stories proper. Perhaps the most interesting thing that can be said of Tailgate is that his toy served as the model for Wipe-Out, the diminutive partner of Trypticon who effectively replaced Full Tilt, and who was briefly featured in issue #27, entitled "King of the Hill."

As a vehicle, Tailgate remains recognizable as a super-deformed Pontiac Firebird, though he differs from Windcharger in that his off-center cowl induction hood has been modified to be symmetrical, (leading to the impression that it's not a working induction assembly at all but a blocked-off intake). Spoiling the look even further is the fact that his rub symbol indent is smack-dab in the center of this induction vent; the introduction of a badly-placed rub symbol really does ruin the lines on a toy this tiny. His transformation is identical to to that of Swerve, though due to the size and shape of his car mode he ends up a lot taller and leaner in robot mode. Tailgate's transformation is actually one step less complicated than Windcharger's; originally, the toy's arms were designed to slide down on a pivot so that his shoulder axis was lower, but this functionality was removed for Tailgate. On the reissue version, the plastic blocks to which his arms are attached appear to have been pinched at the ends, probably an attempt to get the arms to lock in place more securely when in vehicle mode. (What he really needed, honestly, was locks for his legs. Ironically, the animation model for both Tailgate and Windcharger shows them transformed incorrectly to vehicle mode, with their conjoined legs halfway unlocked and looking like an oversized rollbar.) Like Swerve, Tailgate also got a different style of pins holding his lower legs in place; the heads of those pins are visible inide his rear wheel wells (though they aren't quite as obvious as they are on Swerve). Tailgate also got a new blue paint application for his eyes to bring him a little closer to his animated appearance, and his original paper decals have been replaced with metal foil. Like the other reissue Mini Autobots, he's also made from a brigher grade of white plastic, but aside from that he's essentially identical to the G1 version.



Jimtron said...

Huh. I was gonna pass on this set. Now I'm thinking about picking it up. Curse you, Zob!

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Quick comment re: Bumblebee, in case you're assertion that he was "the only Transformers character who was available at retail for every single year of G1" came from me (here, for example). The folks at the TFWiki assert that Goldbug was not available in 1988. I thought for many years that it was, but can no longer prove it (and have to concede that the Throttlebots don't appear in the 1988 catalog). If you have information I don't, I'd love to hear it.

Zobovor said...

I reach my conclusions independently, B-W. I don't rely on other people's toy reviews or online mocklopedias for my facts.

I got Goldbug and Hosehead for my 12th birthday in March of 1988. Obviously, the Throttlebots were still available at retail that year.

The toy catalogs aren't one-hundred percent reliable; can you show me the catalog that tells us when Bumblejumper was available at retail? You can't, of course.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

I'm not sure I'd use Bumblejumper's availability as an example, since that's a clear mistake. Nor do I mean to suggest anything untoward in how you do your reviews. Frankly, I've always been rather fond of the idea of Bumblebee as "always available during G1," and was hoping you could provide me with evidence that could back the claim up.