Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Autobot Ratchet

These days there are certain redecos in the Transformers line that are pretty much inevitable. Whenever Hasbro designs a new Starscream toy, eventually it's produced in alternate colors so they can sell it as Thundercracker and Skywarp. They come out with a new version of Bumblebee, and all they have to do is color it red and they can resell it as Cliffjumper. The same tends to go for Ironhide and Ratchet—while the characters from the 2007 movie had separate and distinct designs, this is an anomaly. When the Transformers Universe version of Ironhide was released, it was only a matter of time before it was tarted up in new colors and sold as Ratchet—which not only helps Hasbro to recoup their production and tooling costs, but helps to complete the pair and creates a much-needed update for a popular character. (Not surprisingly, Ratchet has replaced Ironhide in the case assortment—so if you've still been waiting for a corrected version of Ironhide with silver paint on his face instead of the inexplicable blue that was used originally, you may be too late!)

What's interesting about the latest version of this character is that it appears to be a new incarnation of Marvel Comics Ratchet, at least if you go by the biography on the back of his packaging. There's the gratuitous reference to his love of partying, a holdover from his original tech specs which has never actually represented Ratchet in either the original comics or the cartoon—but there are also references to a "series of tragic encounters with Megatron" and being "distracted by his bad memories." If this is an updated version of the G1 character, then there's no way this is meant to describe the Ratchet from the original cartoon series. It was only in the pages of Marvel Comics that Ratchet was pitted against Megatron repeatedly (they were directly at odds in issue #8, issue #57, and #70), and his bad memories manifested themselves as nightmares in issue #56 (though this could also be, I will begrudgingly admit, a sideways reference to the completely unrelated character from Transformers: Animated who is also named Ratchet).

Ratchet is, of course, identical in design to Ironhide, the only differences being his color scheme (and different paint deco) and the addition of some ambulance roof lights and an alternate head sculpt. Ratchet is white everywhere that Ironhide was red (with the exception of some thermoset plastic parts that serve as connecting joints and remained the same color), and red everywhere that Ironhide was grey. The black parts remain the same. Ironhide was designed with a modular panel in mind that could be easily swapped out, ensuring Ratchet's roof lights could be added without making wholesale changes to the mold, though the V-shaped design (a bit like his forehead crest, actually) wasn't exactly what I'd been picturing. Ratchet's head design is an entirely new one, though it does share elements with Ironhide like the rounded audio receptors, a similar facial shape (Ratchet does have a more prominent chin guard) and the vestiges of a mohawk-like head crest, though Ratchet's isn't as pronounced as Ironhide's. The boomerang-shaped forehead crest that helped to complete Ratchet's distinct look in the original media is here, though due to design limitations it's somewhat small and understated here (it's got to be durable enough not to break off, and small enough to fit inside the opening in his upper torso when he transforms).

Ratchet brings to the table everything that Ironhide did—his ambulance form (which vaguely resembles the "Rescue Ratchet" version of the movie character) is a patchwork of puzzle piece-shaped panels, with unconvincing painted windows and divisions running through them at odd angles that all but ruin the lines of his vehicle mode, making it look as if he spends far more time running red lights than trying to initiate conversations with them. His transformation is nearly at an Alternators level of complexity, with numerous hinged panels and counter-intuitive steps, finally yielding a robot form that's adequate, but with surprisingly minimalist articulation (his elbows and knees bend less than 90 degrees, and his head cannot swivel all the way around). The dynamic way in which his ankles can bend makes up for this somewhat (he can still stand flat-footed even with his legs spread wide apart) but I would have been happier if the movement of his other joints had been given a wider range. Like Ironhide, it seems Ratchet is unable to complete his transformation fully to robot mode—a factory-issue toy cannot fully extend his head for robot mode, due to the way his internal assembly fits together. Leaving his rear wheels visible in robot mode rather than swinging the panels around into his backpack does help slightly, but the only way to allow the toy to raise his head completely is to actually whittle away at the plastic connector in his midsection so that the parts fit together more snugly. (My Ratchet seems to hold together poorly compared to Ironhide, popping apart at the waist every time I try to transform him.)

In addition to the alternate paint deco in vehicle mode, Ratchet also gets new paint operations on his shoulders that seems to be meant to evoke the plus-shaped crosses on the original character's animation design. Unfortuantely, the sculpt doesn't seem to accommodate it very well due to the raised details on his shoulders. The six large, plainly-visible screws on the front of his arms are still quite bothersome, too. Hasbro has been utilizing a clever technique with their Littlest Pet Shop toys wherein they assemble the toys with screws but then insert a plastic plug to close up the unsightly gap and help preserve the look of the toy. Surely they could start doing something similar with Transformers, because the visible screws totally ruin the fantasy of these being gigantic robots from outer space and remind the consumer all too well that these are tiny six-inch toys.

Speaking of which, the cute little paint operations on these toys have got to stop. Some of the recent Transformers Universe toys have either served as vehicles for stating the obvious (Galvatron and Silverbolt with the numeral "25" stamped on them; oh, it isn't the original toy line's 25th anniversary this year, is it?) or reveling in the obscure (the tampograph on Onslaught that reads "MONZO 12782" is Hasbro's way of acknowledging a helpful fan by stamping his online handle and birth date on the toy) or have been decorated with vanity license plates with cute little messages (Sunstreaker's license plate reads "WE R 84," a thinly-veiled reference to the year Transformers made its debut; Ratchet's license plate says "H3L PU2," because as we all know, Autobots communicate in l33t speak). Am I the only one who doesn't want my toy collection slathered with inside jokes and self-referential graffiti? It's almost as if Transformers is turning into a parody of itself. (And don't even get me started on the new Hot Shot and the references in his toy biography to his obsession with JaAm. We no longer need the fandom to make a mockery of Transformers—Hasbro's officially doing it for us now!)

Quality control issues continue to plague the Transformers Universe toy line. Where Ratchet was designed to have relatively thin front wheels (necessary due to the design of his legs) and thicker rear wheels, the first toy I bought was misassembled with three skinny rear wheels and a single fat front wheel. This is the fourth toy from this series that I bought with problems right out of the packaging (the others being Silverstreak and two separate versions of Starscream)—and while I'm the first to admit that I'm statistically more likely than your average consumer to encounter a defective toy simply by merit of the fact that I buy so many of the darned things, four times in the course of a few months really is a bit excessive—particularly when Transformers Universe is the only Transformers toy line I've been regularly collecting. (For the past three years, I've also been faithfully buying Mattel's die-cast Cars from the Disney/Pixar film of the same name; guess how many of those I've had to return since 2006? Zero.)

All in all, I'm of two minds when it comes to Ratchet. The defective assembly soured my experience with this toy somewhat, and I really could have done without the silly joke on the license plate—but the allusions to the compelling comic book version of Ratchet were nice (the Marvel iteration of the character is far more interesting to me than the comparatively mild cartoon version), and despite this toy's inherent design flaws it's still a very good update for the character—particularly since the only other Ratchet toy I have on my display shelf is a gimpy little Diaclone-era toy with no head! With this in mind, the new Ratchet is by far superior to the G1 edition, despite all his many shortcomings, and that alone is reason enough to buy this toy.



Mark Baker-Wright said...

There's the gratuitous reference to his love of partying, a holdover from his original tech specs which has never actually represented Ratchet in either the original comics or the cartoon

Ratchet's mention that parties were his favorite pastime on Cybertron in issue #7 (the camping scene, where he roasts hot dogs with his medical tools) doesn't count?

Jimtron said...

Animated Ratchet doesn't have any particular history with Animated Megatron - I'd say that they're drawing from the Marvel comics on this one.

Anonymous said...

The Entirety of Universe Hot Shot is gratuitously un-needed..

I will buy Ratchet, I won't buy Hot Shot.. I don't want to encourage Hasbro to keep making toys, catering to specific outspoken fans..

I can understand Cheetor and Dinobot.. I even wish we would get More beast wars Characters in Universe 3.0... But everything from 2001 onwards needs to be off limits for the remainder of the decade.

Bishbot said...

That's an odd attitude Anonymous (kind of weird to address people as that...). I think its great that lines other than G1 get recognition in the 25th Anniversary line. That's exactly how it should be, celebrating the history of Transformers from 1984 to now, and Hot Shot is the obvious candidate from Armada.

Foster said...

You may want to look into the Henkei line's Ratchet. Better QC, more paint apps, fewer fandom in-jokes and the hand weapon/tool more closely resembles the missile launcher from the original toy.

Overall, it's a much better piece for the adult collector.

Zobovor said...

In respone to B-W: It's one thing for Ratchet to make a passing remark that he loves parties and quite another thing for him to demonstrate that it's an integral part of his character.

When I think of Marvel Comics Ratchet, terms come to mind like "tragic" and "tormented" and "determined to win against all odds."

I can't say that "party animal" rings true for him at all.

(But that's just my opinion.)

Zobovor said...

Bishbot, I think I agree with Anonymous on this one. The children who grew up on G1 are adults now and many of them are collectors who remember the line fondly. The children who grew up on more recent lines like Transformers: Armada are just barely becoming teenagers and are into video games and girls and things. It's too early to get nostalgic about a toy line that just barely ended a few years ago!

Bishbot said...

I don't know if its nostalgia as such. I just quite like the idea of a line where characters from all continuties can stand together and look somewhat unified.

Old School Evil said...

As far as the Classics/Universe line goes, I would have preferred it if they went in some kinf od order. They did a bunch of G1, then Beast Wars, and then they skip ahead to Armada? Where's Beast Machines, or even RiD?

Anonymous said...

Slight as it is, BM and RiD are getting represented through Robot Heroes. The whole point of Universe this year is that it's a celebration of all the different eras of Transformers history for the brand's 25th anniversary. To ignore the last eight years of stuff just because the cartoons were a bit crap is unfair - and Hot Shot was the obvious way to go in commemoration of the Unicron Trilogy, as he was the kid-appeal character of the whole franchise and was sorely in need of an update with more modern toy technology.

Shaun K said...

While I'm not overly partial to Hot Shot's JaAm references one way or another, I think it does point out that Hasbro is paying attention to the fandom somewhat-- something they are regularly accused of NOT doing.

As for Ratchet's license plate, I'm sure we're all aware its a reference to the cover of #70 of the Marvel US series? How that's a bad thing is beyond me. :)

I think its awesome that this figure is rooted in his comics incarnation, especially since comics Ratchet is still far and away the most interesting incarnation of the bot.

Hans said...

Um, actually... I did miss the issue # 70 reference. I feel stupid now... it's one of my most favourite issues! :P

I have the Henkei version of Ratchet as well. It's better, but I have to say the Hasbro version looks really good, too.

As for Hotshot, I agree with the 25th anniversary line showing toys from all ages (it's just one, after all), and Hotshot really did need a toy that did justice to the importance of the character. I even like the JaAm inside joke, too. But naturally I'll be getting the Henkei version. Buying Japanese figures at is cheaper here in Holland than actually getting the US figures off e-bay.