Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zob's Thoughts on Transformers Universe Darkwind

Hasbro has paid tribute to plenty of lesser-known characters from the Transformers mythos. Though it's arguable that the core characters from 1984-85 will remain the most popular and recognizable of bunch, we've also gotten plenty of homages in recent years to other toys from all over the board—Micromasters, Action Masters, and even characters exclusive to Japan that many American fans have never heard of. One of the final toys from Transformers Universe is Darkwind, with a "d," a toy based on a Decepticon Powermaster from 1988 named Darkwing, with a "g." The fact that Darkwing never appeared in the American cartoon series, and was a minor player in the comic book at best, does in no way makes this substantially awesome homage any less appealing. (Note that, during the course of this review, I will use the name "Darkwing" when referring to the original character and toy, and the name "Darkwind" when I'm specifically talking about the new Transformers Universe toy.)

By the fifth year of the original Transformers toy line, the standalone concept of a robot that could change into a vehicle was in and of itself no longer a novelty, so—with rival toy companies like Tonka and Bandai no longer producing competing robot toys of their own—Hasbro had been experimenting with alternate gimmicks to keep the toy line fresh and interesting. 1987 saw the introduction of Headmasters and Targetmasters, robots who were paired with humanoid partners (which, ironically, was a concept Hasbro had initially rejected, despite the Diaclone toys being designed for it). Powermasters were a variation on this concept, but instead of transforming into the robot's head or weapon, their Nebulan partners changed into their vehicle-mode engines. Affixing the engines quite literally unlocked each robot's power, tripping a spring-loaded trigger than enabled the toys to transform. Darkwing and his cohort Dreadwind also had the additional gimmick of being able to combine with each other in jet mode to form a super jet configuration called Dreadwing, a portmanteau of the two Decepticon names. Incidentally, the combined mode was erroneously referred to once in Marvel Comics as Darkwind, so there actually is a canonical precedent, of sorts, for this character's new name. (Hasbro can't use the original trademark—not, as you might suspect, because of the Disney cartoon show called Darkwing Duck, but rather because of the more recent Mage Knights miniature figure called the Darkwing Zombie.)

Most of the time, I'm averse to Hasbro's approach towards redeco toys. More often than not, they tend to take toys that were specifically designed to represent a particular character, churn them out in a different color scheme, and assign to it the name of some other character with some superficial physical resemblance to the original toy. Taking the Transformers Universe version of Powerglide, for example, and coloring it purple didn't suddenly make it the perfect homage to Micromaster Stormcloud. It just looked like Powerglide in the wrong colors. It was for this reason that when I first heard that Silverbolt was going to get a redeco, I cringed at the thought of the toy representing anyone other than Silverbolt. It was such a perfect update for the Aerialbot leader that I didn't see how the toy could ever work as any other character. Once I saw how beautiful the toy was, though, I was more than willing to drive 17 miles to the nearest Toys "R" Us and fork over $29.99 for it. (Hey, it beats paying overinflated eBay prices.)

Where the original Darkwing was a Panavia Tornado combat jet, the new iteration of the character is something of a vehicular Fuzor (it kind of looks like an XB-70 Valkyrie that's going trick-or-treating as a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber). Perhaps due to characters being reinvented and recycled endlessly over the years, I've grown accustomed to characters changing the make and model of the vehicles they turn into, so this particular change doesn't bother me. (I mean, hey. At least this isn't Alternators Darkwing. He's still a jet.) The color scheme captures the look and feel of the original character very nicely—predominantly a muted grey with dark purple wings, light blue rudders, and gold lightning bolts that nicely emulate the factory stickers on the original toy. The only thing missing is the Decepticon symbols on either wing, but they kind of interfered with the lightning bolts on the original toy in the first place, so I can't complain. The only thing I would have done differently, really, would be to make the canopy windows turquoise to more closely match the original toy, but the purple windows still look pretty good. The toy has the same electronics package as Silverbolt, making an aerial swooshing sound, the sound of a jet takeoff (accompanied by flashing red LED bulbs in the engines), and the sound of machine gun fire (along with the flashing of the red LED bulbs embedded in the guns near the cockpit). While the toy is identical in shape to Silverbolt, the fact that both characters are sharing a new, different jet mode works to their benefit. If the new toy had been based on a supersonic transport, like the original 1986 version of Silverbolt, it would have been very difficult to envision the toy as any other character.

Even though this toy wasn't specifically designed with Powermaster Darkwing in mind, it actually works really well for the character. Both Silverbolt and Darkwing, though very different toys, share the basic design philosophy of changing from a plane with lots of suspiciously robotic undercarriage parts into a robot with a jet for a backpack. Darkwing was unique in that his upper torso actually twisted sideways during transformation, but the essence of his construction is still retained in the new version. Darkwing came with two weapons that mounted to his fists in vehicle mode (his arms were tucked away under the wings), a look you can also replicate with the updated toy (even though he only comes with one handheld weapon). Obviously, there's no Powermaster engine accessory this time, but we know that Darkwing was a perfectly functional Decepticon before he ever partnered up with Throttle, and it's pretty much a given that getting a Nebulan partner is temporary at best (after all, Transformers live for millions of years), so it's certainly not difficult to imagine that this is either a pre-Powermaster version of Darkwing, or an iteration of the character after Throttle died of old age or gastrointestinal distress or whatever. (Besides, the concept of a jet plane with a hot rod engine is pretty silly when you get right down to it.)

This new toy's transformation is actually closer to Darkwing than it is to Silverbolt, fittingly enough. The original Darkwing also had the entire nosecone section fold over onto his back—the main difference being that here, you don't have to worry about accidentally breaking off the hook designed to lock the transformation if his engine isn't mounted in place. There's so much symmetry between the two toys—the way his heel struts support his legs, the folding dual rudders on his back as a robot—that if I didn't know better, I'd say this toy was designed with Darkwing in mind. It's possible to look at the robot form and just see an off-colored Silverbolt, of course, but unlike a lot of redeco toys that simply do not make sense, the robot-mode styling isn't at all out-of-place for Darkwing. The only thing that's completely un-Darkwingish about the toy is the wings mounted to the shoulders, since the original toy had more rounded arms that more closely evoked human musculature. Sliding the robot head up or down triggers the same transformation sound effects as Silverbolt. ( Darkwind has purple eyes—this explains the purple cockpit, since they're molded from the same translucent plastic—but they flash red when the transforming sound is active.)
What astounds me even more about his robot mode, though, is how perfectly the color scheme comes together. Hasbro had to cheat just a little and paint some of the parts that weren't molded the correct colors, like Darkwind's feet and forearms, but surprisingly few changes were needed. The only colors that seem out of place at all are the landing gears that fold up into the tops of his shoulders (I'm sure Hasbro would have painted them if they could, but they're molded out of a tricky thermoset plastic that they tend to avoid painting because of its tensile properties). Whoever came up with the paint deco scheme for this toy really did their homework—he's even got silver paint on his abdomen and knees as well as gold and red panels on his pelvis that nicely mimic the consumer-applied stickers on the 1988 toy. (When a limited-edition store exclusive is handled with such care, and yet general-release toys like Universe Smokescreen or Dinobot are botched so badly, it makes me wonder where Hasbro's priorities are sometimes.) The biography on the back of the package is perfect, too—it really plays up Darkwind's dark, dreary attitude towards life. They got all his stats right, too. The projectile that launches from his weapon is identified on the package as a "firing kinetic blast," a reference to the twin laser-guided electro-kinetic blasters carried by the original toy.

Darkwing's G1 toy was produced after the final season of the original cartoon series, so he never appeared on TV (aside from toy commercials). His counterpart from Japan, named Hydra, did appear in the Super God Masterforce cartoon, albeit in a different color scheme. Darkwing played a somewhat bigger role in Marvel Comics, notably in issue #42, the Powermasters showcase story that introduced Powermaster Optimus Prime. He also got an amusing scene near the end of the comic in which, while discussing with Dreadwind the merits and pitfalls of an allegiance with the Autobots, he gets to watch the symbolism of a giant Autobot symbol crashing down on Dreadwind's head. Darkwing later gets destroyed by Megatron in TRANSFORMERS: GENERATION 2, only to be revived in a new form that suspiciously resembles the G2 toy that Hasbro named Dreadwing.

My guess is that most people being to one of two schools of thought. Either they owned the 1988 original toy and liked the character, in which case I do recommend seeking the toy out for a reasonable price (don't go the eBay route)—or else they never owned Darkwing and don't have any particular attachment to the character, in which case the new toy is largely meaningless to them. (That's kind of how I feel about the new version of Countdown, actually.) Darkwing isn't an iconic Transformer by any means—he wouldn't even make my list of 100 most important characters—but the new toy really is an exceptional homage and I highly recommend it.


Jimtron said...

I've been mostly avoiding the Universe line, since I've already got all these characters and space is an issue. I made an exception for Darkwind (Darkwing in my mind) though. I have the Botcon Dreadwind figure, which always seemed a little out of place all by his lonesome. Darkwing completes the dreary duo, and they look pretty good next to each other. Darkwing is just a shade taller than he should be to be perfect, but Dreadwind is much bulkier so it works out ok.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

(Hasbro can't use the original trademark—not, as you might suspect, because of the Disney cartoon show called Darkwing Duck, but rather because of the more recent Mage Knights miniature figure called the Darkwing Zombie.)THANK YOU!!! I've always found that "Darkwing Duck" explanation dubious.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Oh, and for the record. I never owned the original toy, but I'm a Marvel TF Comics fan, and Dreadwing was a memorable character, so I was glad to hunt down this version.

NuclearConvoy said...

3rd Route: I want this toy because I have his BotCon 07 Counterpart and the brothers need to be together. Well, okay, I can also pretend that they are Buster and Hydra in weird colours if i wanted. I can't recall seeing him at any TRUs in Quebec yet (and Im still looking for a Treadshot (er, Blue Classics jetfire redeco), because shit tends to often not show up or show up in very limited numbers that sell out quickly in Quebec around me)

Anonymous said...

I don't buy recolours, but I might just buy Darkwind. You said it best, he has an uncanny resemblence to the G1 counterpart, except for the shoulders.

You said that you were upset about the recolour of Universe Powerglide into Stormcloud. I agree. But what about Universe Powerglide itself? It is not an accurate colour of G1 Powerglide either.

Zobovor said...

Anonymous: You're right, of course, that the Hasbro version of Powerglide is colored wrong... but at least it's designed to look like Powerglide. (I guess it's designed to look like Stormcloud, too, as long as you never transform it to robot mode...)