I’m repelled and fascinated by Transformers.
It’s a brand that started out with some of the best Japanese toy engineering found in the waning days of the chogokin era.
It carries on today in the aisles of Wal-Mart with some of the worst design aesthetics to be inflicted on America since Spike Lee put Rob Liefeld in a Levi’s commercial. But the Transformers’ first cousins, the Micronauts, weren’t nearly so fortunate.
After more than two decades in obscurity, Micronauts returned last year to nearly universal disinterest.
The fact that both famous toy lines erupted fully-formed from Takara’s brow would be easy to miss if you compared the two lines today.
This week brought such thoughts to the fore as I unpacked a kind of toy Alpha and Omega:“Emperor and Megas” from Palisades’ Micronauts reissue line, and Hasbro’s “Unicron” from Transformers: Armada.
Emperor and Megas were slight remolds to the earlier, more famous Micronauts villains, Baron Karza and Andromeda.
But the Emperor received such limited distribution in the United States that he might as well have never been released.
Unicron likewise was never really available as a toy, despite Transfans’ pleas since his first appearance in the crass “Transformers: The Movie” (1986).
These toys have nothing, and everything, in common.
Neither would exist without installed fanbases ready to shovel money at whatever manufacturer finally churned them out in plastic.
Obviously, I must be in both fanbases, which says a lot.
Each has action features that suggest they were made for kids, rather than for the dusty display shelves of the collectors who will actually buy them. And both share a design sense from toy eras long gone. In the Emperor’s case, that’s a good thing; Unicron, I’m not so sure. Otherwise, they have about as much in common as Beetras and Macross. But that didn’t stop Hasbro, so it won’t stop me.
Let’s look at Unicron first, as his fanbase wins by mass alone. This is a fine toy, as large robots go. The proportions are nice, the articulation is excellent, and he has that all-important waist joint. I would’ve liked a neck joint, too, but that’s a quibble. The gimmicks are forgettable. A huge missile launcher pops out of Unicron’s chest, H.R. Giger-style, but you need a cursed Mini-con to activate it, and it rarely fires without jamming. There are Mini-con controlled leg missiles, joy. And three compartments open up to hold Mini-cons I don’t own, leaving Unicron mostly hollow, which has got to be symbolic of something. The best feature is doubtless the transformation: with some effort, Unicron folds into a convincing planet mode, complete with working, moon-munching mandibles. Take that, Galactus!
If you liked Palisades’ Baron Karza, you’ll love Emperor and Megas. The plastic is better quality, the colors are more striking, and missiles now fire very well, thank you. The oversized cloth cape (modeled by the black and white Emperors in my pictures) give the Emperor a sort of undead Batman appeal. And the new mantle (which my clear-green Emperor is sporting) both complements the creepy helmet and allows the Emperor to shoulder-mount Megas’ rocket launchers. I like the chrome on Emperor and Megas, but it’s still pretty cheap, and three of these cyborg My Little Ponies side by side looks like the toy section in a Big Lots. Significant problems remain from the Baron Karza reissue: Emperor’s magnemo joint connections are weak, the centaur mode is only barely possible after modification with a screwdriver, and the clear-green plastic on Megas is so fragile that two of its legs were broken in the package.
Nonetheless, I had to have Emperor, just like I had to have Unicron. It’s a sort of relief to know these two entries end my participation in their respective toy lines. There will be no more Palisades Micronauts, and Hasbro will soon displace Armada with the even worse Energon. Soon I’ll be able to obsess over other retro toys I never had as a child, but somehow cannot live without today.
So here’s the bottom line. Unicron is worth the $50 he cost at Toys R Us, but only if you’re so into the Transformers “mythos” that you think having a planet toy with working mandibles is cool. It’s hard to justify the $100 that Emperor and Megas cost me at the Palisades Collector’s Club, even as a Micronauts collector. The old-school Takara flavor is much tastier and far less expensive in the 80s Transformers reissues — even the Hasbro ones.
And for sheer Takara toyetic value, neither Unicron nor the Emperor can hold a candle to my recent, favorite acquisition: Armada Airazor, $10 at K-Mart.