Long, long ago (about 1984) in a suburb far, far away (Silver Spring, Maryland) dwelled a young robot aficionado (who by some strange coincidence just happens to be me). He scrimped and saved his meager allowance to buy robot toys. He read every book with “robot” in the title that he could get his hands on. He dreamed of enrolling at MIT and becoming a robotics engineer, despite his (as yet unresolved) handicap of being barely able to add two single-digit numbers together. He even convinced his parents to get him a subscription to Robotics Age magazine, an odd publication that attempted to cater to robotics engineers, fans, and garage-tinkerer enthusiasts all at the same time. (And without much success, judging by the fact that it folded around the time “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” dropped out of style.)
In the back of one of these issues slumbered a tiny ad offering “Japanese robot books” for sale. It was a welcome respite from page after page of dimly-understood articles with captivating titles such as “Memory Effect Alloys, Optical Encoders, and Wrist Actuators for Robotic Devices.” An order was placed. And when it arrived, the life of our sixth-grade protagonist would never be the same.
“Mobile Suit Gundam: 110 Models Memorial” was its name. Hundreds of juicy, full-color shots of perfectly built specimens of Bandai’s “gun-pla” (Gundam models) was its game. Our young hero — oh, fer God’s sake, let’s drop the literary affectation — I spent hours upon hours studying that book and the strange symbols it contained. It seemed an entire nation of people on the other side of the planet found robots just as intriguing as I did. And at least when it came to books full of cool pictures of them, THEY DID A MUCH BETTER JOB THAN ANYONE IN MY OWN COUNTRY. The revalation hit me like a sack of bricks. It was as if an artifact from a distant alien civilizaton had been accidentally to my doorstep.
Screw engineering. I just wanted some of these goddamned robot toys. I had found my calling.
Deep within this bible of gun-pla worship lay a meager two pages devoted to toys. As my model-building skills then and now are on par with an arthritic chimpanzee, my attention inevitably returned to this mysterious handful of images. One series of them really caught my eye. They were plastic and half-translucent, revealing little “robot parts” inside. This sort of thing still drives me wild even today. There wasn’t any way to tell their size, their scale, their price. But I knew I wanted them.
It would be years before I would be able to decipher the text in the book. Even still, the caption under my translucent buddies left more questions than it answered: “Cheap ‘cutaway view’ toys from Clover. Collect ’em all!” That’s it. Great.
Turns out the series is so minor, so unspeakably cheap, that they don’t even HAVE a brand name. No “Chogokin,” no “Pla-deluxe” for these poor souls. Just “cheap toys from Clover,” once and forever. Not much to go on. After I “grew up” and had made some connections to the Japanese toy scene, I tried a few halfhearted searches and inquiries without success. And then I promptly forgot about them for close to a decade.
Fast forward to late 2002. In one of my increasingly, disturbingly regular patrols of Yahoo Japan’s auction listings, I spot an intriguing suspect amidst the usual dross. An auction for a tiny box with a cutaway view of Dom on the cover and (in keeping with fine tradition) precious little description. In what I’ve come to realize is some quantum-physical effect, a blister-carded version of what appeared to be the exact same toy appeared on eBay in America. (What IS it with obscure items always appearing in groups, anyway? It’s like one knocks the others out of the metaphysical woodwork. But that’s a Rumble for another time.) The American auction even contained a second specimen, a somewhat unsettlingly flesh-colored Gogg. Three days and $10 later, the set was mine oh mine. Man, I LOVE collecting stuff nobody else likes.
In the end, it turned out that they’re far from exciting. In fact, they’re positively tiny. Like, palm-of-your-hand size. Ah, well. Size be damned, I’ve finally closed the book on a cheap-ass toy mystery that had been plaguing me (well, maybe just mildly irritating me) for most of my collecting life. Now it’s time to return to the teachings of that Holy Gundam Book that guided me through my early years and “collect ’em all.” Judging from the photo, there’s a Z’gok, GM, Gundam, and lord knows what else is out there. I may never find the rest. But you know what? I hardly care. It’s always more about the journey than the destination.