Monday, December 30, 2013

Four Fun Robot Toys from Mego’s Micronauts Line

In this last installment of my year-end series about cool robot toys from Japan, I've decided to look back at one of the classics: Takara’s Microman line, which was released in the U.S. in the late '70s by Mego under the name Micronauts. Micronauts was a contemporary of another line of imported Japanese robot toys, Mattel’s Shogun Warriors, and both lines even had comic book series published by Marvel. While Shogun Warriors featured Super Robots from several anime series that had pilots and combination configurations, that toy line didn’t have any pilot figures or robot figures with combination capabilities; in contrast, Micronauts provided the first examples of mech and combiner robot toys to kids in the U.S. Read on for a look at four of Micronauts’ groundbreaking toys.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Getting it Right with Getter Robo Toys

Because I live in the U.S. and not Japan, my first introduction to combiner robots came through Japanese toy lines that were imported into the U.S. during the '80s: Gobots, Transformers and Voltron. Since each of these toy lines had its own cartoon series, it was generally assumed that if you saw a group of vehicles or robots combining together to form a gigantic robot in the cartoon, there was also a toy available that could do the same thing. After all, who would taunt potential toy buyers with a cartoon that showed vehicles and robots doing something that their toy versions couldn't do, right?

What I didn't know at the time and only found out recently was that the concept of a combiner robot actually began in the '70 with a manga and anime series called Getter Robo. In Getter Robo, three combat jets would combine together to form a giant robot; depending on the sequence of the jets' combination, a different giant robot would be formed. Getter Robo was very popular and it spawned plenty of merchandise and numerous anime and manga sequels; in fact, these toys were also included in Mattel's Shogun Warriors line.

However, there's a drawback to the first Getter Robo that's peculiar for a Japanese combiner robot: For as ground-breaking as the combiner robot idea was at the time, no one seemed to know exactly how the combat jets could come together to form anything, let alone a giant robot. As you can see from the video clip below, even the animators behind the original anime series had to take significant shortcuts during the jet combination sequences.

From what I can gather, the dominant attitude towards the first Getter Robo toys and model kits is that companies would produce the jets and the giant robots, but they wouldn't produce jets that could combine to form a giant robot. Apparently, this approach worked, but it seems very strange when compared to the countless combiner robots toys that Getter Robo influenced. Subsequent jet and robot designs for most of the sequels were much more detailed and provided clear views of how the jets combine, but the early designs for Getter Robo are astonishingly vague in their combination mechanics.

Of course, if you really, really want to collect toy replicas of the original Getter Robo jets that can combine into various robot configurations, you can--but it will cost you. The Perfect Change Getter Robo set, the most detailed and scale-accurate combining toy based on the original Getter Robo design, costs hundreds of dollars. The cheapest set, Dynamic Change Getter Robo, is a chibi-scale interpretation of the original design and it costs over $100.

The Perfect Change Getter Robo set.

The Dynamic Change Getter Robo set.

The problem with Getter Robo toys sort of reminds me of the Transformers Masterpiece collection. The animators who worked on the first Transformers cartoon took many liberties with the toy robot designs in order to create robot characters, all of the purpose of selling the toys. Now, decades later, Transformers fans can by transforming toy robots that look exactly like they did from the original cartoon from the '80s, but each Masterpiece figure costs several times the amount of a regular transforming toy robot.

Figures from the Transformers Masterpiece collection.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Mighty Miniature Robots of Machine Robo

Sometimes, I don't know what I would do without the Internet, particularly when I look up things that were well-known at one time but have since faded into obscurity. In the ancient times when print media ruled the information landscape, it could take up to days, weeks, and even months to track down publications that mention trends or products that are no longer considered popular by mainstream culture. With the Internet, the same kind of search can only take a few hours or even minutes, especially because amateur writers can publish whatever they want online without being solely driven or restricted by profit.

This intro brings me to the topic of this post, Bandai's Machine Robo toy line. Machine Robo started in 1982 and it was one of the earliest toy lines based on robots that can transform into vehicles. Bandai started exporting these toys to other countries in 1983, and Tonka distributed them in the United States under its Gobots line. As anyone who grew up in the '80s knows, Tonka's Gobots quickly faded when they competed against Hasbro's more popular Transformers line, another group of transforming robot toys imported from Japan. Yet while the Gobots vanished from American pop culture during 80s, I discovered via the Internet that Bandai's original Machine Robo line kept going in Japan throughout the following decades. Read on for more thoughts on Machine Robo and what makes it so resilient in the face of other more popular toy robot lines.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Great Moments in Toy Robot History: Shogun Warriors

The origins of popular and recurring trends in pop culture can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, especially trends that have gone on for so long that they become an accepted fixture of everyday life. For this post, I'm talking about Japanese robot toys that are imported and sold in the U.S. I'm sure robot fans who are around my age will remember how Japanese robot toys dominated the shelves of toy stores during the 80s, but the trend of U.S. toy companies securing the rights to sell Japanese robot toys in North America actually began in the 70s with Mattel's Shogun Warriors. While the Shogun Warriors line didn't last long, its influence would impact the toy industry for decades to come. Read on for my retrospective of this trend-setting toy line.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Big 'Bots and Belligerent Behemoths Clash in Pacific Rim (2013)

Since I'm planning to wrap up 2013 with a look back at a few examples of Japanese robot toys--one of my favorite kind of toys--I thought I would kick off this year-end series of posts with a review of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, one of the big-budget releases from last summer that I missed when it was playing in the theaters.

Summer blockbusters have never been held in high regard by the film critic community, and such critics have been particularly displeased with Hollywood's over-usage of CGI effects to produce increasingly bigger and louder blockbuster movies. To be sure, such criticism is not entirely inaccurate: CGI does permit the creation of larger-scale environments and set pieces in ways that miniatures, matte paintings and other practical effect techniques could never allow. As such, CGI has enabled the production of many, many summer blockbusters that are enormous in terms of spectacle but conspicuously short in terms of creative ideas and conceptual depth. Pacific Rim is not one of those movies, because del Toro eagerly packs every frame of his film with enough details and ideas that fans who know what they're looking at will be reviewing this movie for years to come. Pacific Rim is a "big" in every sense of the term--big CGI, big landscapes, big battles, big ideas, and big ambition. In fact, I can't think of how any other special effects technique other than CGI could have accommodated del Toro's story.

In a nutshell, Pacific Rim is about a group of pilots, military leaders, scientists and technicians who build and operate giant robots called "Jaegers" that are designed to fight a seemingly endless series of giant monsters called "Kaiju" that have been emerging out of the Pacific Ocean for years to regularly trash the nearest city. The movie takes places during the closing days of the Kaiju war, when the Jaeger team is planning its final offensive that promises to put an end to the Kaiju menace.

Pacific Rim is a well-made film in every aspect: a well-written script, a well-cast ensemble of actors, and a well-directed approach to the material. Yet to really appreciate this movie, one has to understand that it is a tribute to Japan's "Super Robot" fantasy-science fiction genre and its "Real Robot" spin-off subgenre. Super Robot and Real Robot anime and manga usually involve giant robots that are piloted by human beings to fight giant monsters, other giant robots, or both. The Super Robot genre began in the mid-50s with the manga series Tetsujin 28, and it has continued with popular titles such as Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

One of Pacific Rim's Super Robots, complete with "Rocket Punch" action.

Pacific Rim also draws inspiration from Japan's kaiju movies (ergo the collective name of the giant monsters in Rim), and the monster designs in the movie demonstrate how much del Toro and his production crew love and understand kaiju films such as Godzilla and Mothra. Nevertheless, most of the film's other details--the characters, their technology, the situations they face and the world they inhabit--are clearly modeled after Super Robot and Real Robot narratives. To put it another way, Pacific Rim is to Super Robot and Real Robot stories as Star Wars is to pulpy sci-fi space operas such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

With so many details spread throughout the movie, some aspects feel somewhat lacking. In particular, so much detail is applied to movie's fictitious world (a world where there's even a black market for dead Kaiju parts) that the characters feel more like broad personality types than fully-developed individuals. We see bits and pieces of who they are and their roles within the beleaguered, monster-pummeled society they represent but not much more than that; at times, it almost feels like watching Top Gun with giant robots instead of fighter jets. Yet del Toro's enthusiasm for the material permeates every aspect of the film, so I enjoyed geeking out with him just to see what kind of unique interpretations he could put on machines and monsters that are so closely associated with Japanese pop culture. To say that del Toro went above and beyond what he set out to do is an understatement, making this one of his best films to date.

If you don't understand why anyone would want to make a big-budget, live-action film based on anime and manga stories about giant robots, then Pacific Rim probably isn't for you. Otherwise, if you love big brawling 'bots and are looking for an example of CGI done right, then go grab some popcorn and treat yourself to del Toro's magnum mecha opus.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Fantastic Four(th): A Review of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4 DVD

They said they wouldn't do it ... but the fans demanded otherwise. Thus, with great pleasure I had the privilege of recently receiving a screener copy of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4: Revenge of the Finatics DVD. This DVD marks fourth and final installment in Lou and Dianna "Yana" Pisano's series of fan-made videos that are devoted to Jaws, the franchise that it spawned, and the locations at Martha's Vineyard and elsewhere that made the franchise possible.

Of course, the Pisanos' previous trilogy of JawsFest DVDs are extremely comprehensive about Jaws and its connections to Martha's Vineyard, so what could possibly be left to cover? PLENTY. Read on for my complete review of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4, a DVD with plenty of interviews, location tours, sing-a-longs, and shark jumpings.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Crayola Encourages Budding Kaiju Fans Through Its Create 2 Destroy Toy Line

Imagine this holiday shopping scenario: You're a life-long fan of giant monster movies and want to foster an appreciation of such entertainment in the next generation of geeks--your kids, your nieces and nephews, or both. However, you think that they're too young to grasp the finer points of such giant monster mashes such as Godzilla, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe and Pacific Rim, so you have no idea what to get them for Christmas. Well, never fear because Crayola has got your back this year with its Create 2 Destroy line of playsets.

The Create 2 Destroy playsets aren't strictly kaiju merchandise, but they might as well be because half of the playsets involve giant monsters trashing a city, a shopping mall, and a suburban community. These playsets make up the Dino Destruction sub-series, where kids use Morphix (Crayola's answer to Play-Doh) to mold cars, buildings and trees that the included dinosaurs can stomp with their feet and crush with their jaws. Some of the dinosaurs have spring-loaded tails that kids can use as catapults to launch Morphix-molded boulders into nearby targets.

The other Create 2 Destroy sub-series, Fortress Invasion, are designed to have kids build fortresses, castles and walls with the goal of knocking them down by using the included catapults. While these playsets don't include any monsters, adult fans of King Kong can buy their kids a Dino Destruction playset and a Fortress Invasion playset that so they can imagine dinosaurs tearing through the enormous protective wall on Skull Island. This is the kind of stuff that brings geek families closer together during the holiday season!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Painting Giant Robot Model Kits Anime Style

I love detailed miniature replicas of monsters, robots and spaceships from my favorite horror and sci-fi franchises, but the ability to competently assemble model kits of such replicas has always eluded me. I particularly admire those who can paint kits of robots, spaceships and other machines in a way that makes them look used (exposed to the elements, battle damage, etc.). In fact, I frequently regarded this kind of modeling skill as a remarkable achievement ... and then I saw this:

Yes, this really is a photo of a plastic model kit.

From what I read on Kotaku, a talented model builder in Japan has painted a Valkyrie kit from the Super Dimension Fortress Macross anime series (which is known to some as Robotech) in a cel shading style that makes the model appear as if it was pulled directly out of the Macross cartoon.

This makes sense, actually--since the Valkyrie design was originally intended for animation, why not paint a Valkyrie model kit like it was part of a cartoon? The picture below provides an overview of how each piece of the kit was painted to achieve the comprehensive anime look.

Click here to see the article about this kit on Kotaku. Click here to see the original Japanese post of this kit, which features many more pictures of the finished product.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Alien Franchise Update: Reboots, Sequels, and a Prequel Sequel

As a horror and sci-fi nerd, I do what I can to keep my franchise scorecard up to date. Right now, Star Wars and the superhero universes of DC and Marvel are currently developing a selection of movie and TV releases, while many other franchises are stuck in some form of reboot--either making another reboot sequel (Star Trek), preparing to release a reboot (RoboCop), or starting pre-production of a reboot (Terminator). I've also been keeping current with developments in the Alien franchise, which has a number of projects in development but only one movie in the works. Read on for more details about what 20th Century Fox has in store for the horror franchise where no one can hear you scream.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shogun Warrior-Sized Bender Challenges You to Bite His Colossal Metal Ass

Good news, everyone! Futurama may be officially cancelled (for now), but its merchandising license lives on in a variety of collectibles. This month, Toynami is releasing a limited edition Shogun Warrior version of Bender that's 24-inches tall and includes spring-loaded arms for fist-firing action. I'm not sure if this version of Bender has any other features, so I don't know if this chest panel opens or how many points of articulation he has. Nevertheless, if you're willing to pay the $150 price for this collectible item, you can have Bender pick fights with other Shogun Warrior robots and terrorize 6-inch scale Futurama action figures.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Network Television was Better Off with Better Off Ted

I have to give Netflix credit: Because of its wide selection of television titles, it’s a great resource for me to find high-quality but short-lived series that somehow escaped my attention when they were originally aired. (This is a welcome change from most television syndication arrangements, where only popular shows are aired repeatedly on channels other than the one that originally aired them.) In fact, it was thanks to Netflix that I found Better Off Ted, a wickedly intelligent satire of corporate culture that aired for two 13 episode seasons on ABC from 2009 to 2010.

Better Off Ted is a half-hour sitcom that takes place in the offices of Veridian Dynamics, a monolithic mega-corporation that engages in all sorts of odd and amoral activities to increase worker productivity and maximize profits, often at the expense of everyone and everything else. The characters consist of the titular Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington), a single father who heads Veridian’s research and development department; Ted’s intimidating, hyper-competitive boss Veronica Palmer (Portia de Rossi); and Ted’s underlings, product tester Linda Zwordling (Andrea Anders) and product development scientists Phil Myman (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem Hewitt (Malcolm Barrett).

While the interplay among the characters provide the plots for the episodes, most of the jokes in Better Off Ted are targeted directly at the behavior of modern-day corporations and their approach to people and science--or, as Lem puts it in one episode, “the place science goes to bend over and grab its ankles”. Throughout the series, various Veridian products become the subject of absurd and dark humor, such as its revolutionary cure for baldness (that is also a parasite) and a sound device that can deliver messages straight into a person’s brain (and can also cause uncontrollable, explosive vomiting when set at high frequencies). In a way, Veridian is less openly violent but just as misanthropic as Omni Consumer Products, the devious military-industrial conglomerate in Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop. Indeed, notorious mad scientists such as Frankenstein, Jekyll and Moreau would feel right at home in the laboratories of Veridian Dynamics.

I love Better Off Ted and if you love comedy that is smart, sinister and strange, then you should check it out too.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

After Nearly Three Decades, Blockbuster Goes Bust

I'm sure you heard the news by now that Blockbuster, the one-time reigning champ of the home video rental business, is finally closing for good. After winding down for years with increased competition from rivals such as Netflix and Redbox, all Blockbuster stores will be closed as of January 2014.

During the heyday of home video rentals, I didn't have access to a Blockbuster store. The nearest one was almost an hour away, so my VHS rental choices were limited to the local video stores in the town where I lived. What this meant for me--and as I'm sure it meant for others who lived in remote rural locations--is that Blockbuster represented the best of VHS rental selections. The video stores nearest to me were able to keep up with the high-profile theatrical releases of the 80s and 90s and they introduced me to low-budget curiosities such as Equinox and The Flesh Eaters, but their overall selections of films from the 1930s up to the 70s were extremely poor. Thus, if I wanted to familiarize myself with the works of noted horror film talents such as Ray Harryhausen, Val Lewton and Vincent Price, I would have to go to Blockbuster.

The closing of Blockbuster represents the end of one form of film distribution and its inherent limitations, so I'm kind of glad to see it go. Newer services such as Netflix, Redbox or Hulu have their limitations as well and I've noticed that some films that aren't being carried by those services can sometimes be found on YouTube (particularly foreign horror movies and American made-for-TV horror films). Nevertheless, digital distribution through the Internet and formats such as DVD and Blu-ray have made life so much easier for film buffs--particularly horror film fans such as me.

Regardless, I can't let this kind of milestone that's so closely attached to the VHS format go without celebrating one of the most memorable aspects of VHS rentals: the colorful and gaudy box cover artwork. Click below to see a selection of VHS cover art that I pulled from sources such as VHS Collector and VHS Wasteland.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Kenner's Imperial Troop Transporter Gets Lego-ized

As I mentioned in a previous post, the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels animated series will incorporate some of Kenner's classic Star Wars toy designs as part of the series' selection of vehicles and weaponry, such as Kenner's Imperial Troop Transporter toy. Thus, it makes sense for avid Lego hobbyist BaronSat (a.k.a. Eric Druon) to make a Lego version of the Troop Transporter that's in scale with official Lego Star Wars minifigs. Check it out:

BaronSat's Lego Imperial Troop Transporter (above) and Kenner's original toy (below). 

Click below to see more pictures of BaronSat's Lego version of the Imperial Troop Transporter, along with a new Lego Hoth playset that he recently produced that draw inspiration from Kenner's short-lived Star Wars Micro Collection line.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mental Health Care Runs Amuck in Psycho-Pass Anime Series

One of the best things about Japanese anime is that as a means of storytelling, it is not limited to specific areas of subject matter. Whereas most American animation is usually limited to kid-friendly material, anime can be applied to just about any genre (drama, romance, horror, etc.). Thus, when I heard about the anime Psycho-Pass, a hard-boiled cyberpunk crime thriller series that spans 22 half-hour episodes, I just had to see it for myself. I'm glad I did--it's one of the smartest sci-fi shows I've ever seen.

The overall plot of Psycho-Pass will sound familiar to anyone who frequents the crime thriller genre: a group of law enforcement officers searching for an elusive suspect who is connected to a series of brutal, gruesome crimes. Yet where Psycho-Pass differs greatly from other crime thrillers is in its setting, a futuristic Japan that is constantly monitored by an omnipresent computer network called the Sybil System. Such a setting puts a unique spin on standard crime thriller character types and conventions, resulting in a challenging and engaging narrative that sci-fi fans will relish.

It is difficult to describe Psycho-Pass without explaining the rules of the world in which it takes place:

* Each Japanese citizen has a "Psycho-Pass", a psychological profile that is routinely read by the Sibyl System. If a citizen's "Crime Coefficient" (a particular value within a Psycho-Pass) rises to a certain level, the Sibyl System will require that citizen to get state-approved psychiatric counseling to lower the Crime Coefficient. If the citizen refuses counseling and/or his Crime Coefficient stays at a high level, he will be identified as a "Latent Criminal" and face a life sentence of institutionalization.

* A person's Crime Coefficient can rise due to stress, anger and trauma, so citizens are strongly encouraged by the state to avoid situations where such emotions can be triggered. For example, artists (musicians, writers, sculptors, etc.) are required to get a state license to prove that their work does not cause the Crime Coefficients of their spectators to increase. Unfortunately, even though the Crime Coefficient is a measurement value that was devised to predict and deter criminal activity, victims of violent crime can also become identified as Latent Criminals due to the trauma they experienced at the hands of criminals.

* Law enforcement duties are divided between two classes of officer: Inspectors and Enforcers. Enforcers are Latent Criminals who show an aptitude for law enforcement work and are tasked with the violent and stressful aspects of law enforcement. Enforcers have more freedom than other Latent Criminals (such as their own living quarters and permission to visit the outside world with the accompaniment of an Inspector) but they are still held in low regard by the general populace; characters frequently refer to Enforcers as nothing more than "hunting dogs" for the Inspectors. It is also not uncommon for an occasional Inspector to be downgraded to an Enforcer.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of other sci-fi TV shows such as Dollhouse and Orphan Black in that it centers on an advanced form of technology and then uses a series of episodes to examine the daily lives of the people who are most immediately impacted by it. As such, Psycho-Pass poses many thought-provoking questions about the relationship between society, law and technology. In particular, it frequently ponders whether it is more important to have a society that is truly just or a society that is successful at convincing its citizenry that it is just. If this is your kind of science fiction, then I can't recommend Psycho-Pass highly enough.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Dark Knight Disappears from Cartoon Network

It's official: Beware the Batman, the animated series that makes up half of Cartoon Network's DC Nation programming block, has been pulled from the network's schedule. For the immediate future, the DC Nation hour will consist of two episodes of Teen Titans Go! There has been some speculation that Beware the Batman will return in January, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

If anything, I think that this development speaks volumes about Time Warner's inept handling of the DC universe. Some of the scuttlebutt that I've heard is that the executives at Cartoon Network weren't happy with having DC superhero cartoons "forced" on them by their parent company of Time Warner, so they were happy to get rid of the under-performing Beware the Batman cartoon as soon as they could. If that is true, then that would indicate that Time Warner's current plan to promote DC superheroes in media formats outside of comic books is poorly organized and will mostly likely sputter along for a while without generating any memorable hits.

For those of you who are keeping score, here's how things stand between DC and Marvel when it comes to movies and TV:

* DC has one TV cartoon (Teen Titans Go!) currently on the air, a Superman/Batman movie in the works, and a live-action TV series (Arrow) that is on its second season on CW and has nothing to do with any of the of the DC superhero movies.

* Marvel has three cartoons on the air on Disney XD (Avengers Assemble, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H., and Ultimate Spider-Man) and a live-action TV series (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) on ABC that's a spin-off of the Marvel superhero movies. Marvel also has Thor and Captain America movies scheduled for release (November 2013 and April 2014, respectively), another Avengers movie in the works, and movies based on superheroes such as Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Fantastic Four currently in pre-production. This list does not include upcoming Spider-Man and X-Men movies, movies that are being made without direct supervision from Marvel and its parent company Disney.

I may not be the most well-versed superhero fan, but it looks to me that DC is getting its butt kicked by Marvel. Thanks, Time Warner!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Zombie Babies Infect Spirit Halloween Product Lines

Being a horror fan, I naturally consider myself to be an aficionado of the Halloween holiday season. Nevertheless, my recent visit to a Spirit Halloween store revealed to me how far I am behind the times in recognizing Halloween awesomeness, an awesomeness that's so awesomely awesome that it's criminal for it to be limited to just one season. The awesomeness that I'm talking about is Spirit Halloween's line of "Zombie Baby" props and costumes.

Watch your back, Anne Geddes--they're coming to get you!

Sure, the fusion of horrific imagery and themes with children and things aimed at children has long been a staple of horror art, merchandising and storytelling. What Spirit Halloween has done is take this to a new level by providing a wide selection of props and costumes (some motorized, some not) that make little bundles of joy look like newborn nightmares. When I say "wide selection", I mean just that--it felt like all that was missing from Spirit Halloween's insane zombie infant inventory were replicas of the Crawler and Lurker Necromorphs from the Dead Space video game series. Click below to see a selection of Spirit Halloween Zombie Baby items that will add an extra layer of delirium to your Halloween festivities.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dawn of the Dead Cupcakes

The Mrs. and I were visiting family over the weekend when one of the young geeks-in-training surprised us with a terrific Halloween treat: zombie cupcakes.

It's rare that a food item combines two things that I really love--zombies and pastry--but these cupcakes had it all. With pretzel sticks for arms, Tic Tacs for fingers, marshmallows for heads, and thick icing for skin, eyes, mouths and hair, these desserts of the damned can cause an epic sugar high that any horror fan would love. All that was missing were a few hapless gingerbread men (with sweet gumdrop brains) for these carnivorous confectionaries to terrorize.

Click below to see more pictures of this horde of undead delights.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Imperial Items I'd Like to See in the Star Wars: Rebels Animated Series

This year's New York Comic Con (NYCC) came and went last weekend, and it had the usual geeky fanfare: panel discussions, celebrity appearances, cosplay, and previews of upcoming films, TV shows, and merchandise. From this particular NYCC event, the one event that really stood out from the others was the preview presentation of the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels, a CGI animated series that will debut in the fall of 2014 on Disney XD. The presentation was given by Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo, and it gave many tantalizing glimpses into the series that will show fans what the Star Wars universe was like during the rapid growth of the Empire after the Clone Wars and the early days of the Rebel Alliance.

Of the many details that were revealed during the presentation, one in particular caught my attention: the inclusion of vintage Star Wars toys as part of the series' vehicles and weapons. In particular, the Imperial Troop Transport, a vehicle toy that was released by Kenner as part of their toy line in the late 70s, will be used by the Imperial characters in Rebels.

The original Imperial Troop Transporter toy by Kenner ... 

... and the Imperial Troop Transporter that will be seen in Star Wars: Rebels.

With that in mind--and the fact that toy companies love to reissue old toys to save on production costs--Rebels could bring back many previous toy designs into official Star Wars canon. Read on to see some additional Imperial vehicles and Stromtroopers that could be returned to the spotlight through Rebels.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

DC and Marvel Superhero Cartoon Report Card, Fall 2013 Edition

Last fall, I did a report card post about the DC and Marvel superhero cartoons on Cartoon Network and Disney XD. Since almost all of the cartoons from last year have been replaced with new cartoons (Ultimate Spider-Man is the only one that's still on the air), I think that now would be a good time to take a look at where things stand for animated DC and Marvel titles and how they reflect larger expansion plans to push both classic and obscure superhero characters from the comics onto multiple media platforms. Read on ...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nintendo Goes Retro in Wii Party U

Oh, Nintendo ... I just can't quit you. Even though I don't have the Wii U console and probably won't for a long time to come, I still like to keep an eye on what Nintendo is doing to see the new ideas it brings to the world of video games. With the upcoming minigame collection title Wii Party U, not only will players get the unique experience of asymmetrical game play but they will also get a high-tech flashback to a concept that was popular during the early years of portable video games: "head-to-head" tabletop gaming.

From what I have seen in the ads and articles about Wii Party U, 15 of the two-player minigames will be limited to the Wii U GamePad's display screen and require players to share the GamePad controls to play competitively or cooperatively. The picture below provides an example of what this kind of game play would look like, and the minigames that fall into this format include foosball, baseball, and slot car racing.

When I saw video footage of these kinds of two-player Wii Party U games in action, it reminded me of how early portable video game producers such as Mattel and Tiger would produce battery-powered tabletop games that two players could play together. Most of these games were sports games although there were some exceptions, such as the Star Wars Electronic Laser Battle Game.

To give you a better idea of what these games were like back in the late 70s and early 80s, here are two commercials for portable head-to-head electronic games:

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Self-Made Superhero Gets an Upgrade in Iron Man 3

Due to financial problems beyond my control last summer, I have begun to catch up on all the box office fun I missed just a few months ago. First up: Iron Man 3, the concluding chapter in the trilogy about Marvel's resident techno-genius Tony Stark and his super-powered alter ego.

Iron Man 3 opens with Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) still reeling from the events in The Avengers movie. Overwhelmed by the many possible threats that could doom humanity, he has become obsessed with upgrading Iron Man--and himself--to counter any and all future menaces. Further complicating the picture are the appearances of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist mastermind who has been orchestrating a series of surprise attacks around the world, and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a corporate rival who threatens to topple Stark Industries through his own "think tank" called Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). When a surprise attack by the Mandarin forces him away from home and friends, Stark has to rely on his intelligence and resourcefulness to stop the Mandarin and uncover AIM's secret agenda.

Long story short, I loved Iron Man 3 and I regret not seeing it in 3D on the big screen. It's everything a high-octane superhero film should be: witty without being campy, compelling without being ponderous, and thrilling without being shallow. It succeeds as a sequel, building upon the events in The Avengers and the previous Iron Man movies to reflect how Stark and his two closest allies Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) have changed over the course of the stories. It also has a plot that makes ample usage of many characters and ideas from the Marvel universe (e.g., AIM, Extremis, the Mandarin, etc.). If Iron Man 3 is any indication of how Marvel plans to develop more movies based on its vast universe of characters and settings, then I think that superhero movie fans are in for many more blockbuster treats in the summers to come.

As I mentioned in my review of Iron Man 2, superhero stores are at their most compelling when they act as parables of power. As such, Iron Man 3 brings Stark's personal crisis about his responsibility towards others to a complete circle. In Iron Man, Stark bowed out of the international arms race because he felt that he could do more good as a superhero; in Iron Man 3, Stark has to come to grips that he never really left the arms race at all, that by becoming Iron Man he just exchanged his participation in one arms race for another. This is an intriguing dilemma for a superhero movie to portray, and Downey's performance as Stark is up to the challenge. (In light of the film's plot, I think that putting Stark on movie's poster as a falling Icarus was a nice touch.) The fact that the film is able to tell an entertaining story by largely keeping Stark outside of his Iron Man armor--working out his problems without routinely resorting to superheroics--speaks to how well made Iron Man 3 is. I also liked the film's jab at how the modern military-industrial complex needs to create villains for the sake of maintaining profit. In fact, given his role in RoboCop, I suspect that the inclusion of Miguel Ferrer in the cast of Iron Man 3 was a deliberate wink to Paul Verhoeven's dark satire of America's militarism.

I'm sure that Hollywood's current infatuation with superheroes will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, but Iron Man 3 indicates to me that we are far from that right now. Until DC and its corporate masters at Time Warner come up with a better series of superhero movies, I'll be happy to make mine Marvel.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Great Moments in Video Game Licensing History: Alligator People and Planet of the Apes for the Atari 2600

Since early days of their history, video games have been used like any other form of merchandising--as the recipients of licenses for popular characters, movies and TV shows for the sake of making money based on name recognition. It didn't matter how limited the graphics and game play options were in early video games; as long as gamers were willing to associate vague shapes, garbled noises and repetitive tasks with famous characters such as Buck Rogers, Dracula, Popeye and Superman, entertainment companies were willing to add video games to their vast inventories of licensed merchandise.

Yet as with most things in the entertainment industry, some oddities were bound to surface in what would appear to be a straightforward system. Case in point: unreleased games based on The Alligator People (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968) for the Atari 2600. I can understand why Atari, Intellivision and Coleco were looking for new game content to promote their respective consoles in the early days of home gaming, but using licenses as obscure as Alligator People or in decline as Planet of the Apes to develop games doesn't make much sense even by today's standards. Read on for more details about these strange artifacts from video game history.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Get Your RC Geek on with Wow! Stuff's Six-Legged Attacknid

I've ranted before about how the Terminator franchise really needs a much better selection of scale-accurate replicas of Skynet's vast army of kill 'bots, and I think that's especially true in the area of remote control (RC) toys. So far, there has only been one officially licensed RC toy replica of a Terminator vehicle, the aerial HK unit from Terminator Salvation; otherwise, the only other RC Terminator replicas that I know of are ones made by extremely tech-savvy fans.

However, even though we'll never see an official Lego Mindstorms version of a T-600 or a T-1 tank, there are other RC toys that toy collecting Terminator fans can use as substitutes to terrorize their action figure collections. A WooWee Robosapien toy could be used as a substitute for a Harvester, a quadcopter could be used as a substitute for an aerial HK, and a Kid Galaxy Cybercycle could be used as a substitute for a Moto-Terminator. Even the rarely seen HK Centurion and T-7T Tetrapod now have their own substitute with the Attacknid, which is part of the Wow! Stuff’s Combat Creatures line of RC toys. The Attacknid differs from the Centurion and Tetrapod in that it has six legs instead of four, but that doesn't it mean it is any less cool.

In addition to crawling like a mechanical insect, the 10 inch tall Attacknid features a rotating turret that launches discs up to 30 feet. It also has removable, customizable armor panels on each leg, and it shuts down if its "Battle Brain" is hit directly three times. The disc launcher and Battle Brain features are provided so that RC geeks can have fights between their Attacknid units; nevertheless, the Attacknid's disc launcher and 360 degree range of all-terrain mobility should provide hours of fun for shooting at action figures during an imaginary post-apocalyptic future war with a Skynet that outsources with Wow! Stuff.

Check out the video below to see the Attacknid in action, and you can learn more about this battling ‘bot toys on the official Combat Creatures site.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Goodbye, Bay Harbor Butcher: A Look Back at Dexter (2006 - 2013)

I remember reading a quote from Alfred Hitchcock a while back, although I can't find the exact source from where it originated. It was during an interview, and Hitchcock was asked about how to evoke an audience's sympathy for an anti-hero such as a criminal. He said that to have a sympathetic anti-hero, he can't just be what's normally thought of as a "bad guy"; he has to be the best at whatever vice he practices (e.g., bank robbery, art theft, high-profile assassinations, etc.) and, as long as he is portrayed by a handsome and charming actor, audiences will cheer the anti-hero along as long as he strives to maintain his reputation as the best. Hitchcock recognized that it's human nature to support hard work and success and his approach to anti-heroes proved that under the right circumstances, this support can be twisted around to cheer on theft, violence, excessive bloodshed, and death. Thus, while petty thieves, impoverished drug dealers and second-rate henchmen are the stuff of bit parts and small tragic dramas, expertly-trained assassins, international diamond thieves and rogue police officers who break all the rules to get the job done are romanticized and revered as superstars within the annals of pulp crime and suspense thrillers.

By that rationale, the TV series Dexter, which recently ended its eight season run on Showtime last weekend, gleefully pushed Hitchcock's approach to anti-heroes into the darkest and craziest corners of the horror genre. Charmingly played by Michael C. Hall, the titular character of Dexter Morgan built an audience of sympathetic viewers and impressed TV critics as he hacked and slashed his way through the criminal underbelly of Miami. Even though this plot summary sounds like the stuff of low-budget grindhouse horror, the creators of the series built enough twists into Dexter, his story and his supporting cast to make him approachable and even likable--likable enough that many fans were angered over how he didn't have a happily-ever-after ending, regardless of the fact that Dexter never stopped being a monster during the entirety of the series. Somewhere out there, Hitchcock is smiling from ear to ear.

Read on for my review of Dexter, and why I think that it's the boldest horror TV show to date. (Warning: There are many spoilers in this post.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Alien Abductees Get Even in Altered (2006)

As movie monsters go, filmmakers have gotten plenty of mileage from the concept of extraterrestrial threats. There have been countless movies about high-tech alien invaders (War of the Worlds, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), parasitic alien biology (Alien, The Thing), and too-close-for-comfort contact with an alien intelligence (Fire in the Sky, The Fourth Kind). In the midst of this crowded field of alien terrors is Altered, a 2006 creature feature that was directed and co-written by Eduardo Sánchez, co-writer and co-director of The Blair Witch Project.

Altered is about four men who were abducted and tortured by alien visitors when they were teenagers. After years of unsuccessfully coping with the trauma they endured, three of the men decide to hunt down and capture one of the visitors as an act of retribution; yet once they capture an alien, they're not completely sure of what they should do next. To make matters worse, their alien captive isn't quite as helpless as he looks and he has some sinister plans of his own ....

I'm recommending Altered to creature feature fans for many reasons. It's a well-made film that takes a unique approach to both alien horror movies and modern alien abduction lore. It effectively uses practical effects to bring its alien menace to life (no CGI here), and it also does an excellent job at balancing the horror with some bits of clever humor. Some scenes feature inventive examples of splatstick humor, and there are a few bits of redneck humor because the abductees in this movie are working class southern white men. However, this is not Tucker and Dale vs. Evil--Altered is a tale of terror at its core. In fact, some of the concepts and visuals in this movie reminded me of Scanners and The Fly, two classic "body horror" films by David Cronenberg.

Because most horror films feature characters who are being stalked by and defending themselves from a monster, the movie's story about men who search for and capture a monster makes it very different from most other films of its kind. Even though Altered is a horror movie, the pacing of its story reminded me fatalistic pulp crime dramas that begin with a major event (e.g., a bank heist gone wrong) and then subsequently unravel as the protagonists attempt and repeatedly fail to cope with the events they set in motion. The film also lets you understand the characters and the bitter motivations behind their actions. While hunting extremely deadly monsters sounds like something only a fool would do, you come to realize how the abduction left the main characters so broken in their adulthood that alien hunting has become the only meaningful thing left for them to do with their lives.

Altered ranks alongside Abominable and Alien Raiders as one of the better low-budget creature features to be released within the last ten years. It's everything that big-budget alien movies such as Signs and Dreamcatcher should have been but weren't, proving that some of the best horror films out there are the ones that never made it to national movie theater chains.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Toy Collecting Reaches a New Level of Excess with Gentle Giant's Six Foot Kenner Stormtrooper Action Figure

Last year, I posted two rants (click here and here) about Gentle Giant's release of "Jumbo" 12 inch replicas of 3 and 3/4 inch figures from Kenner's Star Wars toy line that was released during the late 70s. I couldn't--and still can't--comprehend the appeal of buying a larger scale replica of an action figure at a price point that's ridiculously higher than the original.

Of course, leave it up to me to underestimate the power of the toy collectors market. Since my 2012 rants, the 12 inch Jumbo line has expanded to include replicas of many Kenner figures from Empire Strikes Back (including the Wampa) and it looks like it will go on to include many Kenner Return of the Jedi figure replicas as well. With the Jumbo series proving to be a hit, Gentle Giant has decided to get even giant-er by releasing a limited edition six foot tall replica of Kenner's Stormtrooper action figure (complete with removable blaster), which will be released in 2014 for $2,300. To put it in another perspective, Gentle Giant is making an expensive six foot version of a toy that was originally less than four inches high and sold for a few bucks. The original Stormtrooper action figure can sit in Kenner's Star Wars vehicle toys; the giant Stormtrooper action figure can sit next to you on your couch.

Yes, really. (Photos courtesy of Galactic Hunter.)

If anything, the giant Stormtrooper action figure replica is a textbook example of geek exorbitance. I can understand releasing Alien action figures based on the scale of Kenner action figures, or releasing classic Battlestar Galactica action figures based on the scale of Mego action figures. But an action figure replica that literally towers over the demographic group for which the figure was originally designed and costs more than most home appliances? Seriously?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Two Great Tron Games That Aren't Really Tron Games: escapeVektor and Light Trax

After all these years, I'm still baffled over Disney's mishandling of the Tron franchise: Given the original film's premise and the popularity of its first arcade game, Disney could have used Tron to break into the video game market through a series of games set inside of a computer world. Instead, Disney's licensing of Tron games has been uneven and largely underwhelming. After the original arcade game in 1982, there was another arcade game in 1983, Discs of Tron, and a handful of Tron titles for the Atari and Intellivision home consoles. That batch of games was followed by ... 20 years of nothing.

The impressive Tron 2.0 came out in 2003 but between lackluster sales and poor support from Disney, that game quickly faded into cult classic status while other game franchises thrived. Since Tron 2.0, Tron characters have appeared from time to time in the Kingdom Hearts video game series, and a selection of tie-in games of varying quality were released under the collective Tron: Evolution title when the Tron: Legacy movie came out in 2010.

I'm sure that more tie-in games will be released for the upcoming Tron 3, but that's part of the problem: They're tie-in games for a movie series, not games that are part of an ongoing, stand-alone video game series. Between that and Disney's prompt cancellation of the incredible yet short-lived Tron: Uprising animated series--a series that could have provided game developers with plenty of fantastic ideas, plots and settings--it appears that Disney has relegated the virtual world of Tron to the silver screen and video game cameos and tie-ins. (I've also been disappointed how Disney let the Epic Mickey video game series go to waste, but I'll save that for another rant.)

Nevertheless, the slick neon-lit style of Tron has influenced the look and game play of many video games throughout the years, and this post highlights two that I've recently found that adhere to both the look and the metaphorical, computer-based logic of the Tron-iverse: escapeVektor by Nnooo and Light Trax by Skip Ltd. Read on for my review of these two games, and why Tron fans should add them to their video game collections.