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By Thomas Wheeler

Bandai has been very clever with its POWER RANGERS concept over the ten- plus years of its existence. For most of that time, the Power Rangers have undergone an annual overhaul into an entirely new series. Although always called Power Rangers, and always featuring a team of five youths in distinctive color costumes, the back-story becomes something entirely different from its predecessor. This has allowed Bandai to keep the Power Rangers concept at once refreshed, and yet consistent. The fact that it remains one of the few truly successful action figure lines in an increasingly troubled market is testament to the effectiveness of this strategy.

Granted, it doesn't always work everywhere. Transformers has applied it for the past several years with reasonable effectiveness. G.I.Joe has started to introduce the notion of a frequent overhaul and the result of that has been Sigma Six, known by collectors and toy store managers alike by language hardly appropriate for a family-friendly environment such as this.

Generally speaking, the Power Rangers overhaul takes place towards the end of any given year, just in time to take advantage of the Christmas season. This is also smart marketing. And such was the case this year, as the Power Rangers concept which will play out through most of 2006 started turning up about ten days before Thanksgiving.

Before I get into reviewing it, though, I'd like to offer one more salute to 2005's Power Rangers concept, POWER RANGERS SPD, or "Space Patrol Delta". This was something a little different for Power Rangers. Generally speaking, the Power Rangers concepts have been devoted to martial arts, such as "Ninja Storm", or animals and dinosaurs, such as "Dino Thunder" or "Wild Force". Their "Zords", the vehicles they use, have had distinct, if robotic, resemblances to such creatures. It hasn't been too often that Power Rangers has gone for a fairly straightforward sci-fi concept -- at least as straightforward as the often campy and generally over-the-top TV series permits. But it is that cartoonish- through-live-action format that is a key part of Power Rangers' popularity with the younger set that's still interested in action figures, so one can hardly complain there.

It's going to be a very long time, I suspect, before a new group of Power Rangers comes along with as interesting and impressive a uniform design as SPD had, as well, in my opinion. The fairly basic-color uniform with the one side being black with an immense number outlined on it easily amounted to the single coolest uniform design I've ever seen in any Power Rangers concept, and I have only ever found one uniform design pretty inexcusable over the years. A number of years ago, one of the Power Rangers concepts turned out these figures with white chestplates that had this black zig-zag line on it that looked like they'd raided Charlie Brown's wardrobe. I have nothing against Peanuts, certainly, but come on, already.

And as far as the inevitable and often somewhat unusual "sixth Ranger" is concerned, I don't believe I've ever seen as impressive a figure in the Power Rangers line as the SPD Shadow Ranger. Just overall a very, very cool design. So, thank you, Power Rangers SPD. Conceptwise and designwise, you've left some very big boots to fill.

So, how does 2006's line look to do? Well -- I suspect it's going to be pretty popular with the kiddies, but I've got a few conceptual problems with it.

The new series is called POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE. And if that sounds like Power Rangers is taking a cue or two from Harry Potter, you're not far wrong. And I've got a problem with that. The backstory, as explained on the package card, reads as follows: "Legend says when the Darkness arises, five brave teen Sorcerers will be called to fight for the planet's survival. With guidance from their wise mentor and the ancient Xenotome, Book of the Unknown, they will embark on magical adventures, befriend mystical dragons, battle dangerous beasts, encounter pure evil... and transform into the Power Rangers Mystic Force."

Now, as a Christian, when words like "mystic", "sorcerers", and "magical" start getting thrown around with this frequency, especially in something that's aimed at small children, I have a serious problem with that. It's pretty obvious that this Power Rangers storyline is taking more than few cues from Harry Potter.

On the other hand, this concept in and of itself is NOT Harry Potter. It's not likely to be as popular as Harry, and as campy and over-the-top as any Power Rangers concept tends to be, I don't see it being anywhere near as dangerous as Harry. I don't think it especially unlikely that Mystic Force is likely to be mocking people who don't believe in or follow magical ways the way Harry Potter does, calling them "muggles", and I doubt very much that the stories will be anywhere near as intense. It's almost impossible to take any Power Rangers TV series all that seriously, and anyone watching this new Mystic Force who is led astray from God by it probably should consider professional help -- or at least a good Bible Study class. Granted I'd recommend the same thing for anyone reading the Harry Potter books, but I don't really see Mystic Force as that much of a threat. I don't like the fact that Power Rangers has taken this particular direction, but I can think of a lot greater threats in pop culture and entertainment than I'm a lot more concerned about, too. (That having been said, one of the smaller vehicle-with-figure combos does look suspiciously like a high-tech cross between a motorcycle and a broom, and it is representative of a flying vehicle...)

As to the figures -- I found the "basic" figures, the ones I always try to round up from each concept in any given year (I'm really not much for deluxe figures or Zords) in what clearly had to be a just-arrived shipment at Wal-Mart. Two days prior, I'd seen some of the deluxe figures at a Target. So clearly, they're shipping.

As usual, Bandai has excelled in the design. They're NOT anywhere near as impressive as the SPD figures, but as I said, I don't expect to see any Power Rangers concept top those designs anytime soon. This is not a condemnation of the costume design of the Mystic Force figures. The SPD designs were just that cool in my opinion.

As one might expect, the figures are about 5-1/2" in height. They are all well-articulated, moving at the head, shoulders (forward, backward, and outward), elbows, gloves (in place of the wrist), legs (also forward, backward, and outward), upper leg swivel, and knees. I specifically mention the outward movement of the arms and legs, because sometimes, this gets cut from the design of some Power Rangers figures. But not in this case.

There are, as one might expect, three male Rangers and two female Rangers. There is one unusual feature this year, however, in the color distribution. Normally, the male Rangers are the Red, Blue, and Green Rangers, although once in a while Black has crept in there. The female Rangers have tended to be rather consistently the Yellow and Pink Rangers over the years. Not this time around. The Yellow Ranger is a male Ranger this year, and the Blue Ranger is female, and the outfit is a much paler blue than the navy blue normally used.

The uniform design is slightly different between the male and female Rangers, as well. For the male Rangers, the uniform is pretty much a solid color head to toe, with a black "V" collar and black striping down the front, bordered with gold, and black bands across the gloves and boots. The two female Rangers have colored uniforms that, allowing for the sculpting, end in skirts, and they have white leggings below this, until the colored boots. All five Rangers have small capes, a very unusual feature for Power Rangers. I don't ever recall caped Rangers before. The capes are silver on the inside, and the color of the Ranger on the outside.

These basic figures are called "Mystic Light" Rangers. Each one comes with a pretty good-sized shield, that averages about 2" x 3". In the center of each shield is a large insignia that is ridged, not unlike the average bicycle reflector. Press the gold button towards the bottom of the shield, and three very bright red LED's flash behind the ridged insignia in a rapid and fairly random fashion. I can actually see a practical use to these things. If you were to be stranded along the side of the road at night somewhere and you had one or two of them with you, I honestly believe they're bright enough and just large to attract help from passing drivers.

As for the inevitable "sixth Ranger", a Web Site I discovered indicates that there is a sixth Ranger known as the White Ranger, who is also the group's mentor. And, as with Power Rangers SPD, there may be a seventh Ranger, called the Light Ranger. No details available on that just now. Both are significantly more ornate than the core group of five.

Zord-wise, although I do not collect the robotic vehicles that the Power Rangers use, this year's bunch is a pretty cool array, actually reminding me a bit of "Voltron". Interestingly, the Green Zord is the largest of the lot, and the Pink one is incredibly small. But as ever, they all transform and combine. They're available in a set (not to scale with the figures), and are collectively called the Titan MegaZord, which is really a pretty darn cool name.

Concept aside, I have only one complaint about these figures. Bandai skimped on the paint detail again. This turned up a bit last year on SPD, unfortunately, and its turned up here. One has to remember that Power Rangers is also very popular in Japan, where Bandai is based, and we get their concept one year after they do. Whatever the Japanese name for Power Rangers Mystic Force is, that's what was running in Japan during 2005.

If you take a look at the photos of the figures on the back of the package, which were undoubtedly taken from the Japanese versions of the toys as part of the overall preparation for the American market, you can see that the paint detail of the gold-bordered plastic stripe goes all the way down the leg on the three male Rangers (Red, Green and Yellow). But on the figures -- that is to say the ones packaged on the card for the American market, that stripe stops just before the knee joint. You can see the engraved lines for the stripe on the swivel joint and the knee joint, but they're not painted. It's just as evident that the V- shaped collars on ALL FIVE figures was meant to be painted front and back
- and it isn't. It doesn't really show up in the photos I've included with this review, or even when the toy is in the package, so you can imagine my dismay when I opened them.

I honestly don't think it's an overstatement to call this sort of thing a slap in the face to the American market, a cheapening of an otherwise very decent product line, and a sad commentary on how the toy- manufacturing world on the whole, increasingly, just doesn't give a damn about the quality or appearance of its own product anymore. And that is a sincere tragedy.

In this instance, I believe this is yet another case of "How cheap can we make it?". Bandai is a company that is technically split between the Japanese and American markets. It is not Hasbro, which is American based. It is not Takara, which is Japanese based despite their alliance with Hasbro to produce Transformers. But it is interesting to note that a Takara representative was recently quoted, when discussing Transformers Alternators and Takara's partnership with Hasbro, and made a comment that I think is very, very telling about the mentality and priority of the American toy companies versus the Japanese ones. He said:

"Hasbro has always been keeping a stance of 'the cost is the priority'. There is a set price first, then we need to produce a toy within the range of that budget. In Japan, we might consider increasing the budget a bit, as we believe a better product will yield better sales. However, in America, they do not think that way. So to meet that standard, we made several sacrifices, such as lessening the parts and simplifying the structures."

The number of things this quote would explain as to what has gone wrong in the American toy world would go so far afield of this review that I'm not even going to touch it right now. But I want to apply it to Bandai and the Power Rangers like so: I really don't know how Bandai America works with Bandai Japan - who makes the final decisions, whatever. But it isn't hard for me to imagine someone at Bandai America, with an American mentality akin to Hasbro's, telling the factories, "Look, we've got to shave a fraction of a cent off of these toys in order to bring them in at a certain cost. Lose a few paint details."

Possibly the only good thing that ever came out of this is that I'll bet it's what resulted in the removal of the annoying painted lines on Gundam figures, something which is now being done in Japan, as well, and good riddance, although I hate to think of what else might be removed from the paint jobs if Bandai were to ever bring Gundam back to the States.

Now, granted, Power Rangers doesn't have that much of an adult collector following. And I doubt most kids are going to notice, or care. But I notice, and I do care, if for no other reason than this attitude is not unique to this situation, and there are instances where it is vastly more severe, and vastly more detrimental, and it's only serving to cheapen if not outright ruin a once fine industry in this country, and unfortunately, I think it's an attitude that can be found well and far beyond the toy world. And it's about time it was stopped and changed. We could learn a lot from the Japanese philosophy, of "we believe a better product will yield better sales", especially given how much the action figure world is hurting these days. That's why I bring it up, and why I intend to address the matter directly to Bandai, and encourage you to do likewise with the companies whose toys you collect when you notice this sort of thing. In the words of G.I.Joe, "Knowing is half the battle..." And the toy companies need to know that this sort of thing IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!

So much for my editorial. My only other minor gripe with these figures is the capes (by the way -- they can paint one side of the cape but not the complete figure?). The capes are surprisingly rigid, and pretty well pinned down to the back of the figure. This tends to hinder arm articulation somewhat.

So, my overall take on POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE? I know I've sounded rather negative in some respects. Perhaps more than necessary. I'll admit I'm concerned about the backstory. I'll admit seeing unpainted sculpt lines on figures bothers me. But the bottom line is that These are still very cool and very well-made action figures, and one can hardly argue the success of Power Rangers as a whole over the years. Bandai continues to make good, solid, basic action figures for this concept.

They're not ugly (except for the Evil Space Alien figure in this series, and what the heck an Evil Space Alien is doing in something called Mystic Force I have no idea, but his face looks like a cross between Freddy Krueger and a cockroach), they're not smeared with paint weathering, they're not pre-posed, they're sturdily made, nicely designed, and well- articulated. All of that makes for a good action figure in my book, and on that basis, I certainly give my recommendation to the basic "Mystic Light" figures of POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE, even though I hope that the backstory for 2007's Rangers, whatever they may be, is a little more agreeable.