REVIEW: TRANSFORMERS ACTION MASTERS
In 1990, Hasbro introduced a new segment of the slowly fading Transformers toy line. This segment would go down as one of the most controversial ever, and it would be over a decade before the line would start to get the respect it deserved.
That segment of the popular line of changing robots was called ACTION MASTERS. These 3-3/4" versions of the Autobots and Decepticons blended established characters such as Bumblebee, Soundwave, Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jazz, Starscream, and others with new faces like Rad, Banzai-Tron, Treadshot, Skyfall, and more.
These figures, at least those based on existing characters, were designed in many instances as closely as possible to the specifications of the robot form of the Transformers as they appeared in the popular animated series. The new characters followed the basic design parameters as closely as possible. In most cases it was fairly possible to imagine what it's non-robotic form would have been, as well.
According to the storyline, which carried over into the comic book for a time, the Transformers had found a new source of energy to replace their rapidly depleting stores of Energon. The new energy source was called Nucleon, but it was said to have unpredictable side-effects. In this case, even though the Nucleon was a more powerful source of energy, it froze the Transformers in their robot forms, leaving them unable to transform. To compensate, the Autobots and Decepticons developed weapons and vehicles that were able to transform.
But, therein lied the core problem with the Action Masters as far as many fans of the Transformers were concerned. They *gasp of horror laced with sarcasm here* didn't transform. It didn't matter that their weapons and vehicles did. The characters didn't.
Personally, I always thought this argument was facetious at best, and indicative of the oft-times fanatical level of dedication that I have seen evidenced in many Trans-Fans over the years, especially at the Transformers Conventions. I don't mean to sound bitter, but I attended the first BotCon in 1994, and I had an Action Master on my person at the time. And somebody took a swing at my head because of it. "You have an ACTION MASTER!?" he yelled, with a level of revulsion as if I'd just been summoned into the presence of the Pope and had passed gas. Then he drew back his fist. I ducked as he attempted the follow-through and, no physical combatant myself, got the heck out of the immediate area.
I'd like to think he was kidding. Maybe he was. Perhaps even probably he was. But to even react that way in the first place was way out of line as far as I was concerned.
No, the Action Masters didn't transform. But they were pretty decently articulated, which was more than could be said for a lot of the standard Transformers in their robot modes, and that was always MY major problem with the Transformers. Watch the show, or even look at the package artwork, and here's this image of this fancy robot running, flying, whatever. Buy the toy, which was generally in vehicle mode, transform it into robot mode, and if you were lucky, it could turn its head and move its arms. Generally not its legs. In short, it just sort of stood there. Modern toy-making technology has allowed for greater robotic articulation in today's Transformers for the most part, but this was a decided disappointment as far as I was concerned, back in the 1980's.
Moreover, many of the Transformers didn't especially resemble their animated counterparts. Megatron wasn't all that close. Ratchet and Ironhide certainly weren't. So when a line of action figures came along, that featured the Transformers in forms very close to their animated versions, which was what I had primarily followed, and which had a decent level of articulation -- head, arms, legs, knees -- a little skimpy by today's standards but not bad for the time -- I readily embraced it. Too bad more people didn't.
They just didn't get it. These were SUPPOSED to be figure versions of the animated characters, with some new faces thrown in for good measure. But all anyone ever heard was, "They don't transform!" Apparently giving them transforming weapons and vehicles wasn't good enough.
And just to top it off, the original (or Generation 1, as it's commonly known) Transformers line died that very year. Action Masters was a convenient scapegoat. Never mind that it had been several years since any really major new characters had been produced, and the line was littered with generally anomymous-looking and undistinguished stuff like MicroMasters and Pretenders.
In all honesty, the Action Masters marked the first time in a few years that some of the better-known characters had been on the toy shelves in any form. That's probably why these days, toymakers tend to keep their high-profile characters in production, even if it means producing a sometimes annoying number of variants. Consider the Masters of the Universe line. He-Man and Skeletor will always be better-known than Sy-Klone or Whiplash. So Mattel produces a lot of He-Man and Skeletor variants to make sure that newcomers to the concept can get the basic characters.
In Transformers, Optimus Prime and Megatron will always be better known than, say, Crossblades, Skyhammer, Vroom -- see what I mean? And when you've got a line as massive as Transformers was, with hundreds of distinct characters, you sort of want to keep your big guns available. Transformers, back in 1990, didn't. That, as much as anything, and I would certainly suspect more than Action Masters, doomed Generation 1.
I'll honestly never understand why Action Masters wasn't more popular. But the fact remains that they weren't. That doesn't mean that they don't have an interesting history.
There were three assortments of the basic figures released in the United States. The packaging was a little strange on these. For whatever reason, the carded figures were placed on their cards near the TOPS of the cards. That had never really been done before. The package backs did not outline who else was available in a given assortment. This, honestly, might have hurt the line a bit, but it did allow me to have a little fun.
I'd received (don't ask) a Hasbro product catalog that year. So I knew who was coming out, and in which assortments. When the second assortment turned up, I was able to find five out of the six at a local Toys "R" Us one day. Missing from the crowd was Devastator, a popular Decepticon character formed from the six Constructicons. I spoke to a clerk, explained to him that I knew there was supposed to be a sixth figure in this assortment, and I gave him a description and a name (it's not too hard to describe a bright green robot, really). He checked in the back and returned with Devastator. I was never sure about the look on the clerk's face. Either he was confused, wondering how I'd known that this figure was supposed to be in the mix, or he was upset that I HAD known since perhaps he'd wanted Devastator for himself.
Keep in mind this was 1990, people. Pre-Internet. The kind of information that we take for granted these days, right down to shipping times and SKU numbers, as well as the massive global communications access for anybody with a computer, a modem, and a semblance of ability to type, however badly in some cases, simply was not out there back then. And I could write a blasted book about THAT subject from several perspectives, so let's get back to Action Masters before I'm tempted.
Along with the individually carded figures, there were assortments of transforming vehicles, all of which came with unique figures of their own. The smaller vehicles were motorcycles, and a chopper and small jet. One of these included Prowl. There was something about this particular Action Master that always looked a little unfinished to me, like they'd skimped on the paint. Another one of these came with the popular Decepticon Starscream. The next level of Action Master vehicles were a couple of medium-sized Transforming cars. The third range, fairly large vehicles, were both Decepticon-based, and included a jet with a new character named Gutcruncher, and a tank that came with Decepticon leader Megatron, perhaps foreshadowing the form this character would take in later generations.
Finally, there was an immense truck, called the Armored Convoy. This was a nice bit of irony since the name of the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, is "Convoy" in Japan, where the Transformers originated (as toys -- of course we all know they came from Cybertron millions of years ago, etc.) The truck transformed into a combat base, and of course came with Optimus Prime.
Although the figures all had the same basic construction design, some were slightly different than others. Gutcruncher and Megatron, for some reason, had screws in the backs of their heads, and their sculpted "edges" seemed a little more distinct than the others. I'm honestly not sure if different types of plastic were used (although I regret to report that discoloration has been a problem over the years, the same as it has been with G.I.Joe, and I presently own a very yellowed Megatron, among a few others). :(
This was pretty much the extent of the Transformers Action Masters in the United States. But it was not the end of the line by any means. Even though Transformers ended in the States, it continued in Europe. And the Action Masters carried over to an additional year, that saw some pretty amazing stuff.
There was an additional assortment of six individual figures, packaged on the lower part of their respective cards, interestingly. Along with new characters Powerflash, Take-Off and Charger, three previously established Transformers -- Sideswipe, Bombshell, and Tracks, joined the ranks of the Action Masters.
Vehicle-wise, most of the figures were recolors of existing figures, given new names. Only one of these amounted to an established character, as the Starscream figure was recolored into Thundercracker. This made sense, since even the original Starscream and Thundercraker had, along with Skywarp, been based on the same set of molds. However, Thundercracker got himself a new and highly obnoxious paint job that looked like he'd been worked over by designers of a disco. An excess of bright neon colors, which didn't really work together, produced a rather embarassing-looking Decepticon. Starscream must've been laughing his bolts off.
But some new elements were added into the Action Masters mix, including Exo-Suits, and motorized vehicles! These had never been a part of the Action Masters in the United States. As well, there was a special assortment of four Action Master Elites, considered extremely collectible today. These were Action Masters with all the articulation capabilities of Action Masters, but which DID transform. The assortment included Double Punch, Turbo Master, Windmill, and the horribly-spelled Omega Spreem, arguably an Action Master of Omega Supreme.
That, ultimately, was the end of Action Masters -- almost. An Action Master Optimus Prime was part of a special Transformers package in Japan about a year or so ago, so clearly at least some of the molds still exist, and that Optimus is actually more accurately colored than the original.
The line was not without a few problems. I think the elbows could have been articulated, and these figures had a problem that I have not ever encountered on any other action figure -- the paint on some of them had a nasty tendency to chip off, as if it didn't adhere to the plastic very well and cracked and turned brittle.
Had Action Masters continued, where would it have gone? A Hasbro representative at that BotCon where I nearly got belted told me that an additional assortment had been in the works, that would've featured characters from the movie. Likely contenders were Ultra Magnus, Kup, Blurr, Rodimus Prime, Galvatron, and Cyclonus. I very specifically asked, "What about Arcee?", and he didn't say anything one way or the other. While I've never been able to find any documentation about this movie assortment of Action Masters, I've never had any particular reason to doubt it, either. Toys are prepared so far in advance of when we see them in the toy stores that it's more than plausible that such an assortment was well into the consideration phase.
Where does that leave Action Masters today? Well, they're finally getting some of the respect I felt they always deserved. I have had to unfortunately sell most of my carded collection, and they've tended to do very nicely (and a lot of them got shipped to Japan, too).
But non-transformable versions of the Transformers are gaining popularity. I suspect some of this may be due to a totally unrelated product -- Gundam. Bandai has produced for some years now a superb line of very well-detailed, highly-articulated action figures based on the vast world of Gundam, and they've sold very nicely, thank you. And they don't transform. Granted, most of them in their animated form don't, either, but it's a notable observation.
And as for the Transformers themselves? The barely poseable PVC line, marketed at pharmacies and other oddball outlets as "Heroes of Cybertron" in the States, has proven immensely popular in both the USA and Japan, as well as other countries where the Transformers are well known.
And Takara has created the "Mega-SCF" line. I reviewed the Optimus Prime a while back. These are, essentially, Transformers done as Gundams. Heavy plastic, substantial articulation, nicely done. There's just two problems with the line as far as I'm concerned. Comparisons with Gundam are almost inevitable because of the structural similarities, and in all honesty, simply because of the simpler design of the classic Transformers characters to begin with compared with modern-day Gundams, the Transformers, strictly from a visual standpoint, come up a little short in my opinion. They just don't look as cool as the Gundams. Now, that might change when more recently developed Transformers, such as the Armada versions of Optimus Prime and Megatron, enter the Mega-SCF collection. But that's sort of the other problem with the Mega-SCF line -- the new figures are coming through a proverbial eyedropper, and they're not always from the same Transformers concept.
That last part isn't that big of a problem. It had better not be, given the multi-faceted Transformers Universe concept. But it's worth noting. The Mega-SCF line is clearly much more collector-oriented than either Action Masters or Gundam -- and it's also more expensive. I doubt it will ever reach the population level of Action Masters, at least not for a very long time, and even then, if it emphasizes core characters from many Transformers concepts, I doubt it would get around to even well-known secondary characters. This is not to malign the Mega-SCF line. It's cool enough. But I don't really think it can fairly be compared to Action Masters.
There's something about Action Masters that says, "These are toys from the best-established Transformers concept of them all, in their best recognized robotic/character forms." They're not easily compared to any modern-day toy line. They stand on their own, and they're finally getting a long-overdue measure of respect. But will they ever return?
Doubtful. Although one individual in a Transformers newsgroup has proposed that Takara market the Action Masters in sealed boxes, much as they do with their smaller PVC's, Takara doesn't have a lot of reason to do this, any more than Hasbro would have reason to bring them over here. It's a nice thought, but it's not very likely.
But just suppose... Suppose Hasbro said, "Okay, we're thinking of bringing back the Action Masters in some form. What would you want to see?" I recently gave that some thought.
For one thing, we'd need a new name. I suspect "Action Masters" still has a certain stigma to some. The name I would propose would be "Action Heroes". It keeps the intent of Action Masters, throws in a little "Heroes of Cybertron", and still has its own identity.
The figures would obviously be more poseable. I'd still make them out of fairly rigid plastic, to avoid any Gundam comparisons, or coming too close to the collector-oriented Mega-SCF's. But I'd expect them to be well articulated at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, waist, legs, knees, and ankles. All of this is well within the possibility of modern toy technology, and could probably be accomplished without altering the basic construction of the original Action Masters too much, if Hasbro wanted to take that route.
I'd also propose three sizes. Most figures would be 4" in height (roughly). This would include core characters like Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jazz, Prowl, Ultra Magnus, Shockwave, Soundwave, Starscream, Arcee (!), Tracks, Grimlock, etc. Some characters, such as Starscream, for example, who has large wings on his back, would have "backpacks" with these features.
But there would also be 3" figures, sold in two-packs, of established smaller characters, such as Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Ravage, Rumble, Frenzy, and probably the Insecticons.
Finally, there would be a deluxe 7" line, which would feature characters such as Devastator, Superion, Fortress Maximus, Predaking, and the like.
My original thoughts also had a 12" Optimus Prime and Megatron, with electronic lights and voices, articulated down to the fingers, but after seeing the "Alternators" Optimus Prime in pictures from the San Diego ComiCon, that notion may have just been rendered redundant.
But I still think there's abundant room in the modern Transformers world for better-made versions of the classic General 1 Transformers Action Masters. I doubt it'll ever happen, and meanwhile, I have my existing collection -- but it's nice to dream...