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By Thomas Wheeler

Assuredly one of the most impressive and coolest lines of action figures that is reasonably well known by American collectors, even if it's never been marketed much outside of its home country of Japan, is MICROMAN.

Designed and produced by Takara, Microman first came along in 1974. It was not long after that that the Mego Toy Company brought a generous supply of it over to the United States under the name Micronauts, where it enjoyed considerable success for a quite a few years, before fading away, much as Mego itself unfortunately did in the early 1980's. It has been stated that the Micronauts was the most popular toy line after Star Wars for some years.

The line continued to run under its original name of Microman for years afterwards in Japan, and sometime later, enjoyed a resurgence of re-releases in the late 1990's. Then in 2003, Takara chose to reinvent the line with an all-new figure design.

The new Microman did a nice job of renewing interest in Microman in Japan, and attracted worldwide attention among action figure collectors, who were excited about the remarkable new design. Takara would later license a number of additional concepts, both Japanese and American, into the Microman line, something the original line had not done, including such popular concepts as Batman, Aliens, Street Fighter, Godzilla, Gatchaman (known to us as Battle of the Planets) and more, even as the main Microman line continued.

The basic premise of the Microman line proposed that the Micromen were miniature cyborgs, and that the figures someone was buying were "actual size". There were the heroic Microman figures, and the evil Acroyears, miniature cyborgs who had been infected by a sinister "Acro-Virus". Now, admittedly, a four-inch cyborg isn't going to present much of a threat, so both the Micromen and the Acroyears could, when needed, transform into full-size beings. This was something the toys were obviously incapable of, but it made for a good storyline and background concept.

The toys are not found in American stores. However, there are a few online retailers that do carry them, and if nothing else, the eBay listings that turn up when one does a search for "Microman" tend to be considerable, although these listings can include both modern and classic toys.

If there was one avenue of Microman that seemed to be, for lack of a better term, a road less traveled relative to its predecessor, it was in the area of vehicles. The original Microman/Micronauts line had fancy, futuristic vehicles all over the place. The size of the figures -- 3-3/4" -- certainly lent itself well to offering vehicles in various sizes that worked well with the figures. However, the modern Microman line hadn't really done all that much with this.

Most of the figures came with a host of accessories, that could be used to either build some sort of self-standing weapon, or attached to the figure itself as some form of battle armor. Some other Microman figures came with small vehicle-like accessories, and both figures and accessories were very cool, but they still seemed lacking relative to what the original line had produced.

That is, until the Road Spartans came along. Hailed as a much-needed departure from the more collector-oriented figures, with their highly-detailed but sometimes difficult to manipulate chrome-plated accessories, the Road Spartans have been described by fans as being far closer to "playable toys" than just collector display pieces, an assessment with which I definitely agree.

Now, I realize I'm writing to collectors here. But I think it's a cool thing to have action figures that have a decent amount of playability to them and, at the very least, look like they'd be fun, as well as looking cool. The Road Spartans certainly fit into that category.

This review will take a look at one of these. There are four in the series, and they can all be joined to form one larger vehicle. This one is the RS-02 RIDEPYTHON, and its driver, MICROMAN RYU.

Let's consider the figure first. The basic modern Microman design is a very complex one. The figure is designed, at least to some degree, to match actual human proportions, and be able to move almost as well as a human being. The articulation level is astounding. A standard Microman figure is poseable at the head, arms, upper-arm swivel, double-jointed elbows, wrists, hands, mid-torso, waist, legs, upper leg swivel, double-jointed knees, ankles, ball-jointed feet, and a later development added articulation to the fronts of the feet. Obviously the figures are too small to articulate fingers, but a typical Microman figure will have a set of about ten spare hands, five for each arm, in various positions for grasping weapons or imitating martial arts moves.

Ryu -- well, there's a name that's certainly popped up in Japanese pop culture before, but there's no reason to assume that this figure is related to a certain Street Fighter. He doesn't look anything like him, for starters, and although Microman did produce a couple of Street Fighter characters at one point, it was limited to Chun-Li and Sakura. "Ryu" is just a name.

Ryu has a number of unique parts, which if the photos on the package are any indication, carry over throughout the other Road Spartans. He has a distinctive torso, with specially molded ridges that go over his shoulders, shoulder armor that has attachment pegs on it, a unique lower torso, as well as unique lower legs and feet. The side of the lower legs have accessory sockets in them. All of the various distinctive parts have special sculpted detail in them.

Two things have tended to denote Microman figures over the years -- chrome heads and colored transparent bodies. There are exceptions, of course, but these seem to be relatively common. Ryu has the chrome head, but really, only his upper torso is partially transparent. I don't really mind it here, since I think it makes the character look a little more real, and his overall design is very cool.

Ryu appears to be wearing a pale grey bodysuit with dark silver components, outlined with a thick black line. His shoulder armor, torso, gloves, and boots (except for the feet), are blue. Each of the Road Spartans has a different distinctive color to their outfit -- red, blue, green, and -- well, the lone female in the line tends to have both orange and red, but let's call it orange. All of the Road Spartans also have a number on their left hip, in white block numbers, which also corresponds to their vehicle, and their designation within the Road Spartans collection. As such, Ryu's number is "02".

Although all three of the male Microman Road Spartans are similar, there are differences besides the color. The pattern of color on their torsos tends to differ, their heads are entirely different, and notably, the red-patterned one, Kaito, has more red on him than the blue and green patterned ones. Whereas Kaito has red gloves and boots, the blue-patterned Ryu and the green-patterned Thunder have grey and white gloves and boots. One might take this as an indication that Kaito is the team leader. Hardly surprising. Red-uniformed characters seem to have that position rather frequently in Japanese pop-culture concepts. Just ask the Power Rangers...

Ryu's feet are white, and frankly look for all the world like robotic Reeboks or something. There's a vaguely fancy sneaker-ish look to them. Not sure if it's intentional. His head is chrome silver, and has a fairly typical Japanese anime design to it of large eyes, slightly wild hair, parted in the middle, oddly enough, a fairly narrow nose, and a small mouth. He's not really wearing a helmet, but there's some sort of protection on the back of his head. There is also a transparent purple visor attached to his ears, which can slide down over his face and protect his eyes.

If I have had one concern with regard to modern Microman figures over the years, it's that they can be quite fragile. I've been told that Japanese kids generally take better care of their toys than American kids, so the toys can get away with being a little more fragile. Ryu, although no larger or bulkier than any of my other Microman figures, seems a little sturdier somehow. All of the Road Spartans do. Maybe it's that his articulation points seem good and snug for the most part. I'm certainly pleased with that, but I would still recommend handling him with care.

The overall look of Ryu is impressive. Some Microman figures tend to rely on their fancy transparent colors to stand out. Others have exceptionally ornate markings imprinted on them. I've got a few that can readily induce eyestrain. Ryu essentially fits into a third category. He's not overly transparent, and while he does have a dynamic look and design to him, it's not so complex that you're going to be reaching for the Visine. His lines are clear and distinct, reflecting as much as anything a fairly strong anime influence, which is hardly surprising, really. I'm extremely impressed by the result. This is one of the coolest-looking Microman figures I've seen -- in a line that excels in cool, I might add. I'd be inclined to say that about all of the Road Spartans.

Now let's consider the vehicle that comes with this figure, the RIDEPYTHON. The Road Spartans all use vehicles that to one degree or another look like motorcycles. Nevertheless, for having a name like "RidePython", there isn't anything especially sleek-looking about Ryu's vehicle.

On the other hand, how many real-world vehicles look like the things they're named after? A Viper doesn't look especially snake-like. A Cougar doesn't look particularly feline.

The RidePython does, however, look more like a conventional motorcycle than some of the other Road Spartan vehicles -- if you ignore the biplane-like wings on its sides. It's dark blue in color, with black trim and some chrome silver parts. At 5-3/4" in length, it's relatively short compared to some of the other Road Spartan vehicles. It has two fairly wide tires, but they're not quite wide enough to allow the RidePython to stand up on its own, and it's distinctly lacking a kick-stand. It has to lean on one of its wings.

This is the distinctive feature of the RidePython. It has what looks like a cross between a double spoiler and the wings of a biplane in the back. Precisely whether this would be any sort of actual aid to a real motorcycle I have no idea. Personally, I doubt it, as I expect that while it might, and I stress the word might, as I am by no means an expert, allow for a little greater stability, I think it would be a significant handicap in making turns.

Interestingly enough, it is possible to give the RidePython a good enough push so that it rolls along the floor for a fair distance before angling in one direction or another and coming to a stop along one of its wing tips. I don't recommend doing this sort of thing very often, or friction between the vehicle and the floor is not going to do the wings any favors. However, it does roll rather nicely, and comes to an impressive stop.

Painted detailing on the RidePython is truly excellent, including some very precise white lettering on the sides of the wings that reads "ROADSPARTAN - 02"

Of course, it just wouldn't be a Microman item without some chrome accessories, and the RidePython has a generous supply of these, mostly in the form of these boxy-looking weapons attachments that seem to be designed to look like small rocket launchers. There are also two cylindrical weapons pods that fit on the inside of the wings. Some of these accessories can also be attached to Ryu himself, clipped to his back, arms, and legs.

All four RoadSpartans vehicles can be combined into one massive unit. Based on the diagram on the back of the package, Ryu's RoadPython basically sits behind the main vehicle, Kaito's MachSlugger, upended on one wheel, and its front end becomes one of the weapon launchers. Ryu stands on one of the wings while the vehicle proceeds along, which would tend to make one think that Ryu is either extremely brave, a bit nuts, or both.

Concluding thoughts? The vehicles in the entire series are extremely cool, the figures have a great design to them, Some of the most impressive Micromen that I've seen, and the combined look of the vehicles is one more cool element, almost something right out of Power Rangers, though hardly unique to them. At the present time, Tomy, which now owns Takara, doesn't seem to be doing much with Microman, which I think is a shame. If they ever decided to, though, I'd readily recommend a Road Spartans II. Meanwhile, at least, the originals are still available if you know where to look.

So, what's my final word here? I know that Microman has a somewhat limited American audience, and that the toys are not easily acquired. I also realize that the modern line has been very diverse, and everybody has their own favorites. In my own collection, I have quite a few of them from a number of assorted in-concept series, and a few of the licensed ones. It's not a complete collection, but it's a respectable one, and I'm very pleased with it.

I have to say that I am extremely impressed the Road Spartans toys, and certainly with Ryu and the RidePython, and I look forward to getting the remaining Road Spartans as I am able. The Road Spartans are a somewhat more toy-friendly group, based on their appearance, and Ryu doesn't seem quite as fragile as some of the others, and his design and markings are very impressive. The RidePython is a cool vehicle, if perhaps not quite the standout of some of the others in the series. But given the lack of vehicles elsewhere in the modern Microman world, I'm not at all complaining. I believe that any fan of Japanese toys, or Japanese anime, would like what they see with this item, and that any Microman fan would see something very distinctive and unique in these Road Spartans!

The MICROMAN ROAD SPARTAN set of the RS-02 RIDEPYTHON with MICROMAN RYU certainly has my highest recommendation!