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By Thomas Wheeler

Bandai's newest toy line has been running on the Cartoon Network for a while, and actually has a rich history behind it. But, I had to turn to a friend of mine who is a much more fanatical follower of it for an explanation of the concept. In his words:

"Knights of the Zodiac" is, perhaps, one of the longest delayed anime show to reach an English translation. Originally titled "Saint Seiya" back in 1986, it was hugely successful in Japan and, in translated forms, France, Italy, Spain and South America. So perhaps the surprise is that it took 17 years to get here (Notably several years after Ronin Warriors which was originally created to counter the popularity of St Seiya)

It tells the story of the Knights of Athena, martial artists and warriors who wear magically empowered armors (named "Cloths") patterned after the constellations. Supremely skilled in their own right without the Cloths, they gain awesome new powers whilst wearing them.

Seiya, newly appointed Knight of Pegasus, and his fellow Bronze Knights Shiryu (Draco/Dragon), Hyoga (Cygnus/Swan), Shun (Andromeda) find they have to battle their former friend (And Shun's older brother) Ikki (The Phoenix Knight), for possession of the Gold Cloth of Sagittarius.

Eventually Seiya and friends realize that there is something rotten at the very heart of the Temple of Athena, and have to battle both the more powerful Silver Knights and spectacularly powerful Gold Knights (Who are patterned after the 12 signs of the Zodiac itself) to find the truth.

After this they find themselves becoming involved in battles with the Odin-empowered Warriors of Asgard and the machinations of Athena's "uncle" Poseidon.

Thank you! It's also worth mentioning that a more recent incarnation of the animated series has been turning up, much as another popular anime concept, Gundam, continues to garner new episodes long after its initial premiere. I knew, thanks to ToyFare #77, that toys were on the way for this line. What I wasn't sure was when they'd arrive. They turned up just prior to Christmas. Both the 5" and 8" figures appeared at a Target near me, and online reports indicated they were showing up elsewhere.

Online impressions have been mixed. Most people agree that the detail and quality is superb. But some are concerned that the figures look a little TOO anime, especially when put in the action figure aisle alongside the likes of G.I.Joe and Masters of the Universe, to really succeed. Most anime-based concepts that have succeeded in the United States have not extensively involved anime-style humans at their core. They've either involved assorted critters, such as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, who interact with humans that to some degree amount to supporting cast, or they involve large robotic constructs, such as Gundam or, to a degree, Transformers, or they're not especially anime-looking to begin with, such as Power Rangers.

Knights of the Zodiac is a pretty pure-anime-looking toy line and concept, and I can certainly see the reasoning behind people addressing this particular concern. That having been said, if Bandai can overcome whatever hesitation there may be regarding an action figure line that admittedly may not look as "macho" as its neighbors on the action figure shelf, then they're likely to have a substantial hit on their hands, because the toys are very cool and very well made.

I discovered the 8" figures first, so I'll review them first. There were three different ones available at the time - PEGASUS SEIYA, DRAGON SHIRYU, and PHOENIX IKKI. All three contain the same basic elements -- a highly-articulated 8" figure (all based on the same mold set) with a distinctive, highly-detailed head sculpt, and a very cool set of chrome armor. Seiya's is silver with red trim, Shiryu's is chrome turquoise, and Ikki's is bronze and gold.

As well made as the basic figures are, the armor is the treat. It's incredibly intricate, and it actually fits and stays put. I've encountered more than a few action figure lines over the years with "snap-on armor" where the armor doesn't fit very well, or assuming you can snap it on, that's no guarantee it's going to stay put. I'm not terribly worried about having to track down loose gauntlets and shin guards this time around.

Many of the armor pieces have built-in hinges, so they can not only snap into place, but then be held in place around whatever they've been snapped into, such as the figure's wrists. The fit, overall, is excellent. I had a little trouble snapping Seiya's belt into place, but once it was in place, it was firmly in place and the snap was secure. This is how a figure with snap-on armor should be made!

And you get a high-quality 8" action figure and all of his armor for $14.99. And it's all packaged in a protective box, not on a card. That strikes me as a very reasonable price for all that you receive.

Let's turn to the 5" figures. There are five presently available in the series -- 5" versions of the three that I've mentioned from the 8" realm, plus SWAN HYOGA and ANDROMEDA SHUN. And it's worth noting that I have seen an auction for an 8" version of Andromeda Shun. I would surmise that an 8" Swan Hyoga exists, and that if the line does well, those two will be released in the States at some future date. Trust me, based on what I saw on eBay, you don't want to pay the Japanese prices for these toys.

The 5" figures are, as one might expect, somewhat less impressive than their 8" cousins. But they're still cool. The armor is molded into place, so the figures are more individualistic in basic appearance, not unlike Gundams, for example. Articulation is excellent. My only real complaint is that I wish they'd painted some of the metal rivets used at the articulation joints.

Still, that's nothing a person with a little paint can't take care of. The figures do not have chrome armor details, but they have been molded in metallic plastic, which looks almost as good. Overall, they're an excellent addition to the line, and should be well-received by any fan of the concept.

Knights of the Zodiac has been known by several names, especially given its global audience. It's best-known name is probably Saint Seiya, the name under which the animated series is presently being released on DVD. There have been toys for years, but the toys presently being marketed in the United States are new. We're not getting 80's rehashes here in any respect. Can this concept catch on in the States as it has in other countries? Certainly the show has a considerable following, but that's no guarantee of toy sales, and frankly, as I write this, the show has a timeslot of 1:30 in the morning on the weekend. Not exactly prime time.

Certainly the quality of the toys is worthy of success, and I recommend the KNIGHTS OF THE ZODIAC line on that basis alone. Whether that will be enough overall, we'll simply have to see, but I wish it all the best.