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By Thomas Wheeler

Well, between later "pre-Snake-Men" assortments turning up at K*B Toys, and a couple of on-line auctions with reasonable "Buy it Now" prices, I've managed to catch up a fair bit on some of the recent Masters releases. I have four to review here, so let's get to them:

SKY STRIKE STRATOS: The biggest complaint about the first STRATOS figure released in the current Masters line was that the arm articulation was such that it could only move its arms out to the side -- and even that didn't allow the figure to look like it was "flapping its wings" very effectively. The winged hairy birdman with the Amish-style beard and the Sean-Connery-with-a-frog-in-his-throat voice was just too hindered in the arm movement to work all that well.

So when Mattel made a new Stratos, they fixed this problem, and were kind enough to not radically change the color scheme of the figure all that extensively. SKY STRIKE STRATOS has much better arm articulation, more in line with the reast of the Masters figures. The red on his usual outfit has been darkened somewhat for this version, but still looks red. Overall, from an articulation standpoint, it's a vast improvement.

Unfortunately, he's now got this huge missile firing backpack that can't be removed from the figure. Someone else in the He-Man.Org newsgroup tried it, and reported that it left two gaping hole-slots in the back of the figure. It doesn't help that there are two cables with control levers which must be held in Stratos' hands. There's no place to hook them on the backpack. In fairness, the detail level even on these small lever controls is excellent.

So what we've got at this point is two Stratos figures, the original and the Sky Strike version, both of which have their own problems. What's needed is a Stratos with good arm movement, and without a huge honking backpack. However, if I had to recommend one over the other, I'd be inclined to give the nod to this new Sky Strike Stratos. The arm articulation is what it should be, and that's a major factor in my opinion. You should be able to find him at K*B Toys, which has recently come into a generous supply of Masters figures.

SHIELD STRIKE HE-MAN: Normally I don't go in for slight reworkings of figures. I don't need twenty-five Luke Skywalkers. I don't need two hundred different Batman figures, or thirty of Spider-Man, or a dozen different versions of He-Man. That having been said, I was sufficiently impressed with this particular version of He-Man to purchase him when he turned up at K*B Toys.

Now, I've always liked the Masters of the Universe concept. It's a superb blend of super-hero, sword-and-sorcery, and science-fiction. There's obviosuly a profound diversity of sentient life on Eternia, much of it as fascinating as any sci-fi alien life. There are prominent, wild-looking character with distinctly superhuman abilities. It really is an excellent adventure concept.

But with all of that, the main hero still runs around in a fur loincloth like some blonde musclebound version of "Me, Tarzan". No wonder Skeletor mocks him.

Now, I realize that this is regarded today as the standard version of He-Man, and I accept that. And all of the He-Man variants that have come along in the current Masters line have hardly been improvements. Mostly just slight changes in his limited armor. Until this one.

Shield Strike He-Man is a version that you can take a little more seriously. The figure certainly appears better dressed. His legs and arms have been painted in a metallic black, like he's wearing some sort of advanced armor. This metallic black can also be seen on his torso. He's got some serious armor on his chest and belt. And he's carrying a large shield that actually fires a small missile.

About the only thing I don't like about the figure is the sword. It bears no resemblance to the Sword of Greyskull that allows Prince Adam to become He-Man in the first place. It's a nasty looking piece of hardware, I'll give it that, but it doesn't look quite right.

Still, this is a He-Man that has clearly come to take names and kick Skeletor and his cronies all over Snake Mountain. If I were Skeletor and I saw this coming, I wouldn't be inclined to laugh. I don't expect this version will ever replace the traditional He-Man, and perhaps it shouldn't. And there's way too many He-Man (and Skeletor) variants out there, and they can certainly he held substantially responsible for the failure of the line in the United States. But this one -- I like.

BATTLE FIST: Known to anyone with a knowledge of the history of the line as FISTO, this is one of those characters I would've bet couldn't be successfully transformed into the more serious-looking modern Masters line. The original Fisto was a slightly paunchy bearded geek in a purple and silver striped shirt with a big metal fist in place of his right hand. How are you going to translate that over successfully?

I guess if you can do a serious Buzz-Off, you can do anybody -- although I still hope the line survives long enough to see them tackle Snout Spout and get away with it.

I snagged this figure off of eBay, and am delighted that I did. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. I wasn't. The "striped shirt" of the original is now obviously armor plating, the giant fist is robotic in nature and very well detailed, and the former grinning Fisto has a look on his face this time around like he's just asking someone to pick a fight with him and his mountain-smashing friend.

The level of detail on Battle Fist's headband and belt, in fact, throughout his entire outfit, is nothing short of incredible. The intricacy and precision is remarkable.

The character has even been given greater personality and background in the animated series, where he is called Fisto. The former bit player in the 1980's has been elevated to the status of Man-At-Arms' estranged brother, who finally rejoins the fold in the battle against the Snake Men. Clearly the producers of the show care as much about their product as those who designed the toys.

If you've seen the Battle Fist/Fisto auctions on eBay, and are thinking, "That was a pretty lame character," think again. This is one very cool figure, and I highly recommend him.

ZODAK: I've always liked Zodak. The original version was the very first Masters figure I ever purchased, back in the 80's, and back then, I didn't pay quite as much attention to the line, being more into G.I.Joe. Masters is certainly worth paying attention to this time and Zodak is back.

Zodak is described as a "Cosmic Enforcer". Although technically one of the good guys, he's tended to be neutral as much as anything, and certainly isn't a team player. In the current animated series, he flattened most of the Masters single-handedly and got into a major knock-down, drag-out with He-Man because Zodak wanted to take on the Snake-Men by himself to avenge the death of his brother at their hands.

The figure is very impressive, although there have been some distinct changes from the original apart from just the basic visual upgrade that all modern Masters figures have enjoyed. For one thing, Zodak is a black man this time around. And he has what can only be described as warpaint on his body. Also, his helmet is removable. That wasn't the case last time.

None of this bothers me. It still looks like Zodak. The helmet and chestplate are unmistakable. His gloves and boots look much better than they did back in the 80's, where parts usage between figures was common. And he comes with a very cool and superbly detailed weapon.

About the only thing I have a slight problem with is that the figure is a little more pre-posed than some in the line, and a little more than I'm generally comfortable with. However, it doesn't hinder his articulation, and he still looks cool, so I can let it slide. I guess since this is the modern version of the very first Masters figure I had, I was hoping for something a little more straightforward.

I still certainly recommend him, though, if you can find him at a good price on on-line or wherever else he might turn up.

One other bit of related news. Masters of the Universe statues and busts have become increasingly popular. I am not into statues and busts. However, there is a certain staggering, and slightly sickening, irony in the fact that one of the major Masters statues planned for this year by licensee NECA is of the character CLAWFUL, an individual who has yet to be made as an action figure, even though his character has turned up in both the animated series and comic book.

I hope they get around to an action figure. For one thing, the statues and busts have followed the figure designs very closely, which means that a CLAWFUL figure could look seriously cool if this statue is any indication.

As for the toy line, the present word is that while Masters may have "failed" in the United States, it remains enormously popular internationally, especially in Europe, and is likely to continue over there, with the distinct possibility of new figures. I hope this is the case. With the advent of cyberspace and online stores, those toys, ultimately, would be available to American collectors. This would also not be the first time a Mattel action figure line has taken this route. In the 1970's and 80's, a popular toy line called BIG JIM had a very healthy run throughout Europe in several conceptual formats well after the line had vanished from American shelves.

And clearly Mattel knows that there's still a market for the line. Consider the figure that they plan to offer at this year's San Diego ComiCon and Wizard World Chigaco Convention -- SHE-RA!