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FLASHBACK REVIEW: STAR WARS EPISODE I OVERVIEW
By Thomas Wheeler

It occurred to me recently that I started writing reviews for MasterCollector in 2000. That means that I missed out on providing a decent review for the toys Hasbro produced for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Well, better late than never, I hope, especially since, as of this writing, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is shattering just about every box office record out there, and deservedly.

Now I know a percentage of Star Wars fans don't especially care for Episode I. Personally, I think that the movie has gotten a bum rap. It was, as much as anything, a stage-setter for the two episodes that would follow, which in their own way had to set the stage for the Classic Trilogy which, as a friend of mine has pointed out, had been the recipient of nearly two decades of near-deification on the part of hardcore Star Wars fans, some of whom had even been outraged over the "Special Editions" of those three movies, as if George Lucas didn't have the right to improve on his OWN WORK now that technology better allowed for it.

All of which is a lengthy way of saying -- cut the first movie a break, huh? It's really not that bad.

It certainly introduced us to a wide range of new characters, the vast majority of which were made as action figures by Hasbro. And that's really what this review is about.

Star Wars toys had actually returned in 1995, after a lengthy absense from the toy aisles. Kenner had been merged with Hasbro, and Hasbro decided to test the waters of the Star Wars world once again. The initial figures were released on package cards that werwe predominantly black, with a burst of orange running through them. This would later change to green. Of course, the first figures out were updated versions of the main characters from the Classic Trilogy -- Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, etc. They proved to be extremely popular.

There was also the line based on SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE, a story which took place between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It had a novel, a soundtrack (!), all sorts of merchandise -- just no movie. And of course there were toys -- on purple cards. But all of this was designed to keep interest up in Star Wars while George Lucas readied the Special Editions of the Classic Trilogy, as well as the first of the Prequel movies.

So it happened in 1999 that Star Wars Episode I was to debut. And of course, there was a major toy blitz, with a specifically announced release date. I headed to the nearest Wal-Mart at the time (I now have one closer, thankfully), and rounded up everyone I could. Which basically meant everybody except Darth Maul. I found him at a nearby K*B Toys.

Indeed, the packaging had changed yet again, to focus on Darth Maul in the upper corner instead of Darth Vader, who had occupied that corner on all Star Wars toys to date. This really was a new Star Wars! Darth Vader, in this movie, in fact was a small boy named Anakin Skywalker, living on Tatooine as a slave. The package cards were now also black with a predomiant RED slash through them, in keeping with Maul's color scheme.

We were introduced to many more new characters, too, as well as some familiar names in unfamiliar forms. Obi-Wan Kenobi was a Jedi Padawan under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn, a new Jedi Master. C-3PO was little more than a framework of a robot, built by young Anakin. About the only recognizable characters in the entire movie were R2-D2 and Yoda.

And of course there were the newcomers. Qui-Gon Jinn was hardly the only one. There was Queen Amidala, she of the massive wardrobe. The somewhat- to-extremely-depending-on-who-you-ask-annoying Jar Jar Binks. The bombastic Boss Nass. The Trade Federation Droid Army. The evil Podracer Sebulba. Future Emperor Darth Sidious. Mace Windu, a cool if somewhat cold Jedi.

At this point, the articulation in Star Wars figures had reained pretty much consistent for several years -- head, arms, legs -- sometimes the waist. This wasn't really altered for the Star Wars Episode I line. More extensive articulation wouldn't really start turning up on a regular basis until closer to Episode II, with occasional exceptions. But, in 1999, all that was really of significance to Star Wars fans was that they could own action figures of a whole host of new Star Wars characters.

The initial 3-3/4" scale figures featured superb likenesses and excellent detail across the board. They also came with a gimmick called a "Comm- Tech Chip". This, when placed on a device called a Comm-Tech Reader, spoke several phrases that the character whose chip was being used was known for. Unfortunately, a lot of the voices sounded a lot alike, the overall sound quality was abhorrent, the chips were seen by many as a cheap way of driving up the basic price of the toy, and the whole Comm- Tech concept went over about as well as a pair of beaten-up sneakers at a tuxedo convention.

The figures themselves, however, were very cool. Hasbro had, over the past couple of years, gotten much more precise with their sculpting. Some of the early 1995 releases of Star Wars figures had been deliberately bulked up and very slightly exaggerated in appearance. Not at this point. Accuracy was key, and in this, the Star Wars Episode I figures were some of the best ever. They were well ahead of what had been released just a few years prior, and so far ahead of the toys from the 1970's that any comparison there would be both pointless and ridiculous.

Of course, what's an action figure line without some vehicles? Although I personally did not collect a great many of the Star Wars Episode I vehicles at the time, there were two that particularly caught my eye. One was the Flash Speeder, a predecessor to the Landspeeder, no doubt, but the toy was very cleverly designed with transparent wheels, to make its "hovering" effect just a little more plausible -- from a toy standpoint, anyway.

Then there was the Naboo Royal Starship. Easily one of the largest 3-3/4" scale Star Wars toys ever produced, this massive silver ship was almost precisely three feet in length. And not since the Millennium Falcon had there been a ship toy with this much play value. Multiple sections opened up on the huge starship, to allow access to the bridge, the exit ramps, and a multi-room back area with plenty for the figures to do. It came with an exclusive red-colored R2-droid.

But 3-3/4" wasn't the only scale for Star Wars figures. The 12" line was back with a vengeance. Although 12" Star Wars figures had been reasonably successful over the years, after flopping rather quickly in the 1970's, unfortunately, they'd never been as strong a product line as the smaller figures. Price and display space were obviously considerations here, despite the fact that the attention to detail on a larger-scale figure like this could, and most definitely WAS, much more precise.

Hasbro didn't skimp in the least on the 12" line for Star Wars Episode I. Over the course of the series, figures for major characters such as Qui- Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Maul, and Jar Jar Binks not only came out, but figures for less prominent characters emerged. Gungan Captain Tarpals came with a 12" scale Eopie. Boss Nass truned up. So did Sebulba, Watto, several Trade Federation Droids, and more. There was an electronic version of C-3PO. He was one of the hardest to find. As I recall, I had to get mine off of eBay. There was a talking TC-14, the silver 3PO style droid that served refreshments to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan when they first came on board the Trade Federation ship.

There were several mail-order exclusives for 12" figures, as well. Mace Windu. Ki-Adi-Mundi. Chancellor Valorum and a Senate Guard two-pack. But what about Anakin?!

The Skywalker youngster would turn up in a separate assortment of "shorter" 12"-scale figures. I was concerned that Hasbro might cut the articulation, but they didn't. They created an entirely new set of body molds, that had the same excellent range of articulation as any of the other humanoid Star Wars figures. Poor Anakin was the tallest of the "short" assortment, and had to be packaged kneeling in his box.

The rest of the assortment included a Pit Droids two-pack, and they were packaged in a sort of sitting position. There were two versions of this two-pack. Both had a white droid, but one came with a brick red second droid, and the other came with a more rust brown second droid. The articulation level on these droids was amazing. They even had moving hands.

The only one that fit in his box in this assortment was an R2-droid named R2-A6. There had already been an R2-D2 in this scale, and he hadn't changed much, so the decision was apparently made to do someone else. The major difference between the two was that R2-A6 had a chrome silver dome, instead of painted silver, and had green highlights instead of R2-D2's more familiar blue.

Honestly, with all the R2-droid color schemes that have turned up over the years, up to and including a black Imperial one, Hasbro could do a hack of a 12" scale R2-multi-pack if they wanted to, and I wish they would. Toywise, it's a superb design.

There wa a second 12"-scale Anakin, that came in a regular "tall" box. He was packaged with a "Theed Hangar Droid" and had a brand new headsculpt that looked a lot more like actor Jake Lloyd, even if the figure didn't have the most pleasant expression on his face. It was actually sort of a nasty scowl. Look, we know he's going to be Darth Vader, we don't need that much of a reminder.

As for Queen Amidala, she entered the 12" realm with what amounted to a set of fashion dolls, and you never quite knew from one store to another if they were going to be put in with the action figures, or if they were going to be standing next to Barbie. Hasbro was trying to hit as many areas of the average toy store/department as possible here, and as I recall, the Amidala dolls were actually marketed as girls' toys.

Before long, the packaging for Star Wars toys returned to the "green card". Darth Vader was back in the upper corner, but now, he had Episode I's Obi-Wan Kenobi superimposed over him. And figures from all FOUR Star Wars movies were being put in the assortments. And of course the toys and their packages have undergone considerable progress and changes since then.

But few longtime fans of Star Wars, I suspect, will soon forget 1999, the first year since 1983, really, when a whole host of new faces entered the Star Wars Universe, and it's never been the same since.

May the Force be with you...