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By Thomas Wheeler

Although Bandai's line of GUNDAM toys has taken an indefinite absence from American toy stores (and I'm still trying to get a straight answer from somebody as to just HOW "indefinite" since there are rumors it may be back as early as this fall), that doesn't mean that the toy line is dead.

Gundam, after all, started in Japan, and remains massively popular there. And it is still possible to obtain Gundam action figures. Some online toy stores, such as BigBadToyStore.Com, do carry Gundam products. Then there's always a somewhat more direct way. In my case, I happen to have a friend in that part of the world who is willing to send me Gundam action figures in exchange for G.I.Joe action figures that he can't get over there. Who says the barter system doesn't work?

Right now, Bandai is emphasizing GUNDAM SEED DESTINY. This is the newest Gundam animated series, and it is a direct sequel to GUNDAM SEED, which recently completed its run on Cartoon Network, admittedly at an abhorrent hour (1:30 in the morning, Saturdays). I have heard that Cartoon Network does have plans to air Seed Destiny, although I don't know when those episodes may start, or at what time of day. Hopefully something a little more agreeable.

My overseas friend sent me FOUR action figures from Bandai's Gundam Seed Destiny line, and I would like to review them all here.

I don't really know that much about the Gundam Seed Destiny series. Most of the characters that survived the Gundam Seed series turn up here, and at least some of the organizational names are the same. But as one would expect, the Mobile Suits, including the Gundams, are all new.

None of the four that I received actually bear the name "Gundam" as part of their individual titles. Interestingly, three of them are ZAKUs. This is unusual for this reason: The name "Zaku" was used in the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and its related sequels, as a common name for the main "enemy" Mobile Suit, which was used by an organization called Zeon.

There have been quite a few Gundam series in the 25+ year history of Gundam, but they haven't all emanated from the same "universe". Several series, including Gundam Wing, G-Gundam, and Gundam Seed, take place in different universes than the original. And the main enemy Mobile Suits from Gundam Seed, which were used by an organization called ZAFT, were named "GINNs".

So where the heck these people got the idea to name their new Mobile Suits "Zakus", I have no idea. Interestingly enough, there's a fair resemblance, too. The helmet-like head, the single pink eye, the leg structure -- all very reminiscent of the original Zakus from the original series. Might there be a connection that isn't being dealt with -- yet?

Anyway, the three Zakus I received include the ZGMF-1001/M BLAZE ZAKU PHANTOM, the ZGMF-1001/K SLASH ZAKU PHANTOM, and the ZGMF-1000/A1 GUNNER ZAKU WARRIOR. Let's take these three suits in order.

First up, the BLAZE ZAKU PHANTOM. According to a description sent to me by a friend of mine, who tracked down some information on all four suits for me, The Zaku Phantom was developed by ZAFT as a special unit for use by thier ace pilots and unit commanders. Like the Zaku Warrior, the Zaku Phantom could be equipped with special weapons packs, such as the Blaze pack. The Blaze pack gave the Zaku Phantom even more mobility. The suit's pack also was armed with a special 'firebee' missiles, for even more firepower.

This particular ZAKU is an off-white, or very, very pale grey in color, with dark grey trim, and red and pale purple highlights. It comes with the Blaze Pack, which is like a huge jet pack that straps onto its back. Its weapons include two shields, a rifle, and what looks like an energy axe.

According to the package, the Blaze Zaku Phantom is flown by a pilot named REY ZA BURREL. I don't recall that name from the Gundam Seed series, so he must be a new character.

I'll discuss the particulars of the figure after I provide some basic information on the other three. I'd like to do that all at once.

Next we have the SLASH ZAKU PHANTOM. The Zaku Phantom was developed by ZAFT as special unit for use by ace pilots and commanders. Like the Zaku Warrior, the Zaku Phantom could also be equipped with special weapons packs. The Slash Zaku Phantom is equipped with extra thrusters, and two large gatling guns mounted on the shoulder. One such unit was piloted by former Duel Gundam pilot, YZAK JOULE.

And indeed, the main weapons system that comes with this toy is the aforementioned gatling guns, but it also comes with a long energy staff, a very curious-looking weapon that's unlike anything I've seen before for a Gundam. The closest I would say I've seen before would be the hardware carried by Gundam Deathscythe in Gundam Wing.

This Zaku is mostly light blue, with a darker blue torso, dark grey joints, and white and red highlights. I like the overall color scheme, really. As the description I was given indicates, this Zaku is piloted by Yzak (pronounced EE-zak) Joule, who is a carryover from Gundam Seed. He was a rather hot-tempered individual with little respect for his team- mates and even less for the enemy, but he got a bit of a reality check towards the end of the series. Whether that's carried over into the new show I really don't know.

Then we come to the GUNNER ZAKU WARRIOR. The Zaku Warrior was developed by ZAFT as replacement for the GuAIZ R. The Zaku Warrior was armed with a wide variety of weaponry including a beam tomahawk, handgrenades and a beam rifle. The Zaku Warrior is also capable of mounting several different weapons packs, one of which is the Gunner pack. This gives the suit a heavy long range beam cannon, for even more firepower.

The Gunner Zaku Warrior is, I suspect, a more "basic" Zaku than the Zaku Phantoms. I don't think that means it should be underestimated, however, and it's entirely possible that the one I was sent was a special edition, customized for a particular pilot. For one thing, it's a fairly intense red in color, with a dark red torso. A distinct pilot is shown on the box, a young woman named LUNAMARIA HAWKE. For another thing, it not only comes with a fairly standard rifle and the energy axe, but an absolutely huge rifle/cannon/whatever that's easily 1-1/2 times the height of the figure. If you consider that the average Mobile Suit, if it existed in real life, would be the height of a five-story building, imagine what the real-life size of THIS piece of hardware would be.

Finally, there's the one "oddball" in the foursome that I received, but it's really unfair to call it that. It just happened that my frind sent me three Zakus and this guy. It could've been anybody. But it's interesting that the description for the Zaku Warrior mentions it as being a replacement for the GuAIZ-R, because that's what the last Gundam toy I received is, the ZGMF-601R GuAIZ R. And please don't ask me to pronounce "GuAIZ".

The GuAIZ R is an upgraded version of the GuAIZ mobile suit that was seen during Gundam SEED. GuAIZ R was developed by ZAFT for use as a main stay for thier mobile suit forces. The suit is well armed with a number of weapons, including head vulcans, a beam rifle and a set of powerful railguns. In terms of hand to hand armament, it armed with special composite shield with a beam claw.

Personally, I don't recall seeing the GuAIZ during Gundam SEED, but I might've missed it somehow. And some of these weird names are a little hard to keep track of, too.

The GuAIZ doesn't seem to have any designated pilot, which would tend to match the description I was given and have presented here. Instead of the face of a pilot on the box, the ZAFT logo is shown. The GuAIZ is a very cool new design. About its only similarity to the ZAKUs is the single pink eye in the center of the head. It's a dark turquoise in color, with pale grey arms, legs, and trim. It has a very angular look to much of its appearance, especially the ridged "boots". It has a large jet backpack which is attached to the figure, and it comes with the two railguns, a rifle, and a shield.

Now, let's talk about overall construction of all four of these toys. While Gundam action figures that fit into the non-kit category, or as they are called in Japan, "Mobile Suit in Action" (and without any stupid prefix like "Advanced" or "Extended", thank you) have always been known for an amazing level of articulation given their size and overall design, clearly Bandai is determined to raise that level even further.

There was some indication of this in the handful of GUNDAM SEED figures that we received in the United States before the line was stopped. Arms and sometimes legs were given double articulation joints, a practice that actually started with some of the G-GUNDAM toys. Shoulders had a greater level of movement. With the GUNDAM SEED DESTINY figures, the level of articulation is truly amazing.

The figures all move at the head, of course, on a ball socket that allows for a great deal of movement. The shoulders are articulated to an amazing degree. Not only can the arms move forwards, backwards, and outwards, but there's a limited "swivel" movement in the actual shoulder joint that lets the entire arm swivel forward and backward, as if bringing the arms inwards somewhat. There's an upper-arm swivel, the elbows are double- jointed, the wrists are ball-jointed. Each figure comes with spare hands in different positions, many of which are designed to hold the weapons. The waist is on a ball-and-socket joint that not only lets it turn around, but tilt from side to side. The legs are on a ball-and-socket joint which allows for an excellent range of motion, the knees are double-jointed, and the ankles have ball-and-socket construction.

The three Zakus are notable for the amount of -- not so much articulation, but separate parts in their "waist-skirts". This has always been a bit of a problem for Gundams and Mobile Suits that have had large "skirts". It tends to infringe on the leg articulation. But in the case of these Zakus, the "skirts" are actually a separate piece, a sort of belt, and the various pieces of the skirt are clipped onto the belt on a swivel joint, that lets them move individually, and as such does not in any way impede the leg movement.

There are a couple of additional matters I want to address. On the positive side, Bandai has FINALLY done away with the practice of painting in the sculpt lines on these figures. The one thing that tended to set apart the Japanese Gundams from the American ones was the very annoying practice of painting in the sculpt lines. It made the toys look both dirtied (although not as bad as the needs-to-die Battle-Scarred line), and cartoonish. Okay, I know they COME from a cartoon, but they don't need to look THAT much like it. Finally, it looks like this practice has been abolished worldwide -- and good riddance.

Now, let's talk about neatness a bit. For the most part, these figures are very neatly painted and assembled. But this is where I admit I can be a real nitpicker. One of the shields that comes with the Slash Zaku Phantom has a very noticeable chip out of its blue paint. Somebody should've caught this and either replaces or repaired the shield. Fortunately, I'm not that much of a nitpicker about accessories. But we're talking about a very visible mark on a comparatively large, flat, smooth surface. Is there any Quality Control anymore?

Secondly, let's talk about glue. The backpack to the GuAIZ is not only glued to the figure -- okay, I don't have a problem there, but several of its indivdiual compoments, like the jets themselves -- are glued in. Okay, fine. I'm not asking for them to be articulated. That's not my point. My point is -- can we be a little neater with the glue? I know this assembly work must be tiring and tedious, but that doesn't entirely excuse very visible evidence of glue along the jets on the GuAIZ. It's not severe, it doesn't ruin the figure. But it is noticeable.

Granted, these are minor quibbles. Please don't get me wrong. I am truly delighted to be able to continue to build my GUNDAM collection. I remain hopeful that the line will return to stores in the United States as soon as possible, and who knows? It might include Gundam Seed Destiny toys. Meanwhile, as I acquire them, I will review them here, and if you're a Gundam fan and have any means of adding these excellent "Mobile Suit in Action" Figures to your collection, I most highly recommend them!

(Special thanks to Dave Goellnitz for the background information)