We’re coming to the end of another stellar year for action figures, so naturally now is the time to do some navel-gazing and ponder “What is best in life?” But there will be no crushing of enemies or lamentations of women, instead here are the amygdala prodding toys, whether good or bad. Yep, I’m going to do bad toys. I think. We’ll see. ON WITH THE LIST!
The “Will My Diet of Crow Ever Finish?” Award for Most Annoying Company That Still Makes (Mostly) Good Toys
There could be only one winner. Only one company who I continually complain about, and who are forever and always delaying the release of their product. This item was shipped to me a full year and a day after I pre-ordered it, having been due in September, eventually settling on “late October/early November” and actually shipping out to me late November (almost as late as it could be). And yet this past weekend I have been continually fiddling with the toy and constantly amazed how good it really is whenever I see it. It’s ThreeA’s Judge Dredd. To describe the feeling it gives me of having an actual decent Judge Dredd toy in my hands would take way too long, suffice to say this toy is excellent and once again ThreeA have sucker-punched me.
The “Talk About Losing Its Shine Quickly” Award for Tarnished Reputations
This award seeks to recognise those toys that fail to stay pristine in the worst of ways: paint that rubs off easily; parts that clash and scratch; and the worst of all, bits that fall off. Bandai have taken to providing plastic separators to prevent paint rub, which is always applauded, especially on their figures that use their burgeoning facial likeness technology, and they often include notes on the instruction sheet about which areas may rub. It’s these kinds of preventative measures that help toys not appear on this list, and it’s kind of a shame that one toy must win, but it absolutely must take home this award. That toy is none other than Takara-Tomy’s Transformers Masterpiece MP-28 Hot Rodimus. This toy is amazing, having huge amounts of articulation, some great accessories, and some of those ‘ooh’ transformation moments that the Masterpiece line is known for, but it has one flaw and that flaw completely ruins this toy: that damnable vacuum metalising. It’s so thin, so very thin that Hot Rod’s signature exhausts are rendered unto weak orange. I have barely played with my copy and it is succumbing to the same problem, almost like it’s evaporating. It really took the edge off what was a hugely entertaining toy.
The “Services for the Little Man” Award for Thinking Small
There have been some tiny little toys released this year, and most of them have come (in a roundabout way) from Takara-Tomy. Their renewing of the Diaclone franchise with Dia Battles V2 came with a team of tiny men to pilot the various vehicles you could build as well as the really tiny motorbike that came in the back of one of the components. And then they joined with Hasbro on the Titans Return/Legends line to produce the Titan Masters/Headmasters, and it’s these little fellers that have won this award. After the resurgence of Transformers with the Combiner Wars line, Titans Return turned their Eye of Kaon upon 1987’s big G1 release and ran with everything. All 8 of the original Headmasters are represented, and we also have a few later G1 Headmasters represented in the smaller Titan Master sub-line with Apeface, Fangry & Squeezeplay (the latter renamed Crashbash for some inexplicable reason) all making appearances. This all has taken the Headmaster gimmick of G1 and run with it, pushing the mix’n’match available with the Titan Masters compatibility with the regular Deluxe releases. You want Chromedome with Fangry’s head? Go for it. It’s not without its issues, mind, with a number of loose limbs and wobbly heads letting it down a bit, but overall it has been hugely well received by the fandom, even if it’s gone far and wild making everyone a Headmaster…. sorry, Titan Master.
The “Nobody Move, I Have An Idea” Award for Most Ridiculously Small Accessory
There comes a time when a person has to accept that they are never, ever going to find a toy’s accessory. This can be hard enough when they’re not that small (I still haven’t found the axe I lost that came with Combiner Wars Drag Strip), but every now and again there’s a toy that really doesn’t want you to keep everything that came with it. A couple of years ago SH Figuarts Shinkocchou Seihou Kamen Rider Hibiki set a gold standard for ridiculously small accessories, and I honestly didn’t think anyone would ever top that, but sure enough another SH Figuarts Shinkocchou Seihou release managed it. Step forward Kamen Rider W Cyclone Joker. Bandai, in their infinite wisdom, decided to produce Gaia Memory sticks to put into the device on his Rider belt. They are tiny strips of plastic. That don’t clip in. The bits of plastic are so small that breathing is the worst thing you can do around them. I have already lost the Joker Gaia Memory (aka a tiny bit of clear purple plastic). A flawless victory on Bandai’s part.
The “Set the Nostalgia Dial To Maximum!” Award for Hitting Childhood Where It Hurts
This is a hotly contested award this year by dint of the fact that nostalgia sells really, really, really well to toy nerds in their late 30s/early 40s a lot of product has been released relating to IP from the late 70s through to the late 80s. Hasbro went deep into the heartland of G1 Transformers with the Titans Return series, following Combiner Wars and throwing out characters from ’86 onward. Bandai continued to tip the hat to classic Star Wars, and also went hard in on Macross action figures with Valkyries and, more significantly, Zentradi battle pods (the Regult & Glaug) and even a Destroid in the form of the gigantic, aptly-named Monster. But frankly all of that pales into comparison when compared to Bandai’s decision to make the 1987 cartoon Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (to give it the title they went with in the UK). Other companies are making TMNT action figures, sure, but they’re all either based on the original toy line, the 1990 movie, the most recent cartoon series or the horrific modern movie. These don’t even stack up against the TMNT Classics line as they’re so fervently cartoon accurate it almost hurts, each coming with an extra head with a goofy expression that only the cartoon had (less goofy, even, than the Archie comics that accompanied the cartoon). For a Japanese company to elect to replicate a late 80s US cartoon series is a weird thing, but damn if it isn’t a fun inclusion to the SH Figuarts line!
The “Face On Face Off” Award for Best Replicated Real Human Facial Features on a Small Action Figure
I had to be more specific for this award as only one company is really going for facial recreation, as part of their SH Figuarts line, and this year has seen a huge number of examples of Bandai’s face recreation software in action. The year started boldly with a Ewan McGregor as Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi and Bruce Lee as Lee from Enter the Dragon, and was followed shortly after by Freddie Mercury in his splendid Wembley outfit of white and a yellow jacket. The middle of the year saw Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, Chris Evans as Captain America and a young Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker from A New Hope. The latter half of the year continued apace with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow from Age of Ultron, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark from Iron Man 3, Ewan McGregor again but this time as bearded Obi-Wan Kenobi from Attack of the Clones and two of WWE’s most popular wrestlers from the late 90s Attitude Era, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. One hell of a broad range of people’s likenesses to recreate, and most of them did a great job of recreating these people through a blend of sculpting and an absolutely amazing painting process. Most of the figures have either one head or expression (in the case of The Avengers), or only one of the expressions captures the person they’re attempting to recreate, but winner not only managed a perfect mix of sculpt and paint it managed to achieve this on both of the heads with the most expressive head looking utterly stunning, and that was Mace Windu. Samuel L Jackson’s statesman-like grace is captured so well in the standard head, but it’s the scowl of the replacement head that elevates this figure over the others, it is just so incredibly Sam Jackson. That’s why he’s the featured image for this awards list!
The “High Hopes” Award for Worst Excitement to Reality Ratio
Hype is dangerous, but Buyer’s Remorse is a truly terrible thing. We’ve all found our appetites whet for a toy only to be disappointed with the end product, and it’s these kinds of toys that qualify for this award. I was worried that Judge Dredd could end up winning this award, but thankfully my fears were unwarranted when he turned out to be ThreeA’s best product since… well, since Judge Death the year before (I will admit my ThreeA sample was small in 2016, being only Judges Dredd and Fear). Hot Toys products are also something I’m extremely wary of, but the Alien Warrior (from Aliens) turned out perfectly nicely (well, it has a rubber suit on so only time will truly tell). I was also excited to get a hold of Titans Return Wolfwire (or Legends Weird Wolf), however I never managed to obtain one, so it has to be discounted from this award (I was also hyped for the Titan Master Crash Bash from Titans Return, who in hand is extremely adorable in dinosaur mode so fails to qualify for this). Then there are Masterpiece Ironhide & Hot Rodimus who I wasn’t massive hyped for and who turned out just fine, even with the weird waist of Ironhide and the vanishing vac-metal of Rodimus. Other than that most other toys have met the hype, or at least climbed to heights that mean the gap between reality and hype isn’t all that bad. So who could it be? Sadly it could only be one set of toys, who I was most hyped for, and had been since they were revealed at a toy show a year or more earlier: Action Toy’s Machine Robo. It’ not that the toys were exactly bad, it’s more that I was far too excited for what ended up being released. The die-cast felt like more of a hindrance, loose joints were largely in play. It all resulted in toys that felt of lower quality than independent transforming toy companies like FansProject and MakeToys. Later figures appear to be of better quality, but an opening salvo that didn’t quite work meant that the pull to get more of the line was gone.
The Bestest Award for the Bestest Of The Bestest
So finally we come to the Bestest of the Bestest. What company has, without doubt, blown away all other toy companies? Oh god, I have just realised I’ve become the worst shill ever, because it’s going to be Bandai again. ThreeA managed to bring me back on board with their Judge Dredd and that damnably cool Lawmaster, but then came in late with a one-two punch of Judge Fear having a terrible parts-swapping gimmick ruining what was otherwise another stunning Dark Judge figure. The combo of Hasbro & Takara threw out the best of the best of Transformers with all of those Headmasters, although it was fraught with QC issues. Takara’s fight to bankrupt all Transformers fans with their Masterpiece line is also showing no sign of stopping, book-ending the year with G1 treasures of Ironhide and Inferno, and throwing out a seemingly perfect Optimus Primal near the end of the year, and 2017 doesn’t seem to be short of releases with Cheetor and a new-improved G1 Megatron (now with actual proportional limbs) along with a bevvy of repaints/remoulds of the Inferno mould and that only takes us to July! They’re also bringing the pain (financially speaking) with more Diaclone releases, starting with dinky power armour and dinky figures like those that came with Dia Battles V2.
But it’s Bandai with their phenomenally wide array of premium releases that continue to win the battle for my cash. The new A.N.I.M.E. line from Robot Spirits was a highlight of the year, with the first release being what has to be the definitive RX-78-2, the titular Gundam, action figure, and the addition to the Robot Spirits line of mobile suits that just should not have been missing from it that long (8 years!), like Char’s Zaku, the MS-07 Gouf and MS-09 Dom. The the HI-METAL R line got some Zentradi mechs in the huge Regult and even more huge Glaug, along with the standard VF-1A. SH Figuarts saw numerous moments of madness with not only Bruce Lee and Freddie Mercury, the ’87 cartoon Turtles, a bundle of Star Wars characters (including some Rogue One toys that sneaked in right at the end of the year), and the first two WWE figures, there were also the definitive Masked Rider figures of Decade and W, most of the main cast of Lupin III, a ridiculous number of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters (deep breath: Captain America, Ultron Prime, Iron Man Mk 46, Ant-Man, Black Widow, Tony Stark, Iron Man Mk 3 and Black Panther and breathe), as well as the first release bringing Ultraman in from the cold of Ultra-Act, along with his most well known enemy Baltan. The Movie Realization line added more Samurai Stormtroopers to the line with a teppō-wielding Sand Trooper and a standard-bearing Taiko drummer, and gave the Death Star Samurai General Darth Vader accompaniment with bright red Royal Guard. Even lines I’m not buying from flexed their muscles, most notably the Soul of Chogokin line’s Beast King GoLion, or Voltron as English speakers tend to know it.
I honestly can’t see 2017 being any different for Bandai: January opens strong with Bruce Lee in his Game of Death outfit; Go Nagai’s creations get new versions (well, new, new, new, new in the case of Mazinger), most notably SH Figuarts Devilman; the Power Rangers Megazord is set for release in April; it will be the year of Iron Man with the Hall of Armour being released as an ACT STAGE along with armour to fill it; HI METAL R branches out from Macross to Dougram; Street Fighter arrives in SH Figuarts, opening with Chun Li & Ryu; we’re getting a Will Smith action figure (Deadshot from Suicide Squad); more Labors join Alphonse in the new Patlabor Robot Spirits; and finally Han Solo & Chewbacca. HAN SOLO AND CHEWBACCA. And that only takes us to July!
But, 2017 will also see more Transformers from Hasbro & Takara, and that line is getting better with every series. We also don’t know what Takara have in store for Transformers Masterpiece in the latter half of the year, and they may still surprise us on the Diaclone front. Sen-ti-nel Toys are still producing sublime figures, albeit at what feels like a slower rate than back in 2015. Figma are all over the place, but producing top quality figures regardless. And both ThreeA and ThreeZero are the wild cards. Oh, and Medicom Toy keep adding to their MAFEX line, which can only be a good thing. And I haven’t even covered what Hot Toys are doing!
So many toys, so little time, and even less money.