2008, 2009, and now 2010. This year marks my tenth year since getting back into toy collecting, so screw the whole "when does the decade begin/end" argument, I'm going with 2001-2010 as my arbitrary decade boundaries. As such, here are a bunch of decade awards, mostly having to do with Transformers, since everything else has been a diversion during the times when the Transformers line has sucked. Much of this is just an excuse to rant about petty perceived injustices over the last ten years. The rest is a bunch of random text cleverly disguised as something with a point to it. Links are provided where appropriate; more links may be added at a later date.
Mattel owns the rights to the various DC properties, so I don't have much to say. Mattel heavily favors the 6" size, which just doesn't work for me (higher cost, more storage space needed, less compatibility with other lines, no significant improvement in articulation or detail over smaller figures), so the DC Universe line is a no go. Their Justice League Unlimited line has been running for most, if not all, of the decade, but has almost no articulation and isn't the same size as anything else, so that's out. And the DC Universe Infinite Heroes line fills the 1:18 / 3.75" slot, but the articulation is just starting to approach what G.I. Joe had in 1982, so no thanks. But it's there, for whatever that's worth.
Gundam is one of the most popular franchises in Japan, with countless animated TV shows and movies produced in its 30+ year history. Merchandise has been present from the start (and has heavily influenced the media properties), mostly in the form of action figures and model kits. Gundam failed to take hold in the US until Gundam Wing found a following in 2000 and 2001, at which point Bandai launched a merchandizing blitz in North America and elsewhere. By 2003, the experiment had proven to be a failure, with the merchandise not selling and the TV shows not pulling in anywhere near the audience of Wing. Things keep rolling along in Japan though, so imports are plentiful.
Another Mattel property, He-Man hasn't been seen in stores (aside from some He-Man / Superman two-packs at TRU) since early in the decade when there was a toy line accompanying He-Man's short-lived return to television. That little experiment went so well that Mattel made He-Man Classics, 6" updates of the classic characters, an online exclusive (in very limited numbers), where they sell out before anyone can buy them alongside Mattel's Ghostbusters and sometimes DC Universe releases.
Hasbro tried to finagle the first new Indiana Jones movie in almost two decades into a major franchise, not realizing that movie lines usually fail within a few months without additional media properties to keep interest up. The line primarily featured figures and vehicles from the various movies in 1:18 (4") scale, with a few 12" figures and some other random stuff mixed in. After three waves of figures (two of which were available at the start of the line), retailers gave up and dumped their stock. The fourth wave was only available in Canada and online, while the fifth wave was displayed but never produced.
Two years after Indiana Jones failed to make a big splash at retail, Hasbro tempted fate again by massively hyping the Iron Man 2 toy line. The first movie's line used the 6" format that was common with comic book movies at the time. Hasbro shrank things down to 4" the second time around and used all available Iron Man source material to churn out dozens of figures. Sales were fairly stagnant after the initial push, with later waves stocked so infrequently that the announcements of product for 2011 just had to be a joke. Right?
For most of the decade, Marvel toys were done in 6" size and were mainly tied to movie lines - Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, etc. Marvel Legends served as a 6" catch-all line, which was fairly well received by comic fans but never really took off with a larger audience. Hasbro shifted focus to the 4" market in 2009 with Marvel Universe. The Marvel Universe line has managed to run alongside comic-based movie lines like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Iron Man 2 (with Thor and Captain America up in 2011), even producing some of the same characters in multiple lines (and many versions of the same characters in the Universe line).
Star Wars kicked off the modern action figure craze and remains a major force to this day (no pun intended). Just ignore the mid 1990s. The prequel movies revitalized the Star Wars action figure line, which had been largely stagnant since the early 80s. After a few years of questionable aesthetic choices, Hasbro settled into a highly-detailed and well-articulated realistic style that set the standard for all 1:18 scale action figures. Then in 2008 they released a cartoonish style to match the animation of the new Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated show. Hasbro really knows how to rile up the fanbase.
Finally, there's Transformers, clearly the best toy franchise the US has ever come up with. Started in 1984 when Hasbro decided to market Japanese toys to kids with a new 30-minute animated commercial, the franchise has developed considerably in the last 25+ years, going through an awkward neon phase in the early 90s, some experimentation with beasts in the late 90s, and a procession of gimmicks until switching to a more mature style to go along with some live-action movies. And a cartoonish style to match the animation of the new Transformers: Animated TV show. And some modern updates of classic characters. And just about anything else they could think of. Sometimes it can be hard to find the actual transforming toys in the Transformers section of the action figure aisle.
Here's how it works: toys from the latest flavor-of-the-month movie flood stores, sell a little bit, then go on clearance and are never seen again (actual time spent on clearance may vary). We've seen this happen countless times by now, but some manufacturers don't get it and try to make a movie line into more than just a flash in the pan (see Indiana Jones). G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, and The A-Team have all had additional product announced and never delivered because the initial product sold so poorly that stores didn't want more (TRU still has them all to this day). Prince of Persia tested the waters with a small initial offering, with more on the way if sales were good. They were not. They never are.
In 2001 I achieved something people are always striving for - financial independence! Then I got a car loan... I promptly ODed on baseball cards, realized that the whole industry amounts to little more than legalized gambling, and broke my addiction (I haven't purchased a pack of current-year cards in eight years). This left me with some money in need of wasting (while paying off the car and building my savings and retirement accounts, fiscal responsibility and all). Hey, Optimus Prime is a truck again! And they're selling the original ones in stores! OK, problem solved. 1000+ Transformers later...
Of course, it isn't that simple. Modern toy collecting requires frequent (if not daily) trips to the toy aisles due to the wave shipping structure and Hasbro's famous distribution incompetence. This is a problem. Everything from the 80s is back again! This is a real problem. Tiny metal Battlestar Galactica ships! Crap, crap, crap, crap... At least G.I. Joe figures either look like crap or use the same molds from the 80s. They made new ones that look like realistic updates to the old figures? Aw, fuck. And candy-colored Clone Troopers? Why won't you let me keep any of my money???
How to begin... 2001 marked the beginning and end of the US's love affair with Gundam, which had been one of the biggest media properties in Japan for over 20 years at the time. Unfortunately, the US fell for a somewhat watered-down version and was revolted by the real face of Gundam, so things ended pretty quickly. It took a couple of years before retail gave up on Gundam, but hey, that just means great clearance deals, including bargains at Kay-Bee (remember them?).
Of course, you can't find everything at retail, so that's why God gave us the Internet. Somewhere between the fifth and sixth days, He created Big Bad Toy Store and Hobby Link Japan (look it up). And on the seventh day, my credit card was charged. Repeatedly. The online world was much more interesting in the land of Gundam, which saw many online resellers rise and fall along with countless fan-made web sites (one of which was even adopted by Bandai as the Gundam Official User Forum, which lasted about as long as any ill-fated Gundam web site of the time). At the start of the decade, Gundam Shop was king of both sales and discussions, but it soon died, was reborn, and was mercifully put out of its misery when it was found to be a soulless undead monster. Gundam Store and More updated its stock listings a couple of times over the years and even updated its entire site once. The One True Gundam Blog (Gunota) kept us stateside otaku updated for many years before finally folding itself. Luckily, Some Other Guy's Blog of Gundam Stuff and Tons of Other Crap (Ngee Khiong) soon filled the void (with pictures even!) and then shut down by the end of the decade out of disgust with the fanbase. Everything based in the US was destined to be a flash in the pan, if it could even get as far as the flash part.
Back in the olden days of 2002, Toys R Us used to clearance out its old stock for 50% off when a toy line restarted. So when 2000's Transformers: Robots in Disguise was wrapped up and Transformers Armada was just around the corner, there was plenty of clearance stock to be had. Because TRU had the highest prices and everyone had already gotten what they wanted when the other stores clearanced out their old stock. But I missed all that and just ate up every non-beast Transformer that didn't look like it was painted in My Little Pony colors by mistake. There was plenty to choose from and there were plenty of stores to search. Times were good for retail. Now that the economic downturn and its preceding warning signs have thinned out the poor performers, I'm left with the knowledge of how to get to countless stores that no longer exist. Hooray for pointless memories...
2002 officially marked the start of The 80s Part II. Those of us who grew up in the era when marketing products to kids through the glowing rectangular god was given the thumbs up by the government (as long as it taught kids an important lesson, like not touching downed power lines or being responsible with your money so you could spend more of it on toys) now had money and no social lives, a very dangerous combination. Transformers and He-Man made a return to television with some ambitious but underachieving cartoons, which of course were really based on the accompanying toy lines. Transformers also had reissues galore in the US and Japan, and Japan added Macross toys, both reissues and updated versions (the original Transformers Jetfire figure, a repaint of the Bandai Macross VF-1S, was not reissued, though the Macross version was). G.I. Joe was updated with a new style that was not well-received (it even had a brief unsatisfying fling with the Star Wars t-crotch). Anything and everything old was new again, if there was money to be made.
The real money though was in Hollywood, which was busy churning out retreads of any childhood favorites it could sink its claws into. The most notable were the latter two Star Wars prequels, which, despite not being as terrible as the first one, were still largely unnecessary (but I guess the kids needed something to call their own). On the plus side, the Revenge of the Sith toy line started to introduce decent Star Wars figure sculpts, which had previously gone from largely immobile bricks in the late 70s/early 80s to clown-like steroid freaks in the late 90s/early 00s. It may have taken two decades, but the Star Wars line had finally (t-crotch aside) surpassed G.I. Joe in articulation. It was a sad day for America.
Every other movie in the middle of the decade had a one-off failed toy line. Superman, Spider-Man, The Hulk (both Incredible and otherwise), Pirates of the Caribbean (1, 2, and 3), The Chronicles of Narnia (1 and 2), The Golden Compass, and it just gets worse from there. There is nothing more that needs to be said about these. Ever.
Fucking Michael Bay. I think that's what it says on his business card. Fucking Michael Bay got his hands on the Transformers franchise and created one of the most profitable toy/media empires the world has ever seen. As the decade made its way into the latter half, toys trended toward updates of classics instead of new media-inspired versions. Star Wars had its Saga Collections / 30th Anniversary / Legacy Collection / Vintage, Transformers had Classics / Universe 2.0 / Generations, and G.I. Joe was finally returning to relevance with its 25th Anniversary line. Then Fucking Michael Bay pissed all over it and changed the game forever. Now, don't get me wrong, I moderately liked the first movie, if only because it featured an evil Mountain Dew robot (Long live Dispensor!), but Bay set the template for toy movies to come: black, big booms, and boobs. This was Bay's playbook, and it was kicked up another notch in the sequel (and then copied with less success in G.I. Joe). I respect Bay for his use of live action stunts and explosions over CGI and his dismissal of 3D conversions of films shot in 2D, but, left unchecked, he tends to make juvenile crap like Transformers 2. Just like George Lucas as a writer needs a competent director to keep him in line, Michael Bay as a director needs a good producer holding his leash. And the toy line was a massive success that lasted longer than initially planned and had so much ancillary crap that it was embarrassing to walk down that aisle, blah, blah, blah... Where was I?
Right, the end of the decade. I think I already covered everything worth noting here, here, and here, so... Oh, right, Mattel. Never bought any of their stuff. All you really need to know is that their attitude toward adult collectors is personified by the cleverly named Matty Collector, the smug prick of an online mascot that you just know is smirking at you because he gets his figures every time while everyone else has to take a chance at the crap shoot that is the Mattel online store. One day every month, Mattel offers up new figures from He-Man Classics, Ghostbusters, and/or DC Universe for people to attempt to buy. The site (always newly upgraded to not break this time) inevitably cracks under the pressure and everything sells out in 30 minutes or less. Quantities are so limited and none of these products are available in stores because Mattel knows that nobody will buy them. This is why they are always sold out. I won't buy them because I don't collect 6" figures, so, going by this sample size of one, they are absolutely correct. Logic!
That brings us to 2010. It's been a wild ride this decade, but 2010 promises a clean break for the most part. Mainly because nothing new shipped for the first six months of the year. Sure, there are the usual failed movie lines, but the real news is the nouveau vintage style that has hit across the board in at least the big three properties - Star Wars, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. All three are combining the old and new in ways that haven't been seen before. For Star Wars, that means Vintage cardbacks for figures that weren't in the original toy line. For Transformers, it's classic-themed cardbacks with updates of the originals and all-new figures from the latest video game. And for G.I. Joe, it's a hybrid vintage-modern cardback with new figures that aren't exactly in the same style as the originals or the recent movie figures. All of these lines are now building for the future while respecting their pasts, which is a hopeful sign. Tune in next decade to see how it all goes horribly wrong!
Vapor is a funny thing - it doesn't exist, but it has been shown or at least rumored, and it is coming, maybe, or maybe it did but not really. Sometimes it seems like Toy Fair is mostly vapor and never progresses from there, other times it gets to the point where production samples make their way to eBay just after the product has been canceled. The worst though is when something is announced, promised, shown, and released - but not here, resulting in a paradoxical vapor release. This is what happened with the red Armada Thrust repaint that was announced after the first repaint, Powerlynx Thrust, was released in anything but G1 colors (many of the Powerlynx repaints were meant as G1 homages). A red version was promised and never materialized. Except in Japan as a Toy Dreams Project "USA Edition" exclusive (named as such because of the packaging style used). Way to rub it in there Takara. Not only does it not get released in the USA, but the version that does get released (in extremely limited quantities) bears the name of the country it was not released in. At that point, you might as well add a flaming American flag decal and have the packaging show the figure kicking a puppy and hanging out with Hugo Chavez at a soccer match. There are plenty of countries that don't even get normal releases, but we don't go naming the toys that do get released after them.
An idea I've been floating lately is to make the last wave in a line consist entirely of the most popular figures from that line. Forget new figures, just pack together a bunch of stuff that sold out too fast the first time around and make everyone happy. If (when) stores cancel their orders early, no new figures are canceled. Now, I know this could never work due to lead times (a wave's contents are fixed months if not years in advance to allow time for manufacturing and shipping), but it sure seems like a better plan than hoping someone will order some and either canceling the figures, releasing them as exclusives, or shipping them in small quantities that most people will never see. Anything has to be better than that.
I have to admit, I wasn't thrilled to hear that the Binaltech line would be released domestically minus the die-cast parts as Alternators. Even the name sounded cheap. ~$50 for a 1:24 scale transforming car with a hefty amount of metal seemed like a better idea than $20 for the same thing in all-plastic, especially in the early days when Alternators were hard to find (aside from the first two). Binaltech had nicer packaging, character cards, and a few parts that were cut from the US releases due to safety and/or pacifist reasons (are we really supposed to believe that a giant robot's only weapon is a scanner?). Then a strange thing happened: the Japanese releases lost the die-cast metal, increased the price, and got uncomfortably bizarre (Binaltech Asterisk and Kiss Players), while the US releases got additional repaints (as new characters instead of nonsensical random repaints) and a couple of great new molds that were never released in Japan. Just looking at the strength of the line, Alternators seems to come out ahead.
But that's not all. Binaltech figures were more expensive, but the die-cast was worth it, right? Not so much it turns out. Painted metal looks nicer than plastic, but it also looks very different when both are used on the same figure. The paint is also prone to chipping, especially where parts rub against each other (the hood on Tracks is particularly bad). I love die-cast, but it just doesn't make sense once you get past the G1-style bricks we all know and love. When there are lots of moving parts, die-cast turns into a liability at this size and price point (mass-produced die-cast transforming figures have been done well in larger sizes and/or at much higher prices). In the end, both lines died prematurely, but Alternators did a better job of getting the concept of realistic scale vehicles out to the masses. Takara Tomy's follow-up to Binaltech, Alternity, combines this core concept with the smaller size of deluxe figures, the all-plastic construction of Alternators, and the high price of Binaltech (plus the random nonsensical repaints).
Ah, the scalper... One envisions a 40-year-old virgin who emerges from his parents' basement early each morning to be the first in line when Target opens so he can tear open any new blind-packed Hot Wheels cars that have been put out since the night before. Sagging sweatpants, dangling shoelaces, sweaty hands grabbing at any toy in sight... I can't say for sure whether they truly exist, or if they are any different from ordinary Hot Wheels collectors (which I have rarely encountered, luckily), but they are the favorite scapegoat of everyone who can't find the hot new thing. What may be the Best Custom Figure of the Decade depicts a scalper, complete with fast food stains, shopping cart, and computer for eBay. The term is loosely applied to just about anyone who resells recent products, though many rationalize it by saying that they're giving people in other areas a chance to buy rare items (at double or triple the price, while denying the same of people in that area). Still, scalping is scalping, and I don't see the point in buying something you don't want in the hopes of getting more for it on the secondary market next week. At least they're not like the guy who scammed stores out of thousands of dollars of Lego sets by taping UPCs from cheap sets over the UPCs on more expensive sets. Now that's a real scumbag.
One of the frustrating aspects of advancing technology is when it collides with nostalgia. "Wow, this is amazing, if only the things from my childhood were like that..." This is of course compounded by the fact that kids today have no taste (Pokemon? Bakugan? Anything else I don't recognize from my childhood, get off my lawn!). While many old toy lines were still chugging along at the beginning of the decade, most of them bore little relation to their 80s counterparts. Reissues of old toys were nice (Transformers and Macross in particular), but they could be so much more with modern technology... Luckily, the manufacturers finally figured this out by the middle of the decade and gave us tons of updates of classic Transformers, G.I. Joe, Star Wars, He-Man, Indiana Jones, etc. figures. Which they did a great job of underestimating the demand for. The Transformers Classics line went from a quick filler line to a recurring mid-movie line (with some leakage into the movie lines), the G.I. Joe 25th Anniversary line lasted for over two years and still left fans wanting more, He-Man classics figures sell out online 30 minutes after they become available, etc. Unfortunately, "kids" are always the main focus, so collector items are only seen as side projects.
Can you believe that we went over a decade without a guy named Bumblebee who transformed into a yellow car? After being a central character in the cartoon (the human kids' pal, always an important role in shows selling stuff to kids), Bumblebee was largely forgotten. Then again, so were cars, yellow or otherwise. When the franchise rebooted with Armada, a yellow car was once more a main character, but they called him Hot Shot and made him pretty damn stupid. So stupid in fact that webcartoonist and unabashed Transformers uber-geek fanboy supreme David Willis has a shrine to the guy (it is seriously quite impressive, the shrine, not Willis's fangasms). Hot Shot was the go-to guy for human child relations (not in that way) until Cybertron introduced an even stupider character and blasphemed the name of Ironhide in the process. Luckily, the movie set things right by bringing back Bumblebee as the sidekick and making Ironhide tough again. And the toys were plentiful... First Classics, then tons of movie figures, then Animated, then another movie, then Generations, then more movie-esque stuff... Bumblebee had countless figures from Legends class to Ultimate, with more repacks and pointless repaints than any other figure in history. And to think, people were actually paying $20 or more for the second Deluxe class Bumblebee in the first movie line at one point... Now people would pay $20 to make it stop. My favorite: the non-transforming barely articulated paraplegic Bumblebee from the Longarm Battle Scene pack. For my money, that's as definitive as it gets.
Hasbro loves its core characters, and in G.I. Joe that means Cobra Commander, Duke, Storm Shadow, and Snake Eyes - you can be sure that any G.I. Joe line will contain countless versions of each. The worst though has to be Snake Eyes because he gets so many new figures that are worth buying in spite of the fact that they bear the name "Snake Eyes." The 25th Anniversary alone saw Snake Eyes released no fewer than 14 times in just over two years, with at least half as many showing up in the first six months of the movie line that followed. Still, it's hard not to buy these guys; the 25th Anniversary Snow Serpent mold was first used to make a Snake Eyes, the movie line's City Strike Snake Eyes was actually his popular (based on the prices people were willing to pay on eBay for factory escapee versions) Resolute design, etc. Even the standard Snake Eyes figures each turn out better than the last; the Wave 3 Pursuit of Cobra Snake Eyes (in limited release as of the end of 2010) is widely proclaimed to be the best Snake Eyes ever, and that's the third Snake Eyes in three waves of that line. For every half-assed repaint, there's a great all-new figure with a Snake Eyes head thrown on. Damn you Hasbro!
Packaging is one of the most important aspects of a retail product, so it should come as no surprise that new and better ways to screw up packaging are always coming out. Many lines in the past decade have had strange shapes and designs that were hard to stack, fit in boxes, or get on or off pegs, but the worst is when a line gets all of the functional aspects mostly right and then makes alterations for no apparent reason. G.I. Joe's 25th Anniversary line had a great classic style and compact carded figures, but the basic vehicle packaging was overly large and flimsy. The Rise of Cobra line fixed the problem with vehicles by eliminating the window and cutting the size down as much as possible, but they went a bit too far with the extra corners that increased the complexity of opening the box and left flaps hanging off at odd angles. Still, that could be overlooked if it weren't for the carded figure packaging that featured a wrap-around cardback that went around the bottom and secured onto the front with rubbery glue. Instead of just cutting off a bubble and/or some tape, opening these cleanly involved cutting the tape on the side flaps, pulling the front of the card off the front of the bubble, cutting the bubble at the bottom, cutting the top and side of the bubble, and then cutting the side flap under the bubble that attaches the bubble to the card. And then you still have the sticky mess from the rubbery glue... While the cardbacks from other G.I. Joe lines (notably the ones immediately before and after this one) feature nice art and file cards and are often saved, the cardbacks from this line are pure garbage, from their complicated design to their overuse of green to their generic file card bios (everyone's preferred weapon is their faction's generic rifle, regardless of the person's specialty). The final insult is the fake bar code on the file card that many cashiers try to scan, without success of course.
It is tempting to go with a classic-themed packaging design here, but much of that is based on nostalgia. G.I. Joe's version had problems outside the carded figure realm, the Star Wars Vintage line could not support many figures and/or accessories due to size constraints, and the Transformers packaging paradigm has changed so much since the 80s that true classic packaging was only used on the first few reissues. A clear favorite though has to be G.I. Joe's Pursuit of Cobra line, which followed the disastrous (in more ways than one) Rise of Cobra line. The Pursuit of Cobra line is essentially a "what if..." line exploring how G.I. Joe would look with modern style and technology and no movie tie-ins. The packaging reflects this with a stylish update of the classic look. Carded figures feature character art on the entire left side with a larger rectangular bubble on the right, all under the classic G.I. Joe logo in monochrome instead of the old red, white, and blue stripes. The logo theme carries over to the bubble, which features two sets of indentations matching the size and angle of the logo's trailing stripes. These indentations add some character to an otherwise boring surface and add some rigidity to the large bubble; the size of the bubble now allows for plenty of accessories without obscuring the card art. The bottom of the bubble is also angled down in the front, allowing the cards to stand upright on their own. The cards are trimmed in metallic light blue, which helps them to stand out in a crowded toy aisle. The back of each card includes a generic description of the figure's specified environment and a file card (without fake bar code) that describes the character in the context of the specified mission. For vehicles, it's back to the old standard rectangular boxes with a bubble to display the figure on Bravo vehicles and a window for the vehicle on Alpha vehicles and mech suits.
Time and time again, when a line fails, the blame is inevitably placed not on the manufacturer or the retailers, but on the consumers. Yes, when a line is clogging the pegs with no hope in sight, the problem could never be case ratios that are heavily skewed towards pegwarmers, overdelivery of a single case assortment, entire waves getting lost in warehouses and then dumped off to discount outlets a year or more later, excessive gaps between delivery of waves, or perpetually empty pegs leading up to a massive overstocking of old figures that nobody wants anymore. The problem is always that the consumer didn't do as they were told and buy everything in sight. Unfortunately, this has spawned the concept that supporting a line means buying things you don't want so the manufacturer will make more (of the stuff you don't want?). With so many examples of failure to work from, it should be possible to properly plan out a line if the powers that be could understand why the lines failed. This, however, will never happen.
It was not a good decade for retailers, between the Wal-Mart effect and the recession, but among the fallen, one truly deserved to go: Kay Bee Toys. I do not say this lightly - Kay Bee was my only real toy store as a kid (we had no Toys R Us nearby, Target and Wal-Mart had not yet moved in, and Caldor and Zayre/Ames had K-Mart style toy sections). Still, Kay Bee's time had really come to an end along with 80s icons like Transformers and G.I. Joe (both of which continued on much longer than they should have into the early 90s and came back in a different style later in the 90s before undergoing a rebirth in this past decade). It all really came to an end for me sometime around 1990 when I went through this thought process: "I want to buy Transformers. Transformers are on clearance. There is nothing here worth buying even on clearance. Why do I bother coming in here again?" This was the last time I thought of Kay Bee as anything more than an inconvenience. High prices, limited selection, cramped space, disorganized shelves - Kay Bee was everything that was bad about retail. Things almost came to an end earlier in this decade when they got nailed for their deceptive practice of showing prices as being marked down from even higher prices that were in fact fake (making the current price look like a discount), but the company made it through bankruptcy that time. The second trip down Chapter 11 aisle was the last though, as Kay Bee's old ways and the decline of malls combined with the recession to bring down one of the biggest names in toys. For me, it was two decades too late.
This one had some tough competition. On the Transformers side, Revenge of the Fallen Preview Bumblebee was one of the biggest WTFs of the line. Coming in after countless repaints and variants of Bumblebee in the first movie line, this slightly modified version of the second movie Bumblebee was released in advance of the full movie line along with Soundwave. He was soon followed by Cannon Bumblebee, Alliance Bumblebee, and the NEST two-pack repaint of Cannon Bumblebee, all of which had the same basic color scheme and alt mode. Still, it was Soundwave that was more often clogging the pegs, so maybe it made sense in some strange way.
For Star Wars, nothing can top the Captain Rex exclusive mail-away preview figure from the Clone Wars animated line. No amount of Hasbro spin could change the fact that this preview figure didn't get mailed out until a couple of weeks after a nearly identical version of this figure was available in stores (and would later be released in many more slight variants over the next few years). There's only one word to describe a preview figure that comes out after the line debuts: FAIL.
Hasbro took a different approach to the G.I. Joe Rise of Cobra line - they released the preview figures (a three-pack with a MARS Officer and two MARS Troopers, none of which actually appeared in the movie) as an online exclusive. Wha? Even die-hard fans were confused when they couldn't find this pack in stores. A preview figure is supposed to generate interest in a line, not frustrate the very people most likely to buy everything regardless while remaining invisible to more casual customers (aka the target audience). Expecting people to spontaneously search online and then pay shipping on top of the $20 price is a bit of a stretch. The figures themselves are decent (though I would have preferred black instead of brown for the officer's base color), but sales have been so poor that Amazon has sold these for as little as $5 per pack (the price fluctuates daily).
Greed. It brings out the worst in people and corporations. One of the best examples of both is the Transformers G1 Commemorative Series, a line of Hasbro G1 Transformers reissues that, except for the last two figures, was exclusive to Toys R Us. The first wave came out in late 2002 and consisted of Optimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, and Hot Rod (renamed Rodimus Major). The line came on the heels of the start of the popular G1 Collection reissue series from Takara in Japan, which was heavily imported by collectors in the US (despite the higher prices typical of the Japanese market and high shipping costs). At this point, the G1 Collection series consisted entirely of Autobot cars, so TRU's initial offering had no real competition from overseas (previous reissues were prohibitively expensive). Pricing was higher than comparable modern releases but still reasonable at $40 each for Prime and Magnus and $17 for Rodimus ($25 and $10 would have been the respective norms for modern figures). Not surprisingly, Prime was hoarded by collectors and scalpers while the other two sold fairly well. Prices on eBay ranged from $60 to $80 for Prime when a second shipment pacified frustrated collectors (myself included). The experiment proved to be a success, but the activity on the secondary market left TRU with one clear message, to quote Roger Smith: I should have asked for more.
More waves of G1 reissues showed up at TRU, with a few slight changes. First, the book-style packaging used in the Japanese G1 Collection series was adopted fully by the third wave (the box art remained in the style of the original G1 figures). Next, the prices were increased to be about the same as those of the imports (with shipping factored in): $30 for cars and $35 for jets. Many of the figures in Wave 3 and later would spend the next three years on various shelves until TRU began massive clearances in 2005 (the likes of which haven't been seen at TRU since then). Raising the price of the cars from $17 (or $20 as was rumored to have been the plan for the later cars) to $30 drove away collectors, kids, and parents alike. For that price, you could get three similar modern figures with much better durability and articulation or you could get the same figure imported from Japan without any enlarged missiles or disabled launchers (to satisfy US child safety regulations). It just didn't make sense unless you were a dedicated collector, and even those had their limits. At $20 per figure, the die-hards could be counted on to buy two of each figure, one to open and one to keep sealed. At $30 or more per figure, most would limit themselves to one of each, if any (figures with corresponding G1 Collection releases were likely to be skipped). Year after year, figures from the third wave onward sat on the shelves, with Silverstreak finally clearanced down to a reasonable $13 in July of 2006 (it had been stuck at $20 while most of the more recent releases fell to less than $10 and as little as $2.50 in some cases). The final two releases in the line were sold elsewhere: Sideswipe was a $15 Kay Bee exclusive and Astrotrain was sold on HasbroToyShop.com.
In the four years since the line's demise, Toys R Us would sell only three more G1 reissues: Soundwave as part of the 06/07 Classics line and Perceptor and the Insecticons in late 2009. Prices in both cases were similar to the Commemorative series line but production seemed a bit more limited (the most recent two are still sporadically available a year later at a reduced price). Meanwhile, the G1 Collection series had come to an end after 21 releases (about the same as the TRU run), but the Encore series soon took its place as an import G1 reissue line (with classic-style packaging and slightly higher prices). On the domestic front, there's not much to look forward to except for the occasional ComicCon exclusive reissue (Soundwave in 2009 and Blaster in 2010). Some things are better left to Japan.
The massive price increases of 2009 (along with the massive recession that accompanied it) did a number on the toy industry and toy collectors alike, but nothing was more outrageous than Wal-Mart's second set of Droid Factory exclusives. After the first go-around went fairly well priced at $10 for two repainted figures and a piece of C-3PO, the 2009 version saw an insane increase to $17 for two figures (again mostly repaints that nobody wanted) and part of a Dark Trooper. Sure, the Phase III Dark Trooper parts were quite large, and who doesn't want a big Dark Trooper, but $17? That's $85 for one cool figure and ten figures of mostly crap. It didn't help that Wal-Mart treated this like all of its other exclusives and sent large quantities to some stores and nothing to the majority of stores, but $85? Even if you could sell the other figures for $5 each (the typical sale/discount price for carded figures at the end of the decade), that's still $35 for a Dark Trooper figure that is only slightly larger than a typical carded figure. Most of Wal-Mart's 2009 exclusives were horribly overpriced, but the bulk of those were eventually clearanced for half price. Not Droid Factory though, unless you managed to find one of the lucky stores that marked them down to $5 or less (which none of the stores near me ever did). The pricing on these was so insane that Hasbro made the unprecedented move of officially declaring the line a failure and citing the high price as the reason. Still, they are unwilling to make the Dark Trooper available as anything but a set of pack-in parts and they maintain that they could not make it viable at a lower price. Something is not adding up here.
Clearance means different things to different stores, but Wal-Mart treats clearances no different from its other temporary price cuts. Prices on a clearance item at Wal-Mart can be less than, more than, or the same as the item's original price, and it can go down or up later. Quite often, the only indication that an item is on clearance is that its shelf tag has changed color from yellow to red. After a while on clearance, most items will have their prices adjusted back to their original prices or more; it is not uncommon to see a clearance item from several years ago back on the shelves at an insanely high price. Sometimes, this can be an unexpected windfall (hard-to-find items from years past occasionally turn up), but most of the time it just adds to the cluttered mess that makes Wal-Mart look like an overpriced dollar store.
When it comes to clearing out old stock, no store is as brutally effective as Target. Eventually, all items will share the same fate: to be progressively clearanced at lower and lower prices and then dumped off to who-knows-where if that doesn't get them to sell. For toys, this is typically a 30%-50%-75% progression, though G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra figures got an extra special 80% clearance. The downside is that many people will wait for the inevitable clearance on big ticket items like Ultimate Battle Packs or $50+ vehicles, but having space for new products helps to bring in customers looking for the next big thing.
2007 was not a good year for brand-specific convention exclusives. First Hasbro, thinking that the Classics line is over for good and figuring that a limited release is better than no release at all, gives BotCon the three remaining Seeker jets in the new Classics mold, then later on it is announced that JoeCon's "Tanks for the Memories" sets would not include any tanks at the convention (but they would be shipped out later). BotCon 07 sets sold out well in advance of the convention (I was considering going to the thing just to get the figures) and the JoeCon tanks never shipped due to damage to the mold. One screws over people who didn't go to the convention (or didn't fax in their registration forms earlier, yes, I said fax), the other screws over the people who did go to the convention (but they did get a partial refund). I understand the reasons for both, but it still stinks. To Hasbro's credit though, they have been working to get the Seekers released somehow. First Takara Tomy released exclusive versions of the three (plus Skywarp, which was a Target Exclusive in the US) at prices that were slightly less insane than the going price of BotCon 07 Seekers on eBay, then Hasbro promised that they would try to resolve the situation in 2010. 2010 is here and guess what, Hasbro showed a Classics Thrust at Toy Fair as part of the Generations line. And actually followed through and got it and Dirge into stores, with Thundercracker due up in 2011. G.I. Joe fans unfortunately have only gotten one actual tank since the line's return to relevance, a disappointing M.O.B.A.T. in the 2008 Target-exclusive Ultimate Battle Pack.
Convention exclusives are hard to get right, especially with rabid fans waiting for the opportunity to complain about something being too scarce, too common, too new, too old, too original, or too generic. In 2009 though, everything seemed to be just right, with great exclusives at BotCon, JoeCon, and ComicCon. Even Mattel had some nice exclusives (aside from the Gleep shortage fiasco). If you want the perfect blueprint for a great convention exclusive, you need look no further than the SDCC exclusive Destro two-pack. This is an outstanding exclusive even without the figures - book-style packaging inside a box, with biographical information about the various James McCullens leading up to the current Destro, with sketches of some of the weapons supposedly developed and sold (to both sides of every conflict) by each. And hey, there are a couple of figures in here too. Parts re-use was kept to a minimum on the figures, with only the versatile IG Destro body and some accessories coming from previous figures (and the armor and paint apps make the IG Destro body almost completely unrecognizable). Accessories are plentiful, colors and paint apps are perfect, and the one all-new figure had people asking for repaints before this was even released. Combine this with a reasonable price ($25, with a 10% discount available on HasbroToyShop orders after the convention) and availability (these are still in stock at the G.I. Joe Collectors Club) and you have one of the best exclusives of all-time (unless you are trying to make a profit reselling them).
Jetfire has been a near constant since Armada, appearing in every recent major line/continuity except Animated and Alternators (Armada, Energon, Cybertron, Classics, Movie, Titanium); only Optimus Prime, Megatron, and Starscream have been in more. Most of the older molds (Armada, Cybertron, Classics) have been repainted in later lines, but, like the rest of the Voyager-class Autobots in that line, the Energon version only got one in-line obligatory repaint (as Overcast) before being forgotten. With the original (Jetfire) out at the line's launch and the repaint (Overcast) released in limited numbers in the middle of the line's run, this mold spent very little time on shelves and was long gone at clearance time. Though not nearly as bad as the Ironhide and Cliffjumper molds, Jetfire/Overcast suffered from being very boring. The vehicle mode didn't really look like anything, the colors were bland, and even the cartoon didn't do much with him (was Jetfire even in the cartoon?). After being a (regretfully) near-completist for Armada, it was Energon Jetfire's repaint as Overcast that broke me of my habit. For that, I will always remember the most forgettable of Transformers.
This one was obvious to everyone but the powers-that-be at Hasbro, who seemed determined to beat down this guy's popularity at any cost. Let's do the math: the show is The Clone Wars, probably the most popular entry in over 20 years for one of the biggest media/merchandise franchises on the planet. The character is of the same species as fan-favorite Admiral Ackbar and is an upstart young Jedi like the main character in Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. And he dies in his one episode. Logic would dictate that collectors would go nuts for a figure of this guy and kids probably wouldn't be opposed to it either (especially given how human-centric The Clone Wars is). So what does Hasbro do to cash in on this obvious popularity? Well, first they refuse to even consider making a figure. Then they cave and release it as a mail-in exclusive with a fairly short window of availability. Then they get so flooded with redemption forms that they need to make plans for an additional production run well before the deadline for submissions is reached. Now, that alone is nothing new for Hasbro mail-in offers, but at least the G.I. Joe and Indiana Jones mail-in exclusives had a window of 8 months or so; the Nahdar Vebb offer was only available for about half that and was found in a product that was in short supply for most of that time.
The first incarnation of the Transformers Universe line featured repaint after repaint of figures from the G2 through RID eras (aka The Time I Forgot About Transformers). The intent was to bridge the gap between RID and Armada and act as a refresher for people just getting back into the franchise with the Armada reboot. The better G2 and RID molds were perfect for this, so it was no surprise that the three cars from RID were prominent in this line. Also no surprise was RID Prowl repainted as Red Alert (and then given the name Inferno for some unknown reason), since Prowl had already been repainted as Sideswipe and Sunstreaker in convention exclusives. What was truly bizarre about this mold though was when Prowl was repainted as Prowl. Not even a different Prowl, but the same G1-style Prowl as the original. The only noticeable difference was the giant faction symbol on the hood (which just looks tacky). For this mold at least, the well has run dry. Good thing there's a new version to exploit in Universe 2.0...
The Universe 2.0 line brought us a third deluxe Lamborghini mold (after the G1 and RID versions), so the first few versions were obvious - Sunstreaker, Sideswipe, Red Alert... The mold was designed to have two different robot modes (well, as different as turning the robot around can be), so Punch/Counterpunch made sense too. Then came G2 Breakdown, giant blocky head and all. Like all G2 figures, Breakdown had a wonderfully tacky color scheme (teal and lavender, with the occasional red splatter), so this on top of such a great mold made him the belle of Botcon.
Going in the opposite direction, some G2 figures turned out to be quite nice when given sensible color schemes. The Robots Disguise line and its lingering offspring that mutated into the Universe line (not to be confused with Universe 2.0, which is descended from Classics) provided the much-needed service of cleaning up otherwise presentable molds from G2 and the various Beast lines. With the neon look banished, figures like Dreadwind and Smokejumper, Razorclaw, Jetstorm, and those guys with little air pump cannons fit in well with Hasbro's latest offerings (though, considering that this was in the Armada era, it's not saying much). Out of all of these though, Scourge stands out as the best of the bunch. Before every Optimus Prime figure was automatically repainted in black as Nemesis Prime, there was Scourge, a repaint of G2 Laser Optimus Prime released at the tail end of RiD proper. The figure proved to be difficult to find due to its popularity and the line's impending demise (except for a steady stream of store exclusives). The formula was a clear winner: take an outstanding mold from the forgotten years of G2, dress it up in black and chrome, ... Profit? It didn't hurt that G2 Laser Optimus Prime came with an arsenal of weapons (and a second set of projectiles that could store inside the trailer).
This was an easy call as it was the only non-exclusive non-variant retail release I have ever had to resort to eBay for because I couldn't find it in stores. There are enough stores around me that I rarely have trouble finding regular releases at least once, but this one just never materialized. In December of 2003, stores began the process of changing from Transformers Armada to Transformers Energon. The early case assortments of Energon were loaded with Armada repaints (though the only figures of Energon characters that appeared as repaints of their Armada selves were released as Kay Bee exclusives), including Armada Overload repainted as Ultra Magnus (with some extra repainted Mini-cons bundled in). Despite being named after a major Transformers character and being a repaint of a figure that was released at the tail end of Armada's run (and one that combines with Optimus Prime at that), Energon Ultra Magnus was limited to just the first Ultra-class case assortment, which of course was a very limited run that didn't make it out to much of anywhere. After a couple months of searching, I finally gave up and bought it on eBay (at twice the retail price). A special "USA Edition" version was released in Japan, but it was limited to 2500 pieces and sold for about as much as the actual USA version on eBay.
Web coupons have to be one of the decade's greatest innovations - just go to a web site, print out the coupon, and save! Even better, lots of information can be encoded in the coupon, providing the issuer with free marketing data. While things have more or less gotten figured out by now with the advent of the more complex coupon delivery systems and other sensible methods of employing printable coupons, early attempts at web coupons were a bit clumsier and easier to abuse. Many were distributed as simple image files, which could be copied and printed indefinitely. Some, like those used by Toys R Us, were limited to certain dates, but others were good for months, based on the intent of giving them out as bonuses to a limited number of individuals. Who then sent them on to the Internet-at-large. Oops.
The morality of using a legitimate coupon in a way the issuer did not intend (but did not forbid) is a bit murky, but since they can simply cancel the coupon if they don't like how it is being used (and they will because they won't), why not use it while you can? This was the situation when Target sent out $5 off $25 toy purchase birthday coupons to a select group of recipients only to see thousands of uses over a period of a few months in 2008. Why it took Target so long to can the coupon program is anyone's guess, but it sure made Target the store of choice for toy purchases. The party ended the day before Target's summer clearance, three months before the coupon's intended expiration date. Still, with no restriction on what the coupon could be used for other than limiting it to toys (something missing on the truly fraudulent and awfully convenient scapegoat modified coupon referenced by Target when they discontinued the coupon), this coupon took the sting out of the first of many price increases in 2008 and 2009.
Not to be left out, K-Mart had its own version of this fiasco with a $10 off $20 purchase coupon two years later. In this case, it only took them a couple of weeks to shut down the promotion. By this point, legitimate $5 off $25 for Star Wars and Iron Man toys were common through Coupons.com (and there was little else of anything new in stores at the time), so there was no reason to pay K-Mart's high prices, even with a massive discount.
The annual figure cycle has become fairly predictable: the year starts off with post-holiday clearances, new product trickles in as long-running lines end and short-lived movie lines begin in the spring, new long-running lines begin or undergo a packaging change in the summer, fall releases fail to materialize, and then stores are crammed with as much crap as the manufacturers can churn out for the holidays. Nobody really knows where the fall releases really go, but they sometimes turn up at the discount retailers a year or two later. Logic would therefore dictate that the repaints nobody really wants in the first place should be moved from winter to fall to make sure that the fall's actual new releases make it out, but the industry doesn't work that way.
Like there was even any competition... This was THE figure of the decade, and will likely continue to be prominent for years to come. With three Japanese releases (figure only, with trailer, and a supposed "final" version), two US releases (25th Anniversary with gray gun/blue gun/poster variants and fancy talking base version), and three repaints (Ultra Magnus, Nemesis Prime, and "sleep mode"), this is one of the most prolific high-end toy releases out there (the Masterpiece Starscream figure is only just catching up, and that has far more repaint potential). The big draw of course is that it combines a cartoon-accurate vehicle mode with a cartoon-accurate robot mode, something that was once considered a physical impossibility. The first version came with a rather pathetic cardboard trailer, but a full trailer followed in the fourth Masterpiece release (Roller was left to the third-party manufacturers). About the only way to top it would be a full-size version, which would probably be a bit too expensive for a regular release.
It seems absurd to just write off all of the great figures that came after the VOTC Stormtrooper, but what could be more iconic? The figure's sculpt and articulation are still top-notch by today's standards, with the only deficient areas being the hips (ball-jointed hips are still rare on Star Wars figures and aren't done very well on most other lines, with only G.I. Joe really doing a decent job of them), wrists (anything more than a swivel is extremely rare, the most common being Clone Wars clone troopers, which lost this feature in the second version of the mold), and holster. The articulation on this figure is still the best around; two-handed rifle poses look right on these guys, unlike the vast majority of other figures. Add in the vintage-style cardback and there's not much to complain about. This figure has also been used as the base for countless other Stormtrooper figures over the years, so it seems clear that Hasbro is happy with it (though they are usually happy with whatever they have on hand). The removable helmet debate is ongoing, but you really don't need a removable helmet for nameless, faceless troops (and if you want one, the TAC version adds that). The Vintage line will bring this figure into the next decade, though the exact details are not yet known.
I'm actually kind of surprised that this one was never attempted. Let's review the facts:
Dispensor was easily the coolest random thing ever turned into a sentient transforming robot by the Allspark, yet the only Dispensor figure (and the only reason we know to call him Dispensor) is a non-transforming Robot Heroes figure. Hell, the freaking toaster even got a decent figure, why not the Mountain Dew machine that shoots cans of liquid refreshment at its hapless victims?
While the final remnants of the last Indiana Jones line are only just now fading away, the best was yet to come. The fifth wave, which was previewed but never produced, contained great figures in the quality the line reached in Wave 4, only these figures were from a more popular movie (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Among them was a Toht with ALTERNATE MELTING HEAD. Unfortunately, there will be no continuation of this line unless George Lucas writes another crappy Indiana Jones movie. That price might just be worth it.
Most people have forgotten about this by now, but He-Man got a 21st century reboot at the same exact time as Transformers. Even more forgotten is how the He-Man cartoon was actually far better than its Transformers counterpart (the lack of stupid kids and poke-formers may have had something to do with that). Unfortunately for fans of Eternian musclemen, mishandling of the He-Man toy line and a fairly dull second season of the cartoon (that really only served as a lead-in to the potentially good but canceled third season) doomed the He-Man franchise to hell in the form of Mattel online-only sales of He-Man Classics (which are fairly popular despite the Mattel 6" format that I personally don't like), while the craptacular Transformers: Armada spawned two more cartoon shows (one sequel and one that Hasbro tried to retcon into a sequel, with hilariously idiotic results), a billion-dollar movie franchise, two more unrelated cartoons, and mountains of toys in every store on the planet. I suppose I can understand if He-Man fans think the world is out to get them.
What's with Japan and tentacles anyway? Someone over there thought that Transformers needed some scantily-clad girls being violated by tentacle-like appendages, so here we are. It's times like these that make me glad that I can't read any kanji beyond "right" and "left." And make me wish that I had been blind before seeing the images from this franchise's manga... When Kiss Players was first announced, there was much speculation about it being some kind of transforming Gene Simmons. The final product wasn't too far off the mark, only slightly more disturbing (and less marketable to middle-aged aspiring rock stars).
Three words: Cyber Key POWER!!!!! Yes, that's why this line sucks. That and the substandard quality on most figures. There was the occasional piece of non-crap, but too much of this line felt like gimmick-laden filler. Hell, they retooled four Armada molds for this line. Armada! At least Armada had a few fun figures, Cybertron was mostly second-rate design wrapped around a stupid gimmick. Well, so was Armada. It's really a wash, but Armada gets a pass because it was a new start for the franchise; by Cybertron, they should have known better.
The classics line combined classic characters with modern figure design, making it an easy choice for best of the decade. Though there was the occasional dud (Galvatron) or pointless repaint (any non-Inferno Universe 2.0 Voyager class figure), the line delivered quality figures more often than not. For a Transformers line, that's pretty damn good.
Do I even need to say anything here? This movie kicked ass at sucking, and it did it on a giant IMAX screen (mercifully not in 3D). With the highest domestic gross of any movie in 2009, this is the biggest big-budget blockbuster turd to drop in the history of cinema. Train wreck doesn't come close to the disaster that is Revenge of the Fallen; it's like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 mashed into celluloid covered in various bodily fluids and nuked until golden brown.
If the second Transformers movie hadn't run away with it, the above award would have gone to Cybertron by a mile (though Energon put up a good fight). While the hilariously awful theme song, terrible accents, excessive stock footage, overused power-up sequences, heavy-handed moral lessons (that are contradicted almost instantly), and pointless comic relief characters would be bad enough to doom any show, Cybertron topped it off with inane plots that make the 80s G.I. Joe cartoon look worthy of a Nobel prize (and in fact Cartoon Network stuck with the latter in prime Saturday night time slots longer than the former). The best example of this, out of a great many, has to be the episode Ice, which has our heroes trekking out to the arctic because there's something there. Seriously, that's the exact reason (well, maybe some kind of disturbance or other such generic "something"). The token fleshbag children, not wanting to be left out, hitch a ride to the arctic with their Mini-Con pals, only to find out that it's fucking cold there. In the arctic. Luckily they run into a crazy scientist lady who likes kids because they're so open to her crackpot ideas. She quickly surmises that their parents don't know about this little arctic expedition, so she buys the kids some clothing and goodies and takes a bath with them in the local hot spring (with bathing suits on at least, did she buy those too?). I seriously hope this makes some sort of sense in Japan, because around here that sort of behavior just screams child predator. Seriously, they showed us filmstrips in elementary school warning us about people like this. I guess the moral of the story is that it's OK to bathe with random strangers who buy you things. And a tiny amount of ice can immobilize a giant robot in a matter of seconds (hence the title). This episode is a definite shark jump, in the sense that the show can't possibly get any better afterward, only because there's no way for the show to redeem itself after hitting bottom so hard.
People seemed to like it, so, um, sure, whatever. Like Beast Wars, I only saw one episode of Animated, and, like Beast Wars, I just didn't find it compelling. Since people think Beast Wars was the best ever, I guess that makes Animated the best of the decade. That's logic for you. Transformers Prime looks promising, but that doesn't officially start until 2011 (the 2010 5-part "miniseries" was just a preview event).
"Ride me, Kicker!"
In retrospect, we really shouldn't have been surprised at how crude the second movie was.
There are just too many easy targets here, even just from Playmates alone (Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, etc.). Add in all of the flash-in-the-pan franchise films (your various Narnias, Pirates, and everything that sucked too much to ever get another movie made), generic 6" superhero lines (Spider-Man, Superman, Hulk - Incredible or otherwise, Fantastic Four, etc.), movies that didn't move toys (Wall-E, Astro Boy, Prince of Persia, The A-Team, Tron), and other assorted movies that just didn't resonate with kids (Batman, Watchmen, Avatar - Airbender and otherwise), and you would have about half of a modern-day Toys R Us. Still, they all pale in comparison to one accursed toy line: Speed Racer. Yes, the movie that could only be enjoyed while heavily medicated (and even then only by those who were in a similar state for the original) surprisingly flopped in the toy aisle as well. In fact, it still occupies an entire endcap at TRU two full years after its release. Whoever was betting big on Speed Racer being the next big franchise revival is probably now a top executive for TRU. I see no other explanation for that store's current state of chaos.
Comic properties were the last to join the Star Wars/G.I. Joe scale, but that just meant there was plenty of material to work with. While most of Hasbro's lines are built around a handful of core figures, Marvel comics are loaded with so many major characters that repetition was less of a problem than usual (or at least should have been...). Body reuse was also so easy that many minor characters and variants could be produced with minimal tooling changes. Yes, there were too many Iron Man and Spider-Man variants, the basic female body was a bit substandard, and waves seemed to be spaced out too far, but the line managed to produce over 100 different figures (including many character variants and obscure characters) in less than two years. The development team has been remarkably well-connected to the fanbase and seems to be aware of problems at retail, something that seems to be lacking in other parts of Hasbro. Their convention exclusives have been very well-executed overall and have gone over well with fans. The Secret Wars 25th anniversary comic pack series was one of the best uses of comic packs (which makes sense considering that these figures are based on comic books); the series requires no prior knowledge of the storylines and introduces a large cast of iconic and lesser-known characters, 24 of which (plus a tiny Wasp) made it into plastic in the comic packs (with a few more showing up single carded).
With the Clone Wars line entering its third packaging style, it is hard to call it anything but a success. Changing the figure style to match the animation (or at least approximate it) was a risky move that the collecting community largely panned, but, if nothing else, it provided Hasbro with the opportunity to sell yet another version of every major character. The line's focus on kids meant spring-loaded weapons (some executed very well), a focus on core characters, and, unfortunately, less concern about articulation (because kids don't want action figures to be all actiony, just figurey). Still, the line has produced some figures that even a collector can't hate. The droids in particular have been occasionally well-executed; my favorites in the last three years have been the IG-86 Assassin Droid, the Commando Droid, and the fully-articulated Magnaguard, while generic-body figures like clones and Mandalorians are some examples of Hasbro's best engineering efforts to date.
Part of this success (if not most of it) has to be attributed to the animated series, which has emerged as the best prequel media property Lucas has given us (though the Clone Wars microseries is a close second). A character-driven drama that focuses on military strategy and galactic politics might seem like a tough sell to kids, but robots, spaceships, lightsabers, and bounty hunters can make anything work. The Clone Wars is proof that you don't need to reduce children's entertainment to talking animals and poop jokes to get a good result (though you still need to throw those in every once in a while to keep things from getting too serious). Sure, we know that everyone who wasn't still around by the time Revenge of the Sith starts will have to die, but the show has been taking its time carefully building the story in ways that the prequel movies proved inept at. Even the painfully awkward Anakin/Padme relationship is almost tolerable in this show. One problem is the lag between character appearances on the show and their appearances in the toy line, which will really come to a head when the show inevitably ends (it can't possibly keep going much past three seasons). If there's a way to keep it going though (either without a current media property or by starting a new story), I'm sure Hasbro will do whatever it takes to milk this style for all it's worth.
Let's face it, this could have been Indiana Jones and the Chamber of Farts and we all would have gone out to see it. Indiana Jones was one of the most beloved action heroes from the 80s, but it took almost 20 years to get another movie made. By then, Harrison Ford got old, Shia LeBouf got cast in just about everything, and George Lucas had run out of talent. Steven Spielberg tried to be the voice of reason, but if this was the result, I don't want to see Lucas's original idea. Now, don't get me wrong, the pieces seem to work. Indy fighting Russians, a glimpse of the Ark in a warehouse, mysterious ruins, and strange artifacts all sound like they'd make a good movie. Unfortunately, the movie didn't aspire to be much more than a collection of scenes, so the feeling of adventure just never materialized. The addition of a son for Indy also never really clicked; while the father-son dynamic in Last Crusade largely made that movie work, it fell flat here. The only bright spot was the toy line, which covered the entire Indiana Jones movie history, or at least tried to for as long as it could before getting the axe. So yeah, that turned out to be disappointing as well. Even South Park couldn't get any good material out of this movie, instead just running a miserable gag into the ground for 30 minutes.
Out of all of the cartoons that debuted in the 90s, Batman: The Animated Series stands out for the quality of its stories and its unique animated style. A companion Superman series soon followed, with crossovers between the two establishing their place in a larger DC animated universe. There's more to DC than just Batman and Superman though, so 2001's Justice League cartoon expanded the roster of recurring heroes to include Wonder Woman, The Martian Manhunter, The Green Lantern (John Stewart, not to be confused with the host of The Daily Show), Hawkgirl, and The Flash. Together, they battled a vast array of villains from across all of the DC comics properties, but eventually the story became too big for seven superheroes. Enter Justice League Unlimited, which used an attack on Earth as an excuse to centralize the power of all of the planet's superheroes under one command structure (and introduce a few hundred more characters...).
The end result felt like it never quite reached its full potential, but that's to be expected when you have a few dozen half-hour episodes to cover the entirety of DC Comics. With so many characters to focus on (pretty much anyone ever featured in a DC comic book), the show lived on the edge of not developing the minor characters well enough or wasting too much time on characters that just didn't deserve it (Booster Gold's episode got the balance just right, showing him saving the world and getting a date amid a larger battle that the rest of the heroes wouldn't let him take part in, while the episode about how non-super heroes deserved some respect felt like a waste). Though very mythology heavy (both in historical and comic terms, detailed episode guides are a must if you want to understand everything that happened), the show was still accessible to someone coming in with no knowledge of the DC comics universe. Maintaining continuity with the previous animated shows (plus the concurrently-running Batman Beyond and a couple of lesser spinoffs) provided plenty of callbacks to satisfy hardcore fans.
In the end, it never really came together, and the direct-to-video releases that followed (plus the assorted other Batman shows and movies) are in separate universes, so Justice League seems to have just faded away. Its legacy remains in the form of the line of barely-articulated standing-averse action figures that bears its name, but otherwise, it seems to have had little lasting impact. This is unfortunate, as Justice League succeeded at delivering compelling stories with complex themes that weren't dumbed down for kids and could still be enjoyed by people of all ages.
In January of 2010, a legend passed. Moff Jerjerrod, beloved pegwarmer and faithful ambassador to Star Wars lines of years past, was sighted for the last time at discount retailers in the first month of the year. He was four years old.
It's strange sometimes how things run in cycles. Back in 2001, I was more interested in catching up on Gundam history than Transformers, but by 2002, Transformers old and new were taking center stage. Fast forward to 2009 and a truly terrible Transformers movie, followed a few months later by the start of the direct-to-Blu-Ray Gundam Unicorn animated series, shifted the momentum back the other way. Transformers Prime looks like it will start to dig the franchise out of Michael Bay's Pit of Critical Failure (and Loads of Cash)(TM), but it is already lagging behind G.I. Joe; both new cartoons started on the same day, but G.I. Joe went weekly from the start while Transformers went on hiatus until February 2011. At least none of them are Star Wars or Indiana Jones, both of which had fans waiting for decades to be disappointed. For now, I would take a Master Grade Gundam 00 over a Masterpiece Rodimus Prime, but that may change...
Perhaps more than ever before, the inner workings of the companies making toys have become as important as the toys they produce. Regular question and answer sessions with fan sites are now commonplace and have become an essential link between producers and consumers. While some details are kept secret (typically production numbers and future planning), companies have revealed enough about their inner workings to be able to present the production teams as an extension of the fan community and not just a bunch of out-of-touch bureaucrats.
That's not to say that there aren't out-of-touch bureaucrats in the chain somewhere. Production numbers, distribution paths, retailer orders, and strategic plans tend to be the scapegoats whenever something goes wrong. Even the fans have been blamed for failures, though that one really just turns back on the market research that failed to properly characterize the fans in the first place. Of particular concern is the role of discount retailers in a product's life cycle. Just a few years ago, discount stores were largely the domain of off-brand merchandise and lesser properties that couldn't justify a major retail presence (when the Astro Boy toy line launched, the only retailers that stocked it were overpricer Toys R Us and discounter Big Lots). Now, a trip to any of the discount stores will bring you through piles of toys from the top franchises, including many items that were never stocked at "normal" retail, at prices that aren't much (if any) lower than MSRP.
So why do I keep bringing this up? The trend of counting on multiple tiers of retailers allows manufacturers to reduce the risk of overproduction by having a secondary retail chain lined up in advance. If the primary distribution method can't move the product in the allotted time, just switch the shipments to the secondaries. The side effects of reducing the variety at the primary retailers (by reducing product refreshes when the items in stock won't sell quickly enough) and creating artificial scarcity of certain items in the window between the anticipated shelf date and the discount retailer arrival date have yet to be dealt with or even acknowledged. Is this just a brief anomaly or the new standard operating procedure? Much like the emergence of online stores, this is something that needs to be factored into strategic planning; the retailer strategy of the next decade will affect the rest of the process, including figure diversity, production numbers, and refresh rates. If the process doesn't change, we'll be stuck with the same figures gathering dust for a year or more at the major retailers while only the discount stores get anything new.