Saturday, 31 May 2014

Playmobil 4694 Special: Ghost Knight

Company: Playmobil

Year: 2009

RRP: See “Availability” 


I had a little bit of Playmobil as a kid, but my primary experience of it was actually in my Sunday School, around the ages of 5-7. They had what seemed like a HUGE amount of Playmobil characters – apparently known as “Klickies” stashed in the room for kids to play with. They didn’t embed themselves on my youthful consciousness in the same way as say, Lego or TMNT, but I retain a certain fondness for them nonetheless.

At any rate, I found myself visiting a small toyshop on the Central Coast this weekend and they were clearing out Playmobil at 40% off. Recently I’d seen a Wizard figure that I liked the look of, but he wasn’t to be found – but then I saw this Scareglow-looking character and I was instantly intrigued. Intrigue levels rose even further when I realised that he was actually a glow in the dark figure. I’d never seen a GITD Playmobil figure before, so far as I could remember. And should I decide to purchase the Wizard in future, he would make a nice counterpart…
After a quick internal wrestle, I pulled the trigger on the purchase. For $2.40, I couldn’t go wrong.

Playmobil Klickies are built on one base figure (like a Lego minifigure), standing just under 3 inches tall. There seem to be a couple of variations (e.g. to allow for child Klickies), but most of the differentiation between figures appears to come from the accessories and paintwork. So this guy is more or less the same figure that I played with 20+ years ago, at his core. If you’ve ever owned a Playmobil toy, you know what you’re in for.

The face is cast in GITD plastic, the body in black, the arms in grey, the hands in white and his boots in black. Articulation is minimal – cut neck, cut shoulders and cut wrists. Due to the belt, the arms aren't able to hang quite flush the body. The hips are on a hinge, so the legs all move as one piece. Though minimal by modern standards, it fits the simplistic aesthetic of the toy nicely. 


The Ghost Knight comes with quite a few accessories – most of which I suspect have previously seen release in other lines, but I am no expert on Playmobil, past or modern. Those with more knowledge than me should feel free to comment below.
He comes with:

*a chainmail “hairpiece”
*a black hood piece

*a black cape
*black gauntlets

*a red belt, with loop for the his sword.
*a silver sword

*a silver greataxe with a silver skull attached to its top
The skull is removable, so the axe doesn’t have to include it if you would prefer it without. All accessories are unpainted.   



The “paint” on Playmobil figures seems to be largely the work of tampographs. Being a ghost knight, his body is presumably incorporeal, and the black chest and legs have been decorated with GITD paint too. A red strap is slung along his chest, matching the belt piece. Tattered dark grey remnants of his robe are around his neck and waist.
Strangely, his arms are not decorated with bones – as they're cast in grey, I can only assume that his sleeves have lasted longer than the torso covering of his shirt.

Switch the light off and the bones glow nicely. I am a total sucker for GITD, so the purchase price is justified right there for me.

The only real issue was that some of the GITD paint seems to have scraped off the right leg. It was like this when I opened it, and doesn’t appear to have flaked any further as yet. I suspect the tampo may not have been properly applied, or it may have scraped off during shipping. As he’s in a sealed box, you won’t be able to check prior to opening.

This guy doesn’t seem to be too hard to track down on Amazon or eBay. It seems you’ll probably pay about $10 for him (plus postage) which isn’t outrageous, though certainly above retail. In store? I’d never seen him before, but I wasn’t buying toys in 2009. Still, I don’t like your chances.  

It’s probably been close to 20 years since I have played with Playmobil, but it was a really cool experience going back to it. I remember very little about the themes that were available when I was young, but these days it seems Playmobil are cultivating their adult audience by producing a variety of figures and themes that seem to be a little more adult-oriented – age 4-10 label notwithstanding – with this guy being a bit of a case in point. It’s pretty cool move, though judging by the relatively small quantity of Playmobil that seems to be on shelves, I don’t know how successful this has been.

But overall, the Ghost Knight is an excellent little figure, and I’m very glad to have come across him, especially at such a low price. 
As for this guy’s alignment – well, I naturally assumed he was a villain, some kind of evil wizard. But his designation as a “Ghost Knight” leaves it more ambiguous. You’re free to make up your own mind on this one, though I think he’ll primarily be a bad guy for me.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Lupine Book Club goes tropical!

Well guys, things are likely to be a little bit quiet here over the next couple of weeks. My wife and I are off overseas to Hawaii for a much-needed holiday. Work has been particularly hectic of late, so it will be nice to head overseas, even though it's only briefly.

I hope to return with plenty of exciting experiences -- and stuff to showcase on the blog. I may even squeeze in a post or two if I can manage it. So keep your eyes on this page!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Silversnout (Transformers: Age of Extinction Kre-O Microchangers)

Company: Hasbro

Year: 2014


I’ve previously reviewed some of the Transformers Kreon blind bags, from the Preview Series and Collection 4. Making my way through Big W today, I came across a new series, tying in with the impending release of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction – though it’s confusingly known as “Collection One” and doesn’t actually include the "T4" logo or the words “Age of Extinction” anywhere. No doubt some eBay confusion and/or fraud is going to arise in the future.

The most obvious point of reference for those unfamiliar with Kreons is a Lego Minifigure – they’re around the same size, and the Kre-O range as a whole definitely owes Lego a debt of gratitude. However, Hasbro refers to their figures as a “Kreons”.
Silversnout is built on the same basic body as all the other Kreons, and he changes into what looks to be an ankylosaurus – one of my favourite dinosaurs. His “transformation” is incredibly simple – just lie him down on his face and adjust the arms and legs to support him. It’s almost like one of those quick-changing transforming toys. The only part that detaches is his gun, so make sure you store that safely.

If this was a “real” Transformer, I’d be incredibly annoyed at the simplicity of the changing scheme. But as he’s a Kreon, I’m quite happy with it – I don’t want a whole bunch of spare pieces lying around that I have to store somewhere, which is what has happened with most of the other Kreons I own.
Silversnout comes with the same black pistol that has been showing up for some time now, and the standard Kre-O stand.

All the paintwork appears to be done by tampographs. They’re mostly pretty clean, but there are some small areas of paint slop on his face. No deal-breakers though.
The tampographs are a little more detailed than most of the other Kreons that I’ve owned, presumably to better fit the movie aesthetic. I’ve got mixed feelings about that; one of the coolest things about the Kreons is their simplicity. But he is a robot dinosaur, so I’m ready to let it slide. The only real point I think they could have added is some dots in his eye sockets, rather than having his head as a big blank piece.

I could see myself picking up a few characters from this Age of Extinction line. There’s some cool-looking Kreons, and now they've added robot dinosaurs to the mix too!  

Silversnout himself is a pretty cool Kreon. He’s not my favourite robot, but he’s one of the Kreons that I’ve actually liked the alt mode on. If you’re looking at picking him up, his bag code seems to be 40551 56.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

DC Universe Action League -- Batman and Deathstroke

Company: Mattel
Year: 2011
Price: See below

The Marvel Superhero Squad style figurines have definitely been influential. They spawned an imitation line of Star Wars figures, and now Mattel and DC have gotten in on the act. I found these bad boys in a Reject Shop near my work. I suspect I missed their initial shipment, as there were only a tiny handful left – unfortunately, the Superman and Wonder Woman 2-pack was missing, if it had ever been there at all. Perhaps even more disapppointingly, no Superman and Bizarro 2-pack! Never mind; but eBay may turn up a bargain yet.

I don’t often comment on packaging anymore, as I am a chucker. But I thought I’d mention these ones, as they are clearly done in homage to the DC Classics Universe – a series I always wanted to buy from, but could never find the characters I wanted. The colouring and blister style is very similar, and the box is also decorated with lots of illustrations of various DC characters – but this time in the Action League style. It’s a nice example of brand consistency.  

The style for these guys is like a shrunken version of the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon, super-cartoony with large exaggerated hands. It’s a cool, dynamic look which gives the figures a lot of personality even before you start moving their arms around to get them into different poses.

Both figures in the set are built around the same basic body shape, but they each have their own individual touches. I’ll talk about each of them individually below.
The first time I saw Deathstroke was in a reprint of a 1980s Teen Titans comic, from the George Perez run on the series – I think it was the Judas Contract storyline where the original Terra revealed herself as a traitor. I wasn’t immediately impressed with the character. But over the years, I’ve grown to appreciate him a bit more – and he was one of the better parts of last year’s Arkham Origins.
This Deathstroke is modelled after his “classic” appearance – blue chainmail and flared orange boots. In one hand he wields a massive sword, with the other bunched into a fist. He's also got his staff stuck to his back, which is a nice touch.
Batman’s suit is very much like his outfit in the 1989 Tim Burton film, which I still think is one of the best versions of the Batsuit that’s been done. All black, large yellow oval Bat-logo on his chest. He’s got a very lantern-jawed look, serious and determined. He’ s a great little figure and I would have picked this set up on his merits alone. In his left hand he wields a metallic grey Batarang, while his right is bunched into a fist. Batman’s cape is also made out of the same hard plastic as the rest of the figure, moulded into a dynamic pose.
The articulation is pretty basic on these, as might be expected – cut necks, cut shoulders* and a cut waist. It’s more or less what I expected, and does the job just fine.

*Batman has swivel-hinged shoulders, whereas Deathstroke simply has cut ones. 

Some slop would definitely be forgiven as the figures are obviously quite small. However, the paint is mostly quite crisp and clean, with very few issues. It’s a little thick around Batman’s mouth area, obscuring the (admittedly limited) detail.

Some of the more recent sets of these guys apparently include accessories such as stands, but these early ones don’t – unless you count the weapons moulded to their hands.

As mentioned above, I picked these guys up in a local Reject Shop. The 2-pack was $5, but I don’t know how close this was to their original price or how widely they’ve been distributed (sending friends from the Central Coast looking has proven fruitless). For my overseas readers, The Reject Shop is kind of like a factory seconds shop or dollar store – a lot of discontinued or off-season toys find their way there.

The Action League line seems to have finished in 2012 or maybe 2013, but still seems to be readily available online, though (naturally) at a premium. Maybe one of my American readers could shed a little more light on this in the comments section?

I’ve heard other reviewers talk about “hand candy” – toys that are just a whole lot of fun to play with. The DC Action League definitely falls into this category. Though they’re quite derivative of the Superhero Squad toys, these are cool, fun and stylish little toys. Given the opportunity, I’d quite happily assemble my own little Justice League out of these guys, with a few key villains. I don’t see myself getting obsessively completist about the Action League, but if I come across any more anytime soon, I’ll probably grab them – the day after I bought these, I picked up a Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and White Lantern Sinestro set.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Return of the Gamebook

Author's Note: I discovered this article sitting in my sent box from 2012 -- it was intended for publication in magazine form, but never got off the ground. So here it is, unearthed from the Lupine Archives. I think some of it may have also appeared on the now-defunct Castle Co-Op, a site I wrote for between 2011-2012. Some of the details may have changed since original writing.

Gamebooks were a big deal in kid’s literature for much of the 80’s and 90’s. Straddling the same territory as pen and paper role playing games, text adventure programs and a good old fashioned novel, they enthralled millions of children around the world with the simple idea that they could affect the outcome of a story. And it must not be forgotten that parents were pleased because they’d finally got their kids away from the TV and reading a book.

For those unfamiliar with the term “gamebook” it’s still entirely possible that you’ve read them without realising what they were. You may have encountered books that use terms like “interactive fiction” or “pick-a-path.” For those of you who haven’t, the central concept of these books is fairly simple—when you have finished reading a section of text, you will usually be presented with a choice about your next action. After making your decision, you turn the numbered page or paragraph relevant to your choice. For example:

You are in the forest, searching for signs of wildlife amongst the trees. There is a cave nearby that looks as thought it may be worth exploring. Suddenly, you see a large bear passing through the trees, heading towards your direction. It does not seem to have spotted you yet, but you are wary of what might happen if it does.

 If you want to make a break toward the apparent safety of the cave, turn to page 80.

 If you would rather stand your ground and attempt to scare the bear away, turn to 23.

And so it continues, until you reach an ending to your story. The endings tended to include one or two “good” endings, a few mixed ones and many bad ones. Success was inevitably a result of trial, error and persistence, but it made for an addictive formula.

My own first encounter with gamebooks came though the Choose Your Own Adventure series, courtesy of my primary school library. This was the early 1990s—well before the craze had died down, but probably after the biggest heights of the genre’s success had been reached. While my experience of that particular series remains a fond childhood memory, reading those books sparked something in me that I have never quite forgotten.

Many years later after purchasing an iPhone, I was browsing the App Store and came across a number of gamebook series that had been recently re-released in digital form. After downloading a few and reading/playing them again, I started to whether these books might be making some sort of comeback. Though I was aware of fragments and minor snippets of the genre’s history, I started to wonder about more of the details and what had become of some of its prominent proponents. So I went browsing the World Wide Web to see what sort of information turned up.

I didn’t go too far before I stumbled across a familiar name: Edward Packard. Arguably the great-grandfather of the modern gamebook, Mr. Packard was one of the most prominent authors of the Choose Your Own Adventure series—his book, The Cave of Time, launched the original series. 

“The idea of a book in which you the reader are the protagonist and make choices leading to branching story lines and multiple endings came to me in the course of making up bedtime stories for my kids,” says Mr. Packard. “I thought of possible options, asked them what they would do, and followed up on the consequences of each choice, which in each case produced new problems, requiring new choices.”

The resultant book was named Sugarcane Island, which boasted thirty-nine endings. It began circulating amongst publishers in 1969, but it wasn’t until 1976 that it would see publication. R.A. Montgomery of Vermont Crossroads Press would pick up the title and launch it under the banner The Adventures of You. Mr. Montgomery would eventually make his way to Bantam Books, taking the concept with him and go on to become one of the more prominent authors in the genre himself. The Choose Your Own Adventure series proper began publication in 1979, eventually spanning almost 200 books--not counting the large numbers of spin-offs and tie-ins!

It wasn’t long before other publishers saw potential in the format. Imitators of the basic CYOA format abounded, transporting readers through all manner of adventures. Spy fiction, sword & sorcery, science fiction, western, martial arts—if you could imagine it, odds were you could find a title that would let your childhood fantasy be fulfilled.

Many of these imitative series traded in original titles, but it wasn’t long before a huge number of licensed properties also found their way to the bookshelves. Doctor Who, Dungeons & Dragons and Young Indiana Jones were amongst the many to receive a gamebook makeover. As might be expected, some franchises were better fits for the format than others--amongst the strangest of all was Famous Five and You, a series which saw you solving mysteries alongside Enid Blyton’s famous child sleuths.

Though most of these books limited themselves to simple linear choices, other authors saw the format as an opportunity to create more in-depth experiences similar to pen-and-paper role-playing and text adventure computer games. Dave Morris, who co-created cult 90’s series Fabled Lands with Jamie Thomson, feels that the format’s popularity was innately linked to the gaming technologies of the time.

“The big '80s gamebook craze was mainly a response to people wanting the interactivity of videogames, but at a time when videogames were crude by today's standards,” he explains. “Gamebooks filled that gap.”

One of the most prominent of this type of gamebook was the Fighting Fantasy series, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Incorporating dice, special items and character statistics into the pre-existing Choose Your Own Adventure format gave gamers the ability to dive into a fantasy adventure without the inconvenience of lengthy load times. The first book in the series, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, was a huge success--the series that followed would eventually be translated into 25 languages and sell over 16 million copies.

As with any trend, the mainstream popularity that gamebooks enjoyed did not last forever, though they enjoyed far more impressive lifespans than the fickle whims of children usually allow. Choose Your Own Adventure ceased publication in 1998. Fabled Lands suffered cancellation after only six books of a projected thirteen. Though collections lived on in the hands of dedicated owners and public libraries, the peak era of the gamebook came to an end during the 1990s.

Fortunately, gamebooks have not stayed absent from the bookshelves for long. Though the current range available cannot compete with the glut of titles available that was once available, several high-profile series have found their way back to the bookstore in the last few years--Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy and Fabled Lands amongst them. It is perhaps notable that titles based on licensed properties do not seem to have undergone a similar level of revival. From a nostalgic point of view it is very pleasing to see these titles on the bookshelf again, but with the ever-increasing costs of printing hard copies and the gradual rise of e-readers, all of those interviewed for this article seemed sceptical that the genre would ever return to its former levels of print popularity.

Electronic formats look to be the future if gamebooks are to maintain a presence in today’s marketplace. Fighting Fantasy has released five of its titles on the App Store to an enthusiastic reception. 2011 saw Fabled Lands make its electronic debut. Edward Packard has revised some of his popular Choose Your Own Adventure books under the U-Ventures brand. A new series from Melbourne-based Tin Man Games, Gamebook Adventures, has also met with considerable acclaim—it now boasts eight titles under its belt. 

For his own part, Dave Morris remains confident that gamebooks will retain a following:

“I don't think they'll be selling millions and millions of copies like in the '80s, but I do believe there is a solid market out there that want[s] this stuff and we are keen to write it for them.”


Thanks to Mr. Dave Morris and Mr. Edward Packard, Richard and Mikael from Megara Entertainment, Rose Estes and Neil Rennison of Tin Man Games.