Review by Ginrai
When I was a little kid around 3 or 4, I loved three things: trucks, jets, and robots. My dad used to take me to Selfridge Air Base to see air shows, so that explains the airplanes, but that's not what we're talking about here. As a young man in the late '60s and early '70s before getting married, my dad used to drive semi trucks from Michigan to California for my great uncle's trucking company. Then he would hitchhike home and pocket the plane fare. As you can imagine, this inspired many ridiculous tales of the open road. And remember, in the '70s and early '80s, pop culture had a serious love of truckers thanks to Smokey and the Bandit and the like. So it's really no shock that Takara released Battle Convoy and Powered Convoy in their Diaclone line, or that Bandai released Big Trailer Robo in their Machine Robo. You're probably more familiar with them as Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus of the Transformers, or the subject of this review, Staks Transport, GoBot extraordinaire.
The History of Staks Transport Before the whole GoBots thing took off in the United States there was a European release of Machine Robo called Robo Machine that pretty much followed the Japanese original. This line had simple packaging and was mostly the cheapy 600 series figures (so named for their 600 yen price) and the Scale Robo DX. Much the same way Diaclone and Microchange were rebranded as The Transformers in the US, when the TV show went over to Europe, the Robo Machine line started to have the GoBots logo on it as well and eventually become GoBots completely.
This toy is from that awkward middle period where the toys were both Robo Machine and GoBots. It's also an interesting glimpse into the changes that were happening in Bandai's original Machine Robo line in Japan. What we know as the Super GoBots in the US came from a couple of different sources. There are the Scale Robo DX toys, which are larger mostly metal cars and tanks. This includes retro-futuristic Psychoroid (Psycho to Americans) car from the manga and anime series Space Adventure Cobra. Like the Scale Robo name implies, these were intended to be scale model diecast cars that transformed into robots and did this quite well.
The rest of the Super GoBots (ignoring the mostly crappy western exclusives) hail from a different series known as Big Machine Robo. The first two Big Machine Robo toys were pretty much just Bike Robo (Cy-Kill) and Eagle Robo (Leader-1) from the 600 series blown up to a larger size. Big Apache Robo (Warpath) and Big Shuttle Robo (Spay-C) were based on 600 series vehicles but completely redesigned. Big Trailer Robo (Staks) ended up being the unusual one. The 600 series Trailer Robo (Road Ranger) is a flat nosed truck like Optimus Prime, if Optimus Prime were a flatbed. Big Trailer Robo is not really based on this toy at all. Not even the trucks match. Big Trailer Robo also cost more than the rest of the Big Machine Robo toys due no doubt to the trailer it sports. The other Big Machine Robo toys are largely plastic and the Scale Robo DX toys are largely diecast metal with bizarre faceless heads that are mostly just chunks of car. Big Trailer Robo has the strange faceless head made up of the upper part of the truck cab and is largely plastic except that, oh yeah, his legs are gigantic slabs of unpainted metal. The toy has a foot in each world.
The Aesthetics of a Robotic Car Carrier
The Japanese release of Big Trailer Robo was a darker reddish color with blue and white stickers while the American Staks release is orange with yellow stickers and came with either black feet and back coloring or blue foot and back coloring. Don't believe it if someone tries to tell you the regular Staks always had blue and the Transport always had black or vice versa because when I was a kid I got Staks first and then broke it only to have it replaced by Staks Transport. I had both at once and regular Staks became my sister's toy. The cab part was identical and had black plastic both times. You can see here my second Staks, the one that actually survived my childhood. Staks is a bright orange semi truck which is kind of garish but I have honestly seen trucks out on the road in these colors so it's not necessarily unrealistic. Orange was always my favorite color and as a child that was part of this toy's appeal. If you hate orange and are just an adult collector looking for a display piece, you may find the Japanese Big Trailer Robo's reddish hue the better choice, but be prepared to pay a premium.
The blue trailer actually goes well with the orange, providing a calming counterbalance. As far as the colors go, Staks works a lot better with the trailer than without. While I'm sure it's much cheaper to just get the American Staks solo, I really think the Staks Transport giftset is worth the extra money because it adds so much to the truck mode's appearance. Whether or not you are willing the shell out for the European release is basically a matter of how much you care about longer smokestacks and a unique box. Staks is also an unusual robot. While the figure has the same strange faceless "windshields for eyes" head design as the Scale Robo DX cars, it's different when the head is a chunk of a semi-truck. There's a couple of ways to interpret this head. You can look at is a more functional real robot style cockpit in place of a head, which is fun on one level, or you could look at as a cute big-eyed robot. Personally, part of why I dig Staks and the Scale Robo cars is that they look like very functional robots, almost like weird future construction vehicles. Granted, Staks does not have the Scale Robo spindly arms and grabbing claws like something out of one of those horrible crane games, but the aesthetic direction is closer to Scale Robo than it is to the other Big Machine Robo toys. Staks is not really up to the quality level of the Scale Robos, either. Those toys all have rubber tires and Staks has these crappy all plastic wheels. If it weren't for the solid diecast legs, Staks would not have anywhere near as much metal as the Scale Robos. The Scale Robo DX toys also have cleaner stickers and more of them, which helps their appearance. Some paint would also go a long way. Staks doesn't really stand up to the Scale Robo DX toys in this department, but there are still some really good sculpted details, especially in the diecast metal legs and shiny vacuum metalized chest plate. In fact, there's a lot of vacuum metalized "chrome" on this toy and it looks great. Watch out though, as with most toys, repeated handling will eventually wear down this shiny finish.
This European release of Staks Transport is interesting because while it is colored orange and has the yellow stickers, it has a blue tint to the windshield and the smokestacks are longer than the American release. Obviously there were different toy safety standards at play here. I've never seen long smokestacks on an American Staks, but they are certainly long in the TV commercials! Staks was even released in the Australian Machine Men line in a gift set with four 600 series figures. Technically there are even two Japanese versions, one in the original Machine Robo style packaging and one in the Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos packaging with the shortened smokestacks of the American edition. While Staks is very common, neither of the Japanese versions seems to show up in the west very frequently. I have seen the Revenge of Cronos version a couple of times, so I suppose you could call it more common. Finally, when the original Machine Robo line was in its death throes, Big Trailer Robo was recolored black and became hard to find mailaway figure Thunder Mission.
Staks Transport Sizes up the Competition Machine Robo and GoBots may have had more modest origins as a series of what could pass for Matchbox cars that turn into robots, but most of their career was spent in direct head to head competition with The Transformers. In the 1980s, it was impossible for children not to compare the two lines. This is something I experienced directly. Imagine that it is the mid-1980s. Your mom drops you off at the babysitter's house. You clutch your favorite toy: a brand new orange semi truck GoBot. It's barely out of the package and you can't wait to play with the other kids and their GoBots. You get in there and the kids have a bunch of unfamiliar robots from a different series. They snort in derision when they see your orange semi and point at their red semi. "You must be poor, because why else would you have that sissy GoBot?! Optimus Prime is so much cooler." Ouch. So what got me into Transformers? Peer pressure. Okay, okay, GoBots came out first in America. Yes, there were the prototypical Machine Men and Diakron/Kronoform lines beforehand, but who ever heard of those? It was a death match between GoBots and Transformers! GoBots started to get a bad rap due to its cheaper price tags and a cartoon that definitely aimed lower. That's not to say the Transformers cartoon was some work of quiet genius, but it did skew towards a slightly older audience. When I spoke to Transformers writer and season 3 story editor Flint Dille a few years ago, he told me the big retool of the Transformers TV show after the movie was largely because the GoBots cartoon had chipped away at the audience of younger children so they intentionally started aiming a few years older.
Now what does this mean for the toys and Staks particularly? Well, if you stick Staks next to Optimus Prime, they both make pretty realistic trucks. Optimus has the big hunk of diecast metal on the cab, but Staks' legs are entirely metal so Staks actually has more diecast content. Another plus for Staks is that its arms are shaped more like arms and don't look so weird. Staks can also hold its gun without some weird side ways technique. Optimus definitely has better detail in robot mode and more elaborate stickers, but Optimus also has hands that are not part of the cab or trailer in vehicle mode that you have to attach. While this does mean the hands are better detailed than Staks' hands and you can turn them at the wrist, this is more parts to lose and that's a serious downside to most Dialcone toys. The extra parts do the toy no favors and were immediately lost by many children. Staks' smokestacks-as-guns weapons are kind of a neat idea, but well, they are clearly just smokestacks. Optimus' gun looks cooler, but it's just another extra part for you to lose that doesn't go anywhere in truck mode unless you stick it on the little sidekick car named Roller. Roller brings us to another point: the trailer. Optimus' trailer definitely has more goodies inside including a missile-firing repair robot, Roller, a spring-loaded launcher, and some neat stickers, but Machine Robo had its own competitor, Tough Trailer. Tough Trailer's cab was a recolored version of Titan Boy, the semi-truck robot from the sentai series Flashman. Titan Boy came in a set called Titan Flash with a totally different trailer that was a bigger bulkier robot Titan Boy could combine with. Tough Trailer's trailer was instead kind of a ripoff of Battle Convoy/Optimus Prime's trailer.
It's probably better to compare Staks Transport to Ultra Magnus and not Optimus Prime, since they are both car carriers. Ultra Magnus' trailer totally fails as a car carrier trailer. It doesn't look like a real trailer. It's bloated and awkward. Staks' trailer, on the other hand, is a pretty realistic likeness of a real car carrier. It looks functional and believable and can easily carry four 600 series cars, which themselves are realistic toy cars. If you compare the 600 series to the Choro Q/Penny Racer-inspired Transformers Minibots, well, the GoBots totally blow them away being largely metal and designed more realistically. Granted, the Car Robots are bigger and also contain metal and are generally more complex and interesting toys, but they also cost more than double and the Scale Robo DX cars are really their competition, not the 600 series.
I sort of wish Staks' trailer was scaled to the Scale Robo cars as they are way nicer, but that would make Staks totally gigantic and probably cost prohibitive. I have to admit, Staks' scale does make the toy stand out strangely in the Super GoBots. One nice feature of Staks' trailer is if you push in little buttons on the sides, the platform that makes up the top of the trailer drops, allowing the cars to roll right out. It's smooth and a fun play feature. It's also a lot more interesting than Ultra Magnus' half-assed trailer.
Ultra Magnus' trailer does transform into armor for his robot to combine with, which is a really cool feature, but Staks Transport has different design goals. And like Optimus, Ultra Magnus requires a pile of parts that don't do anything in the vehicle mode to achieve this transformation. You can accuse Staks Transport of being simpler but I honestly do not think that is a detriment. Is it better to have loftier goals and fall short or have more modest goals and totally knock it out of the park? Ultra Magnus or Powered Convoy is in many ways an awkward reworking of the original Battle Convoy toy. Staks was a dedicated car carrier design and while the car carrier does not have the added play value of transforming into anything or being useful for anything other than carrying cars, it is better at being a car carrier than any Transformers car carrier has ever been. Another issue is durability. How many kids broke their Optimus Prime or Ultra Magnus at the hips? Every kid I knew certainly did. I remember my cousin's double amputee Optimus accompanying us to a drive-in theatre for Star Trek IV. Staks' legs are big hunks of metal. You are not going to break that. The part you might want to watch out for is the place where the head connects to the cab. I managed to break that on my original toy at four years old, but I had to beat the hell out of it to achieve this. Another issue to watch out for on a second hand Staks is that the shoulders can get kind of loose if you abuse the toy too much, but you would have to do the things I did as a kid, like swinging the toy around while holding it by the hand all the time. To Bandai's credit, the shoulders never broke; they just got a little floppy.
One interesting design choice is that Staks' elbows are spring loaded. You can lock them at the mid-point so Staks can hold the classic gunfighter pose or like them with arms down in a neutral position. By default when you unclip them from the shoulder, they want to swing open, which is cool. Staks also has some clever transformation tricks. Optimus Prime's arms make up part of the front of the cab, leading to some ugly seams when viewed from the front or side, which are probably the primary viewing angles. Staks' arms wrap up behind the cab so you don't even see the seams unless you are looking from the back. Four of Optimus Prime's wheels are just hanging out there on its legs, but Staks' wheels fold up inside its backpack, nicely hiding them. Optimus Prime's wheels at the hips are plainly visible, but Staks' wheels are neatly hidden by the curve of the fender when viewed from the front. Optimus Prime's robot viewed from the back has... well, no back, just a bunch of flat, undetailed plastic. Staks actually has a back! It's a pretty common problem for Diaclone toys to just have flat undetailed plastic when viewed from the rear.
Some additional stickers would really help Staks, but this is still a pretty nice toy. It's not the best of the Super GoBots (the Scale Robo DX toys like Psycho, Zeemon, Herr Fiend, Bug Bite, and Baron von Joy take that award), but Staks Transport is still one of the premier GoBots toys. It's easy to criticize the GoBots and compare them unfavorably to The Transformers, but I feel a reevaluation of the GoBots is needed. There are some really nice toys in this line. I suppose you could look at Staks and call it cheap compared to Ultra Magnus (and it will definitely cost you less), but Staks Transport has a lot of charm, better colors, and is a tougher design. It has good looks (especially truck mode), an inventive, fun, and simple transformation, and quite a bit of naked diecast. Sure the robot has the proportions of a big burly truck driver with a beer gut and thin chicken legs, but those chicken legs are big hunks of zinc. To the modern toy collector, Staks Transport has that ineffable old school funk. Maybe the slow southern drawl Staks had in his few Challenge of the GoBots cartoon appearances is fitting. The toy doesn't have the prestige of Optimus Prime, but Staks is the one you could metaphorically toss back a few brewskies with. 10-4, good buddy!
(C) 2009 Jeremy W. Kaufmann & CollectionDX
|Posted 23 May, 2009 - 14:56 by Ginrai|