Combiner Wars is the Transformers line I didn't know I wanted. In 2012 I found myself very excited at the notion of Fall of Cybertron Bruticus, and at the time thought the toys were an interesting exercise in the then-current form of Transformers engineering. But it didn't take long for me to lose the illusion and see, "these aren't very good toys." Combiners seemed beyond the reach of retail, official Transformers. So, what changed?
Learning From The Past
It's easy to see looking back that the Combaticons enjoyed a rich but very brief half life because of their novelty. Following from the well-intended and generally well-made Power Core Combiners that only partly took on the idea of combination and before that a resurrection of Energon-era molds in store exclusive boxsets, the Combaticons seemed pretty amazing. But once you collected the set and formed Bruticus up and down a couple times, the reality of the figures shone through and the lack piled up. Some held up better than others, but none was free of some fundamental, crippling issue. With this still in mind as recently as 2013 with the Wrecker recolor-retools and a quick reminder in 2014 from TFCC's Ironfist recolor of FOC Roadbuster, I don't think official combiners were something that felt like a good idea anymore. Combiner Wars wouldn't have the benefit of novelty to hide behind initially, but even without that they've been very well recieved by a surprisingly large segment of the fandom, not to mention blowing me away with how good they came out. How did that happen?
Keep It Simple
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"Simple" has become a four-letter word in the fandom in recent years, but much like "Slag", it depends on the intention and context behind it, and not just a blanket buzzword. Between 2008 and 2011 we had a height of intricate design and complex transformation. Big toys, lots of joints and moving parts. Sometimes this worked out well and we got jewels like Reveal The Shield Jazz. At other times it gave us Voyager ROTF Optimus Prime. But this period of time seems to be what everything is still judged by despite that it's been over for years. The Combaticons fell at an awkward time where a lot of changes were happening and they were fighting parts count vs function vs budget and everyone and everything eventually lost. The Aerialbots stand as a contrast. Where the highlights of 2010 and 2011 were marvels of engineering complexity crammed down to a Deluxe-size figure, the Aerialbots today are wonders of economy of design.
As individuals, the Deluxes (and this includes Drag Strip) do exactly as much as is needed to be complete vehicles and solid robot figures. The Aerialbots share a general model of articulation and have similar transformations which work to satisfy the basic needs of the toys. We're not going to pretend they're absolutely perfect; there's arms visible to varying degrees, and two jets are about twice as thick as jets really would be. But at the same moment neither one looks like a folded robot wearing an aircraft-shaped tarp. And Alpha Bravo does an outright fantastic job of achieving the vehicle mode while using almost the same set of movements in transformation. When acting as limbs, the only difference between being an arm or a leg is whether the individual's legs are extended or not. And the limb forms are a mid-point between robot and vehicle modes. Why does that matter? Because the toys don't have to have added transformation elements designed in. The Combaticons were designed like quad-changers, with each limb mode needing specific transformation steps that didn't necessarily overlap their "main" transformation between vehicle and robot. This is what I mean by economy of design. These toys squeeze every bit of possible use out of the basic required moving parts and aren't adding extra movements or moving parts to facilitate the added forms.
And for the talk of the Aerialbots not being perfect in forming their vehicles, Drag Strip who heralds the design style of wave two almost is perfect. The arms hide along the body completely, the vehicle doesn't have major proportional weirdness or other exposed aspects of its other forms. And it exists in this way with no substantial difference in complexity from the Aerialbots. The transformation process is very slightly tweaked, but the overall process stays the same.
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Combiner Wars makes another important breakthrough with its new design for the combiner connectors. This reverses the previous attempts at building combiner connections and goes a bit farther besides. Before you'd have the functional "active" end of the connection in the limb, and that would carry whatever mechanism whether a socket with springs and ratchets to hold around a peg or flexible panels, it would all be limb-side. Going back to the roots of Scramble City, Combiner Wars puts the peg on the limbs and moves the sockets to the torso. In addition, the system is almost passive on both sides. The peg is just a block. It has a ratcheted swivel at its base, but that's only to accommodate limb movement. The sockets have spring-backed plates to help secure the limbs in a way that is very unintrusive. Every previous modern combiner has been some degree of fight to get limbs securely connected, and occasionally the act of doing so is downright frightening. These plugs and ports meanwhile slide in easily, stay put, and come apart just as smoothly. Moreso than rethinking the design process of the limb toys themselves, redesigning the connector is easily the one most important thing Combiner Wars has brought to the concept of combiners.
The combined hand-and-foot piece is another piece of smart design that spares the individual toys by not forcing them to accommodate an integral hand or have to find a way to form a stable foot. The execution of this combined extremity is another situation of design economy for as few parts as are used to accomplish everything required. Going further and integrating weapon details so these can transform in to large weapons for the individual figures and have some use when not combined is another point in their favor and makes them feel more important than just extraneous combiner kibble.
Build It Bigger
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Voyager Class figures forming the central bodies is another step in the right direction, and something that I believe can only be supported because the limb figures are made simple and solid with better connection hardware than we've had before. Superion is classically the worst combiner ever. From the G1 toy, to homages in Energon and Power Core Combiners, to be Superion was to be sad. Superion leads the Combiner Wars line and is amazingly good. It's not simply a "good Superion" (a greater contradiction in terms I couldn't imagine) but it's a good combiner period. Big, sturdy, well articulated as well as poseable, and with fantastic proportions because it uses a Voyager as its core component. Having a Voyager in the middle of Bruticus would not necessarily have solved its problems, especially as the third party answer to that very question involved also rebuilding some members of the team and disabling their ability combine freely, instead locking them in a preferred configuration. But, when used in concert with other factors of good, smart design and construction, the Voyager body seals the deal.
Now, Silverbolt is still Silverbolt and is and probably always will be some degree of robot hanging under a plane. It's not ideal, and I think the 2009 Universe Ultra Silverbolt mold managed it better. But I can be a little forgiving of Silverbolt's vehicle mode for the consideration that it has to combine. Silverbolt also has a strong robot mode, giving it two really good modes and one that you can give a pass unless you're dead set on not liking the toy from the start. It's pretty easy to see Silverbolt was designed from torso mode outward, because the shape of Superion's chest is the clearest visual element, and it comprises a big chunk of the vehicle undercarriage. And in order to make the first Superion that didn't provoke feelings of pity and sympathy for the suffering that would be its existence, that's the way the design process needed to go. Importantly in all of this, FOC Onslaught was a barely mobile ball of pegs and ratchets so it could hold up all the other figures. Silverbolt is a poseable figure with a minimum imposition on its own robot mode from the things that make the combined form work.
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The underlying trend in all of this is what is being prioritized in the design of the toys: Streamlining. And that brings us back around to the start where everything is going to the essentials and not trying to push the edges. The designers both within Hasbro and their partners at TakaraTomy have made a solid show of making sure that every moving part does the most it possibly can to benefit every configuration the toys are intended to take so that as little as possible needs its own special elements. These toys are optimized
. They are boiled down to exactly what they need to be and not a thing more, and it's the best direction the line could have taken. In Superion alone we have the best modern combiner made by Hasbro, and it required almost nothing beyond joints and moving parts the individual toys would have to have had anyway, plus a uniform, universal plug piece and a big, common accessory to finish it off. All because they kept their eye on keeping it simple.
Combiner Wars figures aren't going to suffer a novelty effect. They aren't a novelty, they're a revolution. They've picked up from their predecessors, figured out where to go to improve, and they've made the idea of combiners work and work well. The first wave of this line is great, and historically wave 1 ends up being the weakest. If Combiner Wars follows the pattern, we only have better waiting for us.