Many people regard the Pretenders as a low point of the Transformers toy line but to me it is one of the highest highs. At this point in the brands history, sales were starting to flag so instead of just recycling the same old ideas Hasbro started throwing out every madcap idea possible. It was a bold and creative time that produced some of the most weirdest toys in the franchises history amidst one of my favourite era’s of Transformers – 87-89. How was I not going to love the Pretenders? A bunch of Transformers who rebelled against the traditional idea of changing to an Earth based alt mode, and instead their spin on the “Robots in Disguise” mantra was to literally just wear different suits. Equipped with shells that resembled humans, monsters, animals, Burt Reynolds and a variety of other absurd things, the Pretenders sought to blend in with humans by looking more like us. Instead of being inspired by real vehicles, they added elements of horror, anime and H.P Lovecraft to the franchise which let my imagination go to wonderful new places within a world I already adored.
With Hasbro recently returning to so many of the concepts and ideas that we thought would never see again, the Pretenders get the update treatment and are redubbed: “Prime Masters”. Can the Prime Masters dust off the old Pretenders concept and do something fun and new with it? Continue to the review to find out.
Landmine and Submarauder arrive in the second wave of Power of the Primes to add more Pretenders to the ranks. Cloudburst, Metalhawk and Skullgrin already appeared in wave 1 whilst Bludgeon, Octopunch and Bomb Burst will make their debuts in the third wave to leave the Autobots outnumbered. No bad thing, as the Decepticon Pretenders were always the most interesting. Hasbro have decided they needed to mix things up and this manifests by merging the Pretenders with that whole ancient Primes voodoo. The Pretender shells are now referred to as “Decoy Armour” (or armor if you are American, and wrong) as if we are all embarrassed to be associated with the Pretender name. Own it little decoy suit dudes. Hasbro resisted the urge to go maverick and chuck in random new characters or shoehorn in older characters with no connection to the Pretender era, so at least each Decoy Armour represents one of the original Pretenders. The only slight exception to this is Metalhawk who was never released outside of Japan but you know, he’s still part of the OG club. And he died in a comic once so Tumblr could cry out in pain.
Not much taller than a Lego minifig, the Decoy Armours themselves are fantastically detailed little shells. It’s an interesting twist to resurrect the Pretenders but at such a small scale. Being as most of them are humanoid, it actually makes sense of the original concept that they were trying to blend in with humans and…errr…monsters. None of them are simple repaints either. Metalhawk and Landmine share the same core body and arms, but the changed front torso and colours on Landmine makes all the difference and does a good job hiding the similarities to Metalhawk. The lighter arms lets the detailing breathe where the dark blue on Metalhawk absorbs and mutes much of it. It is a smart trick as despite the similarities the simple change of colour makes them appear very different. Red paints apps pepper the body and the grey of the exquisitely detailed belt adds great contrast. It’s a fantastic rendition of Landmine and whilst I think these are perfect at this size, it just makes me want articulated Pretenders even more than I did before. The only articulation here is the rotating arms which is amusingly the exact same amount of movement the vintage toys had. I am all for homages, but you know…legs.
Submarauder is mutant scampi covered in nozzles. What are all of those nozzles for? How do we unlock this maritime mystery? Nobody should be better down where it’s wetter, take it from me. And wetter he’d be with all those holes letting water in. He might not be watertight but he is wearing some tight threads. The Decepticon Pretenders all had fun, Lovecraftian monster shells and Submarauder is some form of evil fish bogeyman, prowling the depths hunting stray Autobots through the murk, to a Danny Elfman soundtrack (Batman, particularly that bit where he’s ascending the cathedral staircase). All of the detailing that comes with that is lifted from the G1 toy but modernised and the combo of teal and pink is as beautiful as it was in 1988. Placing a faction symbol daringly on the crotch always gets a thumbs up from me too.
The inner robots are modeled on the Titan Masters from the previous iteration of the Generations toy line – Titans Return. Small, with minimal articulation but a reasonable amount of detail. It’s also where some of the nostalgia glow begins to fade because whilst the shells trade heavily on the nichest of nostalgia, the Prime Masters for these two are hit and miss when it comes to resembling the vintage Pretender robots. Submarauder’s Prime Master actually replicates many of the details of his ancestor but he’s the wrong colour. Landmine on the other hand is a reuse of Metalhawk’s Prime Master, but again in the wrong colours. Hasbro’s fiction for all of these guys has them nannying the sparks of the ancient Primes and in this case it’s “Alchemist Prime” (Submarauder) and “Alpha Trion” (Landmine) but even that doesn’t have any influence on those colours. It is simply an issue of them being gang molded with their respective suits if you are desperate to make sense of it. The colours are still nice, even if Landmine does now resemble a partially melted Solero. At least he gets a painted face.
Interesting to note that the second wave of Prime Masters replaces the flat head pins in the stomach of the wave 1 group with screws to match the old Titan Masters. So you can now mix and match the bodies if you desire.
The inner robots no longer convert into vehicles, instead turning into a brick with a bit of graffiti on it. Being as they are virtually identical, the process is the same as transforming the Titan Masters, except instead of becoming a head (again), Alpha Trion turns into a freshly baked Raspberry Pie (Alpha PIon?) and Alchemist Prime becomes a Hershey’s Cookies and Cream chocolate bar. Some Matrix related mystical mumbo jumbo is responsible for this and offers kids the ability to power up their figures and expand the tales they forge in their imaginations, which is actually pretty cool. The idea is that these titchy fellas are like Ghostbusters traps housing the spirits of the Primes who grant magical powers to the bots who wield them either by plugging into the Matrix holders that come with Optimus and Rodimus(the ones they can’t hold in their hands…), or the Prime armour that comes with the deluxes and voyagers. “Prime armour” sounds like something exciting until you realise it’s actually just a hand or a foot slapped to a chest or an arm. If a bot is brave enough to wear a foot or hand as a fashion accessory then it deserves to be imbued with the powers of mystical forces that can bend time, give them invulnerability, super speed or make Windows updates that don’t break your computer.
Functionally they are the same as Titan Masters and can even form daft looking heads. Leige Maximo (packed in with Skullgrin) in particular reminds me of the floating head power up from Crash Bandicoot. So he’s the one I like.
If you don’t fancy giving your combiners powered up gloves and slippers then the other option is to attach the Prime Masters to each Decoy Armour in it’s weapon mode. Fusing the Pretender and Targetmaster concepts is a fun way to ensure transformation remains at the heart of the play pattern and happens to add something to new to the Pretenders along the way. Each suit has an alternate mode that flips a gun barrel, or set of blades (that can be detached and held as smaller weapons in the hands of the Decoy Armour suits) over their heads and turns them into a hand held weapon. These range from cannons, a claw thing and some sort of stabby trident that Ariel’s dad probably used to own. The Prime Master then fits into a slot on the top and I guess charges each weapon with their particular special power. Alpha Trion’s is “infinite knowledge”, which makes Landmines gun mode a weaponised Siri. I have no idea what Alchemist Prime’s secret power is, possibly the ability to fluff up cous cous.
30 years may have passed but the original Pretenders still occupy an awkward place on the Transformers landscape and still cop more hate than they truly deserve. Change was not embraced in 1988, no matter how interesting it looked. With this new spin, Hasbro have added a new dimension that allows them to occupy a more comfortable place in the line. A smaller stature works in their favour as it hides the lack of articulation and also makes sense of the Pretender idea because as well as looking humanoid their smaller size is a better suited to help them blend in. That they are brilliant, fun little toys is the icing on the cake.
A line of awesome detailed little robots which such interesting, contrasting looks, that can attach to virtually any other transformer in robot, vehicle or base modes, and possess a fun gimmick due to their flexibility is perfectly suited to the minifig market. Hopefully at this size and low price point it exposes a new generation to a bunch of characters who have spent the last three decades mostly being unfairly maligned for beginning the demise of a toy line. If 1988 wasn’t their time, hopefully 2018 is.