Saturday, 19 November 2016

FW Ultimate Operation : Booty or Bootleg?

A topic that I have never discussed on the blog is the existence of bootlegs. This is a rather huge concept with everything from illegal duplication to knock-off products and infringement on trademarks. I don't have any personal experience in this field and I suspect there are far more lucrative areas for these practices than Gundam Shokugan and Gashapon toys.

Still, a while ago I stumbled on something out of the ordinary while browsing one of the second hand markets in the Bangkok Chinatown area. There I was minding my own business while suddenly an angry Asshimar was staring down at me from one of those compartmentalized shelves where people sell their random stuff. This shelf was stuffed to the brim with decidedly old looking Gundam model kits and dolls but I can spot that angry glare from anywhere.

It took me quite some time to process what I was actually looking at. Here I was face to face with what appeared to be the FWUO Asshimar and next to him I could see another two boxes with a Dreissen and the Prototype Gundam. In peculiar cardboard boxes. Something about them just screamed bootleg and I was really curious to find out what was inside the boxes. I made a note to return to the shop later to investigate them closer.

Upon closer inspection of these rather worn boxes, indicating the passing of time, they puzzled me even more. If you are familiar with the Ultimate Operation figures you can see the immediate familiarity of the box art as seen on the Japanese editions which normally come on J-cards.

FW Ultimate Operation figures as we are used to seeing them.
The most glaring difference is the inclusion of rather blurry pictures of the mobile suits slapped onto the background. Some of the text on the front is also blurry and too small to be read, giving a bit of a homemade impression. The rest of the artwork looked decent, someone must really have been going through a lot of trouble if these were not the real deal.

Fortunately there was a very distinct clue at the underside of each box; a sticker in Thai with a "Big One" logo. A quick search revealed that Big One Group is Bandai's sole distributor of candy toys and capsule toys in Thailand. Mystery solved!

Still, one has to wonder why the distributor (or more likely the production plant) has gone through all this trouble of creating alternative packaging for these figures. The original figures are tied down to customized plastic packaging (similar to e.g. STANDart figures) and here they just bumble around inside a plastic bag inside the box. Apart from the sticker there is no localized text for Thailand on the boxes, it is the same Japanese product descriptions found on the home market releases. Perhaps these boxes are actually made by Bandai for export purposes to other markets across Asia?

The figures themselves are similar to their Japanese counterparts, even down to the accessories and little description pamphlets. The Prototype Gundam even has the same hopeless feet as the home market figure (how it was chosen as a "Best" I'll never know). The only thing missing here is the candy, but then again the items I purchases were not factory sealed so there might have been something here that is now lost to time.

Can you tell the figures apart? The figures sold in Japan are on the left, and the Thai figures to the right.

I am curious to learn more about these figures. If anyone has any insight into how many of them were actually available in Thailand (and if they indeed came with some form of candy) I would be eager to know. Have you perhaps seen the same boxes in the Philippines, Indonesia or elsewhere?

Friday, 18 November 2016

Ain't it dead yet?

Well, well, well... it seems Bandai are still kicking the corpse. A rather surprising announcement made on the Bandai shokugan page today, we are actually getting a new Assault Kingdom figure. Now, before anyone works up too much excitement let's be clear about a couple of things. One, it is a reworked Assault Kingdom ZZ Gundam and two, it will be sold as a Premium Bandai exclusive only, so forget the regular retail channels.

Still, we are getting a new Assault Kingdom figure and I think that is worthy of a little bit of celebration after all. The irony is that I have already purchased a second ZZ Gundam figure which I planned to have repainted into FAZZ colours myself, so it seems I might not have to go down that route now.

The Assault Kingdom FAZZ is scheduled for release in March next year with a price tag of ¥1800. The retail ZZ Gundam which it is based on sold for ¥3200 but that also included the Mega-Rider. So, not too shabby.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Universal Unit : RX-105 Xi Gundam

The Xi Gundam is one of the first generation of the Universal Unit figures. It was released in August 2016 around the same time as the first volume of blind box standard figures appeared. However, unlike those the Xi comes in its own custom box and doesn't sport any variations in equipment, kind of like your traditional Assault Kingdom figure would have been sold.

The Xi Gundam comes in a box roughly the same size as the typical Assault Kingdom EX figures, and features a rather unusual mobile suit which is also considerably larger than your average design. It is however not a behemoth like the Psyco Gundam or Queen Mansa, but large enough to draw to itself some extra attention.

When the Xi Gundam appeared in Japan it had a recommended price of ¥2500, however I picked up this particular figure for a mere ¥1500 and otherwise I am not sure I would actually have bothered. With Universal Unit the pricing is really all over the place. While the standard figures all sell for about ¥500 the various special figures, which like the Xi are now beginning to pop up as specials, the suggested prices vary from between ¥1500 to ¥4500 (and that is not counting the planned Psyco Gundam Mk-II which is supposed to cost around ¥12800).

As we discovered in our first look at Universal Unit these toys have really migrated away from being preassembled figures into the realm of traditional model kits, although they are still of a rather basic standard. The parts are at least decently pre-painted and for the Xi we almost completely avoid coloured stickers for hull details and we have got paint apps on quite a lot of pieces which would probably have been single coloured if this was a bog standard ¥500 figure.

The assembly instructions are detailed and easy to follow, however they are as usual printed on the insides of the box itself, so you will have to choose between cutting it open or glancing into it from above, which is the method I preferred. The Xi consists of a respectable number of moving pieces, but after having assembled the volume one figures I recognized a lot of the technique they used here, so it was much easier to quickly locate and arrange which pieces belonged where. Still, it may seem a bit daunting for a beginner but shouldn't really pose too much trouble I think.

Fully assembled the RX-105 stands roughly 11 centimeters tall, which is quite impressive for a shokugan Gundam figure. It has large feet on sturdy legs which deal with the huge bulk of its body quite effectively. You can also use the large tail fins for some extra support if you want to be a bit cheeky.

Just like the previous Universal Unit figures we have a lot of articulation points on this machine, but the bulk of the armor and overall design prevents this figure from doing anything too wild. If you try to bend the legs forward or back you will quickly realize that the skirt armor on both sides is quite tight and you will be very used to seeing especially the front armor pieces flying off with an annoying noise. All the joints are very tight except the ball joints where the legs attach to the torso. When trying out some dynamic posing my figure's legs have a tendency to often just give in to gravity and dangle like a limp limb which is a bit surprising.

The accessories for the Xi are somewhat limited for such a pricey figure. Equipment-wise we have its large signature beam rifle, a nicely painted shield and two optional hands. Was it really too much to ask for at least one beam saber?

The big and pleasant surprise for me (not advertised on the box artwork at all) though is the inclusion of a proper action base. This is something I used to take for granted in Assault Kingdom and which is now making its first appearance in Universal Unit here. The base is actually very similar to the ones used by the Kshatriya and Qubeley in Assault Kingdom, however it has been redesigned a bit making it less flexible with only one adjustable joint where the AK bases had two. It also features storage points for the remaining hands as well and the beam rifle directly on the base which makes this figure resemble a standard Gundam model kit even more.

The Xi also has some limited transformation aspects in its basic design. The triangular shoulder plates can be flipped and tilted about 90 degrees upwards to form a semi-flat surface. The beam sabers can be folded down, and the long tailfins and large blue pieces on the figure's chest all tilt upwards to support this "Beam Barrier" shield configuration.

The Xi Gundam is absolutely massive when compared to a standard Universal Unit figure.

Here the Xi Gundam poses next to the large FA-010S Full Armor ZZ Gundam of the Assault Kingdom figure series.
The Xi Gundam figure does a lot of things right, but it does have its share of issues as well. The worst of these is in my opinion the dysfunctional stickers. Thankfully this time around we didn't have to paint up feet or legs or arms with stickers, everything was prepainted for us, save for a tiny red sticker placed on the beam rifle and half a dozen funnel-type psycommu weapons which are to be stickered onto the back skirt and the disproportionally large elbow and knee caps.

The main challenge for these stickers is that they are all intended to cover up hollow pieces. As you can see on the backskirt in the photo above, there is not a whole lot of surface for these stickers to hold on to. As a result they don't stay on very well and are very sensitive if touched. This is not a major concern for the ones on the arms and the legs, but the two stickers on the skirt are already both peeling upwards. If you happen to touch them while messing with the figure's legs or placing the Xi on its base, expect them to come off easily. These will have to be glued in place somehow or they will not last very long.

Overall the Universal Unit Xi Gundam is a nicely engineered little model kit. It gets bonus points for nice details like the four black plates which attach to the insides of the white shoulder armor pieces as well as the many prepainted details on the torso, legs and arms. This proves that Bandai can if they really want. I think it would have been great if they raised the prices of the base figures to cover some extra paint application rather than selling us two mediocre figures in the place of one.

The Xi is now being followed by its predecessor, the RX-104FF Penelope, which has an even higher suggested price of a whopping ¥3800. I don't really know any details about that figure yet, but I am guessing perhaps it has some transformation gimmick which would explain why it is priced 50% above the Xi. I guess I will pick one up if I can secure a decently priced one.

I can't help but feel that the articulation is somewhat wasted on a figure such as the Xi, which is so bulky that you cannot really accomplish much with it. Assault Kingdom and Universal Unit work best when the figures have a huge range of movement available to them. Personally I think a dynamically posed Ultimate Operation figure with some nice weathering would have been the optimal way to do this guy justice in 1/220-scale.

Overall I would give the Xi a casual recommendation to Assault Kingdom and Universal Unit fans, if you find one at a decent price you will probably enjoy putting it together and the action base will allow it to pose with your other figures quite nicely.

P.S. If anyone wonders what happened to the Converge reviews lately do not abandon your hopes just yet. I actually have a number of the little suckers en route but for some reason mail from Japan has turned extremely slow as of late. What used to take 3-4 weeks now seems to have crept into the 5-6 week range and the post office is actually blaming the Pope for stopping by two days a couple of weeks ago...