If there’s one thing Bandai knows how to do, it’s generating model kits based on the perennial Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. Every year, it seems, they come up with a new series, new MSs and, of course, lots and lots of new kits to go with it all. If this sounds cynical, it really isn’t. They are a business, and they make money when they come up with new models. I get it. I gladly give them my money, take my toy robot, and go home smiling.
Something that Bandai hadn’t really been cashing in on, until recently, was the wave of “Retro Modelling Fever (RMF)” that seems to be sweeping the industry. American companies like Round 2 have figured out that they can charge a lot more than original prices for tired old moulds of long-since-reissued kits and people will gladly pay it. I, of course, am one of them. I love the chance to get my hands on some old styrene at less-than-eBay-scalping prices! Bandai would periodically reissue more recent older kits, especially if the series was popular (like with Gundam Wing), but there were a lot of things in their catalogue that most of us figured would not be back.
One group of kits that I didn’t think would ever see the light of day again was the F-90 and SF-91 series. Both of these are from the early ‘90s, and are related to the F-91 movie that came out at that time. Since the F-90 finally did get an MG release (Even though it was a P-Bandai… FU Bandai!), I was very surprised to see the old F-90 kits back on the shelves recently. I was even more surprised, and elated, to see the SF-91 kits on my local Hobby and Toy Central’s shelves! I have always loved these kits and have built all but the Vigna Zirah and Neo. With the recent reissue, I took the opportunity to purchase duplicates of almost everything I’d built (not the G-Cannon Magna… I hate that thing) and the Neo.
However, even though I’ve never built the Neo, and have always been jealous of the good job my brother did on his, it was the Cluster I was most excited about. Why? Well, it’s the first one of the series I built way back the first time I encountered these kits. It also has a special place in my heart because when I first got it, it was hellishly expensive ($45!!!! WTF? In 1995 or 1996?) and my Grandmother and Grandfather bought it for me for my birthday. If you have read my Stargazer article, you know that the bond between myself and my grandparents was very strong, so any model I got from them is immediately special to me. Sadly, my original Cluster has aged badly, the white is yellow, the joints sag a bit and I’ve had twenty years since to improve my techniques and tools. I was elated that I had a chance to show Grans and Pa what I could really do with the kit they’d bought for me, even if it was a different instance of it!
If you want to know what’s in the kit, you can check out my Out of Box Review. Now, on to the build!
Building the Cluster:
Unlike some of my other builds (most of my cars and planes, actually), the Cluster did not require immense surgery or gallons of putty. Granted, it’s not a forgiving kit, and it’s no HGUC. However, it is a simple, intuitive kit that goes together pretty easily if you follow the instructions (for the most part). I did make a few changes here and there, but by and large, this kit comes in halves, and building it involves gluing the halves together, sanding and filling the seams, and then painting the parts. The design of the kit is quite good, and there are only two major instances of “build around”. These occur, predictably, at the knees.
To get around this issue, I simple painted the knee block with Rustoleum Dark Grey, gave it a black wash, and then satin coated it with Delta Ceramcoat Semi-Gloss Indoor/Outdoor Urethane Varnish. I then installed it in the lower leg, and masked it. Yes… I masked it. I hate masking, but in this case, it was the simplest way, and there’s no good way to run a cheater seam down the entire lower leg of the MS. Thankfully, the upper legs already have a seam in them, so they could be installed afterwards.
The rest of the kit goes together as a series of subassemblies that all go and “pop” together at the end. If you’re used to HGUCs, this is an instructive look at what preceded them; you can really see how the modern order of assembly on a Gundam kit came to be. As mentioned, there’s a lot of sanding on this kit, but no real grinding. Just some care and control on large pieces like the lower legs and upper body.
The only major modification I made to this kit was in the beam shield. I have always loved that this is a two-piece beam shield. Only the Silhouette Formula-91 family (RXF-91 and RXF-91 Kai) share this unique approach to a beam shield, and it’s so odd it can’t help but look cool. What makes the Cluster’s shield so weird, though, is that it is hand-carried. This is a decidedly old-school way of doing things. The original RX-78-2 Gundam had to carry its shield, although the design has been retconned to have the shield mounted to an arm-bracket, thereby freeing up the hand. This is standard for almost all MSs, since wasting a hand on a shield seems dumb.
The fact that the Cluster carries its beam shield in its hand is unique. It some ways it’s cool, but in others, it’s dumb. It can be hard to position the shield correctly, and with those old-school opening hands (one index finger, and the other three as a single piece) getting a good grip on the shield’s handle is hard. It also makes no sense; why wasted the hand carrying the shield, when so many other contemporary mecha, and all others with beam shields, have them mounted on the arm? So, I decided to “fix” this issue by reworking the handle on the shield and allowing it to plug into the polycapped “hardpoint” in the arm. This, to me, looks and works far, far better than hand-held, and it allowed me to equip both the rifle and the clear green beam sabre.
There’s not much else to say about building this kit. Glue, sand, check. That’s it. So, off to the fun part – painting!
Painting – Whiter Whites, Brighter Brights!
I painted the Cluster almost exactly as it should be painted as per the instructions. I primered all the white parts with Rustoleum White Primer, and the blue with normal Rustoleum Grey, which is pretty dark (like Gunship Grey). I then painted the white parts with “Gundam White”. This is a mix of Tamiya Flat White, Model Master Acrylic (MMA) Flat White, a hint of Tamiya Purple and a hint of Tamiya Blue. Oh, and when I say a hint, I mean it!!! I take a flat toothpick, dip it in the purple, then let it drip until there’s only a tiny bit left on it. Then I stir it into the mix of whites. You’ll see a thin purple swirl (like in butterscotch ripple ice cream, but obviously a different colour) in the white. That’s all you need. Same with the blue – use a different toothpick, of course. Those tiny bits of blue and purple will tint the whites, but more than that and you’ll have a mauve or light blue Gundam!
I used a slightly lightened version of MMA GM Engine Block Blue for the blue, with MMA Jet Exhaust and International Orange for the various thrusters and verniers. The “mechanical” bits were in MMA Gunship Grey with a Citadel Nuln Oil wash, and this gives them a bit more of a “used” look. All the metal parts, like thruster and vernier nozzles, were also given a Nuln Oil wash – the dark wash really brings them to life! For the red bits, I used MMA Guards Red, and the yellow was some mix I’d already made up ages ago. I think it started with Blue Angels yellow and white, and evolved from there. The dark “black” bits are my custom “Virsago Black”, which is Gunship Grey and Aircraft Interior Black mixed.
I did make a couple of colour changes to the Cluster. One was in the shoulders. In the artwork, and on my original, the tops of the shoulders are blue, but the verniers are inside a Virsago Black part. This tends to make the shoulder flares look like a patchwork quilt, and the resulting disjointedness has always bugged me. So, I painted that part blue; now the entire shoulder flare is one colour, and the difference is, to my eyes at least, remarkable! Another change I made was to skip painting the intake plates on the leg breathers yellow. That looks dumb. It makes the Cluster too clown-like, and adds colour where it isn’t needed. This is a problem with SF-91 kits, but with a bit of good taste, it can be corrected.
I used a Sakura calligraphy pen for all the outlining work. It is a bit narrower than the Gundammarkers I used to use, and you can see in the comparison shots that the newly-built Cluster has finer lines by a considerable margin! Since it’s not required, I didn’t bother building the Core Fighter, although if you do choose to, it will fold up and fit inside the Gundam’s chest cavity, which is pretty cool!
One thing that I have gotten a lot better at since I built my first Cluster is making Beam Accessories look less like clear plastic. With both a beam sabre and the cool two-part beam shield, there’s a lot of opportunities on this kit to really go to town. The first step is to decant a bit of Rustoleum White Primer into the airbrush, and thin it down. I use about 50/50 for beaming work. I then dust on a very light coat of the paint, and I do it over the entire surface. The very light coat doesn’t really stay white. It just adds a bit of opacity to the shield, and as it bites into the piece, it turns the colour of the piece. In this way, you make the shield more translucent than transparent, and it makes the whole thing seem to glow. It helps the beam shield almost trap the light inside it, if you will.
I then apply light, but more focused coats of white on the “hot spots”. These are the “rays” that form in the shield, and near the edge of the generator, where the beam would be hottest. Once these look “white”, I feather in another light coat, and the shield is ready for “beaming coating”. For the sabre, I did the same thing, although I just make it whitest at the base fading up the first third or so of the sabre’s blade. One thing that made life a bit more difficult was that the beam is attached to the hilt on this kit, so I had to mask the blade while I painted the hilt afterwards.
To do the beam coating, I used Future mixed with Jacquard yellow-green pigment. This gives a glossy, pearlescent green with a slight gold reflectivity, and it tints the stark white on the shield back to green. This gives the impression that the hot areas are “inside” the shield, front-to-back-wise, and the effect is really rather nice. I developed this method long after building the first Cluster; you can see how the new one’s shield really stands out as opposed to looking like clear plastic. The other advantage is that you can cover up, or at least lessen the appearance, of bubbles in the sabre blade this way. For some reason, even though the new beam sabres don’t have bubbles, all these repops of the old kits do, just like they did originally!
While the kit is moulded in colour, the rifle needs a lot of work. It’s just two halves, and they’re moulded in white. This is easier than it being moulded in the near-black, mind you. I primered the rifle and painted the white, and then added Virsago Black where needed. I then did the barrel in MMA Steel, with a Nuln Oil wash. It’s basically a painting exercise, and there’s nothing difficult about it. Mind you, for those who are used to weapons that are ready-to-go without paint, you’re going to have one sad looking rifle if you rely solely on how it comes moulded!
To finish the kit, I used “Low Satin”, which is a mix of Delta Ceramcoat Semi-Gloss Indoor/Outdoor Urethane Varnish with some Future, to give a not-quite-matte look. I find that MS kits generally look better less shiny, unless they’re really featureless (like my MG Jegan). Also, the white tends to look brighter the matter it is. Like almost all my Gundams, the Cluster was hand painted, except for the primer, obviously, and the final coats of low satin.
The Cluster is a cool looking Gundam. I like the design, and always have. It has kinda chubby cheeks, from front on, but the head is a nice, classic “Gundam” head and the suit is bulky without looking heavy or overdone. With a cool two-piece beam shield and a variety of weapons (I didn’t use the two bazookas, but it does come with them), there’s a lot to like about the kit.
As a model, the Cluster is simple, and is something even a total novice could build. It has pretty good colour separation for a kit this age, and it really shows how Bandai was starting to work towards kits that non-hardcore modellers could build up relatively quickly. If you’re into cut-and-assemble Gundam building, then you can get away with it.
Mind you, for all of this, the Cluster is still very much a kit that needs work, and quite a bit of it. To really make it look good, the Cluster needs you to apply good, basic modelling skills. There’s a lot of sanding and seam work on this thing, since, as I said, it’s all halves. Thus, it’s a great “trainer” kit for someone looking to improve upon their basics, while still having a fairly simple kit to work on.
To make this kit come alive, despite Bandai’s best attempts to the contrary, you do have to paint it. There are a few stickers, but as with all Gundams, they’re basically crappy, and should be avoided. With proper paint work, some attention to the beam accessories and other modern tools and techniques applied, though, the Cluster can look as good as MS kits half or less its age.
I loved building and displaying the cluster the first time. I loved it even more the second, when I had a chance to redo it and correct all the mistakes I’d made 25 years ago. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes Gundams but wants something a bit different, or to anyone interested in seeing how today’s HGUC marvels have evolved!