They say “You can never go home again”. Of course, if you have the keys to your front door, and you’re not so drunk you can’t remember where you live, this doesn’t really make sense. Mind you, that might be taking things a bit too literally. We all know that what is meant by that turn of phrase is that you can’t go back to the past, or rewind things to how they were once things have moved on. In other words, you can’t live in the past or even expect to recapture whatever zeitgeist there was back then now. It’s a plea and a mantra about moving on, and not getting sucked in by the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia.
Well, if it’s true, nobody told the modelling industry. One of the biggest trends, at least in North America, for the last while has been “retro modelling”. Builders who are in their mid-life (or beyond) are experiencing nostalgia for the “good old days” when they were kids, building interesting models for fun. People want to recapture that feeling, but they also want a chance to redo some of the kits they screwed up because they just didn’t have the skill, experience and tools at the time to do it “right”. To this end, the modelling industry has been reissuing kits (especially car kits, but no sector is safe) not seen for the last 40+ years. While these models are not up to modern standards, and those new to the hobby may wonder why the “old hands” get excited, there’s no denying that retro modelling is a thing and it seems to be here to stay, at least for a bit.
Of course, I’ve always largely focused on old and crappy kits, so for me, this is just a chance to get crappy old kits I don’t already have. This is clearly awesome for me. I never thought it would become “a thing” though; shows just how avant garde I am, I guess. Either that, or I have no foresight. Your choice. One thing I thought would never happen, though, would be that the Retro Modelling Virus (RMV) would attack Japan, let alone take hold of Bandai! However, this is indeed what has happened. For the first time that I can remember, 2018 saw Bandai reissuing kits from the early to mid-1990s. These are kits from well before the HGUC days. These are mobile suits (MSs) that haven’t been seen, largely, in any other format since their original issues. In fact, many of them are mecha that a lot of people who have been building Gundams for even the last two decades likely won’t know.
A perfect example of this is the entire Silhouette Formula 91 series. This was a manga (comics) series that took place around the same time as the Gundam Formula 91 (F91) theatrical anime release. The kits were clearly geared to fit in with the smaller-sized F-91 models, and shared a lot of similarities, including things like clear beam shields, hardpoints on the arms and legs, and a penchant for VSBRs (Variable Speed Beam Rifles – big guns mounted on the mech’s back that swing into position at the hips). In fact, some of the SF91 kits are retooled F91s, like the G-Cannon Magna and the Hardygun. Others, like the Neo, Cluster and two flavours of the titular Silhouette Formula Gundam (RXF-91) were original designs. The last time I saw these kits was when I bought them new at Cool Toys in London, Ontario. This was a local toy and model shop, and they stocked a lot of Gundam stuff. They managed to get their hands on one copy of the two RXFs and Neo and Cluster, and I bought three of the kits. I didn’t see the need for the RXF-91 Kai. Clearly, I’ve corrected that oversight… I found the others in the series in a local comic shop a few years later, so I eventually ended up with the whole series.
Imagine my shock, then, when I went into Hobby Toy Central in London a while ago (well pre-Covid) and saw, on the shelves, ALL of the F-90 and SF91 kits. It was like 1995 all over again! There was something about those boxes… all of a sudden I was back in 1996 and just learning about Gundam. I was amazed at seeing all these cool robots I knew nothing about. Of course, now I know about them, but the pull of the old box art was strong… very strong indeed. It was so strong that I bought the Neo, Cluster, RXF-91 Kai (to build un-Kai’ed) and the Hardygun, right on the spot! It was insane how cheap they were; on the order of about $22 a piece, for a 1/100 kit! While it’s newer, the RE/100 Gun-EZ is the same size when done, and costs three times as much!
Today, we’ll look at the Cluster. It was the first I built back in the day, so it seems appropriate to start there now. So strap in and get ready to ride the Wayback Machine to the early 1990s. It’s time to get Old Skool…
The SF91 kits have very unusual, and very distinct boxes. For one thing, they all share a common design sensibility, with a white background and a large coloured band on the left side. Each kit has a different coloured band, so you can easily see if you’ve got a duplicate or you’ve managed to “catch ‘em all”, as they say. This design sense is not the only thing that’s odd about the box – these are some of the only Gundam boxes (even to this day) that use a photograph of a finished model on the box lid. Unlike every other kind of model wherein this practice is quite normal, Gundams almost always use art on their boxes.
Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t art on the box, there is. However, it’s very odd. At the right side of the box is a side elevation of the MS in question, against a measurement scale and with a human silhouette (See what they did there??) included for scale. This is neat for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s very hard to get a feel for how big these things are, as back in the day, there was no such thing as an in-scale pilot figure, like we’re used to getting with Master Grades today. Of course, there were no master Grades, either, when these first came out! The second thing that’s neat is that we never get to see an MS “mug shot” from the side. We see front and back, but never side on, so it’s a unique visual for anyone who’s built a lot of Gundams. The only drawback is that we don’t get full-on awesome artwork of the kits in general, and since these machines were never animated, this means that, to me, they feel a bit less “real” within the UC Gundam universe.
On the sides of the box are pictures of the kit built up. On one side we get a front and a back view of the completed kit fully done up. This means all things are in their proper colours and fully outlined. The bottom view, though, is how the kit looks if you don’t paint it. Now, we’re all used to good colour separation on Gundams by now. However, this thing is almost 30 years old now. Look at it. It’s amazing how good it looks even if you’re too damned lazy to actually build the model as a model! This was Bandai really putting the coals to their development section, and it worked. The goal was to increase the likelihood that non-modellers would get into Gundam kits. The method was to provide a product that would be pretty good out of the box for non-modellers, but still provide a good canvas for experienced builders. Again, if you think this is something new, something from the “Build” era… this proves otherwise.
The other side of the box shows closeups of some of the kit’s gimmicks. The top panel shows the backpack coming off, with a core fighter attached to the front of it! This is a lot like the Gundams from G Gundam, and again, remember this is old stuff now. The next row of pictures shows the unit folded out to make a very attractive Core Booster, with the Core Fighter separate from it. Seriously, that’s pretty wicked – to have a transforming core booster with the kit? Yeah… that was amazing when this thing was new. Even now, only some of the MGs have something like this. The next pic is neat, showing the kit with its two bazookas. Again, this was a bigger deal back in the day. Why? Well, these came out about the same time that the V Gundam kits did. The Bazookas are the same kind as those used by the League Militaire in V Gundam, but the 1/100 V kits DIDN’T come with any. This kit was the only way to get that weapon, and it came with TWO of them! The final shot shows what is, for me, the biggest draw of this kit, and that’s the unique two-piece beam shield. Other than the RXF-91, there are no other two-piece beam shields in Gundam. This one is even more unique, since it is hand-carried, meaning you can position it however you like, either forwards like on a V Gundam or out the side like on an F-91!
Almost as if they heard me, the good folks at Bandai do provide a more standard “front-on” mugshot of the Cluster on the ends of the boxes. This is actually very appreciated, as it is just as easy to tell from that as from the coloured bands whether you already have the kit or not.
Once inside the box, the retro-ness of this model is going to punch you in the face. Why? One word: halves. This predates Bandai’s increasingly impressive tendency to split kits along panel or colour lines. This thing is old school, and all your major sub assemblies are in halves. This is just how it was back in the day. Man, I know I sound old, but it’s telling as to just how far kits have come in the last couple of decades or so. I never thought I’d have to be explaining to people that you should expect things to come in halves, because I figured that’d always be the way. “Ha ha ha… Nope!” said Bandai a while ago, and never looked back.
But we are looking back, and it’s a neat window into how Gundam kits have evolved. While everything is more or less split down the middle, it’s amazing to see the colour palette in this model. You’ve got parts moulded in white, blue, yellow, black and red. Throw in the dark grey polycaps and the bright, clear green for the beam accessories, and it’s a veritable rainbow in there! Right away, the thing that struck me was all of this is on just four racks! When’s the last time you saw a 1/100 on that few racks? Yeah… well, that means there are some penalties awaiting.
The first is that, while there are a lot of colours in the box, the colour separation isn’t great. The weapons suffer the most. The bazookas should be white and black, but are all black. Believe me, I painted one with the white on it back when I built my first one, and it sucks. The rifle, as if to balance this, is all white. I have seen a couple other reviews of this kit online where this is a major black mark against the kit. It’s not. Remember, this kit was still considered as a MODEL, and that meant people were expected to use skills like painting to make it fully come alive. I think we’ve been spoiled when we kvetch and moan about having to bust out the paint brushes! The second penalty is that there’s likely to be a lot of build around on this kit, since everything’s in halves. That’s the worst part about old kits. Sadly, Bandai has yet to figure out a way around this on even some newer kits, so it is what it is. The third issue is seams. With great halves, comes great need for sanding. If you want this thing looking semi-decent at all, you bet your elbows you’re going to need a lot of sanding.
The plastic is the same as it was on the first issues of these kits. It’s hard, brittle stuff. The blue, in particular, is a bit more brittle than we’re used to, and it doesn’t feel as thick. Still, make no mistakes, it’s tough and sanding it will be tough too. Despite the age of the moulds, things look to be in good shape, and there’s not a lot of detail degradation or flash anywhere. I do expect, though, that when the parts are cut and joined that there will be a bit more of “seam mountain” than usual. This is what I call it when the plastic “ramps up” to the seam edge. It’s prominent on older Bandais, and this is both old and repopped, so you can do the math.
The detail is sparse but seems fine, and the clear pieces suffer from the usual bubbles in the swords. The shield pieces look good, though, and I’m glad of that since they’re the main reason I originally bough the kit, and they’re still the biggest draw (besides the retro experience) in this model. There are some of the expected shallow circular injector pin marks on the back, but they can be sanded out if you want. Using standard “beaming” techniques on the front of the shield will likely eliminate them from showing up, though. The detail is not up to current standards in some ways, but then again MGs and RE/100 kits don’t all have a lot of surface detail on them – that’s mech-specific. There are some neat slits on this kit around the chest bulge, and if you’re good with an outliner pen, this kit will look fine.
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions are typical in that they have full-colour on one side for painting information and some drawings of the “real” Gundam. It strikes me just how colourful, almost clown-like, the Cluster is, with so many bits of red and yellow dotted about it. The red especially shows up in the full-colour view. However, most of these patches come from the included stickers, and thankfully can be left off, reducing the clown effect. The instructions themselves are simple, as befits a kit that is mostly halves. The drawings are large and clear, and right away we can see that my fear of build around is not unfounded. The legs are victims of this, it seems, with separate knee blocks that are the epitome of this phenomenon. Sigh… retro indeed. If that doesn’t knock the rose-coloured glasses off my face, nothing will. Oooh! Two-piece beam shield! As my nephew would say “Never mind, I’m good…”
In with all this come two sheets of stickers. This is something Bandai STILL hasn’t gotten away from, but this kit has it worse than many. It comes with one sheet of paper/foil stickers, which are annoying at best, but still somewhat usable if you feel the need. These are for colour correction on the wings and for providing the orange in the thruster ports. The second set of decals are clear plastic decals, like on ‘80s GI Joe toys. These suck. Badly. Horribly. There’s no excuse for their pathetic existences! If they were cars, they’d be Pintos; if they were planes, they’d be Attackers. Like those two examples, these are inappropriately designed and executed, and fail at even their limited roles. This kind of sticker shows dirt badly, quickly, and tends to have troubles adhering to curves. Notice that the Cluster is kinda curvy? Right. The problems write themselves. Thankfully, these stickers are for warning signs and striping. That was something of a Gundam kit fetish back then. Don’t ask me why…
Finding this kit was awesome. Finding it with all of its friends was more awesome. I’ve always loved this kit, and have wanted a chance to redo it with my newer skills. For these reasons alone, it’s tough to give an unbiased review of this model. However, I’m bigger than that, so I can tell you, straight out, that if you are not a modeller, don’t buy this kit.
This is not a difficult kit to snap together. It’s limited in piece-count and, as you can see on the box, it’s colourful enough to look okay when done. If you’re a beginner, or working with a beginner and that’s all you want, then you’re good. However, if you’re newer to the hobby and you’re used to HGUC and MG kits with glorious separation in parts and colour, no seam lines and almost criminally flawless fit, then you’re screwed. This kit has none of that. If you are used to creating masterpieces with just a few light flicks of a sanding stick and you generally eschew painting except for the smallest details, then you’re still screwed.
At its core, the Cluster Gundam is a model kit. It was, for its day, a very advanced model kit. Its day is long, long past. This is a kit that has to be BUILT. It needs gluing (even though it says it doesn’t), sanding, painting and touching up. It needs love, attention and work. Lots of all of it. It needs careful planning and execution to get around some of the pitfalls. It is NOT a kit for the weak of spirit who want perfection without effort. It is NOT a kit for someone fairly new, used to great results. It will frustrate those people. I don’t want them to try this kit, because it may actually turn them off of Gundam models. Ironically, this kit was supposed to make building Gundams easier, but the trail it blazed has gone so far ahead of it, that it’s now more like the ancestors it was trying to get away from than the progeny it created.
If, however, you are a modeller, and you like a challenge, and you like to build, paint, sweat and fiddle with your kits, then this is for sure something you’ll love. If you like to make crappy kits look better, and you want to try to bring something old forward in time, and see how it compares to the newest thing, then this is made for you. This is a kit that will, most definitely, reward your efforts. It won’t do so easily, but it will do so in the end. Like the Dragonar 1, the Cluster Gundam is a product of a time long past that can be made to look really good if you want it to.
Overall, I’m clearly thrilled this was back on the shelves. If you think you’ve got what it takes, and you like the rather unique design aesthetic of the Cluster, grab it if you can still find it. Like saving a stray dog or restoring a weathered classic car, making his diamond-in-the-rough shine again is something I cannot recommend enough!