Transformers. These genius pieces of electromagnetic engineering transformed the twentieth century in a way that was inconceivable only a few years before. They are the core of our AC power supply network, and can be found almost everywhere. Heck, an AC motor is just a transformer that spins!
Wait… what do you mean that, despite their importance, this is not the vision that most people have when they hear the world “Transformers”? Hmm… Are you saying that the word more usually conjures up images of giant alien robots that can shift their bodies into the shapes of cars, trucks, planes, toasters and robotic dinosaurs? Gotta love that pop culture repurposing of words!
Transformers, the toys, began life in 1984 when Hasbro brought a bunch of transforming toys from the Diaclone line in Japan to North American shelves. However, they rightly figured they’d need a cartoon, and a mythology, to distinguish their product form everything else on the toy aisle shelves. They weren’t wrong; if there’s a lesson the ‘80s taught us, it was that a toy without mythos and a world of its own to exist in likely will fail. However, the folks at Hasbro and Marvel (it was quite a team-up) did such a good job, and put so much attention into the detail of their universe, that something really magical happened. Not only did they flesh out a universe that helped support a toy line for 4-5 years, they created a mythos that still exists, and is even expanding, today!
The world of the Transformers is vast, and as I mentioned, is growing even still. Over the last 15 years, with the nostalgia boom in full effect and many excellent new toys and comic books coming out, Transforms has not only recaptured its ‘80s glory, but in most ways is now exceeding it. Now, rather than 5-11 year-olds being the primary target, though, there are products aimed at adult collectors too. High-end “Masterpiece” transformers that cost hundreds of dollars, hardbound comics collections and non-poseable “busts” of favourite characters are just some examples of the “adult-oriented” (NO… NOT that way… get your minds out of the gutter…) collectibles available.
However, there’s another interesting facet to the Transformers merchandizing story; third-party replicas. Often, these are highly impressive replicas of characters not otherwise available to collectors, although recently there have been many that are “other takes” on famous characters that do already exist as toys. In many cases, these third-party replicas, while amazing pieces of work that outshine even the “official” toys”, are actually unlicensed. Thus, they get names that allude to something about them, or is a play on their real name. It’s very unusual, in fact, to have a third-part replica that IS a licensed item.
There are exceptions to every rule, though, and one of these is the products offered by the company called “Flame Toys”. I don’t know the whys and wherefores, but Flame Toys has a deal with Hasbro, it seems, to do LICENSED third-party toys. If you’re a little vague on what that actually means, trust me, you’re not alone. If they’re licensed, then they’re really not, technically, “third-party”. But, they’re not Hasbro/Tomy designed, either. It’s a crazy hybrid that has produced some amazing looking figures. Sadly, while the figures are mind-blowingly detailed and are absolutely beyond stunning in terms of aesthetic flair, they have two weaknesses. Firstly, they don’t transform; they’re just mega-super-ultra cool looking robot-mode-optimized figures. Secondly, they are expensive. Like, sell-a-kidney expensive. So, while I may love them, there’s no way in heck one will ever grace my shelves. They’re just out of reach for me. As a modeler, a robot fanatic and a lover of Transformers, I can say they are impressive beasts, though!
Then, recently, something weird happened. Flame Toys decided they wanted a piece of the growing Gundam model (I don’t use the portmanteau “Gunpla”) market. So, to grab their piece, they re-engineered a number of their most popular figures into model kits. Of course, Optimus Prime and Bumblebee were among the first, and Starscream, Skywarp and Thundercracker (the original “Seekers”) followed hard upon. I actually have a Skywarp; I picked it up on a whim on sale on Boxing Day.
To me, it was cool to see a Gundam-like model of a Transformer. Given my Megatron, Predaking and Spinister customs, you know I do like to build kits of Transformers, in either mode. Having a kit of Skywarp was cool, but the design is only a bit stylized, and it wasn’t something I was super-hot to get. This was not the case for what I found was to be Flame Toys’ next kit: Drift. I won’t go long into Drift’s origins. Suffice to say he’s an Autobot with a big sword and lots of samurai action going on. You might know him from the live action movies (my condolences), but this Drift is the original, the fan-created character from IDW’s comic books. He doesn’t look like a gold-faced, blue-bodied semi-racist depiction of a stereotypical Samurai. He’s white and grey and black, with some red, and is a very cool looking robot in his own right.
The first time I saw the Flame Toys figure of Drift I almost literally fell out of my chair. It was beyond anything they’d done to that point in terms of just amping up the original design and creating something that blended the western and eastern design influences seamlessly. This thing was a robot, but it looked alive. It was a Transformer, but it had so much stuff from the Japanese school of mech design that it was impossible to say, categorically, that it wasn’t like a Gundam or one of the other mecha out there. It was pointy, and finny, and lithe and heavy and just plain bloody awesome. It was, like other figures, hellishly expensive, and so I downloaded the pictures of it just to drool over when I was needing a good robot fix.
So, you can imagine how excited I was to find out that Flame Toys had given Drift the model kit treatment! Now, instead of $400+ for a replica, I could get one for about $70, and while he was a bit smaller, I’d actually get to BUILD him!! While that may not be every collector’s cup of tea, getting a chance to build such an amazing figure and put my own spin on it is certainly something I’m on board with! You can then imagine my extreme excitement when I stopped at a local comic store on a whim only to find a single copy of Drift on their shelves, buried in Starscreams and Bumblebees! You want to talk about instant thermal overload? Yeah!
One thing that’s been bugging me about these kits is that it’s hard to find a good review of them IN MODELLING TERMS. There are plenty of reviews that consider them as figures to be assembled, in the same was as out-of-box builds of Gundam kits. There are reviews that consider them in terms of their finished product relative to the more expensive figures. However, I’m a modeller. Chances are good if you’re reading this that you’re a modeller too. It would be nice to know if the kits were any good AS MODELS, before going and buying them, right?
Thus, that’s what we’re going to look at today We’re going to take a look at the Flame Toys Drift model kit, and see how it looks through a modeller’s eyes, and assess it as a kit, not as a buildable figure, but as an honest-to-goodness model kit to be glued, sanded, painted and all the rest. So, strap in for something a wee bit different, and try not to fall out of your chair like I did!
The Furai Model Kit series from Flame Toys have a similar aesthetic to all their boxes. They are fairly large (size of a good-sized HGUC Gundam) and generally dark. Nearly the entire front of the box is art, and that means there’s a fairly large canvas for Flame Toys’ artists to go to town on. In this case, they indeed took a trip into the city, and the box art on Drift is awesome!
You’ve got the black band with red “Transformers” text down the extreme right side, to let you know what you’re getting into. There’s even the “Authentic Transformers” Autobot symbol at the top corner, so you know it’s a licensed third-party offering. The rest of the box is a massive landscape picture of Drift looking massively badassed. He’s posed with both of his short swords/knives (stored in the waist sheaths that look like binders) drawn, despite being better known for his single massive sword. The pose he’s in is clearly something that looks more like something form a samurai anime (like Ruroni Kenshin) than a typical Transformers scene. With the knives pointed threateningly towards you, huge leg displacement and his one shoulder squared to the viewer, Drift gives the impression of being more than ready to handle whatever’s coming his way.
Adding extra dynamism to the scene is a weird visual effect; it seems like there’s a smoke ring that’s still clearing from around Drift. That, and his pose, makes it look like he’s just completed a slashing attack, and has spun around on his feet, ready to spring again. If you’ve seen any samurai anime, I think you know exactly the run/turn/slide thing they’re going for. Add to this the fact that the background is blurry, like the camera can’t focus on both drift and the background due to extreme relative motion, and the overall feel of lightning speed and explosive action frozen in time is complete.
Beyond that, just the design and rendering of Drift is amazing. You can see the details in the design quite well, and you definitely get a feel that this robot is something a bit out of the ordinary. For one thing, the shoulder flares go backwards, rather than outwards, and the lower legs are heavy, unlike a lot of Gundams and similar mecha. It gives Drift bit of an old-school feel, while clearly being brand new. Also, Drift is very busy, colour-wise, given that he’s mostly white. There’s dark grey-black, metallic shades, red splashed all over the place and some yellow and blue “light” accents as well.
The sides of the box are, by and large, pretty meh, except for the one end that is a close up of Drift’s head and shoulders. This lets you see the artist’s skill even more, and it’s a very attractive illustration on its own. The back of the box is, very much like any mech kit I’ve ever seen, a glossy, full-colour affair! It shows three action poses, to get the point across that while this isn’t a figure, it still has tonnes of articulation. There is also a good, if not somewhat small front and back view and a layout of what’s in the box. This layout is, unfortunately, very small, and doesn’t really give you a feel for what you’re getting. You can see that there are a good number of racks, but the lighter coloured ones don’t show up that well. They do make a note that this is good for beginners, though, so perhaps we’ll see a simple assembly setup without a lot of build-around? We can hope!
Upon opening the box, you get a feeling that there’s quite a bit in this kit. That’s a good thing, of course, unless it isn’t. I’ve found that some non-Bandai mech makers (like Kotobukiya, makers of the R-Gun Powered) tend to go overboard. They try to out-Bandai the folks at Bandai, and in essence make their kits far too fiddly. This complicates the build instead of helping it, and if you paint anyway, then massive colour separation is only something of a help. Thankfully, Drift doesn’t seem to follow that trend.
The racks are bagged in small groups, so there are multiple bags in the box. Overall, there are nine (9) non-light-coloured racks in black, silver (for the sword blades), gunmetal and red. There are also two gunmetal-ish polycap racks and one that is transparent, but not. This one is cool, as it is the yellow and blue “lights” on the figure. These are moulded in coloured clear, but have a not-quite chrome silver backing, to give them some reflectivity. It’s a neat effect, although one that a modeller might be able to reproduce more convincingly on his/her own.
In addition, there are seven (7) racks of white and light grey. The white is not quite white, well, not white like a Gundam. Instead, it’s a metallic, pearlized white. It’s extremely different for a mech, and it’s very well done, with no obvious giant swirls (as is often the case with metallicized plastic). I was very impressed with that, since there’s no real reason to go to the trouble of making the white this deluxe. What’s interesting is that there is a white version of two of the black racks. I can’t really fathom how this is more efficient from a kit moulder’s point of view, but I like it. It gives the chance for some variety, and I personally intend to use the white foot covers vs. the black ones.
The plastic is all very high-quality feeling. It’s very shiny, and the detail is crisp. The plastic is so shiny that it actually worries me that it will be hard to hold onto while trying to sand the pieces! There’s no obvious moulding film, but I think, since this is a brand of kit I’m not familiar with, it might be advised to give it a dunk in a sinkful of Dawn to pull any grease off of it. I know I wish I’d done that with my Takom Rhino…
I’m very impressed, by and large, by the detail on the kit. There are a lot of little mechanical “openings” on the model to give you the impression that there’s “living circuits” inside. This isn’t something normally seen on most MS kits, and it’s a nice change. There details on the chest and on the bulges on the legs are going to look really good painted up and washed; if you’re into painting, there are a lot of good opportunities on this kit. Drift is replete with all kinds of vents, verniers, breathers and oddly-placed plates that could be moveable. All of these will just add to the final impression of the kit when they’re appropriately picked out the finished product. Flame Toys have done an admirable job of condensing their figure into a model kit without losing their particular “hyper detail” aesthetic.
You get three kinds of hands, too; fists, sword-holding “peg hands” and open, expressive hands. Unlike on some MS kits, you get all three for both wrists! I always hate it when you have to carry the gun in a specific hand, or only have one posed hand; no worries about that here! There’s no flash on this kit, either, which is always a good sign.
While colour separation is pretty good, and part separation looks excellent, there’s one thing I don’t like: the small “winglets” that adorn the backs of the legs and the tops of the (very layered) shoulder armour. These parts are shown having red leading edges. It makes for a nice bit of colour and helps the pointiness of the design really stick out. Not surprisingly, these aren’t moulded in red, and Flame Toys gives you red decals to colour-correct this. Normally, this wouldn’t bug me, because I’d eschew the decals/stickers/whatever and paint the edges red. However, I did expect that there would be a line separating the leading edge from the rest of the fin. It’s drawn that way in the instructions, but alas, that’s not the case. The transition from the leading edges to the sides of the fins is fairly soft, and in order to paint it, a line is going to have to be scribed in. Bust out the Dymo Tape for this… it’s going to suck. That’s coming from me, the guy who rescribes even when he doesn’t have to!
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions for Drift come in a small booklet with three pages to it. They are full-colour throughout, and are very high-class looking indeed. They are shiny, on good quality paper, and give you all the information you need to build up the kit. However, they are deceptively nice. They look fantastic, but they’re not as useful as they could be. Let me explain: The instructions are drawn in an almost anime-cell style, which works fine. The drawings are crisp and clear, and there’s no real ambiguity in what goes where, for the most part. The problem is actually that they are a bit small, and a bit dark. Since they’re full-colour, the dark parts are shown as dark. Yes, there are black lines on the drawings to show detail, but in all but very bright light they’re hard to see. Given that the orientation of these parts is often critical (say in the body), this makes life unnecessarily difficult. Also, the booklet is not as “spread out” as a normal MS instruction sheet; it’s as if Flame Toys was trying to save paper/cost and sort of crunched everything in a bit too tight.
The instructions aren’t bad, but they are hard to use, and I think that non-modellers might notice it less that experienced builders. I’d like to see them follow Bandai’s example and use largely black and white line drawings for their assembly instructions, with colour for only the final steps and painting guides. The other thing that doesn’t’ work is the black background frames. In many cases the dark parts overlap the fames, and the fames tend to make some of the steps physically quite small – it’d be nice to make them a bit bigger for clarity’s sake. One other thing I don’t like is that the “walk around” views and posed views are of the final model, without decals. This means they’re useless as a painting guide. My advice; find the Flame Toys website and download pics of the original figure, and then paint to those. That’s what I’ll be doing.
The decals are a completely different beast from what a lot of people will be used to. However, if you grew up with Transformers in the ‘80s, you know that they’re well known for having “chrome” decal sheets. The old toys had self-adhesive stickers (which we called decals in my household) that were printed on shiny, metallic paper. Well, Drift takes that to a new high. The decals that come with Drift are indeed stickers. They are chromy. If you’re thinking that this isn’t new, and that a lot of Gundams come with self-adhesive metallic labels (especially older ones) then you’re about halfway there. The decals that come with Drift are BRILLIANTLY chromed. They are more shiny than Bare Metal Foil. They’re so shiny, they’re almost impossible to photograph!
I don’t know how thick they are, how self-adhesive they are, or if they’ll conform to any of the surfaces. I know I’m glad that the Autobot symbols in his shoulders are also moulded-in in bas-relief. I personally don’t think I’d trust the decals to get into tight spots, but maybe they’re okay. However, for a modeller, such stickers are something to be avoided in most cases anyway, and I don’t expect I’ll be using any, nor would anyone with some painting experience. Sadly, though, Flame Toys has used them to do some major colour correcting; the aforementioned fins are just some examples. The red on the twin hip-mounted sheathes are the next most prominent parts, but there’s a red “door” on his back and a number of other small details, like the “intake chevrons” on his shoulders.
To go head-to-head against Bandai in the mech model world takes some serious cajones. They’ve been at it forever, and are the masters of it, hands down. To survive, you either need to come super-cheap, or super-strong, and bring a product that is more than just “another robot”. Flame Toys, in deciding to take their “third party license” for Transformers and bring some of their figures into the model kit arena, are taking a pretty aggressive step. It’s not a battlefield either they or Hasbro are particularly experienced in navigating.
That having been said, the Furai model kits seem to be pretty darned good. That I can actually get my hands on a replica of this design of Drift for less than the cost of a black-market kidney is something about which to be very excited indeed! Flame Toys and Hasbro should both be congratulated on producing a product that is very close to what I’d expect to get from a Gundam kit. The part separation and detail level are on par with HGUC kits, and if the fit is good, then there’s really very little negative to say at all. The kit still feels like it lacks a bit of an HGUC’s finesse, but it’s not far behind.
As a buildable figure, I think the Drift kit leaves a bit to be desired. Those who don’t paint and just want to snap up a cool robot that looks like the box are going to be left a bit flat. Even with the colour-correcting stickers, it just won’t look quite “right”. Most Gundams at this price range have the colour separation worked out so there’s a minimum of stickerage required. So, a completed and undecalled Drift will look a bit plain.
But, if you consider Drift as a kit, then there is a LOT of potential. Great detailing areas, lots of opportunities to use metal shades and washes, interesting places for colour contrasts… it’s all there. The best part, to me, is that you have to be a MODELLER to make it work. This isn’t like an HGUC; many of these detail areas are NOT separately moulded. You’re going to have to go in and get them, and that’s where the skill and experience of the modeller is going to show through. This kit isn’t primitive by any means, but it will make you work harder than your average Gundam to get as good a result. I like this. It’s why I enjoy some of the MS kits from the early-to-mid 1990s. You still have to do some work, apply some modelling skill and think about what you’re doing to really amp up the final product.
The great news is that this kit is buildable by anybody. It even says on the box that it is suitable for model kit beginners. It’s a snap kit, too, so no glue is needed, technically. Even if you’ve never built a kit, you should be able to build Drift. That makes it good for people who want a Drift but can’t afford the original figure. However, as I said, the figure you get this way will be somewhat “flat”. Drift is a kit that’s going to really reward skill and willingness to work hard on details. For that reason, he’s perfect as a model for someone with a lot of experience, and someone who likes to go the extra mile; namely a veteran modeler.
The Flame Toys Drift design is probably one of the very coolest robots I’ve ever seen. With lots of joints and excellent sculpting, this model is sure to be able to rival the original figure for poseability and general coolness. It’s a solid offering form a company you might not have heard of, but it definitely warrants and merits a look-see. Whether you’re a Transformers fan or not, the Furai Drift kit has a lot to offer and is a nice break from “yet another Gundam”, and will definitely have people asking “what is that?”. Throw some skills into the mix, and you should be able to bang out a killer model for a reasonable amount of dough.
If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is. I’m really jonseing to build this one, and I hope it lives up to the promise it seems to have!