"Transformers Alternators" Smokescreen Toy Review


General Information:
Release Year: December 2003
Retailer: General Release (Toys 'R' Us, Kay Bee, Wal-Mart etc.)
Price: $19.99 (Depending on Retailer)
Accessories: Intercooler/Gun

The first figure to be released for the Alternators toy line was Smokescreen. While Takara launched its Binaltech line with two versions of this toy, representing both teams that drive the car, Hasbro stuck with the #8 version for its initial launch. However, it has stated on its web site that it will try to release the #7 version some time in late 2004 or early 2005.

Because these vehicles have to be faithful to their real life counterparts due to licensing concerns, Hasbro could only deviate a bit in this release. For a detailed review of the sculpt and items included with the Binaltech release, check out Binaltech Smokescreen's review and translations. This toy will focus on the changes made to this toy for this release.

Surprisingly, the Alternators packaging is actually a tiny bit bigger than the Binaltech packaging. This may have been a move to grab more shelf space (both literally and visually) to get people's attention. The window box shows off the vehicle prominently, and as I'm sure this was part of the licensing agreement, Subaru's logo and name are heavily present. The back of the packaging shows a co-sell of Sideswipe, even though technically the toy did not come out until a few months after this one. A nice drawing of Smokescreen is on the right hand side of the box, and in the lower left corner is a "1" designating its position in terms of release.

The thing that is kind of a bummer is that, that's it. The packaging is just another box to be tossed away. Unlike Takara's packaging which was made to also help display the toy in or out of box, this packaging really doesn't do anything of the sort. In addition, it includes none of the bio information on the character that the Takara packaging does. A booklet like the Binaltech toys have would have been overkill (cost wise), but at least print a brief bio on the box and add to its "G1 Homage" flavor. It's also disappointing to see no "story of Alternators" or something similar to the cool fiction used in the Binaltech packaging.

However, it does need to be said that in the US, Alternators is not as tighly targeted as a collector's item" than it is in Japan. In the US, this toy must also serve as something that younger kids will want (and thus sell more units), so it's not surprising that a lot of cost was kept down by keeping packaging work to a minimum. Still, it would have been nice to see.

Vehicle Mode:
Smokescreen is a 1:24 scale reproduction of the Subaru WRC 2003 race car. The idea was not to make an approximation or a toy that was "just good enough", the idea was to create something someone could look at and instantly recognize as a faithful replica of the real life Subaru. You can tell the designers studied the real life car thoroughly, making sure details from the simple to the complex were matched up.

The basic shape of the car is distinct, looking like a car you'd find driving down your street more than a race car worthy of muddy roads and adverse conditions. Indeed, there is a street car version of this vehicle, which currently Binaltech Streak represents. The front of the car has proprietary "tear drop" shaped headlights, and the front grill has a tiny, tiny Subaru logo on it (this still impresses the heck out of me). Other distinct features include the vent on the hood, the camera mounted on the top of the car and the special spoiler which was made especially for the real life WRC.

The subject that must be touched upon (at least briefly for now) is the lack of die cast metal. It is true, the Alternators version of Smokescreen replaces all die cast metal present in the Binaltech version with plastic parts. All these parts were molded in solid blue with paint details applied on top. The end
result bothers some fans while barely registering with others. Basically, the blue plastic used on Smokescreen is a flat blue. The blue used on Binaltech Smokescreen is a metallic, darker blue. The darker, metallic blue is a bit more faithful to the real life car, more because it is darker than the metallic spect. While this is a very slight strike against a totally faithful reproduction of the real life car, in reality, the use of plastic is not that bad at all. More on that as this review progresses.

While the flat blue of the car may not look that great, everything else does. The details, logos, arrows etc. from the real life car are faithfully reproduced here. I was so glad to see that even sponsor logos from companies like Kenwood were included in their actual company fonts. No tries at substitution were made, and for that I'm grateful. One detail which blows me away is the PIAA logo on the headlights. This is a small detail that could have easily been missed or just simply not included, but it's there. Even tiny details like an arrow on the left side of the front of the car are included. One detail which I felt Hasbro cheated a bit on are the side view mirrors. On Binaltech Smokescreen they werre vacuum metallized silver to better resemble real mirrors. Here they are just painted flat silver.

It is important to note that there are minor variations on this car's deco in real life from time to time. For instance, this car has a front license number painted on it, but that number differs depending on the place it's in, so here it was left out. Also, the "2003 Rallye Monte Carlo 8" detail on the side is not always present on the real car since it races in various venues. You can think of this version of the car as sort of a "snapshot" in time, representing one possible deco pattern for the car.

In terms of functionality, Smokescreen is built much like car replicas of the same size that don't have to transform. The hood opens (revealing the Intercooler underneath). The trunk opens, and all four doors open. This gives you a chance to peek inside and see how nicely the dashboard was done, also faithful to the real thing. The seats also fold down (a necessity of the transform). Another nice touch involves the front wheels. Both are linked to a central bar via magnets, so when you turn one wheel, the other goes the same way. Awesome.

Transformation Comments:
For a detailed explanation of the transform, and scans of the Binaltech instruction booklet, check out Binaltech Smokescreen's section. This bit of the review is more for commentary on the transform. When everyone learned that plastic had replaced die cast metal on Smokescreen, there was a general negative reaction. But what no one realized at the time was that the use of all plastic actually helps make the transformation process easier and less painless. Why? Two reasons:

  1. The plastic is lighter, and as a result, parts aren't as difficult to move and maneuver, something which you have to do in spades with this toy's transformation.
  2. Certain metal parts on Binaltech Smokescreen would rub up against each other fairly tightly during transformation, this caused paint scraping and general unpleasantness for many fans. With the plastic version, the parts just snap together and there's no fear of wear and scraping.

So, in terms of transform (which is critical to this toy), the use of plastic instead of die cast actually works out, which was a pleasant surprise.

The only detriment to the plastic parts used seems to magnify a problem that some people found in their Binaltech Smokescreens and Streaks. When you get to the part where you transform the arms, they have a tendency to pop off. They snap back in easily with no loosening of the joints, but it's still an annoying problem.

Robot Mode:
In robot mode, Smokescreen no longer has to be faithful to the Subaru car he becomes, but rather he has to evoke some of the appearance of the classic G1 character he is based on. In this sense, the toy succeeds. The designers took the basic "car front as the chest and doors as wings" design and took it up several notches. The way this toy is designed, it has twenty two points of articulation, ranging from four points of articulation in each leg to the trigger finger being able to move independently of the other fingers on his hands.

The high level of articulation also permits this toy to look less "brick like" than some of its ancestors. The arms can move like they did on the G1 toys, yes, but they can do so on six joints, allowing for a larger range of poses. The legs, no longer bonded together as one piece are now two separate entities which can stand tall and pose in various positions.

The head design is crucial here, as it makes the toy distinctive. The design is heavily based on Smokescreen's original look in G1, where his head resembled, but did not exactly match the other Autobot cars such as Bluestreak and Prowl. He has the basic crest/horns/face structure, but the outer "helmet" of the head wraps around the face completely, making him look like he's wearing a race driver's helmet.

The deco here is mostly carried over from the vehicle mode, but anywhere there is blue, you'll find it is a lighter shade than that of Binaltech Smokescreen. In this form, it really matters a lot less as the original Smokescreen had a fair amount of blue on him too. I do wish the designers had worked some more red into the body somehow to bring it even closer to the original's, but the toy looks so good, it's not really even necessary.

So what about the plastic? Is it bad to have in this mode at all? I don't believe so. In fact, again it seems that using all plastic may have enhanced the toy in a few ways: Because of its overall weight, Binaltech Smokescreen has a harder time standing straight up, requiring some manipulation of the legs. With Alternators Smokescreen, doing this is easy since he's so light, there's no great weight pressing down on the legs. While he and Binaltech Smokescreen share the same number of articulation points, now you can take advantage of them with less effort.

Final Thoughts:
I'm an old school Transformers fan. I was introduced to Transformers in the age of die cast metal and rubber tires. The loss of die cast metal always seemed to be a sad thing on any Transformer, but over the years, the importance of die cast metal quickly became more of a piece of nostalgia than a feature that affected functionality to any high degree. In this case, the loss of the die cast metal has actually benefited the toy a bit. Now, personally, I think that the blue plastic should have been darker and metal flaked, but I'm sure cost was an issue that kept that from happening. For an average price of twenty dollars (at its time of release), you're really getting an excellent package. Even without the die cast metal, this toy is awesome. Highly recommended as an alternative (no pun intended) to the Binaltech version of this toy.

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