Friday, May 07, 2010

New robot stuff for people who like old robot stuff: That Transformers Lite Brite set that came out a couple years ago

Back in the 80s the American companies who were selling toy robots had other toys that were also quite famous. Companies like Ideal and Tonka pioneered some of the greatest boys' playthings ever like the Erector Set and those steel toy construction trucks way before they got involved with robots. Then once robot mania hit, these toymakers combined their robots characters with their other toys and we got some of the coolest robot crossover merchandising ever like the Maxx Steele Erector set and that Tonka Long Haul Rig with the GoBots graphic on the trailer. And then there was Hasbro. When I was a kid in the time before Transformers, Hasbro were the guys who were known for Weeble Wobbles, Glo Worms and Mister Potato Heads. Those weren't exactly the awesome action packed crossover material any kid my age would want or care about. These were the kinds of things I as a 10 year old would refer to as "baby toys". And baby toys just don't fit within the context of a galactic civil war waged by mighty space alien robot Volkswagens, or at least they didn't used to. It was only very recently that Hasbro realized warring space alien Volkswagens appealed to dumb babies just as much as the next guy!


Luckily Hasbro wasn't just worms, weebles and potatoes in the 80s. One toy they had lent itself readily to crossover marketing-the Lite Brite. There were Lite Brite picture packs for every licensed property from Strawberry Shortcake, Smurfs and Snoopy to Mickey Mouse, Muppets and Mister T. When Hasbro came up with their own toy properties like GI Joe, My Little Pony and Transformers it was inevitable that a Lite Brite refill would come out for those, too. I remember as a kid I was excited about the possibility of the Transformers getting a Lite Brite set because the G.I Joe one was totally awesome. Unfortunately the Transformers Lite Brite refill pack that came out in 1985 didn't meet my expectations. The choice of characters was extremely disappointing. The 12 pictures were mostly of b-list Transformers. It was great if you liked Dinobots that were not Grimlock or if you really really wanted two different sheets of Bombshell the Insecticon in robot mode but otherwise it was underwhelming. Megatron and Skyfire were about the only major Transformer celebrities-can you believe they left out Optimus Prime? The graphics weren't that great, either. The robots only vaguely resembled their toy or cartoon likenesses, which was a let down after the G.I. Joe set that captured the essences of those characters even with the limited resolution of the Lite Brite screen. The patterns also relied on using so many different colors that the robots didn't resemble their actual color schemes at all. It was a wasted opportunity, especially for a franchise with so much iconic character imagery that could have been brought to lite!


Well about two years ago I found out Hasbro gave the combination of Transformers and Lite Brite another shot and I was very excited. Then I was very annoyed when I found out how tough it was to track down the set of Transformers refills and a Lite Brite. They're not as easy to find as they were in '85 but I did eventually get the new patterns and a Lite Brite cube after a bit of searching. Lite Brites have come a long way since I was a kid so it was nice to have this new cube setup where four pictures could be set up at one time. What wasn't nice was that even after buying a new cube and the refills I still didn't have enough pegs to complete the pictures. So I went to eBay and bought some more pegs in bulk. I was ready to go but it took me two years to get around to actually putting it all together because Lite Brite is less of a toy and more like interactive performance art. It took so much time to do just one picture that I sometimes wondered if I was playing with a Hasbro toy or if I was the toy and Hasbro was playing with me. Was this really for kids or aspiring existentialists? My satisfaction with the final product was at times grossly disproportionate to the amount of effort it took to create it-some of the best pictures had the fewest pegs and vice versa, and they all took a long time to make. But the more I got into it the more I realized Lite Brite isn't about art or "lite" or "fun", it's actually a philosophical journey in which one ponders the nature of expectation and the value of one's Friday night while plugging three-dimensional shafts of multicolored light into two-dimensional robot drawings by Pat Lee.


What you get with this new set is eight patterns including two faction symbols, four Autobot robot graphics and two Decepticon robot graphics. Everything is Generation One based and I don't think Hasbro's ever made Lite Brite refills from any newer series. Unfortunately the new cube is smaller than the old screen so I couldn't put my original G1 patterns on it but the new patterns are pretty cool. They cheat a little bit by incorporating line drawings so the final image is a combination of glowing pegs and white lines. I felt this defeats the purpose of "drawing" with a Lite Brite but I can also see how impatient people may appreciate how much time and pegs it saves when the image is already partially rendered. I don't know. I feel like it makes the pictures look half finished.

I recognize a few of the drawings as taken from Dreamwave era comics illustrations with one glorious exception being they included the 1984 Optimus Prime box art. Finally we get a Lite Brite Prime, except because it's drawn using more white lines than lite pegs kind of looks like he's wearing a fuzzy glowing sweater. Sideswipe and Bumblebee also make the cut but again, if you only have pegs from the refill you won't have enough to complete these guys. There's not enough red to even come close to finishing Optimus or Sideswipe. There's one other robot that I think is Optimus but I don't recognize which Pat Lee comic book the art is from. It's terribly unfair to give the Autobots five sheets (two of which are Optimus) when the Decepticons only get three sheets total. I'm sure there are plenty of Decepticons that deserved to look just as ridiculous in their fuzzy glowing sweaters.

Speaking of the Decepticons, they're represented by Soundwave and one cassette guy. Since it's a picture of Rumble (or Frenzy) I took the opportunity to change out the pegs and make it into Frenzy (or Rumble). Soundwave actually looks pretty cool and I'd rank him as my favorite of the entire set. The lites and the lines don't conflict with Soundwave as much as they do in the other sheets, most notably in Bumblebee's case. Given the eight color choices available in the Lite Brite pegs I would have swapped out one of the Optimuses for a Shockwave. Purple Lite Brite pegs are real pretty plus he's got that whole laser beam thing going on with his hand which would have translated nicely into light pegs.


There are so many other light themed Transformers characters and concepts that would go great on a Lite Brite. There's the Matrix of Leadership, the Fallen and Kremzeek (not to mention glowy Dinobot swords). I feel like Hasbro still hasn't created the definitive Transformers / Lite Brite crossover and it's a shame because people like me (and perhaps some dumb babies) are waiting. In the meantime there are online tutorials showing how to create custom Lite Brite patterns from existing art and sites like the Virtual Lite Brite that can help me realize my ultimate rendition of Shockwave in glowing purple pegs. It might be worth doing for the Botcon art contest just to show the Hasbro people doing the judging that the definitive Lite Brite version of everybody's favorite space alien Volkswagen has yet to be created. I don't know why Hasbro can't get this right when they've done such a bang up job with Transformer Potato Heads and Weebles. You'd think incompatible and peculiar crossover toys would be their specialty by now. Somewhere off in the night echoes the nervous laughter of mister Glo Worm.


agentmorris said...

If you enter this sort of thing into BotCon, I'll definitely want to have my picture taken next to it.

Evil King Macrocranios said...

I've been messing around with the idea and coming up with what I think are really nice Lite Brite versions of a couple characters. It would be cool to take the cube to the Botcon art show but there are a lot of logistical problems. What category would it be in? Lite Brite art doesn't exactly fit into Custom figure, Diorama, hand drawn art, computer generated art or fan film extravaganza. Even if I did get it in I'd be at the mercy of blind luck hoping they had electric outlets in proximity to the art tables.


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