I remember being in a total state of paralyzing culture shock when I first arrived in South Korea in 1998. Everything was so different from any place I had ever been to before. The language was different, the alphabet was different, the 31 flavors of ice cream at their Baskin Robins were different, and they even got different toys in their Burger King Kid Meals. But then the most shocking difference of all was the best-they had different Transformers! To be a toy robot loving kid growing up in South Korea must have been totally awesome. They played fast and loose with copyrights and trademarks and their toy industry worked hard at producing some really crazy knockoff toys. Best of all, lots of robot toys from their wacky version of the 80s were still on the shelves at little mom and pop toy shops all over the country. It was like a bizarro toyland untouched by scalpers, a lost paradise of classic toy robot bootlegs preserved in time. One of my favorite discoveries from there is a set that stands out in my mind as one of the finest examples of bootleggery from the country that did it best. It's something I call the Destrong Combat robot 2 pack model kit (mostly because I can't read Hangul to find out its real name).
GOTTA START 'EM EARLY I GUESS
South Korean toy bootleggers really loved their Destrog Combat Robots, which was their name for what were officially called Combaticons in english speaking Trasnformer markets and Combatrons in Japan. Bootlegs of this team of five transforming military themed vehicles could be found in multiple colors, packaging styles and giftset combinations in South Korea. Usually the large missile trailer robot was packaged separately and the other four members were split up into two packs. All of the examples I saw were oversized compared to their official Takara/Hasbro versions by a factor of 1.5 to 2x as big. One of my favorite South Korean bootleg Combaticon items is a two pack containing the M-1 Abrams Tank and Jeep robots that's unlike any other giftset I've ever seen even there. What makes this set weird is that the robot toys are completely unassembled and the parts are mounted on plastic trees! It's like a model kit where the parts are not meant to be glued, but instead screwed together and all the necessary metal screws, fasteners, rods, and pins are included. There are even assembly blueprints showing how to assemble the toys from their component parts. It's like playing the home version of exploited toy robot factory worker!
THE STRANGE TREES OF MR. KIM'S SECRET ROBOT ORCHARD
The plastic bags call them models but that's really just semantics. These are really toys with their parts still sprued that you have to cut out and assemble yourself. There were official G1 Transformer releases that contained parts on sprues but those were mostly accessories like Optimus Prime's fists, Wheeljack's wings, various missiles from most of the boxed toys from 1984 and '85. Early versions of the Seacons came with their black weapons and accessories still on a small parts tree, but that was the greatest amount of sprued parts G1 ever saw. No official release shipped with the entire robot unassembled in model kit style. Every other bootleg Destrong Combat Robot 2 pack I found contained toys that were completely assembled. I do not know if any other Korean Combaticons came in this format as this was the only set of its kind I ever found.
THAT'S GONNA LEAVE A MARK
So just what are these things? Can we infer from their existence that this is how the actual parts from the official versions are molded? Not exactly. A comparison of these parts against the official versions reveals that they are not just upsized versions of the exact same molds. These larger Korean toys are different molds entirely. The best example of this is in examining the two versions of Brawl's twin sonic cannon. The Korean version has an upper and lower part of the main cannon assembly whereas the official Takara version is one hollow piece. There are a great number of similarities with where the sprue detachment points are on both versions, but even those differ slightly. The smaller offical version has some sprue marks that the larger Korean version does not, and the dimensions of many details differ so that the larger pieces are definitely not just upsized versions of the smaller ones. Larger questions arises then-just why did the Koreans go through all the trouble to create extra parts and remold so much of these toys? Wouldn't it just have been easier to do same scale copies? Just what are these upsized G1 Combaticons? I have never been able to get these questions answered and I don't know that I ever will.
THE BIGGEST MYSTERIES ARE DESTRONGER ONES
During my short time in Korea I was not able to get any first hand accounts of what it was like growing up as a toy robots fan there in the 80s. I didn't know enough Korean to talk to the shop owners and the bilingual Koreans I did know were not the right age group nor did they have any interest in toy collecting. But I had scratched the surface of what was to me an unknown market of fascinating toy robots. Before 1998 I never knew there were any Transformers bootleg or otherwise in Korea so finding them there was a complete shock. I can only speculate what it must have been like when these toys originally came out and what all was released. I imagine the Korea as I knew it from almost 20 years ago doesn't exist anymore but I wouldn't mind going back. Sometimes I wonder if there's still some tiny, hole-in-the-wall toy shop in a small Korean city off the beaten path with a giant wall of toy robots models just waiting for me to find some answers.