Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (2)

We now interrupt the recounting of ceremonial family gatherings and travelling travails to get back to matters of fundamental importance: hyper-scrutinizing the Masters of the Universe toys.


I’m not sure if I could have worded my polling e-mail better, or if this is just indicative of human nature, or what, but I was a bit surprised by the way that all of the respondents focused entirely on the “starter set of He-Man figures” part of the question, generally to the exclusion of the “for my son, whom you all know, and who will be all of 3 years old in September” portion of the hypothetical. Then again maybe it’s just me, since I’m the one most likely to answer almost any question with “It depends …” followed by an exhaustive elaboration of circumstantial interpretations. This isn’t the first time I’ve solicited input to clarify my thinking, only to find that my thinking is a bit out of step with everyone else’s from the get-go.

One of the primary shapers of everyone’s List of 7, as I kind of alluded to last Wednesday, seemed to be a sense of balance. He-Man and Skeletor are arch-enemies, and they each have a right-hand man (Man-at-Arms and Beast Man) and both factions have token females (Teela and Evil-Lyn) so you can set up a pleasingly symmetrical configuration of six figures right there. The seventh slot reveals a bit more about whether you think good guys or bad guys are more fun to play with, or cooler; there’s also an element of creating “heroic odds” by having three good guys face off against four bad guys which I think influenced more than one list. But overall, three-on-four notwithstanding, there’s a role-by-role point and counterpoint thing going on.

And that certainly makes a lot of sense to me as both a geek and a gamer, which (not at all coincidentally) a lot of the buddies I posed the question to also happen to be. Among that group we’ve invested countless hours on computer strategy games and tabletop miniature games and paper-and-dice roleplaying games (and even fantasy sports leagues) to have finely honed senses of game balance that practically allow us to reverse-engineer new systems whenever we encounter them. We have an ingrained aversion to lopsided victories. We disdain conflicts where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In all those aforementioned games there is just as much narrative involved as elements of skill and chance and thus we expect certain plausible victory conditions for either side, making the endgame that much more exciting to move towards.

Fair enough, but we’re all grown-ups who got into those aforementioned games as adolescents. Here’s the thing about the little guy: he has absolutely no concept of balance. On more than one occasion I have had to stop myself from buying him more magnetized train cars (not engines) for his Thomas the Tank Engine set. I feel like he needs them because he has three Thomases, two Percys, and a James, which makes for six locomotives total, but only four cars for those locomotives to pull: Annie and Clarabelle the passenger coaches, a generic luggage car, and a caboose. That kind of imbalance makes me grind my teeth, I admit with zero pride. But not only does it not faze the little guy in the slightest, he will make long trains that consist of Thomas pulling Percy pulling another Thomas pulling James pulling the caboose and think that’s about as marvelous as modes of transportation get. Fundamentally, that’s the difference in the playtime mindset depending on whether we’re talking about the mind in question existing in a state before or after a logical worldview takes over.

And then again, I think there’s a third approach, too, staking out some middle ground. It’s also fairly resonant with an age between two and thirty-seven, say eight years old or so, which is of course the target audience for He-Man to begin with. Somewhere after the sheer joy of things (like trains) in and of themselves and the compulsion for orderly verisimilitude (like Dungeons and Dragons) there’s the kind of play that tells an exaggerated story. If I went back and asked my buddies how long they thought He-Man could hold out defending Castle Grayskull by himself against Skeletor’s minions, I’m sure I would get some interesting, deeply considered answers. But if I asked an eight year old the answer might likely be “Forever! He’s HE-MAN!”

So I admit, when I posed the question I was hoping someone would note that I said in the premise that the little guy already had Castle Grayskull and needed figures to go with it, and that said someone would suggest a rousing game of He-Man versus All Comers and fill out the remaining six slots with Skeletor, Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Tri-Klops, Spikor (he’s covered in spikes!), and Tung Lashor (snake/man with extensible plastic tongue!) or whatever other baddies would make for maximum chaos. At the very least, the thought crossed my mind.

On the flipside of the same token, though, I also thought it was at least possible that one or more people might suggest the seven best good guys and leave it at that, arguing perhaps that Skeletor, Beast Man et al would be a little too scary-looking to put in the hands of a toddler, or furthermore that toddler playtime should be all about sharing and caring and friendship and teamwork and not so much with the face-punching. But no one took that approach (not that I wanted anyone to, as opposed to my general desire for some outside-the-box thinking on the composition of He-Man adventures) and I suppose that really is a case of the toyline’s inherent function. Thomas the Tank Engine is great for teamwork and life lessons. Masters of the Universe is designed for evil monsters and almost-as-monstrous heroes bashing each other with swords and axes. Right tools for the right job and all that.

Now this is the kind of hero you build a franchise around.  And by you, I mean me.
Still, I wasn’t given any ringing endorsements of the more obscure, later-generation characters like elephant-headed Snout Spout, which is a shame given my love of things which evoke mighty Ganesha. Or it would be a shame, if I were going to allow the poll results to comprehensively dictate my inevitable acquisition of secondhand MOTU figures for my kids, which let’s face it, there’s no way. My household will end up with a weird menagerie of Eternians, in fact maybe even weirder than a random sampling of both the originals and later additions to the line. I mentioned above a proclivity amongst my friends for reverse-engineering certain games, and that could come into play here, too. But that’s another post in and of itself, and I do have a couple more Wednesdays (at least) to fill here, so I’ll pick up with that point next time.


  1. The Interwebbes have many fine resources on MOTU, and I gotta say, there are some damn fine toys out there.

    BLAST ATTAK: the figure who splits down the middle when you push a button on him!

    BLADE: John McCain as a Gay Space Pirate!

    BASHASAURUS: A red hot rod with a giant smashing arm topped by a boulder!

    CLAWFUL: The Villain of the Chesapeake Bay, whose secret weakness is Old Bay seasoning!

    GRIZZLOR: When Fizzgig goes bad!

    LEECH: Why suction-cup Garfields fear the night!

    MAN-E-FACES: The least convincing Master of Disguise ever!


    ROKKON: Dude turns into a rock! Plus, he's a constant reminder of the David Essex one-hit-wonder!

    RAM-MAN: Sir John Falstaff, reimagined as an alien demigod who busts things with his head!

    Jesus, that's a weird toy line. I don't think there are too many duds in that line, from the perspective of a three year old boy.

    They don't make any of the really rad ones anymore, do they. -sigh-

  2. Honestly I would put the odds on me tracking down a Mantenna sooner rather than later at significantly better than even money. For all the weirdness-for-weirdness-sake things I love about fantasy and sci-fi, I have an especially abiding love for eyestalks, of all things. Not Rule 34 love, mind you. Just enough geeky love to second your Hell, Yeah.