One of my favorite TRANSFORMERS gimmicks of all time is the Headmaster gimmick. You have a vehicle or a robotic animal that has a seat in it, like the Japanese DIACLONE cars, planes, dinosaurs, and bugs that — after some repainting and filing down of the sharp points — made up the bulk of the first two years of the TRANSFORMERS toy line. Unlike the TRANSFORMERS versions of those older toys, though, the Headmasters vehicles and animals actually come with drivers, blocky little armored guys who can move their arms and sit down, but are otherwise nigh to unarticulated. However, when the vehicle or animal transforms into a robot, the little armored guy ALSO transforms — into the robot’s head!
In Japan, the idea was that the little guy was a smaller robot that basically used the vehicle or animal as a kind of transformable mecha, while in the States we were offered up the confusing concept of “binary bonding,” where the little guy is a human being or humanoid alien in an armored suit, and the larger robot is a Transformer who had his own personality — so, two minds in one body. There wasn’t a lot of time to explore the concept in the cartoon, because it ended with the three-episode mini-series that introduced the Headmasters. The comics of the time didn’t do a lot with the idea until Simon Furman began writing two polar opposite takes on the concept. On the one hand we had the biggest Headmaster on the Autobot side, Fortress Maximus, who was binary bonded with the human Spike Witwicky. Spike abandoned his position as the head of Fortress Maximus, so their personalities remained distinct and they had a bit of a mental tug-of-war for control of their merged body and consciousness. On the other hand we had the biggest Headmaster on the Decepticon side, Scorponok, who by the time Furman was writing him self-identified as his humanoid identity, Lord Zarak. I believe he was simply following from former writer Bob Budiansky’s lead, but regardless, the way the character was written, it seemed that Scorponok’s own consciousness was gone, that Scorponok was merely a role that Zarak played for his Decepticon troops. He pretty much admits this to Optimus Prime in issue #74, as the story builds to the impending confrontation with Unicron.
Whatever the way it works in the fiction, the fun of the toys is that all the figures and heads are cross-compatible. Consequently, in Japan, Takara produced a handful of heads that didn’t appear in the cartoon and had no larger robot bodies they went with. You could use them as replacements if you lost the original heads, or you could use them as cool-looking alternatives to the “canon” figure heads. These heads now fetch big crazy money on the aftermarket — though it’s not like original Headmaster heads are cheap on their own. So when this item started popping up on the internet, heads turned, and money exchanged hands …
First, a word about this box. It is gorgeous. It perfectly replicates the graphical design style of the 1987 TRANSFORMERS toy line, from the grid effect of the background, to the logos at top and bottom, to that tagline: “More … Much More Than Meets The Eye.” There’s even a CGI battle scene mural on the back. This may be a bootleg product, but it’s obviously a labor of love for whomever decided that this was a thing worth doing.
The box contains ten Headmaster heads: the six Japan-exclusive figures who were sold separately, and the four heads that came with the giant base figures in 1987 and their redecoed and retooled counterparts in 1988. (The giant city/fortress Fortress Maximus and his Decepticon counterpart Scorponok were recolored and retooled with different accessories — and, in the case of Scorponok, a new head — in 1988 in Japan as Grand Maximus and Black Zarak.) These are well-made reproduction items; honestly, if I didn’t know these were knock-offs, nothing about the quality of them would be a tip-off. The plastic feels right, the joints are tight, the parts that click do so satisfyingly, and the paint applications are all professional quality.
Now, despite my professed love for the gimmick, I never had any Headmasters as a kid. I’m having a hard time remembering what my first Headmaster was; I know it was within the past ten years, and I think it was the CAR ROBOTS redeco of Fortress Maximus, which I bought new during the winter it was released (2001, I think). I later bought a secondhand Apeface, Fangry (one of the lesser, second-year Headmasters), and Chromedome, though I later parted with my Chromedome because he’s just a deathly dull and ugly toy. But none of those seemed an appropriate guinea pig for my new box of heads, so I bought a secondhand Weirdwolf body in decent repair.
The only fixer-upper part was that I had to tighten the screws holding his legs on so that he’d stand worth a damn. Also he has no accessories, so when he turns into a wolf he’s missing his tail, since that doubles as his sword.
Today I’m going to showcase the three humanoid “optional” Headmasters out of the box. Here they are lounging on my DVD collection.
Kirk is the boring-looking one, the one in exactly the same color scheme as Chromedome’s Headmaster partner Stylor. The next one over is Lodani, cast in colors that make him look at home on Weirdwolf’s shoulders. The last one is Loafer, who also sports a very Decepticon-looking color scheme. Here they are again standing, waving their arms about, as that’s really their only non-transformation-involved articulation.
When I say Kirk is “the boring one,” that’s because, as noted, he’s in an overly familiar color scheme — the same color scheme as the Headmaster partner of the most basic Autobot figure of the first year of the gimmick — and his transformation scheme is the same as most of the rest of the Headmaster figures in the line as well. Fold him in half, then flip the crest up to reveal the face. Pretty standard. Here he is resting on Weirdwolf’s shoulders.
This is another thing I love about the Headmaster gimmick — the “tech spec” dials in the chest. When you plug a Headmaster head into a body, it pushes down on controls for three dials and spins them to different levels. Different heads have different ratings for speed, strength, and intelligence. As you can see here, Kirk’s strong, pretty fast, but of about average intelligence. Of course, if you put Fortress Maximus’s Headmaster partner, Spike, onto any body, the dials are all maxed out. Second-year Headmaster bodies, while they’ll take first-year Headmaster heads, do away with the dials and just push down a single panel with a sticker, showing that body’s default tech specs. Thankfully, if you put a rinky-dink second-year head on a first-year body, it does have the notches cut to push down the dials appropriately.
Kirk is blocky, just like the heads that come with the full Headmaster sets, but he does have a cool head crest. I also dig his classic robot lips (see the DIACLONE-era TRANSFORMERS figures and VOLTRON), and what looked at first like old man robot cheeks (see Megatron/Galvatron, Rodimus Prime, and Kup) actually turns out to be more like one of those samurai helmets that go over the face like a Batman cowl and then have the chinstrap.
Lodoni works very differently from any other Headmaster I’ve handled. The others all work very similar to a Scramble City-type combiner — the blocky heads are used as the connection point between the small figure who turns into a body part and the larger figure it’s turning into a part of. Instead, Lodoni connects via his crotch. Here’s a back view of him, with the large robot head face revealed.
You can see the flat bit that pushes down the dials in the large robot chest. Turn him around and it’s obvious where the connector is located. That’s just bloody odd.
When I bought this Weirdwolf, it was my intention to make him the permanent home for one of these Headmaster heads. Of all of them, I think Lodoni fits the best. The colors match nicely, though I think Weirdwolf could probably use a little more purple to make him a more suitable host body. It was also my intention to use the body as a guinea pig for learning how to customize figures, so if and when I have the time I’ll probably add that aforementioned purple.
If I have any problems with Lodoni’s head mode it’s that he doesn’t actually fold up particularly well. You can either fold his body as far as it’ll go and leave a big gap between his robot-mode thighs and the large robot’s shoulders, or you can leave his thighs flat against the shoulders and leave a giant gap through the middle of his head. Despite having a hole in his head, though, he’s got a heck of an intelligence rating.
Not only do I like Lodani as a head, but I like him as THIS FIGURE’S head. The gap in the middle is just a nitpick, especially since I’d rarely be looking at Weirdwolf from the side. The hole in the Headmaster is the least of this figure’s problems from a side or back view, seriously.
The last man up is Loafer, who has a hilarious name. He and Strongbad’s “NO LOAFING” sign would not get along, for obvious reasons.
Loafer’s got some weird proportions all around. In small robot mode he’s got a big head and skinny legs. As a head, he’s got a giant forehead and a wide, lined face that looks like something from either older Takara DIACLONE toys or latter-era Japanese-exclusive TRANSFORMERS, circa ZONE or BATTLESTARS. Actually, you know who I’m really thinking of, looking at this? Danguard Ace.
In either case, it’s an interesting look, and the maroon set against a silver face with a mustard yellow body brings to mind the late 1988/early 1989 Pretender figure Bludgeon’s look, especially given the crest motif all these heads have going on. Bludgeon’s Pretender shell makes him look like a samurai skeleton, and the head crests all have the side effect of giving these heads a very subtle samurai vibe that wasn’t present in the “canonical” heads that come with the first-year Headmasters.
Thus endeth the first chapter in my look at the knock-off Headmaster box set. For Thursday I’ll be snapping some pics of the animal guys — which is just a wonderfully bonkers idea, isn’t it? Robot animals transforming into heads for robots. Are they talking animals? Or do they pop onto the bodies and continue to howl and hoot and make strange noises despite looking like respectable Transformers? I’d really love to have seen Hasbro try to explain away that one with “binary bonding.”