Monday, May 25, 2009
Advent of the CommTech Chips
For me Star Wars is virtually inseparable from the 3.75" action figures that were first released in 1978 and has continued in some form to this day, with a ten year hiatus from 1985 to 1995. I wasn't around for the earlier stuff but I've been collecting them on and off since '95. For the first few years I only picked up a few here and there. I remember my first two being Darth Vader and R2-D2. Star Wars figures really caught on with me me in 1997 when the theatrical re-releases happened around the same time as my birthday resulting in a prefect storm of young geekdom. My interest cooled down a bit the following year but it was just in preparation for the coming onslaught of 1999. Hasbro got the Episode I excitement started early with an assortment of figures that come with "Flashback Photos" that try to relate a classic character to an Episode I character. Frankly they weren't that interesting but the figures that they acme with were nice. In the few short years since the modern line had started they were already improving quite a bit. Hasbro was preparing something even more innovative for their Episode I line. Obviously I was expecting a big push for the Episode I toyline and was excited for it. Back then I didn't know anything about new toys until I saw them in a store. One night though I saw a report on the TV news about the Episode I toys and how toy stores would start selling them at midnight. While I was understood I probably wouldn't get a chance to go I still bugged my mom to take me to Toys R Us after school the next day. She obliged but by then it was too late. The store had already sold out of most of the more interesting items. The only basic figures they had were the Ric Olie, Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Vallorum. These boring old men figures would continue to not sell through out the line's existence. I did go home that day with a deluxe Obi-Wan Kenobi with a lightsaber slashing gimmick. I would have preferred a basic version primarily because it would be in a neutral pose. It wouldn't have been much cheaper though and it would have even had its own gimmick. For Episode I the basic figures came with CommTech chips which allowed the figures to talk. When a character's CommTech chip was scanned with a CommTech Reader (sold separately) the Reader would play lines from the movie. These chips could also be used as stands for the figures or even be worn like dog tags. I can see why they thought the CommTech chips were a clever idea. Star Wars fans all have their favorite lines and love quoting the movies. The problem is part of the fun of Star Wars action figures is all the obscure background characters that only have a few seconds of screen time. These characters don't have much, if any, dialogue. Some CommTech chips featured lines that Hasbro just made up. It also didn't help that Episode I didn't have the same impact of the original movies. Of course I cite the movie constantly but usually I do it ironically. While the idea was flawed the execution left something to be desired too. The problem was that the voices just didn't sound that good. The audio quality wasn't great but worse was that they didn't use the actors' real voices. I'd say they used soundalikes but they didn't much sound like the actual actors either. The Battle Droid even sounded more human than droid. Maybe that's why Hasbro made toys of those boring old men like the Chancellor. Those characters typically have more lines than the more visually interesting aliens. Hasbro had a lot riding on the CommTech chips. There were even CommTech Readers on display in stores that anyone could try. More on the fallout of the Episode I toyline next time.