Inquirer Super

Voltes V, Transformers, Tamiya: Toys Pinoys went crazy for

By Ruel S. De Vera
05/17/20 6:35 PM

First of a series

Pinoy kids do love their toys—and parents love buying their kids toys. Through the years, there have been many, many toys trends in the Philippines. The truth is that Filipinos have a much more eclectic—and arguably, better—access to toylines because of its unique geographical and commercial location. It is east meets west, and as such, it receives the toylines from Japan as well as the toylines from the United States. This is why you can find toys here that you can’t find from either place (hello, Greenhills!). It also helps that Filipinos are devoted collectors, often taking care of their toys even after they’ve grown up.

But while they’re still young, there are toys they just must have, no matter what.

And here’s the thing: There are toys which are routinely popular anywhere in the world: Barbie, G.I. Joe, Pokemon, LEGO, Hotwheels/Matchbox, Star Wars, etc. This is not about them.

The massively successful Gundam model kit franchise has a very devoted cult following, but those are kits, not toys, so that deserves its own deep dive later.

For this article, we’re going to talk about the toys and/or toylines which were really, really popular here—and maybe ever why, the first hopefully of many such lists. By the way, we miss you Nova Fontana! Here are the top 5 toys Pinoy kids went crazy for:

  1. Voltes V

Filipinos love robots—it’s like a rule. And of all robots, Voltes V is the most-loved. It is practically the national robot, which is interesting considering it is a Japanese creation. Created in 1977, “Codenji Mashin Voltes V” by TOEI LTD CO., the show was broadcast on Philippine TV (in one of the first anime to be dubbed in a foreign language anywhere in the world) until it was notably pulled off the air by the Marcos administration—before it was finished, leaving an entire generation of Filipinos without closure until the rest of the series aired post-Edsa. During this, time, die-cast robots were all the rage and there was a wide range available all from Japan, but EVERYBODY wanted Voltes V. There were of course different versions and sizes of Voltes V, but the true holy grail of Filipino toy collecting—then and now—was the die-cast POPY/GoDaikin (1977 to 1983) that stood over 12 inches, separated into working Volt machines (with little individual cockpits), with spring-loaded firing missiles, complete weapons (check out the chromed Laser Sword) and the distinctive torso sticker in a giant boxed set. Kids who had this masterpiece displayed them in robot form behind glass, like my neighbor did. Through the years, those which mint versions of this toy became part of the legend (the Eraserheads’ Ely Buendia) and those who had this in mind in box (Big Boy Cheng). It was inevitable as technology got more advanced that modern versions of Voltes V would be released, most notably by owner Bandai, who put out a glorious 40th Anniversary die-cast smaller-scale Soul of Chogokin version. GMA-7 is preparing a live-action adaptation of the show. Filipinos have loved other super robots through the years, among them Voltes V’s younger “Robot Romance Trilogy” sibling Daimos and the lion version of Voltron, but the Filipino heart will always volt in for Voltes V.

  • Game & Watch and brick game

The Philippine has always been a Nintendo nation, but long before we were memerized by the Super Famicom or fell head over heels for the PlayStation, we were all gripped by the Game & Watch. Invinted in 1979 by the influential Gunpei Yokoi, the Game & Watch was a handheld LCD device using button cell batteries that played one games. This was the closest thing we had to portable gaming in the 1980s and since we only had one game per device, the idea was to collect as many of them to play multiple games and even “trade” them temporarily so you could play new games with your friends. The Game & Watch sold millions around the world and were extremely popular in the Philippines. Everyone would probably remember the figure Nintendo used in the games as a sprite, Mr. Game & Watch (that’s him in “Flagman”) and there were some that were pretty hard, like “Octopus.” Over time, the electronics would degrade, and it is a lot harder to find working examples and those are quite expensive, especially in the box. You can really see the DNA of the Game & Watch at work in Nintendo’s next great portable gaming device, the Gameboy.

Now, take the idea of the Game & Watch, add one of the world’s most iconic video games and then pirate it to death and you get the brick game. Invented by Soviet Russian engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, “Tetris” became a worldwide success, once properly licensed, with its block-fitting, endlessly-falling action universally being accepted. It turned out that “Tetris” was particularly fun played on a handheld, and as technology got better and manufacturing got cheaper, various versions of “Tetris” (including tanks and other stuff) were adapted without license to a handheld device in cheap single-color plastic. The first of these was the E-Star E-23 Brick Game, but as it was knocked off, “brick game” became pretty much the universal name for all the game sold all over the world. These came to the Philippines and soon everybody was playing them all the time. You can see them in the hands of Pinoys, whiling away the hours pressing buttons like mad.

  • Masters of the Universe/Princess of Power

Everybody had He-Man, because he was virtually indestructibly. This over-muscled toy, the star of the Filmation “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” TV show, could be found in various collections, with or without the axe, sword, shield, harness, with or without Battlecat. This was a long-lasting line (1981-1988) with the same basic body but their sheer durability made them excellent toys. There are still He-Mans and Skeletors lying in wait in fortysomethings’ toy chests, particularly loose naked He-Mans. There were some great gimmicks: Man-E-Faces. Trap Jaw and Tri-Clops but others had really stupid gimmicks like Stinkor (who literally stank). The vehicles were unique, though we never really got to the see the grail Castle Grayskull set. Mattel did a lot if Masters of the Universe toys, and that’s the series we’re talking about here: the original Roboto, Mechaneck, Beast Man, not the 1987 movie toys or any of the revivals (the Classics line was the best) and the reissues. That’s because the original toys are being reissued now, as Noah Centineo looks to be the first live-action He-Man since Dolph Lundgren.

Of course, Mattel wanted to cater to girls as well, so a sister line was created called Princess of Power (1985-1988). This line were basically smaller versions of Mattel’s iconic Barbie Dolls (complete with the long hair you can comb of course) with accessories. Like the He-Man figures, they used the same basic mold cast in different colored plastic. This was accompanied by a show, “She-Ra: Princess of Power,” set in Etheria with He-Man’s twin sister She-Ra in the lead. This line was shorter-lived, and way much harder to find, specially those in wave two and beyond. One of our Super editors spent decades looking for the Frosta figure until she finally got one off eBay. There have been new versions of the characters, usually based on new takes on the shows, including the latest Cal Arts-style show from Netflix, “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.”

  • Transformers/Gobots

If there’s one thing Pinoys love more than just robots, it’s robots that do stuff, specially transform. In 1984, Filipinos all got converted to the cause of transforming robots. The top of the line was the Transformers from Hasbro, bigger, more complicated, with lots of accessories and much more expensive. So we only consider those from the original vintage Generation 1, from 1984 to 1990. The subsequent generations, reissues and certainly the new series don’t count as those are all technically modern toys with much more niche audiences. G1 is what you mean when you talk about the Transformers toys. The TV series from Sunbow/Marvel put it over the top. So we aee really only talking about toys which blong to the original TV show and the 1986 “The Transformers: The Movie” (stay away, Michael Bay). The favorites were of course Optimus Prime (still a fave today), Soundwave (playability always wins) and the earlier combiners (everybody wanted Devastator). Because of the aforementioned advantages of the Philippines’ trade location, we had as much of Hasbro’s Transformers as we did Takara’s Fight! Super Life Robot Transformers available in the glass cases. In fact, there were even a pretty good serving of the lines the Transformers came from, both from Takara, Diaclone and Microchange.

Pinoys aren’t so choosy, however, as for younger kids and those who wanted to be a little different, we collected Gobots from Tonka. They were smaller, simpler but much more affordable and hardier. There also was a Hanna-Barbera TV show, “Challenge of the Gobots,” but it was aimed more for kids. But Gobots had funs names, interesting alt modes, funny names and way easier to collect, though everyone had a Leader One.  Likewise, there were a lot of the original Japanese iterations, Machine Robo from Bandai in their sytro inserts and box packaging instead of the blister pack of Tonka. Gobots—and Tonka—now belong to Hasbro.

  • Tamiya Mini 4WD

If you want to talk about a true toy craze that defied belief, then drive no further than the Tamiya Mini 4WD craze of the early 2000s. Tamiya is a venerable maker of excellent of model kits from Japan, of course (their catalogs alone are works of art) but they really made a breakthrough when they invented the 1:30 4WD. These model cars are powered by AA batteries on proper chasses with rubber tires using side rollers to keep the vehicle in the right direction and colorful plastic shells. They do not use remote control and instead are released on miniature tracks, with the 4WDs running up to 65 kmh, with the goal both finishing first and not driving off the course or tipping over.

Though it did not invent the mini 4WD, Tamiya truly popularized it in 1986 with their own version which you could really modify with performance parts. They would come in both the distinctive futuristic style and models designed after real-world vehicles. They also introduced a line of model paints. In 1989, Tamiya and publishing company Shogakukan produced several anime featuring the cars, beginning with “Dash! Yonkuro” and most recently, “Bakuso Kyodai Let’s Go!! WGP: Bousou Mini 4WD Daitsuiseki.” (Whew) In fact, the name “Tamiya” is now shorthand for the Mini4WD. There are PRO series and championships for this in different countries.

With that, Tamiya now owned the Mini 4WD world. The Philippines was really enamored with this craze, as people basically built their own tracks at homes and in offices (including ours). There were weekly races and, the most interesting thing of all, there were commercial racetracks devoted entirely to Mini 4WD. They were everywhere. Lil’s Hobby Center remains then and now the place to go for the kits, parts and paints (hi Lil’s).

Eventually, the market got flooded with low-quality knockoffs from China and kids moved on to other trends. But not the adults.  

Today, there remains a strong, devoted Mini 4WD following in the Philippines. They love the racing, but most of all the tuning of the cars, tinkering with the chassis and the wheels. You can see them on the weekends with their folding toolboxes (“work pits”), and they are indoctrinating their kids in this engineering/racing pastime. There’s a very competitive showcase in Waltermart Makati on the weekend. And there is an official tournament sponsored by the BrickYard (which in turn is owned by Lil’s) in Makati. The BrickYard Cup Series champion qualifies for the Tamiya Mini 4WD Asia Challenge Manila. The winner then goes on to the prestigious Japan Cup. Last year’s Asia Challenge saw over 200 contestants from different Asian countries with four winners—all Filipino. Melvin Bien Chavez, as the champion, will represent the Philippines in Japan.

But that is not even the most interesting Tamiya-Philippines connection. Tamiya knows Pinoys love the Mini 4WD.

Last year, Tamiya released a limited-edition jeepney mini 4WD! Officially called the “Dyipne,” it was designed in collaboration with Lil’s Shakespeare Chan, came with a Type 130 motor, an FM-A chassis and unique decals that aped the familiar jeepney colors. Look closely, and you’ll see it plies the Quiapo-Makati-Paranaque route and even has shout-outs to the BrickYard, Lil’s and the Philippines. It looks like the real thing! They’re all sold out now, of course, but it’s wonderful to have Tamiya recognize its devoted Pinoy fans this way.

To be continued.