In the late 1980s, Takara released a popular line of 2-inch anthropomorphic animals called Beastformers which, following localization by Hasbro, would later become better known in the West as Battle Beasts. The toy line was a relatively simple concept -- a battle game featuring then popular rubsigns on tiny weapon-toting, armored humanoid animals -- yet the line proved massively popular for a few years before vanishing into obscurity.
Long-time fans were overjoyed when they learned that Diamond Select Toys (DST) had picked up the Battle Beasts name, especially given that roughly two decades had passed since anything significant happened with the original brand. Of course, this new Battle Beasts would turn out to be drastically different from the original. I recently had an opportunity to talk with Zach Oat, a marketing supervisor over at Diamond Select Toys who works on the Battle Beasts brand, to discuss the new line.
Hit the jump for the full story.
What's in a name?
The major selling point for the new Battle Beasts line might largely derive from its famous namesake. Many of us have fond memories of the original toy line from our childhoods and many who haven't are at least aware of the franchise. However, the name might generate some amount of confusion in regards to how this line connects to the original. For the record, Diamond Select Toys' Battle Beasts line is 100% not connected to the original line in any way, shape, or form despite taking on its name. In fact, the line itself was apparently in development even prior to the name acquisition.
"We go after new licenses all the time," said Zach Oat, "and we hold a dozen or so at any given time. But, like any toy company, we have our own ideas for toy lines, based around our own concepts. In the course of doing concept work for an animal-themed toy line, we looked up 'Battle Beasts' to see who currently held the trademark; it was a great line, and everybody knows the name 'Battle Beasts,' even if they can't tell you much else about it. To our surprise, nobody had it -- the trademark had been allowed to lapse by the previous holder. We thought the name still had a lot of value left in it, and it dovetailed nicely with the products we were thinking about, so we registered it."
The only thing that Diamond Select Toys actually acquired was the trademark for the name itself, which left things like the original designs completely off the table. The company would then implement their own ideas, concepts, and designs under the Battle Beasts label. Like the original line, Diamond Select Toys' vision is very aptly named in that it features animals designed for combat.
Okay, but why are they Minimates?
"No matter how a great a name or how great a concept you have," Zach explained, "launching a new toy line is not a sure thing. Yes, the comic book from IDW is a great read, but a comic book is no Saturday morning cartoon, and we are not one of the larger toy companies, with a pile of ad dollars to throw at a product launch. We felt we needed a hook, something to give kids and collectors an entry point into the line, so we decided to start with Minimates."
Diamond Select Toys is no stranger to launching new properties through its Minimates brand, as the company has already produced original Minimate series like Calico Jack's Pirate Raiders and MAX: Mobile Action Xtreme. From DST's standpoint, it makes a lot of sense considering that Minimates are among the company's most successful product offerings. "We make Minimates for a dozen separate lines," said Zach Oat, "which means there's a dedicated fan base, they're also a known quantity at retail. So we could show them to a store buyer and they would know what we're talking about."
Should the Battle Beast Minimates prove successful, there's a possibility that we may eventually see non-Minimate Battle Beasts. Zach expressed a need to "build Battle Beasts as a brand first, by producing more content and getting character-based, low-priced, introductory merchandise out in front of customers," before exploring these other avenues.
That's not to say that there isn't a certain amount of flexibility within the Minimates brand itself. While many might think of Minimates, the first thing that so often pops into the mind is the "simple" LEGO-esque blank body design where the character differences lie in the paintwork. However, there have been many precedents for more sculpted designs or sculpted parts as seen in the Halo, Ghostbusters, and even Marvel Minimates lines. MODOK (of their Marvel vs Capcom 3 line) would be one example of this sort of complexity although I'm sure most people were more surprised by Amaterasu who appeared in the same line. Exceptions like Amaterasu aside, Minimates are "all compatible, customizable and interchangeable." This carries over into the Battle Beasts line since collectors have the option of mixing & matching parts from their various Battle Beasts.
The ability to combine Battle Beasts adds a facet to the line's collectability (besides being an incentive to possibly buy multiple copies of some figures) and at least partly replaces the fun factor lost by not having rubsigns. Judging from the examples I've seen so far, it seems like parts from any Battle Beast should be compatible with any other Battle Beast. Part of this is likely owed to having a normal Minimate torso underneath their chests.
Crafting a mythology
While many of us have fond memories of the original Battle Beasts, those memories are a little fuzzy beyond the general toys themselves. As Zach points out, it's a name that everybody knows yet few people really remember details.
"It's why we waited so long to launch Battle Beasts," said Zach, "seeding interest over a long period of time as we developed the brand more fully and worked on a media tie-in that would bring more eyes to the property. The IDW comic book has given the Battle Beasts even more exposure, and we're hoping that translates into interest from collectors and comic fans.
We knew we wanted some kind of media tie-in, because we wanted Battle Beasts to be more than just a cool-looking toy line. We wanted it to be a brand that would exist beyond the toys, with characters people would feel a connection to, and a world that they would want to visit."
Apparently the story's most basic concept isn't terribly different from the original Battle Beasts, insomuch as it involves alien animal hybrids who fight each other. Diamond Select and IDW Publishing take the story a little bit further than that:
"In a not-too-distant solar system, there is a society of large, intelligent, anthropomorphic animals known only as the Beasts. While technologically advanced, possessing space travel capabilities and having settled on multiple planets, the Beasts are largely bloodthirsty, living for combat and loosely led by a group of warlords. Three Beasts - Vorin the ram, Merk the falcon and Gruntos the walrus - have sworn to find a path to peace, so that their people can grow as a civilization, and the bloodshed can stop. This doesn't sit well with the Warlords, who have put bounties out on the trio, putting them in the cross-hairs of any Beast looking to make some money. When a pair of unknown artifacts are discovered on Earth, the artifacts are sent to the Department of Defense for analysis. Bliss Reynolds, a linguist with the DoD, translates the accompanying writing, and inadvertently activates them, sending out a call that is mystically heard by all of the Beasts. The artifacts are two of the 'Dread Weapons,' highly powerful objects that give the bearer great power, a tempting prize for any Beast. But they are alternately known as the Praxis of Hope, and Vorin, Merk and Gruntos seek them out so that they may bring peace to their people. With thousands of Beasts descending on Earth, San Francisco becomes a war zone, with our three heroes facing an unbeatable army, and teaming up with Bliss and her brother Tate to find the artifacts and keep them from those who would use them for evil."
Vorin, Merk, and Gruntos are among the figures available in the wave one selection across all retailers (albeit one paint deco for Toys "R" Us, another for everybody else). The human characters, Bliss and Tate, are exclusive to comic stores and specialty retailers. All the other characters that we've seen so far appear to be enemies.
Zach stated that IDW Publishing was chosen to help create the comic because of their experience adapting other licenses. "They were also willing to help us take our concepts of how the Battle Beasts world works and turn them into a fully fleshed-out storyline. We have full story and script approval, but Bobby Curnow took our outline and turned it into a gripping saga, while Valerio Schiti took our designs and gave them a footing in the world he was creating. Bobby also created the naming conventions, which we have carried over into the toy line."
When asked whether DST would be open to naming characters via fan polls, Zach replied that "our reluctance to do [fan polls] has been about getting a large enough cross-section of the fan base in order to generate an accurate representation of their wishes. We recently had a lot of fan interest in our Marvel Minimates 10th Anniversary fan poll, which was the first time we've ever done something like that, so I wouldn't rule out some type of poll related to Battle Beasts in the future."
Evolution of the Battle Beast
Fans may recall first seeing an unnamed crocodile Battle Beast which has since dropped off the map. I asked Zach whether we might eventually see a re-release of this old convention exclusive on a broader scale. He responded that there weren't any plans, as the line had changed greatly since then.
"All of our concept work after the crocodile was less blocky and more organic," said Zach. "Once we partnered with IDW, and they found a great artist in Schiti, the look of the characters solidified, and the armor was given more of a basis in earth clothing. It was an aesthetic we liked, and we thought the new look would give our line its own identity, one that generic armor would not."
The crocodile seemed a lot closer to the traditional Battle Beasts design so, on some levels, I suppose this represents a clearer break from the original franchise. Beyond that, the trend towards a "real world basis" (in terms of armor, mind you) certainly has its perks, such as a reptilian samurai.
What can we expect going forward?
"There are a lot of Beasts in the comic -- I'm not even sure how many, we don't have a master list --" said Zach, "and making all of them might take a decade or more, but [it] would certainly be cool [to make everybody]. We've begun development on Series 2, and have a tentative line-up in place, but certain details hinge on how well the first series does at specialty and at Toys "R" Us. We'd love to put out a few waves a year, but we'll see how Series 1 performs and adjust accordingly."
"We haven't created the kid-friendly Saturday morning Battle Beasts cartoon yet, but hopefully that's next."
In the mean-time, you can keep up to date by checking the Battle Beasts Facebook page.
[ Special thanks to Zach Oat of DST for taking the time to talk to us ]
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