One of the myriad delights of parenthood is discovering the latest in children’s TV without the accompanying shame of being a thirty-six year old man who still watches Power Rangers.
One of Dylan’s favorites is Transformers: Rescue Bots. It’s a kid-friendly entry in the Transformers franchise. Set contemporaneously with the more mature Transformers Prime, it tells the story of Rescue Force Sigma-17, a team of four Autobots specialized for search-and-rescue operations. They’re revived and summoned to Earth after an unspecified long time in stasis. Optimus Prime, surprised to discover Rescue Bots aren’t extinct (There is a fantastic moment in the first episode where he has to struggle for words because he doesn’t want to be the one to tell them what happened to the other rescue teams), realizes that they’re not designed or trained for combat, and assigns them to assist the human search-and-rescue team on the island of Griffin Rock, where the town’s obsession with advanced technology will allow them to work undercover as experimental rescue vehicles.
This show is really fun. The visual style is clean and fun, the characters are well-developed, there’s a lot of action but very little actual fighting, and Levar Burton, Peter Cullen and Tim Curry lend their voice talents. Despite only having four regular transformer characters, they’ve managed to spin out a whole toy line by introducing alternate forms and variants — Dylan’s Transformer collection is starting to rival my own. And these are absolutely fantastic toys. They’re pretty show-accurate, have a simple one or two-step transformation, and feel nice and sturdy. You don’t worry you’re going to break them like you do with the main toy line (A fear I’ve had since my G1 Megatron shattered into about a million pieces thirty years ago), and they transform fast enough to be properly playable (By contrast, it takes about 6 weeks to transform a Movie-style Optimus Prime). Plus, there’s a weird disparity in the storyline of the merchandise and the show which makes me nostalgic for the weird-ass toy/show storyline disparities of my youth.
One of the more creative things in the toy line, and the reason we’re here today, is the Playskool Heroes Transformers Rescue Bots Beam Box. This is a low-end stand-alone game console based around a really cheap imitation of the Skylanders/Amiibo craze.
The Beam Box connects to a TV over a pair of RCA connectors — composite video and monaural audio. You insert one of six action figures (The four Rescue Bots, plus Optimus Prime and Bumblebee) in the box and press the big blue plunger on top. The doors on the beam box close and a spring-loaded mechanism flips the pedestal inside. When you release the button, the doors open to reveal a seeming-identical empty chamber. Sound effects from the TV and the box itself indicate that the selected robot’s been “beamed” into the game. The game consists of a six-level beat ’em up, plus four minigames. The game is voice acted, though only Optimus Prime’s voice is anything resembling show-accurate.
It’s all very cute and very simplistic, about on the level of a collection of simple Newgrounds games. It’s fun enough for an adult to enjoy a bit in a casual-game sort of way, and easy enough for a small child to have a chance.
But there’s a problem.
The console ships with the Optimus Prime action figure. Each of the other figures, sold separately, unlocks an extra character-specific minigame. Blades the Copter-Bot unlocks a game where the player must use the Scoop Claw attachment (1×03 “Hotshots”) to retrieve spilled cannisters from a river while dodging floating lobsters (1×04 “Flobsters on Parade”). Heatwave the Fire-Bot unlocks a shooting gallery-style firefighting game, Boulder the Construction-Bot’s game is, appropriately enough, a Boulder Dash-clone. Bumblebee gets a top-down side-scroller (Which as far as I can tell, may be the only top-down side-scroller ever made).
And then there’s Chase the Police-Bot. Chase’s game is basically Bumblebee’s turned 90°, making it something more conventional. Problem is, the game is broken. Specifically, they somehow seem to have neglected to implement horizontal movement. Which means that Chase dutifully walks down mainstreet of Griffin Rock until he reaches the first obstacle, at which point he gets stuck and that’s the end of the game. This is a really impressive level of incompetence, and lacking any means to patch the game, Playskool responded by slapping a sticker over the picture of Chase on the box and not releasing the action figure.
Which would be mildly disappointing and the end of the story, except that after a few minutes of playing Optimus Prime’s scenario on his new Beam Box, Dylan says to us, “I want to get all the Rescue Bots! But I want to get Chase first!”
And then, to add insult to injury, a few days later, Dylan reported to Leah one morning that he’d had a dream that she’s brought him a large box, and inside the box were the Rescue Bots for his Beam Box. And then — I swear I’m not making this up — he said, “Mommy, can you make my dream come true?”
So Leah found this video, explaining how you can shim some of the figures to fake it. The trick is that, unlike the fancier collectible-toy-based game systems, there’s no NFC chip in the Beam Box figures. Instead, pegs in the base of the figures depress pins in the box, which selects the character who appears in the game. Here’s the pin positions for each figure:
As you can see, Optimus Prime’s pin positions are a proper subset of Chase’s (And Blades for that matter. Also, Heatwave can substitute for Boulder or Blades if you like). Which means that if you shove a folded up piece of paper in on the left of the rightmost pin, the Beam Box will register Optimus as Chase. Dylan was tremendously impressed by this, and spent some time pressing various combinations of pins with his fingers to trigger the Beam Box (You can’t play this way, but the box will light up and the ‘bot will introduce itself).
But that hardly counts as making a kid’s dream come true. But from the chart above, you can see that Bumblebee’s pins are also a proper subset for Chase, and unlike Prime, Bumblebee is sold separately.
As I said before, there’s lots of variants in the toy line. Dylan has a non-transforming Chase figure that’s very similar in style to the Battle Box figures. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s about 30% too big to fit in the Beam Box, the obvious solution would be to cut the base off a spare Bumblebee, shim it, and glue it onto Chase. For that matter, if we had a 3D printer, the obvious solution would be to scan Chase and print off a reduction.
Failing that, we can see that there’s a general sort of similarity between the body types of the two bots. Most importantly, Bumblebee’s jackhammer weapon is vaguely similar in shape to Chase’s claw, and they have the same style of arms.
So. One trip to Amazon for the four available action figures and a spare Bumblebee, and it’s time for Robot Surgery.
First things first, fill in the base with epoxy. This is the functional change that makes the whole thing work: everything else is cosmetic. After the epoxy cured, I shaved it down a bit in the back to make it fit easier into the box.
Next, my trusty X-Acto knife removed the extraneous bits: reshape the head a little bit, modify the weapon, round out the shoulders, and remove the cable from his arm.
Foolishly, I neglected to take a picture of Bumblebee fully carved but unpainted. I handed off to Leah, who, using the figure above as a model, started the long and arduous task of repainting. Here he is with the base coat.
The biggest physical difference between the two figures that couldn’t be resolved by carving was Chase’s police lights. These I had to build from scratch. I made a rough mold by pressing the large Chase’s lights into a block of styrofoam, then filled it with epoxy. Which was a mistake, because epoxy sticks to pretty much anything, including styrofoam. Once it was hard enough, I cut it free and shaved the surfaces with my X-Acto knife, and then trimmed around the edges to reduce the size.
By this time, Leah had mostly finished the detailing. I’m particularly impressed by how accurate the light blue for the weapon came out. We could have left it unpainted, but trimming it into a claw exposed the yellow plastic of the inside.
Hours of painting and letting paint dry, and it was time for me to epoxy the police lights to the back.
The next afternoon, Leah and I got to make Dylan’s dream come true. I’d have recorded a video of his little happy dance, but he was being resistant to the idea of putting clean pants on after a potty-related accident, and I don’t want to go to jail.
Roll to the rescue.