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Dungeons & Dragons
by yo go re

Ah man, I loved this guy on Space Ghost and The Brak Show!

Zarak is an assassin without honor or conscience. The only thing he loves is money. He would never hesitate to stab allies in the back if they came between him and the riches he covets. When faced with multiple foes, Zarak prefers to hurl daggers from a distance. When targeting a lone individual, especially someone he has been hired to kill, he prefers the up-close-and-personal garrote, so that he can hear the dying breath of his hapless prey.

Oh now that's interesting - a lot of that text is taken directly from Zarak's profile in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. So why is it okay when NECA copies text, but not okay when Super7 or McFarlane Toys does it? Well, because this is an officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons toy, and Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an official Dungeons & Dragons book; NECA's using in-house Wizards of the Coast material, not fan wikis or third-party publications.

Back in the '80s, the D&D brand was split between the basic, rules-light Dungeons & Dragons, and the much crunchier Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - while the LJN toys were given that latter name, both the modules published with the characters were for for the former. That seems like an unusual disconnect, doesn't it? Anybody who was into AD&D and liked the toys wouldn't be able to do anything with the game modules, and anybody who was into BECMI D&D and liked the toys wouldn't even know there were modules available to them. Imagine if Hasbro sold Rescue Bots characters in packaging with the Trans5mers movie logo.

Zarak is the first figure in this series to include an alternate head. The original toy was sculpted with a hood, and the normal head has that glued on, but the alternate head is bare. Both use the same Thomas Gwyn sculpt, with sharp teeth, pointed ears, a pug nose, warts, and a small scar running over his left eye. Zarak is a Half-Orc - or, according to the original toy's card, an "Evil-Half Orc," so presumably his other half is good? Or at least neutral? And presumably could also still be orc?

Orcs were one of the creatures Gary Gygax lifted from Lord of the Rings, and the first illustration of them in the game basically looked like a wild human. The 1977 Monster Manual drastically redesigned them, giving them heads like pigs, and that continued to shift over the years, to dog-like by the time of the D&D cartoon, and to green tusky guys by 1988's The Orcs of Thar (influenced heavily by the Tharks from Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter" books). That look is pretty standard today... except in Japan, where the porcine version Akira Toriyama designed for Dragon Quest II were so iconic that orcs in Japanese media still favor pigs to this day.

All the LJN figures were designed (in 1982) by Timothy Truman, who had to go through many revisions until he got to a point where the company was happy. One of his earlier passes at the character who would become Zarak did have the full pig snout - so you have to ask, did LJN decide to make a half-orc and ask Truman to tone down the features, or did they ask Truman to tone down the features and then decide to make a half-orc?

As an assassin, Zarak wears mostly black. Except for his hood, which is blue, because apparently whoever was in charge of adapting the control art to a physical toy misunderstood the highlights, like those people who think Superman's hair is blue. Like, if you look at the art, it's quite apparent the hood and that giant shawl thing that hangs over his shoulders are meant to be one single garment, but having them be different colors circumvents that. The shirt and pants here are even given a subtle blue tint, while the smock is pure black inside that red edge. Since the point of these figures is to upgrade the ones from the '80s, it's not like NECA was free to correct LJN's old mistakes, but it still stands out as weird.

Zarak is a small figure, which is why there was room in the budget for an extra head. Even with his pointy hood, he doesn't break the 6" mark. Articulation is as good as you'd hope for on a figure of this size, with a barbell head, swivel/hinge shoulders, double-swivel/​hinge elbows, swivel/hinge wrists on all seven hands, a balljointed torso, balljoint hips, swivel thighs, swivel/​hinge knees, and swivel/​hinge ankles. Because the shoulder-thing doesn't actually connect to the figure in any way (it's just held in place by the head), it gets jostled all over the place whenever you move anything.

The only accessory the 1983 Zarak had was a single yellow dagger, which has been reimagined here as a large golden sword. The figure wears a complicated belt with a large pouch on one side and two daggers on the left, which is something seen on the original art, but not the actual toy. The daggers can be removed from the sheaths, and they're small enough that two of the included hands are posed specifically to hold them. We get a grappling hook with a real string that can be bundled up and hung from the back of his belt, and there's a small, stoppered vial of some red potion. Big steps up from the previous Zarak!

Zarak the Evil-Half Orc Assassin isn't as finely generic as Strongheart, but neither is he as distinct as the other two villains. The accessories are fun extras, and give him a bit of personality suiting his assigned character class. He's not much on his own, but as part of a whole team of baddies, he looks like he belongs.

-- 05/22/24

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