Be careful when sailing through the dreaded Bermuda triangle, lads, lest ye sink beneath the waves and are never heard from again. Some say that's what happened to the toy industry and its love of large vehicles and playsets. Some men still sail these seas who remember the days, back when ye were barely a wee cabin boy, when not a single toy line dared set out from port without at least one big-ticket item, one piece that every kid wanted but cost enough to feed a family for a week and took up more space than a medium-sized dog. Aircraft carriers, castles, mountain bases... big toys were big business. But the seas got rough, booty got scarce and the cargo holds didn't have the space to spare any more.
But recently things have begun to change. Stores are taking gambles on big items again. The mighty Main Street was first, but many more - like the Endor AT-AT - follow in its wake. Even a relatively new company is risking the big buy, as Zizzle sends its Ultimate Black Pearl playset out to adventure.
Zizzle came out of nowhere, sailing under cover of darkness to plunder the Pirates of the Caribbean license. Their previous claim to fame was some idiot robot that danced and flashed lights in time with your MP3 player - the sort of thing ye'd throw overboard as soon as ye got to open water, and nothing that inspired any sort of confidence whatsoever. Fans were ready to mutiny.
The figures turned out to be all right, if a bit weird. The 3" toys had a sculpt more intricate and detailed than even McFarlane's best, but the 7" figures looked like the cutting edge of 1987 toymaking technology. They were soft, bloated and colorless, like a keelhauled traitor pulled up after three days. Fortunately, the Black Pearl playset is designed to be crewed by the smaller fellows, so it should look really good, aye?
Well, it certainly doesn't look bad. The Pearl is detailed nicely, from bow to stern. The wooden planks have a simple grain carved in, and there are lots of small details all about. The ornate figurehead depicts a winged woman holding a dove just beyond the end of the bowspirit as her dress billows back toward the deck. The only problem is that the detail on the ship is a bit soft - at this size, it needs a bit of exaggeration to help sell it, y'savvy? Fortunately, this ship has more than looks to save its sorry hide.
The Black Pearl is 33" end to end, 8" at its widest point (not counting the sails) and the Jolly Roger on the main-mast just reaches 27". The bottom of the playset is flat, so she's not sea-worthy; no trying to take it in the tub with you. It might be a little bit small for the 3" figures, but not so much that you really notice. Where this beauty really earns her passage is with the dozen or so play features that are hidden about the ship like stowaways.
The grating in front of the fore-mast unlatches
to drop any lubber unwary enough to be standing there into the brig. Of course, were a cannonball to blast through there and blow the port wall out, it'd be hard to keep any prisoners. Press a button on the opposite side of the ship and that's exactly what happens. There are also a pair of anchors attached to the sides of the ship by real rope, and they can be plugged in place out of the way or dropped down as you prefer.
In olden days, the ship's mast was made from a single, straight tree trunk - carpentry hadn't advanced to the point where a cobbled-together mast would have the same strength. No matter how strong your wood is, it's not going to stand up to a well-placed volley of cannonfire. The fore-mast has a lever that lets you prove that: press the switch down and the mast collapses. Unfortunately, that leaves the mast rather wobbly. It doesn't connect firmly to the ship, so when you try to put a figure up on the top, it over-balances and is more likely to tip.
A good pirate has to be ready to defend the ship
against any unwelcome parties - when the queen's navy swoops down and tries to board, ye'd best draw steel and start swinging. Now, aye, you re-create all that swashbuckling adventure by hand, smashing yer toys into each other, but sometimes that's just not enough. There are two discs set in the deck of the ship, each sporting footpegs designed for the 3" Zizzle pirates. Moving a slide on the side of the ship causes the discs to spin, so the figures you've placed there will fight for your amusement. Stab him in the gizzard!
The main-mast features a crow's nest, with standing rigging running up from the deck. There are ratlines so the lookout can climb to his position. The two halves of the rigging are supposed to hook together, and they do, but they don't hold. If it's a secure connection ye be wanting, save a twist tie and wire it in place. That's called jury-rigging, boy; ye can't expect to make permanent repairs at sea. Set course for the nearest friendly port! The crow's nest has a retractable hook on a string, so your pirate can swing down to adventure.
We'll return to the captain's quarters in a moment, but for now we climb the steps to the poop deck.
Stop laughing or it's fifty lashes! The wheel turns and there's a railing to keep unwary lubbers from falling to the deck below. Drunk off rum, I'd wager! There are three ornate stern lanterns to plug in place, and when you need to punish someone, you can make them walk the plank.
Not all pirates made their living robbing other ships -
some were smugglers, hiding many a secret on their own boats. It should come as no surprise to ye, then, that this boat has more to give the inquisitive player. There's a button on the back of the ship - press it, and a trap door in the captain's quarters drops you below decks, where a small rowboat is waiting to spirit you away. Hinges on the starboard side of the ship allow you to open the cabin and the rear of the ship so you can reach inside to play.
That's a secret compartment, though.
What about the real belly of the ship? To access the hold, the entire middle section of the ship slides sideways. That be awesome, says I! There's a proper door to the brig down there, so's ye can lock up any scalliwags without dropping them through the forecastle. There are three cannons to be found, and a lever on the port side of the ship slides them forward and opens the gun ports so they can fire.
Also below decks is the playset's battery compartment -
there are lights and sounds when the cannons roll forward, and the pins around the fore-mast are actually buttons to activate voices. Clever! The set includes a few accessories, as well. In addition to the three cannons, which can be removed from their trough and placed anywhere you like, we get a small treasure chest and three barrels. Why three barrels? Why not three barrels? They're a fun extra, and add some scenery. Still, it would have been nice if perhaps they'd included at least one pirate to man the ship.
The Ultimate Black Pearl playset is an expensive toy - upwards of $50 - but it's worth it. If the Zizzle Pirates be your crew, then this be a ship worthy of sailin' with 'em. The playset has only put in to port at a few select locations so far, but it's weighing anchor again pretty swiftly: so far, it's not lingering on the shelves. Even if you're not buying Zizzle's small toys, the Pearl has its uses, so if ye have the doubloons to hire her, the Black Pearl is worth it.
Do you miss playsets and big vehicles? What was your favorite as a kid? Tell us on our message board, the Loafing Lounge.