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DiaBlock Convoy

by yo go re

Great leaders aren't born, they're made. In some cases, more literally than others.

Sage, scholar, soldier - Optimus Prime is all this and more. To peace-loving beings across the galaxy the revered leader of the Autobots is the living symbol of freedom - a beacon that shines against the forces of darkness. To his followers he is a bottomless well of inspiration and courage from which they draw their strength. And to the evil Decepticons he is the one force in the universe who can shatter their dreams of galactic conquest. He has dedicated his existence to the protection of all lifeforms - mechanical, organic and otherwise. His wisdom and compassion are legendary. Although fate has set his course on a path of destruction and strife, his greatest desire is to bring peace and harmony to all inhabited worlds everywhere.

You may think, as I did, that "DiaBlock" is somehow related to Diaclone, but that's not the case. Just as Lego began with wooden toys in the 1930s, DiaBlock began with pencil caps in the mid '50s. Seriously - in order to keep the points from breaking, the "block caps" fit over the end of the pencils (two apiece) and kept them safe. Thanks to the design, you could also use the caps as a building toy, although that wasn't the original intention. In 1962, the company (Kawada) began producing actual building blocks, cast from translucent materials - thus the "Diamond Blocks" name refers to their color, not their shape.

In 2007, Kawada released a licensed set based on Convoy - our Optimus Prime - in their "Mecha Builder" series. Hasbro tried something similar (ie, a low-rent in-house Lego ripoff) in 2003, with their "Built to Rule" toys, but those were ridiculously awful. You had to take them apart to transform them! No wonder the line failed within a year. But maybe an actual building block company can do better.

DiaBlock Convoy is sold in a box designed to mimic the G1 packaging, featuring images of the robot and truck on the front, with a pale grid and a yellow, red and brown spotlight behind them. The back of the box even has that familiar battle scene all the old toys shared, and what looks like a Tech Specs card. There's definitely no mistaking what this is. Inside is a cardboard tray with bags containing the 352 blocks you'll use to build Convoy - unlike Lego sets, this one doesn't seem to include any extras in case of loss.

The instructions are printed in a 10-page booklet, with a picture of Prime on the cover and a parts list on the back. Things inside are broken down into sections - arms, head, chest, torso, etc - and then the individual bits are assembled later. The instruction booklet is very good about making clear which parts are being added in each step - previously built portions are shown in pale blue, regardless of original color, so only the new pieces stand out. Building the figure for this review took about one hour.

Fully assembled, DiaBlock Convoy stands a little more than 10½" tall - nearly the same size as Masterpiece Prime. His articulation is very nice, as well, utilizing 12 balljoint connectors for the ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows and shoulders. His head can only raise and lower; it's on a hinge, so no turning. The head is built entirely from normal bricks - it's not just a specialty piece that plugs in - so his face is more of an "approximation" than a direct copy. Some fans have been confused by the "cyclops eye" in the middle of his face. Uh, guys? That's supposed to be his forehead grill - the yellow block embedded in the middle of his brain is supposed to be the eyes. Personally, I just switch that gray brick for the blue one behind it, and the problem is much less noticable.

Prime's construction uses a lot of what Lego fans call "SNOT" construction: Studs Not On Top. That means he isn't your typical pointy Lego creation; oh, there's some of it on the front bumper, and some studs still poke out on the sides, but in general DiaBlock Prime is very smooth. One downside? The Autobot symbols on his shoulders are stickers - stickers that go across more than one block. Fail. Of course, even Lego, the kings of this particular hill, do that with alarming regularity, but that doesn't make it okay. The stickers are perfectly sized to cover the two bricks (so no margin for error), but still, getting a single piece the right size would have been preferable.

Surprisingly, Optimus even gets an accessory: you get to build his familiar ion cannon from a stack of black bricks, and despite lacking fingers of any sort, he can hold it. Kind of. It plugs into his hand-stub. That's cool, and unexpected.

The excellent thing about this set is that you can actually change the robot into a truck, without taking of a single piece! Well, other than the gun. Like we said above, Hasbro's BTR toys only worked when you took off all the pieces, then reassembled them. Pretty damn lame. This one is cleverly engineered to allow you to re-create the G1 toy's conversion almost exactly: the arms fold away to become the sides of the truck, the legs sweep backwards, the head flips into the cab... you know the deal. There are some changes, like his hands just becoming th headlights, instead of being removed, and his head now fold forward instead of back - the front of the truck opens like Masterpiece Prime's, but there's no Matrix inside.

Prime's truck mode isn't as strong as the robot: there are large gaps in the side, the rear end is difficult to keep straight, and the entire thing rides very low to the ground because the tires stick out to the sides. The gun doesn't go away, but you can tuck it onto the back of the truck like War Within Optimus Prime. The truck is 9½" long, 4¾" tall and 4¾" wide. Despite the design errors, it gets a lot of points for being fully convertable between two modes, even if the vehicle could have used more work. It's still better than anybody's homebrew Lego Optimus I've ever seen.

And just because I know you're wondering, no, you couldn't build this figure from Legos, even if you had the instructions. It's not really that it uses a lot of specialty pieces (though the balljoints are quite drastically different from Lego's similar offerings), just that there are some apparently plentiful DiaBlock bricks that don't have any easy Lego equivalent. Have you ever seen a two-high Lego tube with a single hole in the side of the top half? I haven't.

And because we've failed to mention it thus far, let's talk about the actual DiaBlocks. They're not compatible with Lego, and not merely because the studs are twice as tall - the spacing is subtly different, a change of millimeters, but it's enough to forever lock the two away from one another. The actual bricks are lighter than you'd expect, and the grade of plastic they're made from feels cheaper than Legos. Kind of chalky. They're most similar to Mega Bloks, or the other knock-off Legos clueless parents buy for their kids: not low quality, just not as high quality as real Legos.

DiaBlock Convoy isn't a cheap set - especially not if you buy one without checking prices first. There are some real scalpers out there, trying to get as much as three times the actual value. The MSRP is ¥7,000 - about $70 or so, but you can find it cheaper than that easily. It may seem like a lot to pay, but it's a sizeable set and, let us stress this once again, he completely transforms into a truck! You build Optimus Prime from the ground up, and he changes into a truck! That's awesome, right there! The preponderance of specialty pieces has been a major flaw with Lego over the past few years, but this set is fully modular, as it should be. If the face bugs you too much, I've seen some mods using the BTR Optimus face built onto a new head. Either way. The set's cool. If you have the money and you want a really unique Optimus Prime, give it a try.

-- 02/10/09

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