November 7th, 2009

Time Medic

On the Micronauts relaunch from Hasbro: one fan's analysis

Hasbro now owns the rights to Micronauts.

This comes at the end of a decades long, non-public trademark face-off between Takara, Tomy, Abrams Gentile Entertainment (formerly Mego), and other parties. Takara has pretty much owned one major part of the Micronauts trademark since the mid-eighties after Mego went bankrupt. However, AGE laid claim to other parts of the trademark that Takara failed to grab and contested their claim ever since. There were many periods of inactivity from one side or the other over the years where each was nearly ready to relaunch Micronauts, only to get held up again as the other side jumped back in and contested it again. Takara was very close to a major Micronauts launch in the late 1990's, but was forced to scale it back to a Microman-only release in Japan and Korea around 1999. A brief compromise was reached in 2001 that allowed for the Palisades and Devil's Due runs to come about, but it did not last long, and Takara made more moves to try to reclaim the series, continuing after their merger with Tomy shortly later, making a grab for all the other associated trademarks as well (Biotron, Baron Karza, Hornetroid, etc...). AGE fought back.

Then earlier this year, in Summer, something suddenly changed. TakaraTomy ceded the entire interest to AGE. And then, mere days after this was posted to the US Trademark Office, AGE turned around and ceded their entire interest, including the newly acquired trademarks from TakaraTomy (and all the associated ones) to an intellectual property broker called MIC Holdings.

It was clear that some kind of deal had been made, and either MIC was planning to sell to a new owner, or was already acting on behalf of an unknown third party, presumably a larger company. My own guess at the time was that it might be that Hasbro reached a deal with AGE through MIC, and TakaraTomy conceded to allow the trademarks to go to a single intermediary owner at Hasbro's discretion. Mattel had also apparently shown some interest earlier this year in the Micronauts property (at least as evidenced through a poll from their collectors' club), so it may have been a move in order to keep them from scooping it up instead. In any case, MIC also proceded to file for trademarks on just about every other imaginable use of the Micronauts label. No longer facing opposition, the trademarks sailed smoothly through the Trademark Office's red tape, and appeared clear to go just within the last few weeks or so, culminating in Hasbro's announcement at their investor meeting.

Interestingly, Micronauts' prior history with Takara as the original 1974 Microman series was apparently mentioned in the investor's meeting, although its connections with the Transformers property (other than Takara's prior partnership with Hasbro on that license), Mego and the Marvel comic were not. In fact, Micronauts appear to be deliberately equated with the original Microman toyline, as if both series have been one and the same all along. Already the story is being reported in Japan with "Microman" being substituted for "Micronauts" in most sentences.

The very same day, J.J. Abrams announced he is working on getting the movie rights from Hasbro. This information's timing seems a bit TOO convenient, and it seems plausible that it was intentionally timed to help stir interest in the otherwise previously mostly forgotten property (and perhaps overshadow the negative press from the Palisades/Devil's Due 2002 relaunch in the eyes of investors and the media) .

At the investment meeting, Hasbro listed the Micronauts brand as part of its overarching 2010 theme of "reimagining, reinventing, and reigniting" their brands, which they described as "Immersive Brand Experiences" which should each include the following goals: "Toy and Game Product Innovation," "Digital Gaming," "Entertainment Experiences," and "Lifestyle Licensing", with an eye at established, developing, and new global markets.

Now, based on what little is known so far, there are still a few things that we can probably safely surmise as being all but guaranteed. Please keep in mind though that all that follows is my own speculation and does not reflect any "inside information", press releases, announcements or other cold hard facts :

  • The product line is likely in development by Hasbro with some form of support from TakaraTomy.
  • The brand will likely include use of most Mego-owned names: Baron Karza, Space Glider, Hornetroid, etc. in order to both maintain the intellectual property as well as to spark recognition with those who remember the original series.
  • The brand will also likely include a broad marketing approach including a web portal, games, a television series, toys, comics, and a variety of spin-off products.
  • The brand will probably have an international release, particularly in markets where the name has recognition (Japan, Asia, Europe, South America, etc. along with the North American and British markets).
Next, we can also make some educated guesses. First, what is most probable:

  • Magnemo toys. Mega Bloks has been doing quite well for itself pretty much owning the entire market share for fun magnetic interchangeable toys, and Bakugan also uses a magnetic gimmick. Microman's well researched and developed magnemo system (originally invented by Microman's own Iwakichi Ogawa) would make an incredible asset to Hasbro in grabbing its own piece of that market share.
  • A mix of Japanese and US concepts to appeal in Asian and Western markets. The toyline should contain elements that will make it familiar to fans of both Microman and Micronauts without alienating either. The Acroyears will probably be set again as the main bad guys, but we will likely see them led by Baron Karza or such, for example. Changes will be made to Karza's design so he is not confused with Geag in Japan and Italy.
  • An anime series or domestically created cartoon (2D or CG) is a must these days in order to market a new kid's brand. Possible studios they could approach to do this might include Gonzo (Sigma Six), Studio Pierrot (Microman), Sunrise (GaoGaiGar, but mostly tied to Bandai so less likely), Orphanage (Clone Wars), Cartoon Network (Transformers Animated), and Marvel among others.
  • Other toy gimmicks such as transforming elements or electronics seem likely.
  • Video games on various platforms seem a given as much as a cartoon.
  • As Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, a collectible card game seems likely. Gotta interchange 'em all!
  • 3 3/4 inch or 4 inch figures are probable, given Hasbro's own GI Joe series, Star Wars, and Marvel Universe. Also plausible is the hardy Magnepowers 3-inch format, which has the benefit of looking more apt for the "Micro" label.
Secondly, what seems somewhat likely or plausible, if not probable:

  • 5mm or 3mm based interchangeability, as these were staples even for Transformers, and interchangeability is associated with the Micronauts brand image of the past. That said, though, we shouldn't count out the possibility of this being abandoned for some new gimmick or format or moving even strictly to magnetic parts.
  • Similarly, a gimmick or such enabling and encouraging parts-swapping or a construction set-style theme seems likely for the same reason. Think of Stikfas, Xevos, Bionicle, Mega Bloks, Gormiti, and other successful brands in this category.
  • Augmented Reality gimmicks seem to be the new buzz for brand new product lines, starting with the launch of the Avatar toys in particular. I expect most new toys will incorporate some form of AR gimmick or similar technology allowing internet/computer interactivity out of the box.
  • A revival of Microman in Japan with new reproductions of toys beyond what has been done in prior runs by TakaraTomy (like the TF encore stuff).
  • A repackaging of Micronauts in Japan through TomyTakara done more with chrome parts, etc. to appeal to the local collectors' market
Thirdly, what is possible, but less certain:

  • A Marvel Comics tie-in (both ways--publishing the comic version, and characters incorporated into the toyline), Perhaps even the JJ Abrams movie released under the Marvel label?
  • Larger figures--a five inch Micorman format has been rumored previously in Japan earlier this year.
  • Smaller figures, a la Diaclone or MicroMachines, playing up the "Micro" theme. Less likely, but an approach I still personally find appealing.
  • Some combination of multiple formats released (think of TMNT Mini-Mutants versus the main line).
  • Anime styling or "Ameri-anime" styling (i.e. Teen Titans, TF Animated) or a more stylized western look such as in Clone Wars.
  • 3D CG animation instead of 2D animation.
  • Live action series rather than animated (i.e. Power Rangers)--not my preference, but plausible.
  • Return of the Micronauts board game!
  • Micronauts table role-playing game or miniature-based game. The toys could work as (full scale) miniatures in a game itself.
Lastly, what is highly unlikely:

  • Chrome parts have been minimal or nixed entirely in Hasbro's recent line-ups due to safety concerns, apparently. Don't expect the new Micronauts to have the familiar chrome heads anymore, which probably are considered dated looking or too esoteric by marketing anyway (but we can still hope!).
  • Tiny removable parts (choking hazards)
  • Direct involvement by Michael Golden (see his prior interview at Innerspace Online) or other original Marvel staff.
  • Microman 2004+ style figures in terms of fragility and small loose parts (see second point above).
  • Involvement from AGE (different ownership now).
  • Comic story from Devil's Due (ditto).
  • Retro figure replicas (like Palisades or the Transformer anniversary toys) from Hasbro (maybe from Takara though).
It will be interesting to see how things develop and how much the real release will reflect what is being speculated on now. Here's hoping for the best (but let's keep our expectations low, just in case...)!