Megaplex is regarded as one of the all-time greatest rip offs in Transformers history. For a franchise that just celebrated its second decade of existence, that's saying something, particularly when it is understood that the Megaplex phenomenon is about a year old.
The concept behind Megaplex started innocently enough, but its proper context needs to be acknowledged. Because this is something I'm writing, I will go into absurd and perhaps labyrinthian detail to set the stage.
In 1996, Hasbro debuted the Beast Wars line of action figures. The line was incredibly successful for several reasons. First, it was the culmination of an investigation that revealed that animal Transformers as far back as their original introduction -- specifically 1985's release of the Dinobots -- were consistently among the best-selling figures and most popular characters in the mythos. Based on this, Hasbro made a gamble on a new and unprecendented gimmick: robots with realistic animal alternate modes. Animal Transformers of the past less resembled actual animals than they did machines with some vaguely animal-like characteristics. With Beast Wars, Hasbro made the animals very lifelike, down to (relatively) intricate fur and scale patterns. The second reason Beast Wars proved to be a success was the fact that the figures themselves had incredible articulation in their robot modes. In the past, Transformers had very little articulation: generally four or five points at the most. With the advent of the ball-joint, these new figures had an incredible range of motion that allowed them to function as real action figures. Hasbro had dabbled with ball-joint articulation towards the end of the Generation 2 line (and indeed, the figures that came out around this time are widely regarded as some of the best ever made for the line), but financial constraints spurred by a lack of revenue precluded the production of more highly-articulated figures. Hasbro euthanized its Transformers line in 1995 and quietly began doing market research and making preparations for the line that would go on to become Beast Wars. This also allowed for the desaturation of Transformers products from the national market: the first thing any economics student learns is the law of supply and demand, and by completely eliminating the supply, Transformers suddenly found themselves in pretty fair demand. However, there was still a certain stigma associated with the Transformers brand...it had proven to be a loser not once, but twice, and it's hard to recover from that sort of reputation. So instead of marketing the figures as "Beast Wars: Transformers," it was more like "BEAST WARS:Transformers." Hasbro also commissioned a television show to promote the Beast Wars line which utilized state of the art (at the time) CGI animation. The fact that the show was generally well-written certainly didn't hurt matters either. A combination of these factors led to the success of Beast Wars and the overall reinvigoration of the Transformers line, once Hasbro's proud standard bearer.
With all of this very welcomed success in mind, Hasbro could not help but ask itself "if animal Transformers are popular, would it be possible for vehicle Transformers to make a comeback?" In 1997, Hasbro decided to find out. Hasbro -- which had a rather disconcerting habit of throwing all of its power and money behind potentially devastating gimmicks -- wisely chose to test the waters with figures based on classic characters that would not be expensive to produce. To this end, they released the Machine Wars line as exclusives for Kay-Bee Toys. Of the 12 figures in the line, there were only four original molds. Four others were repaints of figures that had seen release in Europe but not in the US or Canada. For North American collectors, however, each figure was new and previously unheard of. Repainting a figure is a very low-risk way to generate quick revenue: no engineering goes into the development of a figure that is simply a differently-colored version of a previous one. This practice had been the entire basis of the first two or three years of the original line and it was a proven method for providing people with essentially new figures at very little cost. The decision to make the line a Kay Bee exclusive was also a good one; Kay Bee Toy stores typically charge more than places like wal-Mart or Target (usually between two and ten US dollars) and as such generate more revenue for the toy companies who supply their figures.
Of the four original molds, two were Autobots and two were Decepticons. All four molds made use of the "flip-change" method of transformation (the pulling of a particular part of joint that causes the figure to spontaneously transform without doing any other work), probably in an attempt to allow perspective buyers to make a stronger connection between the Beast Wars figures and the Machine Wars figures. The 4 molds also employed ball-joint articulation, showing people that it was possible to have a jet or truck with good articulation without sacrificing the realistic nature of the alternate modes. The names were all familiar -- everyone remembered classic names and characters like Starscream and Prowl and of course Optimus Prime -- except one: Megaplex.
The Megaplex name and character were designed to rationalize an action that Hasbro had previously never undertaken (excepting one occasion: the Ultra Magnus figure was simply the truck component of the original Optimus Prime figure painted white with a new trailer that doubled as body armor): the repainting of a leader figure. Hasbro never considered it beneath them to repaint the molds of significant characters, but that sort of thing generally wasn't done for leaders since they were supposed to be unique in design and clearly distinguishable from their various soldiers. Megaplex, however, was born out of the necessity that arose when it came time to reuse the Machine Wars Megatron mold. Instead of worrying about how to explain this, Hasbro beat the public to the punch by proclaiming that Megaplex was a body double for Megatron designed to confuse his enemies. This was a fair enough explanation, and it was generally accepted. Ultimately, however, the Machine Wars line collapsed after being forced to compete with its popular and more varied beastly twin. Seeing this, Hasbro shrugged away its losses and went back to work on Beast Wars.
At this point, it might seem as if the Megaplex controversy died out on its own. And for all intents and purposes for the next 6 years, it had. In 2002, however, a wave of Transformers nostalgia erupted partially because Dreamwave Productions began releasing brand new Transformers comics. With this sudden interest in all things Transformers, Hasbro and its Japanese counterpart Takara capitalized on the sensation by reissuing figures from the original line designed to appeal to adult collectors. This idea was a general success, but as is nearly always the case with Takara, they were not content to leave well enough alone. In a flash, Takara began repainting figures at an incredibly obnoxious rate that flooded the Transformers market with "special editions" of classic figures (the "anime" versions of some figures were incredibly popular because they were painted to more closesly resemble their appearance on the actual Transformers show) and in some cases simply created an entirely new character to go along with a coloring variation that had no precedent whatsoever in any part of the Transformers mythos. Based on this, Takara decided to bring back the Megaplex character for their line of reissues.
For those who are not familiar with the original Megatron figure, it transformed into a very realistic Walther P.38. The original figure itself was a repaint from Takara's proto-Transformer line called Microchange. In the 1980s, there were not a whole lot of rules and laws regulating toys. Now, however, there are. And because of these relatively new regulations, the original Megatron cannot be legally sold in the United States as a realistic gun marketed to children. Of course, Hasbro could try selling it as an adult collectors' item, but the Transformers line is at its heart a kid's product and Hasbro sees no reason to reverse that policy. Based on this, it is unlikely that Megatron will ever be reissued in the US. In Japan, however, there are no such laws governing a company's ability to market very authentic copies of weapons to children. The Megatron mold has been reissued in Japan on three separate occasions as of this writing. As Takara is a global company, many North American Transfans order figures directly from them. This is done for numerous reasons; very often there are variations that collectors look for that are present in the Japanese versions of figures and sometimes products get released in Japan that do not see the light of day here. Although the original Megatron figure was not especially rare, neither was it a particularly simple thing to locate. For this reason, many people did not have Megatron toys as children. If the figure was broken or otherwise damaged, it essentially meant that it would never be easily replaced. I myself have a Megatron figure that is missing its scope, silencer, stock, and barrel.
That being said, it should surprise nobody to learn that Megatron is one of the most frequently imported Transformers figures. Takara knew this, obviously, and decided to milk the thing for all that it's worth. That included the original figure, a black and brown version (more on this in a second), and the infamous Megaplex. Takara has come under some fire for its continued insistence on repainting figures for no appreciable reason other than the sake of just doing it. Quite frankly, most Transfans don't care about seeing the Sideswipe figure in every possible color of the spectrum, but Takara thinks this is a brilliant strategy. I guess if they're trying to appeal to die-hard completists, it is. I will admit that I don't know how much the original Megatron cost: I'm willing to wager that it cost around $30, like the original Prime figure. Now, however, Takara charges more than twice that amount for the sole reason that they have the ability to do so. As if that weren't enough, Takara decided to produce a reissue of the original deco that appeared on the Microchange version of Megatron: a black body with a brown handle. This is nothing especially earth-shattering: Japanese companies have a long tradition of "the black repaint." To the best of my knowledge, the origins of this specific repaint come from the original Sentai line. The black redecoed figures were wildly popular and it became a fairly standard practice in robot-oriented toylines to release a "special version" of a popular figure with a mainly black color-scheme. Takara decided to apply this principle to its Transformers reissues and it was subsequently done for both original versions of Optimus Prime (the original and the Powermaster), Starscream, Bumblebee, and Megatron, just to give you a small sample.
The black Megatron was a fairly good-looking figure: the design of the Walther P.38 lends itself to dark colors. Unfortunately, the black Megatron is incredibly rare and in some cases can fetch up to $300. After the black Megatron craze, Takara licensed an exclusive repaint of the mold to the online toy shop eHobby. This repaint became the reissue Megaplex.
From the start, there are some philosophical problems I have with Takara reissuing a character whose figure never existed in any capacity during the original series. How can it be a "reissue" of anything if it was never issued in the first place? Beyond these semantics, however, is the real reason that earns my contempt (and the contempt of many others) for the Megaplex figure. The reason for this is the fact that it's exactly the same fucking figure. There are only three differences between the Megaplex reissue and the original Megatron reissue. First, it's called Megaplex. Second, the only change in color scheme is the fact that the figure's inner thighs are blue rather than red (as the original Megatron's were). Third, eHobby has the absolute gall to charge $119 for a essentially identical character that's only a little more than half that price. Even the original Megaplex, which was made with far less sophisticated details, had more to distinguish it from the Megatron mold. Even if it didn't, the thing only cost $7, so it's not a ginormous gyp. Sure, the reissue Megaplex is less expensive than the ultra-rare black Megatron, but that figure is substantially different from the original. It at least looks different. The Megaplex reissue enjoys no such luxury: in its capacity as Megatron's "clone," it is exactly that: a replica of the original with differences that are almost impossible to recognize as such. Color variations on a single character's figure are treated as legitimate differences with the understanding that they have equal market value and that only some general cosmetic changes have been made. Megaplex has had no substantial plastic surgery, if you'll pardon the pun, to really distinguish it from Megatron. Casual or uninformed collectors more than likely won't even notice.
Quo vadis, pseudo-Megatron? Hopefully locked away in a vault. Megaplex is just the latest in a long line of spurious and really pointless repaints. I sometimes get the feeling that Takara is purposely trying to pull the rug out from underneath the Transformers market by filling it with such absurdities as this one. Some people eat it up, and if I live to be a thousand years old, I'll never understand why.