Sunday, 1 May 2022

Toybox REVIEW: Shokugan Modeling Project Gaoking

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Release Date: July 2021
RRP: 5445 yen

Super Mini-Pla is no more, but from the ashes a far more powerful candy toy model kit line has emerged - the Shokugan Modeling Project! As exciting as that sounds the reality of it all is far less dramatic, with Bandai simply having rebranded the line to this new name that cleverly keeps the SMP initials. Given how Super Sentai robots have been such a big part of the Super Mini-Pla line's identity, it makes sense that this relaunch kicks off with a new instalment from the long-running franchise. Following on from releases from 1984's Choudenshi Bioman we're jumping forward 17 years to Super Sentai's 25th anniversary series - Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger! This series was notable for featuring a huge number of Power Animals for fans to collect, and Bandai have taken note of this and pledged to release them all in SMP form. Here we start at the very beginning though with Shokugan Modeling Project Gaoking - the core robot from the series as well as the very first release in the Shokugan Modeling Project range.

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As a retail release consisting of three individual boxes the "case" of SMP Gaoking kits comes in a green and white outer box, featuring numerous images of the kit across the four sides in both combined mode and the individual Power Animals. One side even features the Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger series logo alongside images of the Gaorangers themselves. Though the line has been doing this with the outer packaging for some years now, it nevertheless remains a huge step up from the boring solid green/brown/black boxes cases of these figures used to come in. The step-up in design is likely because the SMP (whether it be Super Mini-Pla or Shokugan Modeling Project) kits are more likely to be bought by the case, so it's important to make eye-catching packaging that isn't just to be torn apart and used as a display tray.

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Further proof that the name change is little more than a simple rebrand, open the outer box up and you'll be in very familiar territory. Each of the three boxes that make up SMP Gaoking sport artwork that matches the packaging for the original DX Gaoking from 2001, but naturally replacing the images of the robot with this new one and adding the SMP logos where appropriate. The Gaoking packaging is particularly eye-catching with its jungle backdrop and bright colours, not only making it a design perfectly suited to this robot and series but also one that's incredibly enticing to open. Inside you'll find the parts required for the models spread across various coloured runners, some loose parts that have been individually painted, sticker sheets, building/combination instructions and a piece of Bandai soda flavoured candy. Box one contains GaoLion and GaoEagle, box two contains GaoShark and GaoTiger while box three contains GaoBison.

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Leading the pack is Gaoking, undoubtedly the most iconic of all the Power Animals to appear in Gaoranger and the poster child for the series as far as they're concerned. As well as being a core component in Gaoking, GaoLion also grows to giant size to later form GaoKentarus AND reappeared ten years later as an auxiliary mecha in Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger. But for now we're just looking at standard flavour GaoLion - average sized but still with plenty on offer. GaoLion features a hinged jaw as well as moveable legs, articulated at the hips, knees and feet. Though the movement is limited to basic rotation, you can still get quite a bit of personality out of the model just from these points alone.

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GaoEagle might be the smallest of the five Power Animals that make up this set but it still packs quite a punch, with plenty of moving parts that make it a joy to pose. The neck, lower beak and talons are all hinged, the legs can rotate and the wings both raise and rotate (at two separate points). It's a shame there isn't a socket anywhere on the body to directly plug an articulated stand arm into it, but nevertheless you can it into some really great flight poses as well as perched on rocks or anything else you might have lying around.

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Power Animal number three is GaoShark, the only water-based creature in this line up. GaoShark's design cleverly mixes the more organic design of the Power Animals with technological elements, like the silver dome part just above the face almost looking like a submarine cockpit. Like any good shark toy it features a moving jaw with plenty of moulded teeth, but also moveable front fins and a hinged mid-section that allows the back half to wriggle left and right. In reality that's more so that it can work as Gaoking's arm with a functional elbow, but works to the individual mode's advantage by giving it more realistic movement.

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As you probably guessed from it being the only one to have a box to itself, GaoBison is the largest Power Animal in the set by quite a large margin. It's also definitely the one with the most interesting build process, with lots of the parts required for it to transform into Gaoking's legs folded up and completely hidden inside that bulky torso. Perhaps due to both the size and the more intricate transformation it has though GaoBison perhaps has a little less playability than the others in animal mode - with only a rotating head and upper leg sections in terms of articulation. Usually this would be all one comes to expect from an individual mode so it's not a huge issue, but it might have been nice if the head was able to lower to get it into some good charging poses as well.

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GaoBison is unique among these Power Animals in that it also has an alternative "carrier" mode. Transforming it simply requires opening the torso hatches, extending out the combined-leg mode sections (flipping out the wheels on the sides) and then folding down the legs at the back. In this mode GaoBison becomes a multi-wheeled truck of sorts that the other Power Animals are then able to ride on. There's no direct way to fix them onto the Bison whilst riding (unless prepping for the full transformation to Gaoking mode) but it's a nice little extra feature to the set nonetheless.

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Rounding off these five Power Animals is GaoTiger, whose placement as Gaoking's left arm makes her build process somewhat similar to GaoShark's even though her design and articulation naturally make her more akin to GaoLion. GaoTiger features a lot of moving parts that can be used to make this individual mode more expressive, including moveable legs and feet, a hinged jaw and a head that can lower as well as rotate. The bright white base colour makes all the additional flourishes of the design stand out that much more as well, with the black stripes across the body, silver detailing and two pink stripes across the top really making the design pop. For those who like to paint their minipla instead of using the stickers, nearly all of this detailing is moulded onto the body as well.

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Altogether these these five are a great little group of Power Animals - all really unique in their design and coming together to form a robot that could rightly be considered a "Beast King". The transformation to Gaoking (as laid out in the instructions) is quite interesting in that it involves clipping the Lion, Shark and Tiger together on top of the Bison properly transforming it in the legs, so the whole bottom half suddenly lowers down and wraps around to form them. There's also some interesting bits of folding going on in that top half, with GaoTiger's legs completely tucking away and GaoLion having to compress together into a vaguely cube-shaped torso. The final is then properly clicking GaoEagle into place, with the head resting on the top of GaoLion's and the wings wrapping around it to extend the mane. Lastly the tail piece lifts up into place, and can then be twisted to reveal Gaoking's head and complete the transformation.

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Before even getting into how great Gaoking's design is, the immediate thing that stands out about its transformation is the INCREDIBLE face-swapping gimmick Bandai have built into the helmet. Not only can the helmet be twisted around to reveal the standard Gaoking face, but on the other side is also the roaring face the robot pulls as the final scene in the transformation. It's little touches like these that continue to make the SMP figures so special, giving Gaoking so much more personality that isn't just perfect for accurately recreating the transformation sequence but also making it look so much more dynamic in action poses. And what a great design Gaoking is! While it may follow the standard pattern of blocky coloured limbs that Super Sentai had been doing for some years prior, Gaoking's more streamline design immediately makes it stand out. As clever as some of the transformation steps are, other parts are enhanced by just how simple certain parts look - like having a giant shark for right arm for example. It's a really striking design that continues to be one of Super Sentai's very best even to this day, and has been long overdue a highly articulated model kit rendition like this.

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Because even in addition to getting these iconic Super Sentai robots at a small scale with all the joys of building a model kit, arguably the biggest draw of this range has always been the articulation - something that's only now being implemented into the franchise's DX counterparts. Gaoking certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard either, with a body that features;
- Ball jointed head
- Three-way rotating shoulders
- Two-way rotating hips
- Double-hinged knees
- Single hinge elbows and left hand
- Waist, bicep, (left) hand, thigh and foot swivels
As you can see from the list above there's some really interesting engineering in Gaoking's body, particularly the three-way moving shoulders as well as the amazing left hand articulation that comes from GaoTiger's head and neck. Thanks to Gaoking's legs all being made from one Power Animal that's a certain sturdiness that you don't often get with other Super Sentai robots, as the lower legs can have the tendency to loosen and/or unplug when they're made from separate components. That all said there are a few minor points worth mention on this release, the most notable of which is the unfortunate lack of ankle tilts. While the front parts of the feet can rotate to make the figure look a little more flat-footed in action poses, it's a shame Bandai couldn't have found a way to work in proper ankles to make them look a little more natural. The other oddity is the waist joint, which by design is almost completely neutered by the way the tips of GaoEagle's wings tuck behind GaoBison's head. Because of this, you can only get a little movement left or right before the pieces begin to push against each other. Again its certainly no dealbreaker when stacked against everything else the figure has to offer, but it's surprising that Bandai overlooked this and didn't engineer it in a way that it could make full use of its waist rotation.


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Gaoking's sole accessory is its Fin Blade sword, which detaches from the back of GaoShark and is then held in its jaws. Since the sword that directly plugs into GaoShark is a little undersized for Gaoking, Bandai have kindly also included a properly-scaled sword that can be used in its place. While the sword can feasibly be held in simply the Shark's jaws, there's actually a hidden tab inside the top of the mouth that flips down and provides a place for the sword to properly slot into. This way the grip on the sword is much tighter and (with the jaws closed properly) almost completely hidden. While the sword itself perhaps isn't as detailed as other Super Sentai robo weaponry, its unique shape definitely makes it one of the more notable swords - playing into Gaoking's wild aesthetic perfectly.
 
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The line name may have changed, but Shokugan Modeling Project Gaoking is all the greatness we've come to expect from the Super Mini-Pla line with little else in the way of change. Even with oddities in the articulation, Gaoking more than makes up for it with a bold design, clever transformation and individual Power Animals that might actually be more fun to play with than the combined mode itself. This is an extremely good start for the Gaoranger line of model kits, and if the others can live up to this quality the sheer variety this series has to offer might make it the best Bandai have had to offer yet.

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