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 Anatomy of a Review

I've been writing reviews in this style and format for around ten years now, and over seven on this very web site. Splitting reviews up in this manner was my invention, back in the early days of rec.toys.misc, and I take full credit for it. And blame.

I like this style (obviously) because it allows the reader to make decisions for themselves. If I merely ramble on for a few paragraphs, citing issues and highlights, and give you some sort of overall feel (maybe) at the end, you still don't really know if YOU will like it or not. You're an articulation junkie, and care more about the poseability than the sculpt - will you like it? You're a sculpt fiend, and couldn't possibly care about the articulation - how about you? By splitting up the review into specific and relatively consistent categories, you can pick and choose the things that matter to you. You're that previously mentioned sculpt fiend, and on a review I give a figure four stars for it's sculpt and paint…but only two in articulation. My overall isn't nearly as good as yours would be, and you can actually figure that out for yourself from the review.

I would think that would be fairly obvious to most readers (although I still get some comments that make me wonder), but slightly more mysterious is how the Overall score comes into play, and how things are weighted. Let's start by pointing out what should be painfully obvious, but which isn't based on some of the emails I get. The most common categories - Packaging, Sculpt, Paint, Articulation, Accessories, Fun Factor, and Value (with Outfit thrown in for sixth scale figures) - are NOT weighted evenly. That means if you try to take the scores for each category and divide them by 7, you're not going to get anything that makes any sense. Packaging does not count toward my Overall score equally with Sculpt. I'm hoping it doesn't for you, either.

Now, here's the interesting part. The weights for each category vary by every review! How much any one category matters depends on many factors, including what my initial expectations were, the limitations of the design of the characters themselves, and even certain aspects of the license. How important the categories matter will vary for you, too. But there is a general guideline in my head when I'm doing a review, and I thought I'd share it so you could get a deeper understanding of how my Overall scores come about, and why they might be very different (or very similar) to yours.

Let's start by discussing the stars in general. I use a four star grading system because the stars mirror the standard U.S. school grading system for me. Four stars is an A, three stars is a B, two stars is a C, and one star is a D. Getting a Bupkis is obviously a failing grade, unless I'm including it in a review for informational purposes only. For example, I might include an Articulation category with a Sideshow Premium Format figure. It gets Bupkis because there is none, but there was no expectation on my part that there would be, so this doesn't effect the Overall. I only mention it (and I usually point this out in the review) for the reader's information, on the off chance they might have been expecting something different.

Now, I know that some people think a C is an 'average' grade, but I don't. Scores of **1/2 to *** stars are average scores, with anything below **1/2 being below average, and anything above *** being above average. Let's look at the individual categories, and my thought process behind them:

Packaging
This is not a 'key' category, ever. Key categories always matter to the Overall score. Any score a figure/bust/statue gets in a key category will have a very perceptible effect on the final score I give it. The Packaging category is NOT one of those categories. Packaging is what I call a 'secondary' category, and the only time it effects the overall is when it's very good, or very bad. If I grade a package with **1/2 or *** stars, the final Overall score won't reflect it at all. Think of it this way: a secondary category is weighted with a zero for an average score; as the score goes above average, it gets a positive weighting, improving the overall; as it goes below an average, it gets a negative weighting, hurting the overall score. That's how packaging works, and even when it does have a weight, that weight is relatively small when compared to even the other secondary categories. Packaging is easily the least critical of all of the standard 7 - 8 categories.



To truly effect the overall score, a package has to be outstanding.

Sculpt:
This is definitely a key category, and in conjunction with Paint, it makes up the most critical aspect of any action figure, statue or bust for me. Any score here will directly effect the overall. Get a bad score in sculpt, and kiss a good overall goodbye. Likewise, get a good score here, and you're pretty much guaranteed that you won't end up with a terrible Overall score. I consider many things in this category, including likeness (where appropriate), scale, style, detail, etc. Sculpting gets the highest weight score, along with the next category...



I could easily use the PF Lurtz as an excellent example of both Sculpt AND Paint

Paint:
Ah, another key category. Repeat after me - bad paint can ruin a great sculpt, but great paint can make even a mediocre sculpt look amazing. These two are so tightly connected that at times it can be very difficult to separate them, but I always give it my best shot. Not only is paint a key category, but it (along with Sculpt) has the greatest weight of any category. Like sculpt, paint has an aspect of accuracy to the license, but also a straight forward quality aspect. It can look just like the character on film, but be terribly sloppy, or it can be the best quality work out there, and look nothing like the character. Getting both aspects right is the key.

The things I tend to look for in paint work is the accuracy to the original character first, then the other quality issues: is the plastic actually painted, or simply cast in that color; is the finish (matte or glossy) appropriate and effective; are the cuts between colors sharp and clean; are tampos and stickers straight and even; are there any stray marks from the painter not keeping track of the ends of their brushes; is there bleed and over spray from poorly fitting masks; if dry brushing and washing techniques are used, are they appropriate or over done; and are there a large or small percent of detail paint ops included.

Key areas are always skin tones, lips, eyes, eyebrows and teeth, but hairlines and highlights are also critical. Certain colors are trickier than others when they are adjoining, like blue and red or black and white, and some colors, like silver or yellow, are notorious for having issues with coverage and consistency. There's quite a bit to watch for in this category, and it's often the one that's trickiest to judge well.



The Muppets line from Palisades sported some truly amazing paint work at the price point

Articulation:
This is another key category for action figures. For me, it weighs less than Sculpt and Paint (especially for licensed characters), but it's still weighted much heavier than secondary categories. While a great looking plastic statue is nice, it's even better when the designer allows for appropriate and well thought out articulation.

More is not always the right direction in this category. Sure, if you're a joint junkie, 20 points is better than 10, and 30 is even better. But often more joints doesn't mean more posable, as the joints are limited in movement. In fact, plenty of folks will tell you that too much articulation runs the sculpt and overall appearance of the figure, working against the general quality.

For me, more joints will generally get you a better score in this particular category, but may end up hurting you in the overall. It's a fine line between too much and too little, and most companies haven't quite figured out how to walk it yet. I'm always looking for several key aspects to the articulation: how much range of movement do the joints have; how well designed are the joints so that they work in concert with the sculpt for the maximum posability; how tight are the joints and how likely are they to stay that way; how solid are the joints and pins, and is breakage an obvious problem; and how well do the joints actually mimic realistic human stances. We've come a long way in the area of Articulation over the last ten years, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.



Medicom has been working on a body that 'hang's naturally in almost any pose

Accessories:
Again, a key category for action figures, not for busts, statues, prop replicas, or other collectibles. As a kid, I grew up playing with G.I. Joes (12", the real kind), Captain Action and Marx Best of the West 12" figures. These action figures had tons of accessories and outfits, which really added to the play value. As an adult, I appreciate the addition of cool accessories, particularly considering the high price point that most toys are going for these days.

Accessories can't just be any old thing, though. The most critical aspect is that they should make sense - they should fit with the character, their background, and preferably be things that character has actually used at some point. Personally, I love episode or film specific accessories, because they show that the company has taken the time to really get to know the license, and understands what makes it tick. But I can live with more generic or unique ideas, as long as their sensible.

Figures should also be able use, hold or otherwise interact with the accessories. Lots of stuff is nice, but if the closest it can come to being used with the figure is placed on the ground at their feet, it's not particularly useful. Figures will also get extra points in this category for creative, imaginative accessories, but they'll lose points for too much reuse.



While the World of Springfield line has some issues with accessory re-use, you always got some very cool episode specific goodies.  These came with Gil.

Outfit:
This is a key category for sixth scale and large action figures where the quality of the clothing is critical.  Obviously, with many other smaller figures, it's not even a consideration.

Just like a fine suit on an overpaid CFO, the quality of material and the quality of the tailoring are key issues.  Stitching should be well done and tight, and there should be little or no chance of fraying of the material over time.  The costume should fit the body correctly, and not be baggy or tight in inappropriate spots.  The outfit should look realistic, and the choice of materials should mirror reality whenever possible.

Buttons, zippers, studs, buckles, and other accoutrements should be properly scaled and made from high quality material.  If they work, even better.  In fact, anything that should work in real life (zippers, belt buckles, pockets) should work as closely to reality as they can.

If other closures are used, they need to be as unobtrusive as possible.  Snaps are preferred to velcro, but velcro can work if it is extremely thin and well stitched.

Let's not forget that the costume needs to accurately portray the source material, just like the sculpt and paint.  It might be a great looking outfit, but if the character never wore it, or it's in some bizarre color, the costume is going to take a major hit.



One of the best features of the Premium Format figures are the exceptional Outfits

Design:
I only use this category on occasion, largely for statues and busts.  The idea here is pretty simple - you might have a great looking sculpt in terms of character accuracy, small detail work, texturing, etc, but the selected pose and style is poorly conceived.  To be able to call these things out separately, I add this category where appropriate.

While the general concepts of sculpt are pretty specific, there's still some 'art' to it.  For example, the choice of expression on a sixth scale figure can hurt its sculpt score, but this can be a very personal opinion.  Still, the Sculpt category is fairly fact driven.

Design is not.  It is truly a personal feel for the artistic aspect of the statue or bust, and how accurately the design choice communicates the personality and emotions of the character.



To get the perfect look and match to the source material takes a skilled Design

Value:
Value is a secondary category, like Packaging.  Again, getting an average rating here doesn't effect the overall at all.  If an item scores a **1/2 or *** rating, there will be no appreciable effect on the Overall score, because you're getting pretty much what you're paying for.  However, as the Value rating goes above the average, the effect on Overall will be positive.  Obviously the reverse is also true.

Of all the categories I include and discuss in every review, none ever generates as much discussion as Value.  While price is an easily quantifiable subject, value is not.  Value is based on whether you feel you got more or less than what you should have, based on the price AND your personal feelings on other aspects of the object.  Different people include different aspects, and therefore end up with very different results.

My value ratings are based on as many objective factors as possible. I consider the cost of the license, the size of the run, the quality of the materials, and other factors that will influence the cost to manufacture.  I consider similar products on the market, and how well the particular item stacks up against them.  But in the end, this will always remain the most generally controversial category.

Although Value is a secondary category, like Packaging, it still carries more weight than Packaging does.  In other words, a bad package is still only going to have a very minor effect on my Overall.  A bad value though, with a similar poor rating, will have a much greater effect.



All this ugly for $15?  You won't find a much better value than that!

Fun Factor:
This category is a bit more of a chameleon. It only comes into play with action figures, playsets or vehicles, where they are clearly intended as toys OR where they might be collectibles but they are based on the general concept of toys. Sometimes, action figures that are intended as toys do poorly here - in fact, that happens more often than it certainly should.  Other times, there's a figure that's theoretically a 'collector' figure, but it has remained true to its roots, keeping alive the concept of play.

Key factors here are actually some of the other categories - sculpt, articulation, accessories - but more than just how good they are independently, this category considers how good they are together.  You should also look at how sturdy clothing, plastics and joints are, and how much frustration - or lack thereof - there is when handling and posing the toy.  If there are 'action features', are they sensible or silly?  Adding a stupid action feature can actually hurt the score I give a figure in this category.

Some action figures know how to be cool for collectors AND still fantastically fun toys!

And that brings us to… 

Overall:
So where does the Overall come from?  Clearly, it starts with a combination of all the individual categories.  In my mind, each category carries a particular importance with that particular review, and they exert an effect on the overall based on that.  This weighting and averaging in my head is why it's so rare for a figure to end up with a truly awful score in the Overall category (less than ** stars) or a perfect score (**** stars).  Think of it this way - if you had seven or eight tests in a class, you'd have to do pretty damn bad on every one of them to get less than a C overall grade in the class.  Alternately, you'd have to pretty much smoke 'em to get a perfect A.

However, there's also some other factors that play into it, things that are either not included in particular categories, or are simply 'Wow' (or 'Ugh') factors.  These more emotional, personal impressions can alter a score up or down.  I try to make it clear when they have a major effect, but you should try to always be aware of them, even in your own critical reviews.



And when it all comes together - sculpt, paint, articulation, value, etc - you get a four star review!

This article may change over time.  I know my feelings about different categories, what's best and what's not, certainly do. The process of creating the finest busts, action figures and statues is evolving, and as it does, our critical review of them should as well.  Drop me a line and let me know you're thoughts on the process!

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