GI Joe and Thundercats are all well and good, but what about the poor, long forgotten rubbish action figures from the 80s?
Some of my fondest memories from my childhood revolve around Christmas. Well, more accurately, the toys section of the Christmas edition of the catalogue my parents would get.
I was like a junkie allowed to glimpse into Amy Winehouse’s bathroom cabinet. I wanted it all, but knew i would only be allowed a few things. What this meant was prioritising the bigger, better toy brands.
Star Wars was my first love and one I would continue to have dalliances with throughout the 80s. After that came He-Man, swiftly followed by Transformers. GI Joe and Thundercats came and went. There were others after that too, but that is not what this article is about.
The most rubbish action figures from the 80s
Here are the also-rans, the ones who got left behind. The toys that John forgot! (Please imagine the word ‘forgot’ repeated until it fades to nothing).
Do you know what’s fucking awesome? Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are awesome! Several tons of muscle, teeth and horn wrapped in scaly fury. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to out-awesome a dinosaur. That is until some genius toy designer thought to himself “You know what else is awesome? Big fucking guns!” All it took after this realisation was a basic bit of toy maths and the Dino-Riders were born!
That’s right! Dinosaurs tooled up to the max with all sorts of firepower and futuristic technology. Also they were being ridden by people. I feel the bit where people rode them was more of an afterthought to explain how a creature with massively disproportionate forelimbs could mount dual miniguns onto his own torso.
Add in a time travel element and some alien adversaries and you have what could have been the greatest idea in the history of child pacification. The cartoon lasted four seasons and as it went on the toys started to delve into the ranks of the lesser heard of dinosaurs, Quetzalcoatlus anybody?
Eventually, as these things do, it died out when mammals were introduced in the fourth season. Nobody seems to see the irony in this demise!
One toy series that I did get a few of but quickly became relegated to the hand-me-down pile were Visionaries, the supposed ‘knights of the magical light’. Past? future? I don’t fucking know, knights that had glowing animal forms on their chests.
In the cartoon these chest emblems were creatures that they magically turned into. In the toyline they were tiny holograms. This is where it all fell apart for me. I’ve bought the toy and am now expected to just imagine that it changes into its animal form?
Let me run that past you again, they were knights, whose only fucking job was to turn into animals and scrap. The very least of these two things you would expect from the toy was to transform into an animal! I’d even have settled for having a little toy version of the animal packaged with the action figure, but no they did nothing.
I can’t iterate enough how much of a shitty cop out that was. Even as a child of 10 or 11, I still realised I was being conned. That is like Hasbro releasing a load of toy cars and asking you to pretend they turn into robots! I will credit the fact they did have some tidy vehicles but even these were meant to transform into beasts and the such. They should have been called The Don’t Transformers.
As opposed to the mystery of why Dinoriders have been relegated to the vault of obscure toy ideas, it is quite clear how Visionaries ended up there. Fuck you Visionaries, if I wanted to use my imagination I’d have asked for a book.
It wasn’t just cartoons that made for toy ideas. Oh no, if they thought kids liked it they’d make anything on TV into a toy range. The A-Team was just screaming to be made into a series of action figures. It had guns, a cool van, wacky improvised war objects, and Mr T, who was kind of a very aggressive crossdresser. As soon as its popularity with kids became evident out came the toys.
At about the same relative size as He-Man figures, these figures came with an array of weaponry and gadgets. You could get Hannibal, Face, Murdoch, B.A. and even Amy, their inexplicable lady friend. And that’s where it stopped.
Basically the show didn’t have a story arc with proper recognisable baddies so they didn’t make any. If you wanted to re-enact an episode you had to use other toys as the bad guys and that sucked. The amount of times Ram-man locked them in a barn under instructions of Funshine Bear was ridiculous.
Soon after the figures were released they realised that kids loved the van and sports cars that were synonymous with the series but it would be impractical to build them to this scale. The solution was GI Joe size figures and accompanying vehicles. This also allowed them to address the lack of baddies problem by releasing some generic figures to act as protagonists.
Now that is a sneaky, shitty move right there. Get us to buy all our favourite characters on two different scales just so you could sell us the cars. At least George Lucas sold us the same character in 10 different outfits all at the same scale. By now, largely due to the fickle nature of children, they no longer cared about A-Team toys so that was that.
The A-Team itself was famous for its almost comic violence. Nobody got killed despite thousands of rounds of ammunition (and in one episode lots of cabbages) being fired at them.
Cars would crash and we’d see everyone scramble out to get their legal and above board comeuppance. This is a safe, child friendly platform to base a toy line on. This is in stark contrast to our final and possibly most obscure offering. In 1985 in a moment baffling misjudgement they made toys of John fucking Rambo.
I am not sure how it happened but one day some guy decided that this verbally challenged murder machine would make an excellent line of toys and a cartoon. It must have been someone so intrinsically attuned to marketing that they watched the psychological trauma-fest of First Blood and the senseless slaughterama of Rambo and all they took from it was kids would go gaga over this shit.
I imagine the world is like the fucking Matrix through the eyes of Neo to these people, everything is a scrolling series of dollar signs and inspirational slogans.
The inspiration behind the Hungerford massacre was now a range of toys. Of course it had to be toned down from the films so Rambo was given a team and base much like GI Joe. This is where the comparison ends however, as instead of COBRA, Rambo an odd array of slightly racist stereotypes to fire rockets at. In fact the only thing most of the bizarrely random assortment of figures had in common was their slightly racist overtones.
Take for example Nomad, a character whose only evil trait appeared to be that he was an Arab replete with turban. So many people complained about Nomad that they had to withdraw the figure. Rambo even had a Native American comrade who was just called Chief.
Rambo did not do well as a cartoon or toy, hence no one bar myself seems to remember them. I had to do a bit of research to find any extra information on them at all. It’s like their creators have tried to erase all memory of them from the internet. I couldn’t find a single picture of White Hooded Colonel Trautman with Cross Burning action.
So there you have it, toys I remember for varying reasons both good and bad, that just didn’t make the grade. There were, of course, a myriad of others. I didn’t even start on Super Naturals, Karate Kid or Musclemen.
I was going to finish with the ill fated line of Chuck Norris figures but like the man himself, they are so boring I couldn’t find much to say. Check out old archived catalogues yourself and enjoy the mad and amazing world of 80s toys. Perhaps you too will rediscover a long forgotten grudge about disappointing holograms.