Star Wars, GI Joe, MASK, Transformers… what a time to be alive!
Our guide to the very best actions figures from the 80s. Star Wars, Transformers, MASK and GI Joe. What a time to be alive!
Memories of my childhood are dominated by toys. I don’t remember anything else as vividly, except an operation I had when I was eight, although I only remember that because I was given a Jabba the Hutt afterwards.
It’s because of this shaky criteria that I am the perfect person to share with you my golden reminiscence of the best toys of the 80s. If you were born after 1989 then just take my word for it, your childhood wasn’t as good as mine.
A guide to the best 80s action figures
Naturally we begin with…
These are the toys that started it all, the granddaddy of toy merchandising. Star Wars toys were, at the time, the most awesome thing a five year-old boy could dream of, which is very telling of the depth of imagination possessed by children. I was that child and can confirm that my imagination was limited to toys and ice-cream.
So off I went with my aunty to the local toyshop and was faced with a wall of options. I chose Obi Wan Kenobi, replete with cloak and retractable lightsaber. Now I needed a similarly armed protagonist and Darth Vader quickly followed.
This spiralled into owning most of the available Star Wars cast and that is a key trick on the part of George Lucas. You could get the entire cast, not just the main characters. He must have worked out that the child who would buy R2-D2 would also buy R5-D4 regardless of the fact he only appeared in the film for a brief instant.
All of a sudden Ugnaughts could interact with Hammerhead whilst fighting Bespin Cloudpilots. No matter how obscure the character, all of a sudden he had a name and a backstory. Lucas at this point was not even trying anymore, he had won the toy war and he knew it. The sheer volume of characters was staggering.
But wait, Lucas had another money spinning trick up his sleeve, multiple costumes. That’s right, Luke alone had seven different costumes. Leia had every haircut available in the 80s, which was about six I believe. The upside of this was Leia eventually came in a gold bikini and was probably my 1:18 scale sexual awakening.
We haven’t even got to the vehicles yet. They were fantastic and to scale with the figures. This also meant some of them were huge, which in a child’s mind equates to better. The AT-AT was as big as a family dog and the Rancor was a gigantic sight to behold. Everybody wanted a Slave1, it was the coolest toy ever released. It even came with Han Solo in Carbonite for fuck’s sake. Slave1 secured Boba Fett’s mantle as the king of toy cool. It was the one toy I never had but always wanted. This disappointment has shaped my life to this day and stopped me forming any meaningful relationships.
There was one weird addition to the line, a trooper carrier/prisoner transport that didn’t feature in the films. It had the bizarre feature of push button recorded phrases from the film. It makes me laugh when I think of the times it randomly proclaimed, “R2-D2, it is you, it is you” or, “There’s one, set for stun.” I dearly wish I still had it to annoy my wife with. I’ll just have to make do with annoying her in my normal analogue manner.
Finally we had the ‘bases’, differing in scale and grandeur from a cardboard Cantina to the magnificent Ewok village. Every main set-piece in the film was catered for as well as moments that really didn’t need a toy. You could get Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer bridge, which really only featured in the scene when he was employing the Bounty Hunters.
Basically you could accurately recreate the only job interview scene in the trilogy. I actually had this Imperial Job Centre and it came, quite randomly, with the capacity to hang people from the ceiling, just like a real Job Centre.
Star Wars toys left the shelves some years after Jedi was released and didn’t reappear till The Phantom Menace by which time I was old and jaded. I will just go ahead and pretend that they didn’t bring any more out, that way they are still the reigning king of toys in my head.
GI Joes were probably the first example of toy evolution. In the early 80s, Action Force arrived and offered us historically accurate army figures from recent conflicts. All these figures were the same format as Star Wars figures, non-articulate limbs that could be set in single action poses. This in turn evolved into various groups of specialised soldiers that could square off against The Red Shadows. Some of these figures featured articulated limbs while others remained basic.
It was from these humble beginnings that we eventually got the mighty GI Joe line of action figures. Like comparing an 80’s Ford Capri to an early 90’s Ford Capri, they were much better. All figures now came with articulated arms, legs, and torsos, Individual personalities and a vast array of, at times, bizarre weaponry.
The baddies got a makeover too. The Red Shadows became COBRA, because cobras are badass and scary. They’re led by Cobra Commander, who was basically a reconstituted figure from the previous Red Shadows toy line. Whereas each goodie had a personality and back-story, COBRA was mostly made up of generic foot soldiers, saving loads of time and effort on character development. I think this equates well to real life conflicts in the media. Every one of our troops is a man with a family and hopes and dreams, all their soldiers are faceless baddies with murder in their hearts.
As a child, all of the characters were brilliant and I took for granted their niche army jobs. Upon further analysis however I have come to question some of their roles. Airtight, for instance, was basically a man with a hoover. It was a high tech tactical hoover but a hoover nonetheless. I am well aware of how dusty it gets in some combat situations and I can understand the need for what essentially equates to a ‘war maid’, but really GI Joe, does he requires the green gimp outfit?
Whilst we’re on the subject of strangely homoerotic outfits I would also mention the various bikers that made up COBRA’s ragtag motorcycle gang. They started off with ripped shirts and jeans but eventually leathered up and got weird. It culminated in Road Pig, a topless character with leather trousers and a spiky codpiece. No amount of wielding a big hammer can ‘man that up’.
The ultimate overlooked homoerotic action figure however lay in the Joes camp. Shipwreck is the dampest looking salty sailor you will ever see. From his beard right down to his turned up bell-bottoms he is a Tom of Finland portrait brought to life in toy form. Occasionally the figures would come with an animal helper. Snake Eyes had a wolf, Croc Master had a crocodile (I admit that a helper crocodile might be pushing the term helper), Shipwreck had a fucking parrot. Not only was his animal helper as much use in a war zone as a Watchtower pamphlet, but his weapon was an archaic musket. Shipwreck = Shitwreck.
As with Star Wars, GI Joe came with a raft of amazing vehicles. Most were based on actual military vehicles, making them even cooler. Assault helicopters, fantastic hovercrafts, even a fighter plane. One Christmas, however, they truly outdid themselves. In the 1985 JC Penny’s catalogue you could get an actual aircraft carrier. It was massive and sadly US only, otherwise it would have been mine. I settled for the kickass hovercraft and hours of bath time fun, without the logistical nightmare of fitting a four-foot aircraft carrier and an eight year-old child into a normal sized bath.
GI Joe went on for some years before finally fading into oblivion along to the distant sounds of a parrot speaking the words to YMCA. It was a sad, sad camp day.
Whereas these previous two offerings were great action figures with fantastic supplementary vehicles, MASK was all about the vehicles, with the figures as an after thought. The basic premise of MASK was to take an everyday vehicle, a motorcycle and sidecar for instance, and turn it into a war machine, in this case a battle cycle and submarine.
The figures were smaller and less articulated and each came with their own helmet that was supposed to do some great technological feat. This part was all imagination as the helmets were, in reality, pieces of rubber. It did not escape my attention even as child that calling your toys MASK then actually equipping them with helmets was a bit inaccurate but I was never the type of child to complain to a large multinational toy manufacturer.
The ‘Slave1’ of MASK was Rhino, an American style truck that turned into a mobile base and battle car. It came with two figures, which, if we refer to previous text, means it was better than other single figure vehicles. It even had a rocket that fired out of the back and a fricking ejector seat. As a child I was obsessed with ejector seats and I don’t know why. For it to work as an effective weapon you first have to lure or coerce an unwary victim into your vehicle and then start driving. It’s much more effective to just shoot them and have heated seats installed.
The vehicle designs were immensely cool and way ahead of their time. My particular favourites were Outlaw, which was an oil tanker that turned into an intercontinental ballistic missile launcher, and Hurricane, which was a 57 Chevy hotrod that turned into some kind of tank. Hurricane came with Hondo Maclean, MASK’s cross between Shaft and Lando Calrissian. A man so cool they named a Welsh post-hardcore band after him. He even had a half helmet that left the lower half of his face exposed because ladies loved that visage. Just to point out once again that that is more of a visor and still not a mask.
The vehicles occasionally caused me confusion, as sometimes it was hard to decide which was best in a scrap between original vehicle form and war form. Switchblade went from helicopter, which was fairly awesome to a plane which was slightly less awesome. There was a monster truck called Volcano that became a base of operations. Since when has a base of operations out-awesomed a goddamned Monster truck? Essentially every other MASK vehicle should have turned into a monster truck as their war form. Monster trucks are that fucking cool. I bet Hondo Maclean has about eight, one for every day of the week.
MASK was obviously the name of the good guys so where did the designers look to in search of a bad guy organisation name? Our slithery friends the snakes again: VENOM was the moniker they chose, cementing the hatred twixt limbless reptiles and toy R&D executives that still stands to this day. 50 people die from snakebites in America every year and 36 of them work for Hasbro.
Our next toys burst onto the scene with a great accompanying cartoon and a totally different format of figure. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a bold and manly line of toys centering around our eponymous hero.
Obviously based on Conan the Barbarian, He-Man wore only a furry pair of budgie smugglers and a harness to hold the sword of power. Although in the cartoon he transformed from a mild mannered prince who looked exactly like He-Man to He-Man, you couldn’t get a Prince Adam figure for ages. Oh to live in Eternia where all you have to do to beguile people is strip down to underwear made of the pelts of your enemies and tousle your hair a bit.
The supporting cast of figures were a mixture of the great (Ram-man, Lockjaw, and Man-E-Faces), the not so great (Faker, Zodiac, and Teela) and the just plain weird (Snout Spout, Clawful, and Two Face). The characters were the stuff of a madman’s dream. Take Buzz-Off for instance, a strange man-bee that has eschewed the social hierarchal of hymenopteral life to instead battle the forces of evil and collect shit loads of pollen, presumably.
The earlier mentioned Snout Spout was an unexplained man/elephant/cyborg that fired water from his nose. If I was going to pick a characteristic of an elephant that I thought would be handy in a fight, I probably wouldn’t have gone for the playful splashing they do whilst bathing.
There was the requisite selection of war machines for the Eternians to ride into battle on and most importantly a couple of giant cats for the main protagonists to punch it out on. If only one of the characters was part-man/part-laser pointer Battlecat would have been undone.
Later they released a robot horse for He-Man to ride. In what kind of a sad world does someone think, you know what’s cooler than a giant green war tiger? A robot horse, that’s what. I hope that guy’s wife immediately divorced him when he got home that night and eventually married Siegfried and/or Roy.
Once again my innocent child eyes did not spot the streak of homoeroticism running through the line. Even Skeletor with his skull-only head had a ripped body and tiny pants. Beastman came with a whip, both literally and figuratively. There was even a character called Fisto, I shit you not. Go look it up, do a Google image search, then come back and tell me Fisto doesn’t now own a sex shop in Soho.
There was also a point where they sort of ran out of ideas/money and started reusing character moulds but changing the colours. Faker was just He-Man painted blue, so basically Bizarro He-man. Mossman and Stinkor were just repainted Merman and Beastman respectively, thought they did have the distinction of being the only two smelly figures. Stinker smelled like Lynx Africa and Mossman smelled like those tree-shaped car fresheners, nice and piny. At any given time my bedroom smelled like a secondary school boys’ shower room or the back of a clapped out Volvo. Incidentally, they are the two worst places to lose your virginity.
This marked a point where fresh blood/money needed to be injected into the line. They did what any ill-informed think tank would do and came up with She-Ra or the death knell of He-Man as she was also known.
She-Ra came along as his sister from another planet replete with her own set of baddies. This did not go down well with the kids. She was too girly for He-Man’s prime demographic: small boys who think girls stink and should live in the shed. The toy line was floundering, what were they to do? The answer lay out there somewhere, sunning itself harmlessly on a rock. That’s right they went full fucking snake again. A whole range of snake related bad guys were brought out and the snake hatred, or snaketred as I call it, continued afresh.
A bit like Star Wars, the line ended and was later relaunched when the new film came out. If the film had not been utter twaddle the toys may have gotten a second lease of life (third technically as there was an unsuccessful cartoon reboot in the meantime) but no, that was the death of He-Man. Brought down like so many before him by Dolph Lundgren’s inability to act.
Before Michael Bay seamlessly took us from open-mouthed wonder into one long protracted yawn in the space of four films, we had the most brilliantly realised action figure line of all time – Transformers, Robots In Disguise.
Once again bolstered by an ace cartoon, sales of Transformers went through the roof as soon as they were released. Transformers were not an original idea, more a series of borrowed ideas from various pre-existing Japanese toy lines but that didn’t stop them being the big name toy to have. Even today the original releases look brilliant and cleverly intricate compared to most modern toys.
We all know the premise, opposing forces of good Autobots and evil Deceptions come to earth and mingle amongst us by transforming into various modes of transport. At first the Autobots tended to be road-borne vehicles, such as cars, vans and the world’s greatest truck, whilst the Deceptions were either planes or handheld things such as guns or a walkman. This seems odd but one can only assume they were sponsored by Ford. It was what many will recognise as the age old struggle between cars and planes, a classic battle as old as the written word and still to this day without any definitive conclusion.
As the years went by this changed however, and both sides gained quite random transformations. My personal favourites were the Dinobots and the Insecticons, dinosaurs and insects respectively. Everybody wanted Grimlock because he was a T-Rex and T-Rexes are awesome. I always wanted Swoop the pterodactyl but he never made it to the UK, which is kind of ironic considering he was the only member of the group who could fly.
In America they even got a character that didn’t have a robot form called Skylynx. He was a plane/space shuttle that turned into a plane/space shuttle with a friendly head. We had something very similar in the UK except it was a steam engine and it was called Thomas. We will never know if Thomas was a rogue Autobot or just a friendly train, all we know is he died suddenly because of leaves.
The toys came in two basic sizes and this was a point of contention for me. As I mentioned in an earlier article, it seems like a total cop-out to release two different scale sizes and expect kids to play with both at the same time. Bumblebee was small enough in robot form to pass as Optimus Prime’s six month-old car-baby. The tape-based Deceptions had to fit in Soundwave but this made them relatively tiny and somewhat brittle. I overcame this by constantly pretending Gears and Huffer were far away.
In terms of larger scale robots the various groups of combining toys were by far the largest. The first were the Constructicons, construction vehicles that each transformed into a robot but then combined to form a giant robot. I imagine this would cause an awful game of rock, paper, scissors to decide who was the genitals that day. Various other combiner groups came and went ranging from rescue vehicles to sea monsters but nobody out did the Constructicons. I put it down to the fact they were purple and green, the evilest of all colours.
Things eventually took two big turns for the weird, one successful and one definitely not so. The Headmasters, Targetmasters, and the Powermasters were insane ideas that actually worked very well. Having little human-robot hybrid pals that combined with these giant robots in the form of a head, a gun or an engine. The Headmasters were particularly cool and featured Scorpinok, possibly the biggest single transformer you could get. This defied logic somewhat, if you are going to transform into a giant robot or an evil city then its not very covert to be a hundred foot scorpion in your off time. They just don’t blend in as well as you’d think.
The second and least successful idea was to have the transformers covered by a shell that looks like various organic creatures. A man, a bear, a man again but this time his face is a bat or something. It was a weird idea that really didn’t work on any level. What was this shell? Did they just slough this outer skin and grow it back at will? Who is Will?
As crappy as that idea was, Transformers are still going strong today. This is mainly due to the films but I feel also because of their brilliant original premise. There are millions of things you can transform robots into and thus there’s a massive scope for development. I can’t wait for the kitchen range so I can see a blender have at it with a melon baller. I imagine the melon baller would be buggered until he combined with the fridge, the spoon and the lemon reamer to form Citron.
In some ways the toys we had shaped the people we are today. They’re invariably locked in our psyche from hours of play and will no doubt subconsciously play a part in our day to day thinking and form the building blocks of our future morality.
So with that I’ll now leave you to don my furry pants and chase a snake round the garden with a piece of wood all the while making noises like a car.