Friday, May 14, 2010

Top Ten '80s Action Figure Lines That Need A Comeback

Retro is all the rage these days, isn't it? Everything old is new again, especially if the "old" is from the '80s. New adaptations of The Karate Kid and The A-Team will hit theaters soon (they actually open on the same day), with sequels to Predator and TRON coming in July and December respectively. The remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street just opened a couple of weeks ago. MacGruber, as stupid as it looks, is a parody of an '80s television show. The Expendables, which opens in August, isn't a sequel or a remake, but it's definitely a throwback to the '80s action genre. Even Red Dawn, which was as '80s as you could get (if only all Cold War-era propaganda was as fun), is getting a remake.

And that's just what's coming out this year. Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and The Last Starfighter sequels are in the works, and so are remakes of Footloose, Police Academy, Poltergeist (which may or may not be released this year), Private Benjamin, RoboCop, and Short Circuit. Before you ask, there's no remake of Big Trouble In Little China on the schedule. Not yet, anyway. A Conan reboot opens next year, and Columbia hired Mike Finch and Alex Litvak, writers of the aforementioned Predators, to write a new Masters Of The Universe script.

No action figure captures the '80s better than Chuckles.Speaking of Masters Of The Universe, Hollywood studios aren't the only ones who've been getting into the '80s nostalgia. Despite having loyal collectors for years, Hasbro's 25th Anniversary G.I. JOE line sparked the interest of many adults who hadn't paid much attention to the property since the days of playing in the backyard. They kept that going until debuting a line for G.I. JOE: The Rise Of Cobra, the brand's first live-action movie, two years later. This came after the success they found - both at the box office and in the toy aisles - by taking Transformers to the big screen. They also worked Secret Wars comic book two-packs into their 3¾" Marvel Universe, recalling Mattel's '84-'85 Secret Wars line. Mattel themselves found more of a market than they seemed to expect when they introduced their direct-to-consumer Masters Of The Universe Classics. Their DC Universe Classics line clearly draws inspiration from Kenner's Super Powers Collection, and they just launched a new Ghostbusters line recently (with toys based on The Real Ghostbusters still to come). Playmates released a 25th Anniversary line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures last year, reproductions of the toys originally sold in 1988.

With G.I. JOE, Transformers, Super Powers, Secret Wars, Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, and He-Man out of the way, and STAR WARS having been back on the scene since '95, what are the top action figure lines from the '80s that still need to be revisited?

  1. SilverHawks: "Partly metal, partly real..." Never one of my favorites, but that's why it comes in at number ten. I had a couple of the figures, and I watched the cartoon from time to time, but I couldn't name any of the characters off the top of my head. In fact, my favorite thing about SilverHawks is the collection of audio outtakes that showed up on the interweb back in the '90s. The Kenner figures really weren't bad, but this is more of a nostalgia pick than anything else.

  2. Starriors: TOMY's Starriors line wasn't terribly popular, and I didn't know much about them as a kid. I only had three of the toys: Motormouth, Gouge, and (my favorite) Hotshot. I wanted Deadeye after seeing him in one of the comics, but I don't know if I ever even saw him in a store. I really liked these at first, but I lost interest pretty quickly, as G.I. JOE, STAR WARS, Transformers, and Super Powers were taking up most of my time in '84. In fact, Hotshot found himself fighting in one of those universes more often than not. The Starriors toys were very cool, though, and an updated take on them with modern articulation - and maybe some new comics - is something I would definitely collect.

  3. Battle Beasts: What do you get when you give weapons, armor, and bloodlust to a bunch of anthropomorphized animals? Battle Beasts! Or at least that's what they were called here in the states. Originally marketed as BeastFormers by Takara in Japan, they were intended to be a spin-off of Transformers, even appearing in the Japanese version of the cartoon. Hasbro didn't see it that way (and rightfully so, if you ask me), releasing them independent of the robots in disguise here in the States. Each figure had a hologram "Battle Badge" on its chest that determined the team for which it would fight, fire, wood, or water. The hologram decals were similar to the Autobot and Decepticon decals on early Transformers, in that you had to heat them up by rubbing on them to see the image. Diamond Select Toys bought the rights to Battle Beasts last year, and they're supposed to be getting a new line. Of course, this was supposed to start in December of '09, and then March, and now it could be delayed until next year or never happen at all. That would be a shame, because Battle Beasts kicked ass.

  4. Army Ants: While we're on the subject of anthropomorphized creatures with weapons, it's time for Army Ants. General Mc-Anther leads his blue army against the orange forces of General Patant. Another Hasbro line, some of the Ants shared names with G.I. JOE characters like Stalker, Blow Torch, Knockdown, Repeater, and Recoil, with the Ant versions of those last two actually predating their JOE counterparts. Others shared names with Transformers, including Bone Crusher and Snarl. Aside from the two generals, Hasbro surprisingly didn't go crazy with the puns. Army Ants had no screws or metal parts to rust, so leaving them out in the yard overnight was never a problem.

  5. Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand.The Karate Kid: First of all, considering it's from 1986, my Mr. Miyagi figure looks a hell of a lot like Pat Morita. Seriously, that's a damn good sculpt for the '80s, and it's not a bad one by modern standards. In fact, most of Remco's The Karate Kid figures were solid. I'd still love to see a company like NECA or Bif Bang Pow! take a crack at the likes of Daniel LaRusso (plus the Had-His-Ass-Kicked-For-Ten-Minutes chase variant), Mr. Miyagi, Johnny Lawrence, John Kreese, Ali, Sato, and Chozen. The Karate Kid and The Karate Kid, Part II were just released on Blu-ray for the first time, and I'd be all over a new toy line based on those two movies.

  6. Voltron: Defender of the Universe: No, I'm not talking about the stupid Vehicle Voltron thing, but Lion Force Voltron, the real Voltron. Was the fully assembled Voltron the greatest toy ever? I have no idea, because I didn't have it. This is on the list for purely selfish reasons, as I had the following Voltron toys: Keith, the Black Lion, and King Zarkon from Panosh Place. Oh, and I had some really small Voltron figure (maybe from Bandai?) that didn't even separate into the individual lions. Words cannot express what only having one Voltron lion will do to a little boy. That kind of frustration never goes away. And even though I can barely make it through an episode of the Lion Force cartoon these days, I still want the completed Voltron toy. I know Trendmasters did one in the late '90s, and I've seen the Toynami stuff at a local store recently. Nuh-uh. I want the original Voltron, I want it to split into five lions, and I want each of those lions to hold a figure in his/her uniform from the series. And sure, I could track down the original toys on eBay, but that's not exactly the point of this list, is it? Nicktoons supposedly has a new Lion Force cartoon in the works, so there's at least a slim a chance that this could happen. I can hope, can't I?

  7. ThunderCats: Like SilverHawks, this is another one that was never among my favorites. If I was being selfish with Voltron, I'm being altruistic with this pick. I don't think I ever had any ThunderCats toys, to be perfectly honest, but I watched the cartoon more than I watched SilverHawks. I at least knew the villain's name when it came time for a trivia contest, and that was enough to win a Zartan figure from a local television station (see my Must-Haves For Collectors page for that story). ThunderCats enjoyed a measure of popularity, though, and the cat-people concept is something that could really work for modern toys. Those outfits would need to be updated and improved, but I can't deny the potential. ThunderCats and SilverHawks were both produced by Rankin/Bass and owned by Lorimar-Telepictures, and Warner Bros. acquired the rights to their library in 1989. There has been fan interest in new toys, but no company seems to have come close to working out a licensing agreement with Warner Bros. A ThunderCats movie was apparently on the table at one point, but it got scrapped. For now, it doesn't look like we'll be seeing Lion-O or Snarf any time soon. One more thing they had in common with SilverHawks? There are ThunderCats outtakes, too.

  8. TRONTRON: With TRON: Legacy coming to theaters in December, this is probably the most likely candidate on the list after Battle Beasts for a new toy line, at least in the near future. The original figures were kind of lousy, but I loved them, anyway. The Light Cycles were awesome, though, and I would frequently loan them out to figures from other lines. Completely translucent plastic obviously wouldn't be the way to go today, but I'm hoping to see someone get the license and do something incredible with characters from the sequel, and hopefully with a few from the original, as well. New vehicles would be a real treat, especially in-scale Recognizers.

  9. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future: Mattel really swung for the fences with their Captain Power toys, an ambitious approach to the crowded action figure market of the '80s. In addition to using your own imagination, the live-action television show provided an interactive experience, allowing you to "shoot" at enemies on the screen. You could also find yourself getting shot, which resulted in Captain Power being ejected from the XT-7. I loved these, I had all the VHS tapes, and I tuned in for the show every weekend. I managed to have Jonathan Power, Lt. Tank Ellis, Major Hawk Masterson, a Soaron Sky Sentry, and a Blastarr Ground Guardian in my collection. The Powerjet XT-7 was my only vehicle, but that was enough. Considering how much smaller the demand for action figures is these days, largely due to competition from things like video games, an updated Captain Power seems like a no-brainer. How difficult could it really be to develop an XT-7 that works with the Wii, for example? That would take the "interactive" aspect of the concept to new levels, since the television show and videos only allowed you to score points. You didn't get to help decide the fate of your heroes. Tie Captain Power in with the Wii, and suddenly kids who play the game can continue their adventures away from the console with the action figures. Resurrecting the characters on television is most likely out of the question, thanks to the Children's Television Act of 1990. Something like Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future would be a sure bet to get classified as a, "program-length commercial," as the original was already controversial in the '80s.

  10. Matt Trakker joins G.I. JOE.M.A.S.K.: I'm sure this is the predictable choice for any list like this, but that's because Kenner's M.A.S.K. toys were so much fun. The intent was obvious, trying to capture the attention of kids who were into G.I. JOE and Transformers, both of which were Hasbro brands. Kenner already had STAR WARS, but that line was coming to an end in 1985, the same year the Mobile Armored Strike Kommand was introduced. M.A.S.K. figures were smaller than STAR WARS or G.I. JOE, maybe half the size, which likely kept costs down on the real selling point of the line, the vehicles. You had a car that turned into a jet, a motorcycle that turned into a helicopter, a Jeep that launched a hidden boat, and a helicopter that turned into a jet. Never really got the point of that last one, but whatever. The thing to remember is that M.A.S.K. was awesome, and it's easily the best action figure line of the '80s that hasn't been revisited properly.

    I say, "properly," because Hasbro took ownership of M.A.S.K. with their 1991 acquisition of Tonka, which had bought Kenner in 1987. Included in the eleventh wave of the 25th Anniversary/Modern Era G.I. JOE line was a Specialist Trakker figure, as seen above. This "new" character's real name? Matt Trakker. Check out Trakker's filecard over at YoJoe.com, and you'll see how Hasbro managed to fit the M.A.S.K. and V.E.N.O.M. teams into the G.I. JOE universe. Many fans interpreted this as a tease of possible things to come, but Hasbro reps have insisted they have no plans of launching a new M.A.S.K. line. There's always hope that those plans could change, though.

I have to give an honorable mention to M.U.S.C.L.E., but sorry, fans of Centurions, Sectaurs, and Visionaries. I know they will all have their supporters, but they never made the cut for me. I would have put Super Naturals or Manglors on the list before any of those.

Looking back, maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Thinking and writing about all of this stuff is probably going to cost me a fortune.