There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the late 1970’s/early 1980’s was the golden age of children’s plastic playthings. The introduction of Kenner’s 3.5 inch Star Wars action figures in 1978 revolutionized the toy industry overnight, and Hasbro’s heavily-articulated line of 3.5 inch G.I. Joe soldiers took the concept even further in the early 80’s. In an era not yet dominated by video game or computer technology, plastic action figures, accessories, and playsets seemed like the pinnacle of human achievement to an imaginiative nine-year-old. Perhaps I’m biased, but as a child growing up during this amazing time, I feel our monsters, starpilots, commandos, robots, and superheroes were simply the best toys ever made. Here’s a look at ten of my personal childhood favorites. I hope you enjoy this and feel free to list some of your faves in the comments!
10.) Zartan action figure with Swamp Skier, (Hasbro G.I. Joe line-1984)
Ahhh, the evil Cobra master of disguise. This action figure was highly sought after in 1984 as part of G.I. Joe’s third (and some would say, best) wave of military-themed toys. Other figures in this now-legendary wave included The Baroness, Mutt & Junkyard (the first toy G.I. Joe dog!), Firefly, and of course, the awesome ninja Storm-Shadow. Zartan, however was the Holy Grail of this series, mostly due to two unique characterisitcs: 1) He could turn color when exposed to sunlight, and 2) He came with a small vehicle, the uber-cool Swamp Skier!
The first feature was probably the coolest and held the most appeal for G. I. Joe-crazed youngsters. However, this gimmick got old pretty quick and was rather disappointing as the dramatic “color changing skin” turned out to be just one sickly shade of purple. I don’t know how useful it would be for someone’s skin to turn purple in the middle of a battlefield, but hey, it was pretty cool at the time. Zartan (an oh-so-clever re-working of ‘Tarzan’ with the T and Z swapped), also came equipped with his super-secret disguise kit, which was basically a snap-open backpack with a creepy little rubber mask that you could affix over Zartan’s face. It sort of looked like Henry The VIII. Again, I don’t know how this really qualified as a “disguise”. Any G.I. Joe member worth a lick would’ve just said, “Hey look, it’s Zartan wearing a Henry VIII mask!”, then promptly shot him.
This figure was so rare and so desirable that I vividly recall the only store with Zartan in stock was a place called Service Merchandise. The gimmick of this particular store was that everything was behind display cases, and there were no cash registers. You had to punch in the item number into the computer, then go over to another area of the mall where the items you ordered would be waiting for you to check out. Anyone remember that store? Very odd.
9.) M.U.S.C.L.E. figures (Mattel, 1986)
M.U.S.C.L.E. stood for “Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere!”, and boy they certainly were lurking around my house as a kid. I literally had hundreds of these little pink-colored plastic monstrosities, which I kept in three of those awesome orange plastic Jack O’ Lantern MacDonald’s Happy Meal containers. The M.U.S.C.L.E. line, like many of the most popular toy lines of the 1980′s, was imported over from Japan where it was known as Kinnukuman (Muscle Man). It was a popular comic book and animated series that followed the adventures of a bizarre intergalactic wrestling federation.
Of course, beyond the wrestling theme, very little of the Japanese concept made it here to the states. In fact, beyond the two “main characters” (in which there are several different versions of each), Muscle-Man and his arch-nemesis Terri-Bull, none of the characters were even named! Children were left to imagine names andstorylines for themselves, which was actually pretty cool and was a huge part of the appeal of collecting M.U.S.C.L.E. figures.
M.U.S.C.L.E. figures came in packs of 4, 10, and 28. The 10-packs were my favorite because they came in a cool plastic trash can container, and for those of you who remember collecting these things, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say the smell of the plastic when you popped the lid produced an awesome “kiddie-high”. You couldn’t tell what 10 figures you were getting in these 10 packs, but I loved the surprise factor and the heated trading sessions that would take place the next day at the schoolyard to get rid of my doubles.
M.U.S.C.L.E. toys also hold a sort of bittersweet place in my heart because they were one of the last toy lines I collected before adolescence kicked in and the comfort of plastic playthings was replaced forever by hormones and junior high dances.
8.) The Adventure People Daredevil Sport Van (Fisher-Price Adventure People line, 1978 )
Wow, now this is going wayyy back. If you are reading this and actually remember the Fisher-Price Adventure People line, you have my utmost respect and admiration. The Adventure people line was designed to transition children from their Fisher-Price “Little People” playsets to more grown up “big boy” toys. Early on the toys featured Earth-bound, adventure themes with toy jeeps, rescue boats, motorcycles, parachutes, etc., and later they expanded to some very strange space-themed toys as the Star Wars craze swept the nation.
The Adventure People Daredevil Sport Van was pure fried awesome dipped in gold! I absolutely loved this thing, and you would not believe the play value I got out of it. Let me tell you, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. This sucker was durable. I received this on Christmas Day 1978 and it was in service to my action figures well into the 80′s. Heck, even Duke, Flint, Snake-Eyes and the boys used this van on their weekend camping trips while on leave. Of course, their camping trips would always end up with Cobra showing up and shooting the hell out of everything, but that’s another story.
The Adventure Van came with a cool motorcycle, a kayak, and for some reason, a parachute that you could lash to the top with what appeared to be an industrial strength woman’s hair tie. it also had a a sweet 70′s stoner mural on the side. Classic.
7.) G.I. Joe Skystriker (Hasbro G.I. Joe line, 1983)
Few things in 1983 compared to the majesty of G.I. Joe’s first toy fighter-jet, the Sky Striker. Oh Lord, was this thing glorious. Modeled after the Air Force’s very own F-15, the Sky Striker was gleaming white plastic perfection, with swing-wing action, a cockpit ejection seat (with parachute), the “Ace” pilot figure, retracting landing wheels, and enough missiles and bombs to annihilate a third-world nation. I wanted one of these so bad in the Spring of 1983 that I quite literally got on my hands and knees every weekend and begged my parents to take me to that holiest of Holy ground, Toys R Us, to procure my beloved Sky Striker. Sadly, I had to wait until my birthday to get a hold of one of the darned things, but it was so worth the wait. Awesome.
6.) Optimus Prime (Hasbro Transformers line, 1984)
When Transformers mania hit during the Christmas shopping season of 1984, it hit hard. It certainly whacked me upside the head, as I was desperate to see the mighty leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, under the tree on Christmas morning. Thankfully, the toy Gods deemed me worthy and Prime arrived in all of his die-cast metal and plastic glory.
Sadly, my affinity for Transformers toys began and ended with Optimus Prime. While I enjoyed playing with him and his cool trailer that opened up into a mini-base, I just felt the Transformers toys were a bit flimsy and I didn’t want to invest any more into adding Autobots and Decepticons to compliment Optimus. I was a G.I. Joe kid through and through. Still one of the coolest toys ever though!