May 20, 2019

The 5 Best Toylines of the 1980s

Toys and comics have always seemed to go hand-in-hand, and neither of them have been as good as they were in the 1980s. The removal of broadcasting restrictions resulted in an explosion of new action-based animated series, with matching comic books and toylines, enrapturing an entire generation of kids. Today, we will determine the best of the best.

The 5 Best Toylines of the 1980s
Ben Smith

Like I said above, restrictions on violence in animation were removed in the early ‘80s, leading to beloved cartoon series based on toys like G.I. Joe and Transformers. This level of imagination and adventure is something no generation of kids had experienced before, and in my opinion is what created the geek culture we see today. The Flintstones or Jetsons never would have inspired the level of dedication and imagination that cartoons of the 80s did, and each major cartoon had an entire army of toys to accompany it, reinforcing that dedication. That’s not the kind of devotion that tends to go away over time.

One thing we never would have known at the time was all the comic book writers helping to give life to these franchises, by writing the comics or the cartoons, or even helping to mold and shape the characters themselves. Bob Budiansky and Jim Shooter were largely instrumental in creating the story of the Transformers, and naming the characters. Larry Hama wrote detailed file cards on every G.I. Joe character, along with almost every comic of the initial 155 issue run.

There’s never been a better decade for toy franchises, which is evident because most of them still exist today. (The ‘90s might be the only realistic argument against.)  Never has there been so many popular franchises based on movies or cartoons, combined with corresponding massive toylines.

Taken from here


To mitigate my own personal bias, I asked the extended Comics Cube family to vote on their favorite ‘80s toys.  They’ll be providing some individual testimonials as well.  Here’s what we came up with.

Other toylines receiving votes: Thundercats, Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, Lite Brite, Jem, Dino-Riders, COPS, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, LJN WWF, Lego, Super Powers, MUSCLES, Sky Commanders, Micro Machines, Go Bots, Matchbox Cars, Hot Wheels, Captain Power, Voltron, and Visionaries.

Honorable Mentions:

LIZZY: Outside of Cabbage Patch Kids, there’s no other toy that defined the 80’s for me than Care Bears. The two Care Bear movies playing on VHS was a constant background in many 80’s households. Best of all there were Care Bears for every personality. Grumpy Bear captured my heart as the outsider with a heart of gold. These little suckers graced everything from cards to erasers to fruit snacks to stuffed animals. Personally, my prized Care Bear possessions were my stuffed Grumpy Bear and my Care Bear shoelaces!

MATT: Imagine if you would the epitome of marketing. Let’s create a toyline and then back fill it with a Saturday morning style cartoon. Forget about actually getting syndication first. Then get Optimus Prime to voice the hero and Megatron to voice the villain. The toys are dinosaurs so accurate that the Smithsonian sells them for a decade, sans the armor that sells the fake cartoon. That’s basically Dino-Riders. If I hadn’t watched the tape a million times as a kid and still have one of the figures, I would think the toyline was the fever dream of a dinosaur obsessed child, ie me. The toys combined the coolest animals ever, dinosaurs, with a galactic fight between good and evil. What more does any 5-year-old want?

LaMAR: DC Super Powers figures really captured my imagination as a child, and honestly still do. They were small enough to fit in my pockets even then, and the build quality was good enough to take what I put them through. Newer figures have those hard plastic capes, but the DCSPs cloth capes were perfect for simulating flight in front of an industrial-grade fan.

Sure, the molds were used over and over again for some figures, but even that frugality gave them the same charm as the comics they came from considering it was no different than comic artists that used similar models for their panels.  I didn't care that The Riddler was a Green Lantern figure with a different paint job, especially when you can imagine them as being twins who could pose as some another with nobody suspecting otherwise (see that kind of ingenuity comes from not having the toys do all the work...and having a lot of time on my hands growing up in a version of Mayberry where you can actually see the black people).

Newer figures have more articulation, but honestly too many joints = figures looking like figures and it took the fun out of it for me unless it was a robot.

And listen, if you never threw a Superman figure in a church lady's hat during benediction, you haven't done much living and you should rectify this. IMEEJEETLY.

5. STAR WARS

Star Wars changed the toy industry forever. Produced by Kenner starting in 1978 (after famously selling an Early Bird Certificate Package for Christmas in ‘77) it was the first movie to successfully market a toyline, lasting in its initial run until 1985.

One of the greatest parts of the Star Wars toyline was how comprehensive it was. Nearly every character and vehicle that appeared on-screen in one of the movies, if even only for a second, got its own toy. It established a smaller figure size than was common at the time, just over three inches tall, enabling for a more cost-effective selection of vehicles and playsets. The amount of playsets and vehicles that were created back then would never exist today, with the rising costs of production.

Early favorites included, of course, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Kenner found a clever way to recreate the light saber action, with a telescoping blade that expanded from the arms of the figure. However, the clear highlight of the toys was the Millennium Falcon, arguably the must-have vehicle of any 1980s toy franchise.

Star Wars dominated the toy landscape for 8 years, creating the multimedia template for every franchise that followed. Its initial strength eventually became its weakness, as the lack of new movies decreased interest in the toys and sales subsequently dropped. Obviously, Star Wars toys would return in various incarnations until the present day, and will probably exist for as long as humans do.

4. M.A.S.K.

M.A.S.K. was produced by Kenner starting in 1985. The hook of the toys was a mask-wearing action figure paired with a transforming vehicle. I’ve always considered it Kenner’s direct response to the success of G.I. Joe and the Transformers.

M.A.S.K. was easily the least successful franchise on our list, mostly due to its extremely subpar cartoon and the much smaller size of the figures compared to other toys at the time.

Early toy standouts included Matt Trakker’s flying Chevrolet Camaro, the Thunderhawk, and Miles Mayhem’s Switchblade, a helicopter that transformed into a jet.

JEFF: M.A.S.K. was like an awesome cross between Transformers and G.I. Joe. Mobile Armored Strike Kommand vs V.E.N.O.M., the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem. Normal-looking vehicles with hidden weapons ready to spring out for attack mode. The characters’ masks each had unique abilities or weapons and the vehicles had spring loaded weapons that worked. The only drawback for me with them was Kenner used figures smaller than the 3 3/4 inch figures like the Joes or Star Wars, so you couldn't have fun mixing them with other lines.

3. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE

Developed by Mattel for release in 1982, the Masters of the Universe line was one of the highest-selling toy franchises of the decade. Mattel was looking to exploit a different aspect of the market untouched by Star Wars, and landed upon barbarian characters with a science fiction twist.

Much like Star Wars, the line released hundreds of figures, vehicles, and playsets. Unlike Star Wars, the figures were 5.5” in height, and each came packaged with a mini-comic book. The action figures notoriously used the same body mold for each character, except with a different head, paint job, armor, and weapons.

Early highlights included He-Man and Skeletor, the respective leaders of the good and evil factions of Eternia. Each came with their own half of the power sword, which when combined gave that character access to the best playset in the entire line, Castle Grayskull, arguably the most beloved playset of the entire 1980s. Battlecat was another must-have “vehicle” of the line (and was a repainted tiger Mattel had in abundance from a previous jungle-themed toyline).

The franchise expanded in 1985 with She-Ra, a spin-off marketed toward young girls. Subsequent releases saw increasingly gimmick-driven figures like "Laser Power He-Man" in an effort to maintain relevance.

2. G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO

G.I. Joe was a toy created by Hasbro in 1964, even creating the term “action figure” so that boys wouldn’t have to believe they were playing with a doll. The original Joes were 12” in height, and had no specific characterization or identity — customization was key. This version of the toy existed in various forms until 1977.

Following the success of Star Wars, Hasbro relaunched the franchise in 1982, shrinking the figures down to 3 3/4” to match the Star Wars toys. With an assist from Marvel Comics (shoutout to Larry Hama) the Joes became a whole army of heroic characters with individual code names. Additionally, this time the Joes had an enemy in the form of a terrorist organization named Cobra.

Over the next 12 years, Hasbro released over 500 action figures and over 250 vehicles and playsets. Early highlights included the ninja commando Snake Eyes and his Cobra counterpart Storm Shadow. (It’s funny that the only reason Snake Eyes is in all-black gear, was to keep production costs down on that first wave of action figures. Happy accidents.) Cobra Commander and Destro were other early standouts. In my peer group as a kid, it was an absolute must to own Snake Eyes, even if G.I. Joe wasn’t your favorite cartoon.

Much like Star Wars, the Joe franchise had an impressive array of vehicles and playsets, like the Cobra Hiss tank and Joe Skystriker jet. However, the most impressive vehicle that has ever existed in any toyline has always been the USS Flagg, a massive in-scale aircraft carrier that measured 7 feet in length. We never have and never will see another toy like it again.

JD: I think the best qualities of the 80’s line of G.I. Joe was its variety and its pose-ability. There were hundreds of different characters and vehicles to choose from. From ninjas to pro-wrestlers, trouble-bubbles to air-craft carriers. There was something there for every kind of kid. The pose-ability of the line outdid everything else of the time. My best friend and I would cover the room in massive battlefields together, each one completely different. And as a bonus, if you pushed your Joe to the breaking point, you could take out the small screw in the Joe’s back and make repairs or replace parts or create some horrible hybrid like you were Sid from Toy Story.

1. TRANSFORMERS

MICHAEL: When it came to action figures in the '80s, your clumsy little sausage fingers were positively spoiled for choice. But at the end of the day, there was only one true 3-course turducken of toys. You want some hot wheels, like your Matchbox cars? We got that. You want hundreds of badass warriors with wild designs evocative of their unique, eclectic personalities? We got that too. You want the same galaxy brain, piercing the veil of reality sense of accomplishment you get from solving a Rubik's Cube? Well, uh, we can't do that exactly, but we might stump you for a couple of seconds for the first few times or so.

Oh, did I mention you can watch adventures of all of this ouroboros-esque revelry every Saturday morning?

I'm talking about a puzzle in a robot in a car in a cartoon. I'm talking about Transformers. And that was the selling point for children everywhere, right there. Not just a car, not just a figurine, so much more than a toy. They were both a kid's and a marketer's wet dream, and no one had to get arrested.

BEN: Hasbro partnered with a Japanese toy company named Takara to bring two of their toylines to the United States. Diaclone and Microman featured robots that changed into vehicles, weapons, or other household items. With an assist from Marvel Comics, these toys were rebranded into Autobots and Decepticons, an alien race of robots locked in a civil war. The initial run of the Transformers lasted from 1984 until 1993, and is referred to as Generation One.

Early highlights included Optimus Prime, the Autobot leader that transformed into a semi-truck, and Soundwave, a cassette tape player that came with an assortment of tapes that transformed into birds or smaller robots.

Later releases got even more experimental with the creation of combiner teams like the Aerialbots, a set of jets that each transformed into a robot, but could also combine into one larger robot named Superion.

The massively successful franchise took a bad turn in 1986 with the release of the Transformers animated movie, which literally killed off the beloved first wave of characters, including Optimus Prime. Those fictional deaths probably led to the actual death of the toyline. The early waves of the toys were based on actual real cars and weapons, while post movie toys were based on futuristic vehicles that didn’t exist in the real world.

Subsequent attempts to revive interest, like the Headmasters or Targetmasters (humans that transformed into the head or weapon of their robot partner) weren’t enough to restore the franchise to its former glory.

However, much like all the other toys on this list, the Transformers would return in other forms and designs until the present day. Proving conclusively the power of design and imagination many of these ‘80s toys had created. Modern toys may be more complex or aesthetically impressive, but those original ‘80s toys still have appeal in their simplicity.

In closing, the must-have vehicle of the ‘80s was the Millenium Falcon, the must-have playset was Castle Grayskull, and the action figure every kid needed was Snake Eyes. Or was it Optimus Prime? Why not both? It wasn't the ‘80s without both.

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