We are going in a completely different direction for our latest post, instead of movies, music or TV, we are writing about toys. Toys are still considered pop culture right? There are toys we remember that meant something to us as kids and some that were just plain fun. Our toys may not be too exciting for today’s technology-advanced youth but they were our toys. There was simplicity about our toys and they allowed us to open our minds to the world of own imagination: creating worlds, new stories, or even using our minds to think critically. So let’s look back at some of the toys we loved in our youth and may, from time to time, still dig out of the attic to play with – wink wink.
So I recently watched the excellent 2017 Netflix series The Toys That Made Us. There are only a few episodes but they’re well done. Each episode details a different toy – Star Wars action figures, Barbie, GI Joe and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It reminded me of the toys of my youth and I hope they expand the series into some lesser known toys. This and a recent visit to a comic book store, Comicazi (http://comicazi.com/site/) really made me want to write about toys. Comicazi had every toy on our lists and boy did I think about shelling out some cash to relive my youth. Luckily I held myself in check only purchasing one pack each of Superman The Movie and Superman II cards, still which I have not opened. Looking back, I’m not even sure that $10 was well spent. One toy I wanted to mention that I didn’t include on my list was my 12-inch Bionic Man figure, which also was a personal favorite but since my neighbor ripped off its arm I didn’t have it for long.
Masters of the Universe Action Figures and Accessories
By the time Masters of the Universe action figures came out, I was starting to move out of the demographic to really be playing with action figures. They started to be released in 1981 and I really didn’t find them until about 1983, once the Star Wars universe was winding down. I was spending most of my time playing sports and collecting sports cards. But these toys were different, they were bigger and cooler than anything previously. The villains were awesome looking and had great names such as main baddy Skeletor, Ram Man, Mer-Man, and Beast Man. Trap Jaw was one of my favorites, in place of his arm he had some removable weapons and he also had a mouth like a bear trap. Another interesting one was Stinkor – Evil Master of Odors, it was a skunk-like creature (in the Mer-Man mold) that actually smelled bad thanks to patchouli being rubbed into the mold. According to this fun article Stinkor still smells 30 years later. https://www.fastcodesign.com/1672873/why-this-vintage-he-man-action-figure-still-smells-bad-30-years-later.
The creators intended this to be a bad-ass universe. The backstory was told in mini-comics that came with the figures. Skeletor was trying to rule Eternia, get the power sword and gain access to Castle Grayskull, while He-Man as the hero needed to stop him and his Evil Horde. The swords that came with He-Man and Skeletor actually fit together to make one power sword. I had Skeletor’s headquarters Snake Mountain, which had an echo microphone that was a snake that served as the microphone or the top of the castle. It was a very well done playset. Then to make the toy more profitable they decided to do an animated show for television in 1983. It was ok as a show but it dumbed down the characters, had a moral in each episode, and introduced stupid new characters like the annoying Orko. Then to add insult to injury they made a horrific film starring Dolph Lungren. That pretty much killed the franchise. It’s too bad, these figures were awesome and if someone could figure out how to do a real serious, dark film it could be fantastic. They have tried to revive these series a couple times either in cartoons or in new versions of the figures but it hasn’t caught fire again yet.
Bonus: I love this ad, not sure if they were trying to get the Ricky Schroeder Silver Spoons look with this kid or if they were trying to match the He-Man do but it’s awesome.
MG: I didn’t play with these, but I did find a He-Man figure buried in the sand when I was digging up my home’s septic tank for the first time. Go figure. Having the Stinkor figure actually smell was a cool idea. I don’t know about a reboot. Can’t we just let things exist in our memories?
DJ: I only want reboots for things done poorly the first time and this fits into that category.
2-XL was one of my favorite toys from my childhood and the one with my fondest memories. I am guessing I received this as a Christmas present sometime around 1978 or 1979. 2-XL was a human cyborg all-knowing protocol droid and my best friend. Okay so maybe he wasn’t a droid or my best friend, he was more like a plastic electronic toy with some early very basic intelligence. But damn, he was talking to me and giving me knowledge in the 1970’s! Kids of today would hate this toy but in 1978-1981 it was ahead of its time and it won a shitload of awards too, so suck it Teddy Ruxpin. It worked on 8-track tape technology, meaning you bought different tapes to plug into 2-XL and there were four buttons to press to answer questions or make choices. There were themed tapes such as U.S. Presidents (nerd alert – my favorite), Sports, General Knowledge, Monsters, Myths, and Legends, etc… On each tape, 2-XL taught you things through mesmerizing trivia, focused games, and laugh out loud jokes – ok, his jokes were corny but his demonic eyes lit up when he laughed at his own jokes. There was even a game called Tri-Lex which along with the tape consisted of a game board you attached to him and you played against him. 2-XL had great banter and getting a question wrong would often get a witty response, sometimes he was nice other times somewhat insulting. 2-XL also played regular music 8-track tapes. So the teens of the time could blast some Bob Segar or even Barry Manilow if that was there preference. The first music I ever received outside of kids music was an 8-track of Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog which made 2-XL even more useful. In 1992 2-XL was revived but with cassette tapes but like the cassette tape it didn’t last, plus it looked stupid.
Bonus: I love the commercial below, it shows that it’s fun for all, and even quotes Playboy magazine stating, “Adults can’t resist him”. I don’t even know what that means and why was Playboy reviewing kids toys?
MG: I have fond memories of my sister’s 8-track stereo system. I remember playing Saturday Night Fever on it. This is a pretty cool toy, although I never ran across it at someone’s house that I recall. There was definitely some good toy creativity in the late 70’s. You can still find a large quantity of 2-XL at Wal-Mart, just in the clothing department.
So here is another toy I got as a Christmas present sometime in the late seventies. Both my bother and I got one so we could battle each other. These things were awesome in their 24-inch glory. I had zero knowledge of Japanese toy or anime culture at that point. The only reason I wanted one was the great commercials showcasing the awesome power of the Shogun Warrior. These were giant robots fighting for good and these big ones were known as Jumbo Machinders. The jumbo ones were the most recognized in the U.S. Each one shot some incredibly dangerous body part or weapon. Of course only dangerous if you were a stupid kid or sadistic. This is one of those toys that made it so every toy had round edges and shot limp-ass weapons. I say this, but I was playing lawn darts at 5 years old. The first series release had The Great Mazinga, Dragun, and Raideen. I had Dragun and my brother had The Great Mazina. Dragun shot some form of Chinese star device out of his hand. Others had rocket launchers or some form of missile. Some said just said screw it and shot their whole hand. The great thing about these toys is you could use your smaller action figures from Star Wars or GI Joe and the giant robots could act as super-villains. Supposedly there were back stories and cartoons in Japan but Mattel didn’t give a crap, they just pushed the toys. I do wonder if American kids had seen the cartoons and knew all the drama behind the characters if they would have been a bigger hit. Maybe instead of Pokémon Go, I would be looking for Gaiking or Combrattra. Later in the series, they came out with a Godzilla and Rodan. Godzilla was awesome, he wasn’t a robot just a 24 inch Godzilla, you could work his tongue and you could shoot his hand. Not sure how that can be explained but it was freaking amazing. Like all other good toys, these vanished and I thought it had been a dream. Later on, others tried to revive them but it just didn’t catch on.
Bonus: They also had 5 1/2 inch die cast Shogun Warriors which had some transformational abilities and maybe were a precursor to the Transformers. I need a Michael Bay Shogun Warrior movie stat.
MG: I’m beginning to think I lived a deprived childhood devoid of cool toys. In my parent’s defense, if it wasn’t Star Wars it was a tough to get my interest. I vaguely recall a friend or two having these. The days of toys shooting projectiles was great. It was the early 80’s when suddenly that was deemed dangerous – thus, one of the most sought after collectible toys is the prototype Boba Fett action figure that shoots a rocket out of it’s back. It never made it to production, but there are a couple that exist.
I did play with a lot of toys as a kid, but once it hit 1980, when Empire Strikes Back came out, it was all Star Wars with a few Legos. Early on, though, my toys were more varied – matchbox cars, a cowboys and Indians playset, Lincoln Logs, and I even remember spending a lot of time playing with a kitchen-playset-thing that I think went along with my sister’s Barbies. I loved Legos, especially the “Space” line, which was the closest thing a kid could get to Star Wars sets at the time. If I had had anything close to the Star Wars sets Lego makes now I would have been in heaven. Here are some of my memorable classic toys.
Flying Aces: Advance Island Base
I enjoyed playing with army guys and even had some plastic tanks and such, but this was the war-themed toy I played with the most. When I had a friend over we would set this up in our kitchen at the top of the stairs that went down into the family room. That way we could launch the planes and they would fly a pretty good distance. The whole set was a vinyl case that you could fold up and snap shut like a briefcase, which was convenient for taking over a friends house. When unfolded there was a rubber-band mechanism so you could set the planes to launch, then you pushed a little button and they would “take off”.
It was a very simple concept, but I had a lot of fun with it. Like any flyer-type planes if they banged into the walls or had a rough landing you had to adjust the wings so they would fly straight. There was also an aircraft carrier set, which was really cool, but I never actually had it. There was a girl with red curly hair who lived in my neighborhood, my first crush when I was like 7, who remembered coming over my house and playing with this set with me (she wrote about this in my senior yearbook). In the years between age 7 and senior year, unlike these planes, I was never able to get a relationship with her off the ground (ha!).
DJ: I have no clue what this is but I love the tag line, “They fly as good as they look!”. Outside of my green army men, never had a whole lot of interest in war toys.
My parents made the wise choice of bringing me, at age 5, to see Jaws in the theater. It wasn’t really “bringing me” as much as they wanted to see the big blockbuster and probably couldn’t find a babysitter. The movie scared the shit out of me and I ended up dumping my entire soda on the theater floor – or maybe I pissed my pants – or both. I’ve watched Jaws recently, and there is NO WAY I would ever have shown that movie to my own kids when they were five – or even 10. Anyway, just to make sure I didn’t forget the terror of the film, my parents bought the family the “Jaws Game” for Christmas 1976. It was another simple concept using rubber bands: the jaw was hinged with rubber bands so it would stay open when filled with the stuff you’d find in a shark’s belly (fishbone, license plate, an old tire, femur bone, pistol, human skull). Then players would take turns using the fishing pole to remove an item. Eventually, as more items were removed, the weight would lessen until finally someone took something out and the jaws would snap shut. I used to be so anxious that the piece I took out would cause it to close. However, the worst part was when my older brother and sisters would chase me around the house snapping the jaws open and shut saying “Jaws is going to get you!” with me screaming. Ain’t family great?
DJ: So this is a similiar to the Operation type games, Don’t Tip the Waiter, Don’t Break the Ice, etc… games where moves you make cause a catastrophe. I never had this game either. I find it weird that a movie like Jaws markets a toy to 6 year olds. I wonder how well this sold?
Kenner Star Wars 3 3/4″ Action Figures
Last year one of my aunts passed away, and she had the honor of buying me my first ever Kenner Star Wars action figures – C-3P0 and R2-D2. While I displayed them proudly on my bureau and threw away their now valuable packaging, it took a few years – until after Empire came out – for the action figure collecting bug to take hold. I went on to collect all the original line of figures and many of the ships and playsets that went with them. One of the cool things about the very first wave of SW figures, which I mostly missed out on, was the telescoping lightsaber figures. Luke, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan all had little lightsabers that you could slide out of their arm.
The great thing about this concept is that since the sabers were attached, there was no chance of losing them, the fact they slid out of the arm replicated how a lightsaber ignited, and best of all you could have a good duel between 2 figures. Once the figure line got to Empire, the sabers were separate accessories, and they would fall out of the figures’ hand if you barely tapped them. I don’t know why Kenner made the change, but I guess they thought the figures looked more realistic without the hidden arm saber.
As the action figure line went along the figures became more detailed with more movie-accurate accessories. The last series of figures, called Power Of The Force, released in 1985, had the most creative and detailed figures of the line. One of my favorites, and arguably the strangest figure Kenner made, was Amanaman.
This character was barely seen in Jabba’s Palace, and when it was released I can’t say I’d ever seen it, since at the time I couldn’t go to the tape/DVD to look for it – there was just the memory of the seeing Return of the Jedi a few years ago in the theater. But Amanaman was such an unusual, but detailed figure and I loved the macabre staff that contained 3 shrunken human heads (according to the back of the card he was a “headhunter”). Unfortunately, this line of figures did not sell well – I guess the masses had moved on from Star Wars after 2 years, though not me – and Kenner canceled plans to release more figures from the films. But the good news for me is that I scooped up these figures and even kept some unopened in their packaging, and they are now some of the most valuable figures in the line. Kenner got bought out by Hasbro, and went on to release hundreds and hundreds of new iterations of SW figures starting in 1995 and continuing today – but nothing matches the fun and nostalgia of the original figures.
DJ: Now we are talking, I had a few of these. Probably my favorite was the Jabba the Hutt playset that included Jabba and Salacious Crumb. I wish I had done what you had but mine have all but vanished except for one random out-of-the-package Nien Nunb. I did collect a bunch of the first of the 1995 wave. The one thing I never understood is why a Yak Face or an Amanaman figure was made by Kenner, but they never made a Tarkin.
MG: It’s a good point about the original figure line. Other than the main characters, Kenner shied away from making human-looking figures from the first film, like Tarkin, Uncle Owen, or even Dr. Evazan. They must have mistakenly thought they would be considered “boring” by kids. Rumors were that they were going to make some of these characters in the next wave of POTF figures in 1985, but they pulled the plug on the line due to poor sales – hard as that is to believe now.