Thursday, February 1, 2018



Stories of Childhood Toy Triumph and Tragedy



In another write up on TALES FROM THE TOY CHEST, I wrote about "My Top 15 Greatest Toys Ever." But in this article I wanted to expand more on just those "single" toys that I loved. This time I'm going to go a step further and rank my favorite toy lines as a whole. The toy lines that continually kept me asking my mom to go back to the toy store so I could get another figure or accessory to keep the adventures going with that particular group of characters. Basically, the whole enchilada when it comes to fun! 

I was born in 1973, but the years I had the most fun in (that I can remember clearly) are from 1978 to 1989. Many of those toys that I got into during that time are kind of what defined me as the person I am today (for better or worse). So, I always had a serious stake in toys. But sadly, after those prime years, toys were never really the same for me and I basically lost interest in collecting and playing with them. 

Now, while I do respect the quality and technology of the toys today, all of them seem to lack a certain amount of charm than the ones I grew up with. Today, you get perfect art on the packages and perfect articulation on the figures. And with all the accessories and electronics they come with, all the imagination falls by the wayside. Back in my day we were lucky if the head on the figure moved. But did we care? No way, because we still had hours of fun regardless.  

Who knows, maybe some of these toy lines that I have listed here will take you back to your youth. Maybe you'll even agree at their rankings and maybe some you won't. Maybe you'll think I left out some of your favorites and maybe you'll let me know about it. But either way, it was a fun write up to compile and I hope you enjoy it. So, without further delay, I give you my top 10 greatest toy lines ever.

10.) SHOGUN WARRIORS (1978-1980)

The Shogun Warriors, like the Micronauts before them, and the Transformers after them, was a toy line that consisted entirely of Japanese toys and characters repackaged for the US market. Originally manufactured by a toy company named Popy (which was an off-shoot of Bandai), the "Shogun Warriors," as they were renamed by the toy company Mattel, were launched in the US in 1978.

Most children in the US had no idea who these characters were. Mattel simply put them all in the same "universe" and labeled the line "Shogun Warriors." But most of these characters did not actually cross over with one another and each had their own cartoon and comic books in Japan.

The Shogun Warriors line consisted of a few different types of figures. The most popular were the 24" vinyl figures that featured shooting fists and missiles and had wheels on their feet. These figures were like a kid's dream. They were simply massive -- and were full of cool action features. In Japan, they were called "Jumbo Machinders," and there were over a dozen characters produced for the Japanese market. For the US and Mattel's line, their were seven figures: Great Mazinga, Raydeen, Gaiking, Diamos, Dragun, Godzilla and Rodan. Sadly, a few changes were made to some of the figures for the US market as we received "dumbed down" versions of the figures to keep things within budget for Mattel to produce. In essence, these were not direct imports, since Mattel even went so far as to change the molds on some of the figures. It would seem that they licensed the molds and then produced the figures from themselves.

But the 24" figures were not the only ones to be changed. There was also a 5" die-cast line that were made from the original, popular and classic Popy molds. These figures were what Popy was known for in Japan. There, the figures were called "Chogokins" after the fictional metal that Great Mazinga was made of in the cartoons. These figures also featured shooting fists and missiles. The first issue of these figures featured the articulation of the original's, but in the second releases, Mattel took away some features in order to keep costs low by reducing the articulation and sticker detailing.

The smallest figures in the line were 3" and featured the most characters, consisting of 10 different figures. These were small and poseable, but didn't have any of the action features of their larger counter-parts. They were also made of mostly plastic, unlike the heavy die-cast figures in the 5" line. There was also a line of different vehicles -- most of which were the ones that combined to create the different giant robots in their respective cartoons (although they didn't actually have this feature as toys).

One of the most popular vehicles at the time was the "Solar Saucer" which featured a launching 3" Grendizer robot. Grendizer was another hugely popular cartoon character in Japan (and my personal favorite of all).  The European market, however, received the larger version of the "Solar Saucer" with the fully-poseable, die-cast 5" Grendizer (known as Goldrake in Europe) from the original Popy line. Also the 24" Grendizer was only available there and not in the US. Both toys are highly sought after by US Shogun collectors and they carry a hefty price tag in good condition.

Finally, there was the holy grail of the Shogun line: the Shogun Combatra Deluxe Set which is tough to find. Again, like most toys lines of the time, Shogun Warriors only lasted a few years, but it's still beloved by toy collectors worldwide for its obvious nostalgia, amazing designs and awesome action features. If you grew up in the '70s, there's no doubt that you owned at least one of these figures in one form or another.

9.) M.U.S.C.L.E. (1985-1988)

The M.U.S.C.L.E. figures were based on the Japanese toy line called Kinkeshi. Kinkeshi were based on a manga and anime called "Kinnikuman," and some figures were based on anime-only characters. The main hero was Kinnikuman, who, in the US, was called "Muscleman" and was the leader of the "Thug Busters." He was described as the "greatest wrestling champion." The only other named figure in the US line was Buffaloman, who was renamed "Terri-Bull," and was said to be the leader of the "Cosmic Crunchers."

Although the bread and butter for Mattel were the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, they naturally had accessories to offer, too. The Hard Knockin’ Rockin’ Ring Wrestling Arena, which let you and a friend stick your M.U.S.C.L.E. figures into plastic clamps and bash them back and forth like Rock’em, Sock’em Robots. There was also the Battlin’ Belt carrying case, modeled after the WWF’s World Championship belt, which held 10 figures and could be worn around your waist. This being 1986, there was, of course, a Nintendo game (though it’s generally considered to be one of the worst video games ever made). One of the more unusual offers for the M.U.S.C.L.E. line was the Mega-Match board game, where matches were played by twirling the arrow of a cardboard spinner. The one must-have item for any serious fan of M.U.S.C.L.E. was the mail-away poster. By sending in two proofs of purchase, kids could receive a 23 inch by 35 inch full-color poster that showed all 233 M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Not only did it look cool hanging on your wall, it was the only official index of figures available for the toy line.

Later in the series, Mattel tried shaking things up by offering the same figures in different colors other than the standard flesh tone plastic. In all, there were nine additional colors used, including dark blue, neon green, orange, and even pink. 

M.U.S.C.L.E. was an immediate success, with industry magazine "Playthings" naming them one of the 10 Best-Selling toy lines of 1986. However, its heyday was short-lived. According to Martin Arriola, a former lead designer at Mattel, the company never completely owned the M.U.S.C.L.E. property; some percentage of M.U.S.C.L.E. revenues had to be paid to the original Kinkeshi toy company, Bandai. Therefore, even though sales were strong, Mattel always considered M.U.S.C.L.E. a second-tier product, behind lines they did own, like Masters of the Universe. So when the toy industry was completely turned on its head in 1987 by the explosive popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System, most toy companies were left scratching their heads and scrambling to make up for lost revenues. This meant that many weaker toy lines got the axe, including secondary lines that came with licensing baggage like M.U.S.C.L.E. By 1988, the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures were unceremoniously discontinued.


In 1984, DC Comics awarded the master toy license of their characters to Kenner, hot on the heels of Mattel's Masters of the Universe toy line. The initial pitch seemed to be heavily influenced by Kenner's popular Star Wars line with multiple playsets, vehicles and accessories for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Teen Titans, and many others. Darkseid and his minions were the main adversary for the heroes to battle against. Although classic villains such as the Joker, Lex Luthor, Penquin, Brianiac and the Riddler (an Argentinian import figure) were included in the line.

Winning the DC Comics license away from Mego Corporation and Mattel with their emphasis on action and art, Kenner devised hidden mechanisms within the figures that would trigger an action when the figure's legs or arms were squeezed. This emphasis on each figure's "super power" led to the naming of the line -- The Super Powers Collection! Each figure in the first two series were also packaged with a mini-comic featuring that character's adventures. In all, three series of figures and accessories were released, but after three years of production the line collapsed. Regardless, this line was always better than Mattle's Marvel Comics Secret Wars line that went toe-to-toe with it. POW!! Take that Jim Shooter!!!


Masters of the Universe (commonly abbreviated MOTU and sometimes referred to as "He-Man," after the lead hero) is a media franchise created by Mattel. The main premise revolves around the conflict between the heroic He-Man, real name Prince Adam, and the evil Skeletor on the planet Eternia, with a vast line-up of supporting characters in a hybrid setting of medieval sword and sorcery and sci-fi technology. Later spin-offs, especially She-Ra, Princess Of Power, also featured He-Man's sister She-Ra and her struggle against the Evil Horde, along with other planets/settings; however the main premise usually remained the same. Since its initial launch, the franchise became a pop culture phenomenon, spawning action figures, cartoons, movies, comic books, and newspaper strips. This toy line was so popular that they defeated Kenner's Star Wars line on toy shelves and cancelled it.Yeah, He-Man really was the most powerful man in the universe at this time.

Created by Mattel in 1981, the MOTU line was first released as 5 1/2" action figures in 1982 (as opposed to the 3 3/4" size used by Kenner's Star Wars and Hasbro's G.I. Joe). Brief descriptions of the characters would appear on the toy line's unique packaging and box art (with illustrations by Errol McCarthy, William George and others); however, the lore of Masters of the Universe would really first be explored through mini-comics that accompanied the toys through the duration line. He-Man and his arch-enemy Skeletor were the first released in action figure form, along with other core characters of the entire series; Man-At-Arms, Beast Man and Battle Cat.

Later on that year, first wave of action figures in 1982 would also include Teela, Mer-Man, Stratos and Zodac. Also alongside the first wave of figures were the Battle Ram and Wind Raider vehicles and the Castle Grayskull playset. Additional waves of action figures, creatures, vehicles and playsets were released every year until 1987, with the final two oversea releases from the original line coming from Italy in 1988.

6.) ELASTIC (1979-1980)

In 1979, Mego Corporation was enjoying their 25th anniversary. But despite reaching such a milestone, the time for celebrating was not on their radar. A year earlier in 1978, Star Wars toys came along and dominated the entire industry like never before. It was bad enough that Mego passed on the Star Wars license in 1976, because now, along with every other toy company, they were playing catch up.

During the last three years, another toy manufacturer, Kenner, who had the Star Wars license was doing well with another toy called Stretch Armstrong. He was a 12" corn syrup filled latex figure that could stretch into many different positions. By 1979, the toy proved to be so popular that Kenner introduced a variety of new figures into the line including the Stretch Monster and Stretch X-Ray. All the Stretch Armstrong figures remained unchallenged on the toy shelves because no other toy did what they did. Mego recognized this and wanted to do something similar. Already owning the licenses for the Marvel Comics and DC Comics characters since 1972, Mego knew they could challenge Stretch Armstrong's market share with more well known properties possessing a stretching gimmick. I mean, who wouldn't want a stretching Superman or Batman figure even though it had nothing to do with their superpowers?

With Mego obtaining "insider information" on how to make these figures, they went about creating a stretch line of their own. Basically all Mego did was swap the wording of "stretch" to "elastic" on the box, designed a similar type of latex figure, but made it a little bigger and transformed them from generic characters into world famous comic book superheroes. Spider-man, Hulk, Superman, Batman and Plastic Man (which was the first toy ever of the character). And for the youngsters, Mickey Mouse, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Donald Duck were added in early 1980.

Sadly, by the Spring of 1980, the Elastics proved to be more trouble than they were worth for Mego and sales quickly declined. And after losing a lawsuit to Kenner a few months later for gaining that "insider information," the entire Elastics line was cancelled and fell into toy obscurity.

5.) G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO (1982-1994)

G.I. Joe was originally a line of figures produced from 1964-1969 by Hasbro. They were 12" figures that represented all branches of the U.S. armed forces. The development of these figures led to the coining of the term "action figure." From 1970-1976 Hasbro renamed this line to "Adventure Team G.I. Joe" and added a host of comic-like characters and villains. While these lines did well with children of the day, they quickly fell into obscurity as other, more colorful action figures began to hit the toy market.

But it was in 1982, that saw the highly successful relaunch of this toy line. Now renamed to "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" with new figure molds scaled down to 3.75" (to mimic the Star Wars figures) and with new characters, vehicles, playsets, and a complex background story involving an ongoing struggle between the G.I. Joe Team and the evil COBRA Command which seeks to take over the world through terrorism, this toy line quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. It was so big in fact, that in 1985, both "Toy Lamp" and "Hobby World" ranked G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero as the top selling American toy. "YOOO JOE!"


One of the most popular products during the WWF's massive growth in becoming a pop culture phenomenon was their LJN "WWF Wrestling Superstar Figures." While Star Wars and G.I. Joe led the charge for small action figures, LJN's wrestling figures went BIG (standing about 8" tall). Also, most action figures had articulation and came with a growing number of accessories. These wrestling figures are as stiff as a King Kong Bundy punch. And most of them came without accessories save for maybe a hat, belt or cane.

Despite their shortcomings in the articulation department, these figures were actually a lot of fun to play with and could seriously pound on each other. LJN also did an excellent job of capturing the likenesses of the wrestlers and WWF personalities. They might not have the same level of detail as today's wrestling figures, but it's still easy to tell who the wrestlers were with all the charm the '80s characters had to offer.

Each figure was packaged with small posters. They were rolled up and stored at the base of the packaging. Also, the packages had a file card on the back, similar to those found on G.I. Joe figures from the same period. 

Today, LJN WWF figures can command big money on the secondary market, particularly for unopened mint figures. Some of the most valuable figures came at the end of the line's run, which is often the case for figures and toys as the decreased popularity which means smaller print runs. The final series came out in 1989, and were made by Grand Toy in Canada and not LJN. The figures switched to a new black card and were a mix of a few new figures and several repackaged wrestlers from earlier lines. These black cards are much tougher to find than figures from previous series as the series declined in popularity. As a result, they are generally much more expensive.

3.) CAPTAIN ACTION (1967-1968)

In 1964, Stanley Weston (1933-2017) went to Hasbro with the idea of an articulated doll in the form of a soldier with accessories. Hasbro took his concept and came up with G.I. Joe, the first modern action figure for boys and the first to carry the action figure moniker, which was an attempt to remove the term "doll" from a boy's toy. Being well school in the importance of licensing fan favorite properties based on television and comic characters, Weston founded his own company called American Leisure Concepts (ALC). He was so good at licensing big names in pop culture, that he would come to represent an impressive list of clients and properties including DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and King Features Syndicate.

Weston couldn't have predicted a better time to capture the license to the DC and Marvel heroes because beginning in January of 1966, the live-action Adam West Batman series hit television and nearly every kid in America wanted to be a costumed crime-fighter. Weston (who was a big comic fan) took note and brought the idea of a new, articulated, twelve-inch action figure to Ideal executive (and G.I. Joe co-conspirator) Larry Reiner. Weston first proposed Captain Magic, a many-in-one hero, who could adopt the guise of several heroes. The name was eventually changed to Captain Action, and Ideal released the first super hero action figure to retailers in 1966, just in time to cash in on the super hero craze.

The original Ideal base figure for the line was Captain Action that came with a blue and black uniform, lightning sword, belt, ray gun and mini-poster. Separate costume kits of Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Lone Ranger, The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Captain America, Sgt Fury and Steve Canyon  were available. Each costume kit came with accessories to complement each character. The next wave in 1967, added Spider-Man, Buck Rogers, the Green Hornet, and Tonto with collectible flicker rings in each box. The flicker rings were also added to the first wave of Captain Action character costume kits in updated boxes.

In 1967, Captain Action proved popular enough to expand the line, adding a partner called Action Boy, who could change into costumes of Robin, Superboy and Aqualad (for some reason these costumes didn't come with flicker rings). An arch-enemy was introduced called Dr. Evil, who was a blue-skinned alien. And a line of four female figures called the Super Queens which featured Batgirl, Mera, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman (they were individually based on singular characters and didn't change into outfits).

More accessories and playsets came along but unfortunately by 1968, the Captain Action line declined in sales and Ideal discontinued it. Even with DC Comics releasing a comic book that year couldn't bring back interest in the character and the series was cancelled after only five issues.

2.) AWA ALL STAR WRESTLING (1985-1986)

The Remco AWA All Star Wrestling toy line was an action figure line based on the wrestlers of the American Wrestling Association Promotion (known as the AWA). The toys were made of a solid plastic pose, with movable waists, legs, arms, and heads. Most came with accessories, from outfits to championship belts. This was actually the first line of wrestling figures available for sale in the United States, preceding the very popular LJN WWF Wrestling Superstars line which also debuted in 1985 (ranked at number 4 on this list).

This set is unique for releasing figures in 2 or 3 packs as opposed to single figure packs. The only figures available in single figure packs was the final series in the collection, the highly collectible Mat Mania series released in 1986.

By today's postmodern sculpting standards, the AWA figures were ugly, some even uglier than their real life AWA namesakes, and that's probably why I love them so much. And they were basically the same size as the Masters of the Universe figures which the Road Warriors beat the shit out of for fun on a regular basis. Come to think of it, the Road Warriors beat the shit out of all the action figures I had and still remain tag team champions to this day -- Oohhh, What a Rushhhh!!!.

Although collecting wrestling figures are popular, these figures are some of the toughest to obtain due to their scarcity and sky-high value. Getting a complete set is almost impossible and will most likely cost you a fortune. But hey, that's the fun of toy collecting.



If there was ever a toy line that defined the word "charm" when it came to pure awesomeness, it has to be Mego Corporation's "World's Greatest Super-Heroes!" that came to toy shelves in 1972. The popularity of this line of 8" figures created the standard scale for the 1970s and featured several popular superhero and villain figures from both DC and Marvel Comics. 

Earliest figures of Batman (with removable mask), Robin (with removable mask), Aquaman and Superman were released in a solid box. The design was quickly changed to a window style box along with blister cards and "Kresge" cards and Spider-man, Captain America, and Tarzan figures would quickly follow. The next year saw the Supergals Assortment which included Supergirl, Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Catwoman and the Superfoes Assortment featuring Riddler, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Joker and Penguin. Shazam! also arrives to the line with the release of vehicles and playsets.

More heroes were eventually introduced; the Hulk, Iron Man, Lizard, Falcon, Green Goblin, Green Arrow, Mighty Isis, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Conan, the Teen Titans and the exclusive Alter Ego figures of Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and Peter Parker. Also the Fist Fighters figures of Batman, Robin, Joker, and Riddler were launched along with more vehicles, accessories and playsets.

While the art on the packages got updated and changed throughout the years, it still couldn't prevent the line from ending in 1983 with the entire Mego toy company soon to follow. Regardless, the legend and spirit of the "World's Greatest Super-Heroes!" toy line still lingers on today with a ton of knock offs and reproductions that continually get released. They are also highly collectible with some figures reaching astronomical numbers to acquire them on the secondary market. There is no doubt in my mind that they will always be one of the most influential toy lines ever created and without a doubt my favorite of all time.

Other Tales From the Toy Chest:











John Cimino
John Cimino is a Silver and Bronze Age comic, cartoon and memorabilia expert that runs a business called "Saturday Morning Collectibles." He buys, sells, appraises and gives seminars on everything pop culture, so if you got something special, let him know about it. He contributes articles to ALTER EGO, RETROFAN, BACK ISSUE and THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR from TwoMorrows Publishing, runs the Roy Thomas Appreciation Board on Facebook and has appeared on the AMC reality show Comic Book Men. He also represents some of comicdoms biggest stars and brings them to a Comic Con near you. John likes to think he's the real Captain Marvel, people just don't have the heart to tell him he's just an obsessed fanboy that loves to play superheroes with his daughter Bryn. Contact him at or follow him on Instagram at megostretchhulk.