If you were a kid in America in the 1980's, chances are you had a piece of the Big Four: Star Wars, He-Man, G.I. Joe and Transformers. These franchise toy lines ruled over their competition with an iron fist, dominating the market and invading the homes of almost every family in the country. However, there were lesser-known lines which rivaled their superiors in both concept and functionality. Some of them lacked a good cartoon tie-in or others the financial backing to truly do battle with the Big Boys, but they still ruled on their own terms, and brought joy to millions of spoiled white kids around the world. Here's my list of the TOP 5 "SECOND TIER" TOY LINES OF THE 80'S, based only on my own experience and opinions. If you've got one to add, feel free to chime in.
(PS: I realize Captain Power and The Soldiers of the Future should be on this list, but I already wrote them up here.)
5) BATTLE BEASTS
I'm already a sucker for anthropomorphic warriors in futuristic battle armor, but Battle Beasts took it one step further by having a heat sensitive plate on their chest that would reveal a hidden symbol when touched. These symbols were either Wood, Fire, or Water and worked like the traditional game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, allowing you and your buddies to wage psychological onslaughts on each other from the comfort of your own home. Battle Beasts brought it to a new level for cerebral children's warfare.
Originally a Japanese import, Battle Beasts enjoyed more success in the Far East, with cartoon and comic book tie-ins. There was also a "Sunburst" chestplate introduced later on in the Japanese line, a symbol that came on something like 1 in every 100 Battle Beasts. The Sunburst could defeat Wood, Fire, AND Water. DAMN!!! Unfortunately, this highly sought-after chestplate never made a documented appearance on U.S. soil, despite claims to the contrary from many 6-to-10 year-olds.
Added bonus: Battle Beasts had cool transforming playsets that would come in the shape of a shark or a beetle, but open up to reveal an awesome command center.
Above: Actual appearance of Battle Beasts Shocking Shark Playset. Below: How it looked in the mind of an 8-year-old.
"Man and Machine, Power Extreme!"
The Centurions were a team of mechanically-enhanced defenders with elaborately weaponed exo-frames they used for combat. From their outer space-based command post, Skyvault, they kept the world safe from evil cyborgs Doc Terror and Hacker, and their army of sadistic robots. There were three original Centurions, each assigned to a specific mode of travel: Jake Rockwell, Land Operations Specialist, Ace McCloud, Air Operations Expert, and Max Ray, Sea Operations Commander.
Mysterious loner Ace McCloud<<<
A Centurions cartoon was semi-successful, running for 65 episodes total, which introduced a full cast of characters both good and evil, including two "new" Centurions, John Thunder and Rex Charger. The series went into great detail describing the Centurions' origins, operations, exploits, and love interests, with comic relief provided by a pet orangutan, Lucy.
The coolest part of the toy line, though, was the arsenal of interchangeable weapons and host of "exo-frames" you could purchase for your Centurions, to customize your dude to perfection. See below:
MASK was a fucking brilliant hybrid of G.I. Joe and Transformers. Not only did you get the awesome vehicles which (gasp!) transformed into other vehicles, but the action figures themselves were top-notch, and came with all sorts of masks, helmets, weapons, and tiny, functioning tools (I remember having one as a kid that had a spring-wound, recoilable grappling hook).
M.A.S.K. stood for Mobile Armored Strike K(?)ommand, and were led by the heroic Matt Trakker. Their enemies were called V.E.N.O.M., which stood for (get this) Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem. VENOM was one of the coolest bad-guy organizations ever, topped only by the mighty Cobra Command. Like the Centurions, MASK had a brief, 3-season, 75-episode run of cartoons, detailing their adventures and hawking their unbelievably awesome toys.
The MASK vehicles were pretty much the coolest vehicles you could get as a kid in the 80's. Some of them had giant, hidden weapons, and some of them hid other vehicles inside. The Boulder Hill Playset, MASK headquarters under the guise of an innocent gas station, was highly sought after back in the day, and if anyone wants to drop some big bucks on me for my birthday, I'm dropping a major hint NOW.
2) AIR RAIDERS
Above: "Airlandia" is actually Airlandian for "The Land of Air".
Air Raiders were a little-known toy line consisting of a couple playsets, two types of tiny, generic-looking action figures, and a bunch of mind-blowingly awesome spaceships and vehicles.
They had no cartoon tie-in and a comic book series which was limited to only five issues, which somehow added to their rogue mystique. The back story on the Air Raiders is a doozy. A giant comet strikes Airlandia, destroying most of their oxygen supply. Dickish ruler Aerozar corners the market on the remaining air, forming an evil organization, The Tyrants of Wind, to protect it. Aerozar uses his monopoly on oxygen to suppress the masses.
That is, until the defiant, rebel Air Raiders rise to return the air to the people! Sweet.
Below: Not a very good representation of the vast array of awesome spaceships and jets available in the Air Raiders line, but the only Air Raiders commercial I could find on YouTube.
Left: Bland, pathetic Air Raider foot soldiers await a fiery death doled out by the Tyrants of Wind.
Although the action figures were admittedly pretty weak, it was the evil-looking vehicles that made this toy line a winner, and they fact that they all shot missiles based off of an internal air pump increased their coolness tenfold. These toys were a flash in the pan, a bright, shining flash that burned too brilliant and hot to last long.
Below: The most metal Tyrants of Wind vehicle, The Man-O-War.
1) DINO RIDERS
Shit, dude. You just can't beat the concept. The heroic space-warrior Valorians are sucked through a vortex into the distant past, followed by their alien nemeses, the Rulons. Both groups, taking advantage of their pre-historic surroundings, harness the powers of nearby dinosaurs to aid them in their battle, mounting all manner of missile, lazer gun, and exoskeletal armor to their newfound reptilian allies.
How could any 8-year-old kid resist the combination of dinosaurs, outer space, lazers, and alien villains?!
Dino-Riders had its comic book and its cartoon show (I've seen neither, but would love to), but the toys were the real deal. I had only one or two of them as a kid, but remember lusting after them with great zeal and envy. I mean, look at Hammerhead Shark Alien Dude and Serpent Head Alien Dude over there, kickin' it on their armored triceratops. How fuckin STOKED are they?! FUCK!
So, long story short, that's the breakdown on the second wave of 80's toy lines. I hope this thing has held maybe just a hint of savory nostalgia for you, Dear Reader, and I hope maybe my memories of this crap might spark a couple of your own.
Above: The Holy Grail of semi-obscure 1980's toy culture, Dino-Riders Rulon T-Rex.