Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Top 10 Greatest Toy Lines Ever!

This is a list I've been thinking of for a good while, and now is as good a time as ever. If you read my stuff, you would think this list could be named "Top ten action figure lines", but that would actually not work. Sure, it's mostly dominated by action figures, but there may be a few entries that just happens to fall in a different category.

I have collected, played with - and ultimately considered a huge selection of toys for this list. Some of the toy lines were rather difficult to leave out, and I feel like mentioning a few of them (but not all, because that would ruin eventual surprises).

 I did consider the original, 1/6 scaled G.I. Joe, for historical reasons, and the great variety of accessories. They were before my time, but I enjoy them whenever I see them today. In the opposite category, when talking about toys that predate the 80s, are the Mego dolls. I just can't see understand attraction. 

A powerful contender was the Real Ghostbusters line. Creative monsters, solid build quality, all over fun toys. There have also been many great superhero lines, like Toy Biz' X-Men, and the various DC Direct lines. I'm also impressed with many of the contemporary toys, whether they're based on movies, like the Avengers figures, or the toys from the smaller, more independent toy companies, like Four Horsemen.
Japanese toys I considered included the various Valkyries based off the Macross shows (like the Bandai VF-25 in my banner), and the range of anime robots in the mighty Soul of Chogokin line.

While the top ten may be familiar to most of you, and in many ways be "obvious" choices, they were the toys that has impressed me the most and given me the most joy.  Essentially, these are my top ten toy lines. 

Agree, disagree, want to share your own list? Leave a comment below!

10 - Marvel Legends by Toy Biz/Hasbro

Marvel Legends Hawkeye
It's my strong connection to the Marvel superheroes that led Marvel Legends to enter the list. The toys are good, no doubt about it. But I would probably not care about the line had I not been a complete Marvel enthusiast. First made by Toy Biz, then by Hasbro, these 6 inch figures are detailed and have great articulation. 

They are all in scale with each other, and I appreciate that. By this I mean that for instance the Juggernaut is huge, while Wolverine is small. Nightcrawler is slim, while Colossus is bulky. Almost every figure is a new sculpt. 

ML Nick Fury with jetpack and stand
Unlike Mattel's DC Universe Classics, we haven't seen Hasbro scraping the barrel for characters. If they followed DCUC logic, we would have seen  Stiltman, The Airwalker and D-Man a long time ago. But Hasbro are still releasing relatively highly demanded characters, and they're also in the process of remaking heavy hitters that Toy Biz managed to screw up.

Marvel Legends also struck gold with the Build-a-figure concept, where each single figure came with a piece to build a larger figure. That way, we actually were able to collect the pieces to form impressive characters like Galactus, Giant Man, Sentinels, and so on. As it would turn out, the "BAF" was a welcome way for Toy Biz to hang on to their customers. The endless amount of "limited" (read: shortpacked) variants, on the other hand, was just insulting.

9 - M.A.S.K. by Kenner

The hardest toy line to leave out was probably Starcom. A personal favorite of mine, the magnetic space warriors means a lot to me. But I realize I love them purely for nostalgic reasons. They are cool toys, but the lack of recognizable characters is a drawback.

Flip out the doors, and Matt Trakker's car, Thunderhawk, could suddenly fly. 
Sort of similar in scale are M.A.S.K. But where Starcom lacked Characterization, Kenner took the safe route with M.A.S.K. It's a perfect blend between Transformers and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Terrorists and counter-terrorists battle it out with transforming vehicles. The villains are all evil, but it's easy to see the difference between the various bad guys. The same goes for the heroes.

Matt Trakker leads a gang of adventurers - all specialists in their respective fields - against the evil organization "Venom". I wonder if Hasbro ever took legal actions, because it's painfully obvious where the inspiration comes from.

The characters all come with ridiculous "superhero names", like Alex Sector, Ace Riker, Miles Mayhem and Sly Rax, and it's easy to see who's the bad guys and who's the good guys. And yes, they all wear masks.

Today, it seems completely absurd to paint such a picture, even to kids. The world isn't black or white, good or evil. But then again, the story lines of most of the 80s toy lines were completely secondary to the toys. The cartoon is beyond stupid, but hey: that should realistically be said about all of the 80s toys. .

The M.A.S.K toys are great though, and it's definitely the vehicles that should be seen as the main toy. With simple operations, the vehicles would transform from regular cars into heavily armed and armored war machines. M.A.S.K. is a colorful toy line with a really cool gimmick, and a fantastic tag line: "Illusion is the ultimate weapon". 

8 - Micro Machines by Galoob

An unlikely entry, maybe. But any person who has owned Micro Machines know what it's all about. 

The extremes were always fascinating to me as a kid. There was something attractive to both extremely huge, and extremely tiny vehicles. Micro Machines are of course the latter. 

These are impressive toys. In fact, they are so amazing that I believed them to be magic. Even after twenty years, one of my old cars had functioning lights. They are made surprisingly tough, and could take lots of play. I even suspect most of them would survive rather long falls.

Basically, Micro Machines were tiny cars and other vehicles, usually presented in two- and four packs. Similar to Mattels Hot Wheels, the biggest difference was the size. Micro Machines cars had functioning wheels, ans usually sported some metal parts. No characterization apart from what kids could imagine themselves.

A fantastic computer game based on the toy line let you control the cars in suitable environments. I remember driving around on a school desk, among pencils and erasers. Macro Machines also had collaborations with other francises, and released miniature versions of space ships from both Star Wars and Star Trek.

The early waves were simple cars, while the later waves had more and more play features, like color changing, light-up functions, pull-back, and so on. All of them were fun, and isn't that the whole idea with a toy?

7 - Masters of the Universe Classics by Mattel

I loved my original Masters of the Universe Classics toys, I had a nice collection, and I have fond memories connected to them. I also liked the New Adventures of He-Man line. I adore the old She-Ra figures. And I have to admit the cartoons are somewhat of a guilty pleasure. Now, where I could have placed my beloved vintage MOTUs on the list, I feel that something would be missing, because what I liked even more than the vintage Masters toy line was the entire universe of characters, the cartoon, the comics and the three different toy lines. 

Mattycollector in many ways made a home run with the Classics toy line. They  incorporated every era of the He-Man and She-Ra universe into one toy line, and they did it in style. Not only did we get our vintage toys in a - let us be honest - superior design. We also got characters from the cartoons that never got a figure back in the day. In addition, we got to see prototypes, obscurities and fan-made characters come to life, and honestly this is unique for a toy line. I'd like to see this happen with Transformers or G.I. Joe.  
He-Man in battle with his prototype, Vikor. 

The line has given us almost every one of my favorite vintage toys. Some of them have dwarfed my expectations. Think about that for a little while. I had many of these as a kid, but I still think the new versions are better. In addition, we have been treated to a handful of new awesome action figures, like Vikor, Draego Man and Gygor.

Sadly, the line has had some negative sides that leave it safely outside the top 5. Quality issues, customer service, and a subscription based method where subscribers aren't allowed to know what figures they are getting. 

Many fans have a love/hate relationship with MOTUC, and rightfully so. I'm torn, but whenever I play with the toys, I tend to lean towards the "love".

6 - Star Wars by Kenner

One could argue that this was the toy line that started the great era of toys. Never before had toys been that accessible. Relatively cheap, easy to collect, and connected to media that every kid knew of, it's easy to see why the Star Wars toy line from Kenner was immensely popular. Kenner produces these amazing figures with consistent quality from the late 70s to the mid 80s.  

In retrospect, it's even more impressive, because you  can to compare it to the contemporary Star Wars toys. Modern SW toy lines have been... uneven. And more importantly, they have been numerous and difficult to separate from each other. 

The vintage Star Wars toys are limited to right below hundred figures of similarly styled figures. It's manageable, and it makes for a delight to display a complete collection. Try that with your 562 modern Star Wars figures.
Bulky, not a lot of articulation, but perfect in every other way

Kenner's Star Wars line started out very basic, five points of articulation, not a lot of details in sculpt and paint, and very few accessories. In the later years, especially with the figures from Return of the Jedi, the sculpt of the figures had improved significantly. 

The Gamorrean Guard (from Jabba's Palace) is a figure I like to use as an example of great details in sculpt and paint, and the Poncho Leia has already been shown in another top ten list here. The simple articulation, on the other hand, remained. It worked. It's exactly what we needed to act out the movies ourselves.

5 - Transformers by Hasbro

I use "Transformers", when I really mean Generation 1 Transformers. With that I mean that for me, there's really only one Transformers toy line, the original one. And that may be a bit unfair, because some of the modern robots are actually great toys. But as a collective unit of toys, none of the modern Transformers lines can hold a candle to the other lines in this list.

Scorponok is an impressive toy
As much as I love many of the Transformers, I just can't justify placing them higher than #5. At its best, Transformers were the greatest toys ever made. Optimus Prime, Jazz, Scorponok, Soundwave. Toys that would end up defining many a childhood. Gorgeous details, tons of playability and spectacular toy engineering. If I made a list of the Top Ten Toys, expect at least a pair of Transformers. 

So yes, at it's best, Transformers were amazing. But at its worst... Oh boy, did Hasbro release some awful toys. G1 Ratchet, Megatron, the Seekers, several of the smaller robots. There's not really any reason these toys should have a robot mode. The big discrepancy happens when you read the amazing comic, but then have to play with toys that barely resemble the characters you like. They barely resemble anything at all. You see, the toys were made with thought of the disguise (i.e. vehicle) mode as main priority, which obviously left the robot mode severely lacking, both when it came to articulation, the play value and being able to actually recognize the character.
Cliffjumper is a toy

Rant aside, Transformers are still #5. The comic was fantastic, the concept was awesome, and some of the toys were brilliant. Such fun, almost all of them with additional play features, on top of the robot being able to transform into something. Lack of consistent scale is annoying (or hilarious, depending on your point of view), but understandable.

Fun note: The best Transformer toy ever made, and a contender for the best toy ever made, was actually not a Transformer from Hasbro/Takara, but Macross/Robotech from Bandai. Did that matter for the Transformers placing as "low" as #5?

4 - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Playmates

Characterization is apparently a big deal to me. And TMNT had this in buckets.

The only toy line on the list of which I didn't own a single figure. Neither have I bought them as an adult toy collector, all though I'm not entirely sure why. You see, I had a cousin with an impressive collection, and I remember in detail every one of them, as well as the excitement of playing with them.

Mutagen Man could be filled with liquid
TMNT was just amazingly fun. It was a toy line that for certain didn't take itself seriously. What the figures lacked in articulation, they more than made up for with accessories, painted details, sculpt and sturdiness. These were solid chunks of plastic. The vehicles in the line were usually large and impressive, like the Technodrome, Party Wagon, or the Turtles Blimp. The figures were even more impressive, but not necessarily in size, rather execution and creativity.

The cast was made up of mostly anthromorphic characters, ranging from reptiles and fish to birds and mammals. The characters all came with absolutely ridiculous names and feats.  In addition to the pizza-eating, totally rad ninja turtles that made up the main cast, my favorite among the characters were the scuba-diving manta ray and the bomb dropping duck. The turtles have been remade a couple of times ever since the early 90s, but never with the same impact like the first time.

3 - Dino Riders by Tyco

As a kid, I wanted to become a paleonthologist. Like many kids, I loved to read books on dinosaurs, learning their names, trying to wrap my head around the vast gaps in the years between the different dinos. The interest in dinosaurs did not stick, all though from time to time, I regret not actually going for geology as a profession. The interest in Dino Riders, on the other hand, has not only remained, but increased. I appreciate Tyco's late 80s toy line even more today than I did as a kid. I now truly see how awesome they were. Incredible quality and design, lots of play value, and of course the ridiculously awesome concept of mounting guns on dinosaurs. 

The mighty Brontosaurus
The dinosaurs had very detailed sculpt, and the larger ones all had battery powered action features. 

The Triceratops had battery-powered movement
Many of them came with various working traps and shooting missiles, and all of them came with tiny action figures. Similar to M.A.S.K., the big draw with Dino Riders were the vehicles - the dinosaurs, and their equipment. But, the action figures weren't bad at all either. They have a few points of articulation, they had decent sculpts and they were as solid as any toys.

By this time, every toy collector will agree that Dino Riders is a seriously underrated toy line. But when we all agree to this, is it still underrated? Weirdly enough, yes. We are still drawn towards the comfort zone of the more familiar lines, and that's a shame. Because I doubt we'll ever see an action figure line this amazing without being attached to a major media like a movie of hit cartoon.

2 - The Collectible Minifigures by Lego

I have always been into the Minifigures from Lego, but I haven't really considered them a toy line separate from the other bricks until recently. I guess I could have included Lego as an entire concept to this list, and for sure, the bricks as a whole could be considered a toy line. But if I did that, I'm not sure it would reach as high as I would like. You see, I really into Lego, but not all of it. City, Star Wars, Superheroes? Yeah! Ninjago, Friends, Technic? Not really my thing. 

The former three sub themes are contenders on my list, but the Minifigures is the first time I've let myself be passionate about the bricks, and defined myself as a collector of Lego. 

The last couple of years we've seen collectors being specifically into minifigures, and as a natural response, Lego started selling minifigures separately from the sets. Sure, we've had the tiny sets for decades, the ones with one minifigure, and a tiny portion of bricks, to build a hot-dog cart, a back ground display or a small vehicle. But more recently, the figures have been sold with nothing but their accessories.

Interestingly enough, Lego don't have the license to release Star Wars minifigures separately, as they would count as an action figure. This goes for all the licensed sets. But that doesn't stop Lego from producing their own line of "action figures", and this is where the Collectible Series of Minifigures comes into play.

The Collectible Minifigures aren't the first "action figures" from Lego, as we've been able to buy Bionicle figures for several years. But this is the first time I have actively collected a sub line from Lego, and while I still have difficulties defining the Minifigures as action figures, they are still incredibly fun to collect, and just as fun to play around with.

Currently in its eleventh series, the Collectible Minifigures are single, blind packed figures with accessories, counting 16 in each series. What really impresses me is the vast selection of random characters and professions we're getting. It's absolutely a merry bunch of adventurers, ranging from the Baseball player and Punk Rocker to the Zombie and the Gladiator. As they are blind packed, it takes some effort to gather complete series, but through the internet, it should be no problem to make trades, just like we did in the school yard back in the day. Of course, you could also just buy a whole box of them; For every Hot Toys Avengers toy, you'll get a box containing 60 minifigures.

I have written about this toy line more than once, and not without reason. It's an absolute pleasure to collect the minifigures. They are relatively cheap - I feel at least like it's value for the price. They are colorful, often with impressive details. And of course, like any good minifigure, they are super cute.

Check out my Top 10 Minifigures list and the follow up, the Top 35 minifigures list. 

1 - G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero by Hasbro

Where to begin...

Well, already back in the 80s, we pretty much concluded that it was impossible to make better toys. Our logic was reasonable. We looked at how durable the toys were, how many points of articulation they had, how many accessories the figures had and how they were presented to us (a fantastic comic, cool card art, great bios). This was of course in addition to the ridiculously cool designs to the various characters, and the general theme of a perfect blend between traditional military and science fiction.

The Tomahawk is a contender for "Best toy ever made"
I haven't changed my opinion today. I have tried to be as objective as possible, and even when I look at all the strong aspects of other toy lines, Hasbro's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is still way ahead of any other entry to this list.

The modern Joe toy lines are not bad, by any means. But they're still just based on the original line, they didn't bring anything new to the table apart from a different construction. Not better, not worse, just different.

I have written a lot about G.I. Joe in the past. Click the "G.I. Joe" label to read some of my other Joe-related stuff. I have made a Top 100 Best G.I. Joe figures list. I even dedicated an entire month'sworth of articles to the Joes, and even though the massive enthusiasm comes and goes, it's still my go-to toy line. It has close to everything I want in a toy line, starting with awesome characterization, ending with fantastic quality toys, and everything in between.

A fantastic issue. 
I will try to explain in detail, and it makes sense to start with the comic. Hasbro approached Marvel to do the comic, already before the toys were sold in the stores. Marvel could have taken the cheap route, making a comic that in the simplest way promoted the toy line. But they didn't. They gave the job to Larry Hama, who actually wanted to make good stories and create characters that got our attention. The result was a comic that could stand on its own, with multi-dimensional characters, compelling story lines, and decent art. 

Sure, the comics were meant to support the toys, to show off the latest characters, but it went both ways. The toys and the comic complimented each other in the best way possible, and unlike Transformers, the G.I. Joe figures actually looked like their comic book counterparts.  The toys held a high standard, so there was no reason the comic couldn't be of the same quality. 

And for that quality, the kids didn't have to completely empty their piggy bank (all though I suspect many did to boost their collections).

The toys were small, cheap enough for kids to have a collection, and they were cheap enough to be natural gifts at Christmas and birthdays. The toys were also large enough to be that grail a kid would dream about every night. The vehicles ranged from tiny to huge, the same went for the play sets. The various price points were instrumental in making G.I. Joe into something more than just another toy line.
The 1988 good guys

The vehicles were numerous and spectacular, almost overshadowing the carded figures. Almost every vehicle became a classic, and it's really hard single out any of them. 

I will mention the sleek fighter jets like Conquest X-30, the Raven, and the Skystriker. I also have to name drop the tanks, the Hiss Tank, the Mobat and the Mauler. And of course the helicopters, Tomahawk and the Mamba. I will also throw in ground attack vehicles like the Awe-Striker and the Desert Fox. And let us not forget the boats, the Moray Hydrofoil, the Whale, and the monumental  carrier USS Flagg. I could go on. But you get the point.

And finally, the figures that were the backbone of the entire franchise. Every one of them with a unique bio, every one of them with great card art. 

The figures had an intense amount of details in their sculpt, and I still find new details to my figures to this day. They also came with an impressive amount of accessories - at least one, usually more than three. What fascinates me more than anything today is the vast selection of characters, many who are extremely different to one another.

The deadly ninja Storm Shadow, the mysterious commando Snake Eyes, the notorious assassin Firefly, the cocky ranger Flint, the faceless evil of the Cobra Commander, the delightfully insane Dreadnoks, the equally insane Battle Force 2000, arctic troopers, desert soldiers, space pilots, androids, animal handlers, experimental weapons specialists, divers, martial artists, paratroopers, terrorists, counter-terrorists, and so on.

G.I. Joe was everything cool crammed into a single toy line, and for the 25th year in a row I let myself be exited, amazed and enthused by these toys.

That's my top ten toy lines of all time. How would your list look like? Are there any room for Starcom on your list? How about Hot Toys? What about Construx? Battle Beasts, Hot Wheels, Zoids, Barbie, Playmobil, Secret Wars, Little Green Army Men, Super Friends etc. Leave a comment below!


GIJigsaw said...

10. Palisades Muppets - Excellent detailing. Great playsets.
9. NECA Gears of War - Awesome, massive figures.
8. Simpsons - World of Springfield - Incredible lineup. Fantastic playsets.
7. Toybiz Lord of the Rings - Captured almost everyone from Middle Earth.
6. Toybiz X-Men - First to go outside of the popular character bounds, and bring many, many, many lesser known characters.
5. Marvel Legends - Great lineup. Exquisite details.
4. Kenner Indiana Jones (Small, so much lost potential, but so glad they exist).
3. GI Joe: ARAH - for all the reasons you mentioned.
2. GI Joe - 12 Inch - Vintage and Modern. "GI Joe, GI Joe, fighting man from head to toe..."
1. Kenner Star Wars - Great figures. Huge variety of playsets that has never been equaled. (Death Star, Millenium Falcon, Imperial Attack Base, AT-AT)

Jon said...

Cool list, Jigsaw. Simpsons line is one I may have overlooked.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

Unknown said...

I am of the 80's/90's generation that experience both the GI Joe and TMNT toy popularity. . . and GI Joe didn't come anywhere near the popularity, obsessiveness or coolness of TMNT. Basically, the combination of Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, and The Real Ghostbusters were about equal to the total of TMNT.