The 10 Greatest Toylines Without Cartoons
By Todd Ciolek
Once upon a time, toys didn?t need cartoons. That time was generally very boring as far as toys went, and we should all be glad that it?s over. Toys and cartoons have been closely linked since the days of Magilla Gorilla, yet it wasn?t until 1983 that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe broke through a barrier of relaxed federal laws concerning just how shamelessly animation could shill action figures. All sorts of toy-based TV shows soon flooded Saturday mornings and syndicated weekday afternoon hours, clamoring for children?s attention spans like starving weasels slaughtering each other over a Crunch Berry.
Some brave bands of action figures and plastic dolls plunged into the fray alone, aiming to conquer toy stores without the help of a promotional cartoon?s stiffly animated aegis. Most of these lone weasels died quick and ugly deaths; in a world where even Barnyard Commandos and Madballs had animation to their names, a second-string toy line couldn?t count on motorized robots or stuffed-animal watches to sell on mere aesthetics. Yet a lot of these stand-alone toys deserved to last. A few of them even deserved cartoons.
10) Power Lords
Revell put a lot of work into Power Lords, tapping science-fiction artist Wayne Barlowe to come up with appropriately freakish aliens. And it was those aliens that really drove the line. Sure, there was some overriding plot about a stranded human named Adam Power becoming the defender of the civilized galaxy, but any kid possessed by proper taste was more interested in monstrous, barely humanoid extraterrestrials with names like Ggripptogg and Disguyzor.
Yet Power Lords was a bit too faithful to the 1970s, both in its toy design and its promotion. The figures transformed by having two-sided characters with flip-around upper bodies, a feature that failed to convince if you ever looked at your toys from an angle. Likewise, Power Lords only had a short-run comic from DC, and no cartoon to support it.
Adam Power?s desperate struggle on an alien world might?ve created some interesting stories to entertain kids between G.I. Joe and Looney Tunes reruns. Considering the standards of ?80s animation, however, a Power Lords cartoon might?ve also made Sydot, an alien scientist who resembles some crossbreed of a dinosaur and a Super Mario Bros. Goomba, more obnoxious than Orko and Snarf combined.
A lot of low-profile stuffed animal lines didn?t get cartoons, and it was probably for the best. We?re not mourning the Brush-A-Loves or Purr-Tenders TV serials that never were. Yet we can?t help but wonder how a WereBears show might?ve fared. Created initially for boys who wanted Care Bears without the inevitable taunting and playground social stigmata, the WereBears looked like normal stuffed toys, but a few cleverly hidden folds could change them into ravenous, fanged creatures of the night.
There were good WereBears and evil Terror Teds, but even the allegedly nice animals looked downright fearsome as far as stuffed toys go. Perhaps a cartoon would?ve spun them into cuddlier form. Then again, WereBears were created in the United Kingdom, where wry animated shows like Dangermouse didn?t care too much for sanitizing things in pursuit of comedy. A WereBears Saturday-morning showcase could?ve pitted constantly evil bears against occasionally evil bears fighting to control their lunar-triggered impulses, complete with dry British-ism. It?d never have succeeded in America, of course.
8) Super Naturals
Ask anyone over 25 about their favorite childhood toy that involved fake holograms, and?well, they?ll probably mention the Visionaries. But Tonka?s Super Naturals were arguably the second most popular 1980s toy to use some lenticular image-changing feature. All of the figures were conventional in terms of arms and legs, but their heads and torsos were shadowy, mirrored shapes that displayed two different personae per figure: for example, a court jester and a ghost.
It was a simple gimmick that, to be honest, made the toys look like they were missing pieces at a glance, but Super Naturals deserves credit for covering all the bases. The line had knights, Native American chiefs, Egyptian sorcerers, vampires, pirates, werewolves, and anything else that kids could want in a toy. Best of all were the characters? modes of transportation, which put dragons and winged lions alongside modern roadsters straight out of a monster-truck rally. There was little to no story behind the Super Naturals, but a cartoon series could?ve been delightfully nuts, just for its attempts to bring all the mismatched characters into 22 minutes of vague Saturday-morning coherency.
Well before the pog craze of the ?90s or this Beyblade thing that the kids today seem to like, Parker Brothers unleashed Spinjas upon the ?80s. Tiny top-shaped figurines (with names like ?Klaw? and ?Blud?) were popped into launchers and fired into a small plastic arena, where they whirled around and bumped into each other until one of them flew out of the ring. Ever-competitive youngsters were clearly supposed to collect, trade, and use the figures in dingy underground gambling pits, but the Spinjas just weren?t very exciting to watch.
Kids might?ve shown more interest if there?d been a cartoon about Gash?s fierce grudge match again Switchblade or the ways in which the evil, gold-bottomed Dread Force sought to destroy the freedom-fighting, steel-bottomed Eliminators. Yet it was tough to make a TV show out of legless heroes who could only get around by spinning. At best, a Spinjas cartoon would?ve been farmed out to Japanese animators, who specialize in making even toy cars and tennis look dramatic to children. But it wasn?t, and Spinjas went away in a hurry.
Most of the toy lines in modern history have promoted some measure of morality, be it a good-versus-evil storyline or unsubtle lessons about littering and wearing deodorant. Mattel?s Boglins line, on the other hand, belongs to the less common school of toys that encourages children to frighten as many people as possible. Such was the theme of the first Boglins commercial, where Gremlins-like puppets stick it to The Man, or at least to overweight aunts, girls who played with shoes, and other feminine banes of any young man?s prepubescent life.
The commercial wasn?t lying, either. Boglins were the rare mass-produced ?80s monster toy that could possibly freak someone out, though it helped if that someone was a culturally self-secluded fundamentalist who saw satanic undertones in Fluppy Dogs, or an eight-year-old kid who couldn?t watch Critters all the way through without crying. Boglins reveled in this sort of juvenile terrorism, with glowing, moveable eyes, cagelike boxes, and their own line of slime, packaged in a miniature toilet.
Would it have worked in a cartoon? Probably. Shows like My Pet Monster built tales of adolescent whimsy out of simple toys, so it wouldn?t be hard for Nelvana or Filmation to whip up a dozen episodes about fifth-grade everykids whose lives were forever changed by their new Boglin pets. We never said it could be a good cartoon, and you couldn?t expect more from toys whose most creative touch was switching around the letters in ?goblin.?
5) Kenner?s Aliens
Kenner?s Aliens and Predator lines of the 1990s were second only to the Toxic Crusaders and Rambo toys when it came to turning R-rated movies into children?s fare. Naturally, some things had to be softened. The mini-comics that came with the Aliens toys retconned the 1986 film so that the more popular dead marines actually survived and became part-cyborg action figures toting Liefeld-caliber weapons. The xenomorphs were similarly toyed-up, ranging from a film-accurate Queen Alien to oddities like the Gorilla Alien, the Bull Alien, and the Scorpion Alien, the last of which apparently gestated inside a giant scorpion. And then there were the Predators, who stopped just short of including a Samurai Predator and a Blizzard Attack Predator with Firing Frost Cannon.
Some would balk at the thought of an Aliens vs. Predator cartoon, but even sanitized versions of the creatures would?ve been enjoyable. Shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Exosquad and Gargoyles had pushed the limits of American TV animation by the mid-?90s, and if an Aliens cartoon couldn?t show newborn xenomorphs sprouting from human chests, it could probably show acid-blooded aliens getting mangled by humans and Predators alike.
4) Maxx Steele?s Robo Force
We?re breaking the rules a little with this entry. See, Ruby-Spears actually made a one-shot TV special based on Ideal?s Robo Force, but this line of stretchy-armed, suction-footed robots was perfect for long-term, weekday-afternoon animated vegetation. It had a lineup of easily stereotyped good and evil characters, complete with a brainy professor robot, a crazy, saxophone-playing robot, and the fearless leader Maxx Steel, who had both ?crusher arms? and that cuddly Short Circuit look. Also, none of the robots had an actual mouth, which would?ve been a blessing for the budget-conscious cartoons of the mid-1980s. And yet there was only a single episode, one that has yet to be diced up and uploaded to YouTube. In fact, until we see this cartoon, we?re going to assume that Robo Force didn?t have one and that everyone who says it did (including whoever runs the official Ruby-Spears website) is lying to us.
Maxx Steele had just about everything but a long-running TV show, however. He was turned into a board game, a telephone, and a rust-prone Erector set. Ideal even partnered with Alpha-Bits cereal in a contest, letting kids trade proofs-of-purchase for toys or win the supreme deity of the Robo Force pantheon: a talking, programmable Maxx robot nearly as tall as most of the entrants. Sorry, Maxx. Cartoons are for violent toys.
3) Golden Girl and the Guardians of the Gemstone
In the triumphant wake of Mattel?s He-Man sales, other companies scrambled to debut their own barbarian action figures. Remco turned to DC?s Warlord comics, while Galoob drew on He-Man?s animated ancestor, Blackstar. Neither succeeded, but Galoob wasn?t about to give up. Realizing that He-Man owned the market on Conan-esque fantasy figures for boys, Galoob decided to beat Mattel to the next step and re-make He-Man for girls.
Golden Girl and the Guardians of the Gemstone wasted no time in switching around gender roles. The glowingly blonde Golden Girl and her jewel-coded allies had a single male sidekick between them, and the same went for the less-blond opposition, led by the vaguely Asian Dragon Lady. Throwing in a bit of Barbie, Galoob made sure that the Golden Girl figures had rooted hair, shields that doubled as brooches, and a multitude of different outfits to wear while eviscerating their foes on the field of battle.
And then She-Ra: Princess of Power came along, with its He-Man ties and cartoon-aided marketing push. Thorough research turns up no record of a Golden Girl TV series (though there were many disappointed young women out there when Golden Girls aired on NBC a few years later), and the toys? first wave couldn?t survive without one. Perhaps the toys were a little too fragile, or perhaps the buxom, half-armored-amazon illustration of Golden Girl on toy packages scared off too many parents.
Or perhaps Golden Girl was just ahead of her time. She-Ra was a G-rated hodgepodge of fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but Golden Girl?s storybooks (above) show a real barbarian world, bleak, dusty land of swords and bloodshed. It?s a place where Nordic warrior women ride unicorns and brutally slay their berserker enemies. If you can think of a better role model for young girls today, we?d like to hear about it.
2) Battle Beasts
In many ways, Battle Beasts did just fine without a TV show. Hasbro?s line of two-inch animal figures lasted for four production runs, largely because the figures were turtles and deer and giraffes that wore hi-tech armor and looked good doing it. Each figure had a decal revealing water, fire, or wood, letting kids play games of rock-paper scissors until everyone started arguing about whether or not wood could ?beat? water just by floating on it. Seriously.
Bickering aside, Battle Beasts were excellent toys, with a lineup of nearly 100 little creatures and variously transforming playsets, and they would?ve gone even farther with a cartoon. Historians and robot fans will remember that the Battle Beasts were part of the Transformers in Japan, and that they appeared in a single episode of the Japanese Transformers: Headmasters series. This was never shown in the West, however, where the most Battle Beast fans got was a rather basic commercial.
It might?ve been hard for some hack writers to put together compelling plots about snakes and rhinos throwing trees, flames, and tidal waves at each other, but kids who sat through The Paw-Paws would probably endure 65 episodes of bat pirates yelling about how fire burns wood. Yes. Yes, it does.
Starriors were a deformed evolutionary branch of Zoids, though their American toy line owed a bit to other popular trend-setters of the 1980s. Like the Transformers, the Starriors were divided into the peacenik hippie Protectors, who were out to awaken the hibernating remnants of humankind, and the warlike Destructors, who wanted the post-apocalyptic Earth all to themselves. And, like Masters of the Universe toys, each Starrior came with a little comic book.
Tomy?s Starriors sales brochures promise a TV mini-series coming in 1985, but one never materialized. Kids had only an animated TV commercial and a four-issue comic series from Marvel. Written by former X-Men editor Louise Simonson, the comics give the Starriors a bit more character development than a toy line deserved, possibly to make up for the characters having no facial expressions. It was better than the comics for Sectaurs or Inhumanoids, though the Starriors? epic adventure suffered from a meandering plot and a climax suggesting that the surviving humans looked like Chuck Norris in his Karate Commandos days.
The Starriors mini-comics, meanwhile, could have spawned cartoon a cut above the norm. In one issue, a bumbling villain goes undercover among the heroic Starriors, only to join their cause, die in battle, and get resurrected without his memories, leaving him to wonder if he?s lost his true identity. Another comic featured no combat whatsoever, as the leaders from either Starriors side tried to defuse a man-made atomic bomb while debating whether or not the human race even deserved to rise again. That beats any of the social issues raised by the Thundercats.