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March 17, 2011

Takin' You Back... Way Back Vol. 4 by Joe Esq

Hiya kids, it’s time for another installment of Takin’ You Back… Way Back with your humble host, The Deity of All Things 80’s, JoeyEsq (I’m gonna get that nickname over or die trying). Anyway, I had a theme in the last article (which you can see here) and that got a nice bit of conversation going, so I decided to do a theme in this one too. Only this time around I’m gonna talk about a bunch of toys that happen to be my personal favorites. With the exception of the first entry, the four toy lines I’m gonna talk about today have a special place in the heart of my inner child for one reason or another, which I will discuss below. So don’t just sit there, hit that jump break and check it out!

GOLDEN GIRL AND THE GUARDIANS OF THE GEMSTONES (Galoob, 1985): This line of toys is the exception to today’s theme, but I’m including it because I had actually researched it for the last article, see I was always under the assumption that Golden Girl was just a cheap attempt by Galoob to cash in on She-Ra’s popularity. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I found out that Golden Girl actually beat She-Ra to the toy store shelves by something like 8 months. This toy line was an attempt by Galoob to cash in on the elusive (and some argue non-existent) girl’s action figure market. For some reason I was also under the impression that Golden Girl started out as a proposal for a toy line based on Wonder Woman, but as it turns out I was wrong there too (I was thinking of something else, which turned out to be an unproduced toy line from the early 90’s). Which just goes to show that my memory for obscure 80’s girl’s toys is not as detailed or comprehensive as it is for the boys stuff… which is probably a very good thing.

***Please click Read more below to see the rest of Takin It Back... Way Back***

Anyway, the story was set on a prehistoric earth. Golden Girl and her team of Guardians (who were all named after precious stones), protected the powerful Gemstone from the evil Dragon Queen of Storm Isle, a white-skinned, pink-haired haired chick who wanted to use the Gemstone to take over the Guardians homeland of Argonia.

The Guardians were Rubee, the archer; Jade, the telepath; Onyx, the swordswoman; and Saphire, who could communicate with animals. The token male in the line was Prince Kroma, who looks enough like He-Man that I should have included him in the previous article on general principle. The villains in the line were the aforementioned Dragon Queen, Vultura, a sorceress; Wild One, who was some kind of Viking Berzerker; Moth Lady, a winged witch and Ogra, the token male bad guy. Each figure, including the guys, had rooted hair (which in my book makes these dolls, and not really action figures), a cape, a weapon, a weapon belt or harness, a helmet and a die-cast metal shield (which by all reports were way too heavy for the figures to actually hold). The shields could also be worn as jewelry by little girls (or particularly effeminate boys, I suppose).There were also two horses; Olympia for Golden Girl and Shadow for The Dragon Queen. Both featured light up eyes and horns. A playset called The Palace of the Gems was released and there were three themed fashion sets (ensuring that there would be ZERO crossover appeal to boys, even if the rooted hair and brooch-shields didn’t already scare them away); Forest Fantasy, Festive Spirit and Evening Enchantment.

On top of the figures, accessories, steeds and playset, Galoob went pretty much balls to the wall with merchandising this thing. There were Golden Girl coloring books, story books, colorforms, a Golden Girl Halloween costume, watches, drinking glasses and a board game. A little unusual for a toy line that had no cartoon. The excess merchandising didn’t save it because the toy line barely lasted a year. Still I have to admire its ambition, even if I think the creators were severely retarded, and seemed to lack an even basic understanding of the market they dove headfirst into. Historically, female action figures in boys toy lines simply do not sell as well as the male figures. Galoob seems to have been attempting to make a girls action figure line with Golden Girl, but I think the end result is it just becomes confusing as to who the line was made for, because there was no such thing as a girls action figure market. Not a profitable one anyway. Yet, even though these things were essentially Barbie dolls, all the imagery was male-oriented; swords and sorcery, scantily-clad females, etc. Now I must admit that the toys themselves are actually very nicely designed, but seriously, who did Galoob think was gonna buy these? Was this Galoob’s attempt to capture that elusive tomboy market? I still can’t really figure it out.

I tried to find you the commercial for these things (which I shouldn’t need to tell you all by now is irremovably etched into my memory, even now playing over and over and over again…) but Youtube only had one in (I think) French.

Now, on to some of my favorite obscure toy lines of the 80’s:

ROBOFORCE (Ideal, 1984): The robots with the crusher arms and gripper bases. I don’t know why in an age of fully poseable army men and robots that could transform into guns, trucks and tape decks, these little cylindrical pieces of crap were able to capture so much of my imagination, but they did. I don’t think it was the “crusher arms” feature – each robot had a button on his back that would cause his arms to grab whatever was in front of him. I also don’t think it was the “gripper base” each robot had – instead of legs each robot was fitted with a semi functional suction cup.

No, I think for five year old me, it was all the hidden weaponry these guys had. Almost every figure had some kind of concealed gun underneath a hatch or chestplate that really increased the playability of what were essentially just little garbage cans with arms. Speaking of those arms, they were made of this soft accordion plastic that got ruined usually 8 seconds after you started playing with them (by ruined I mean pulled and stretched by a little kid who didn’t know any better).

The pic above shows every Roboforce toy that actually got released. The Roboforce were Maxx Steele: The Leader; Blazer: The Igniter; Coptor: The Enforcer; Sentinel: The Protector; S.O.T.A., the Creator; and Wrecker: The Demolisher. They battled the evil forces of Hun-Dred: The Conqueror; Enemy: The Dictator; Vulgar: The Destroyer and Cruel: The Detonator. There were three vehicles, and a playset (which I will talk about in a second). If you only bought the toys, you’d have never known the toy line actually had a back story, but it did, as revealed by a one-shot cartoon that aired only once, on a Saturday in December, 1984 (which I vividly remember watching). In the cartoon, a scientist named Dr. Fury and his family are in his house with Coptor. Suddenly, the evil robots led by Hun-Dred blast their way into his house. Coptor fires on the evil robots, but is defeated. The scientist is abducted by the evil robots for his research on putting human brains into robots. Hun-Dred and his crew would like Dr. Fury to do this for the evil Nazgar, who attempted to conquer the scientist's planet nearly 2000 years ago. Ten years later, a repaired Coptor and Dr. Fury's son (Mark Fury) along with new robots like Maxx Steele created by Mark go on a mission to find his father. The final battle occurs in Nazgar's headquarters. Nazgar (whose brain is now in a robot body) seemingly escapes, Hun-Dred and a laser gun meant to wreak havoc on the planet are destroyed by Maxx Steele, and Dr. Fury is saved.

Ideal went kinda nuts with the marketing of Roboforce, and Maxx Steele in particular. Aside from the toy line itself, there was a Roboforce Magazine, a Roboforce board game, Roboforce napkins, table cloths and party hats for your Roboforce themed party, Roboforce sailor caps, a Maxx Steele erector set, a Maxx Steele phone, an actual working Maxx Steele robot that could play music, respond to commands and serve you drinks and stuff. Needless to say, Ideal marketed the fuck outta Roboforce. More Roboforce were planned, but never got released. As can be seen from the Ideal product catalog above (which I remember having because my aunt Tess worked for Ideal) there were plans for 3 more robots on each side. The human characters from the cartoon were planned as well. Unfortunately, the line fizzled fairly quickly and these toys never got made. Now, as to why Roboforce remains one of my favorite toy lines… that would be the Fortress of Steele.

If the Wheeled Warriors Battle Base was the Maybach Benz of toys, the Fortress of Steele was Diddy’s Mansion in the Hamptons. You needed some serious toy credibility in my living room to even get through the door of this thing, and I’m not talking about being on Louie Vegas’ guest list. I’m looking at these pics and realizing that the place probably doesn’t photograph all that well, but look at its stats, it had everything; three different levels, it features a giant citadel dome that flips over to reveal laser cannon, a boom crane and hoist, a revolving secret passage console, hidden arsenal compartment, a sliding bulkhead door, working drawbridge, flip-over stockade cell, throne chamber, laser swivel guns, robot shuttle sled, a weapons rack and more.

Apparently retailers shared Ideal’s overly optimistic hopes for the success of Roboforce because they WAY overstocked on products, particularly the Fortress of Steele. Play sets, at a high price point are a rough sell to parents to begin with, but apparently some stores had overstock on the Fortress well into Christmas 1986… when you could purchase one for just under 17 bucks. Talk about plummeting real estate prices. Looks like Maxx’s crib got foreclosed on!

VISIONARIES (Hasbro, 1987): “Knights of the Magical Light”, I remember being excited about Visionaries from the day I first saw the commercial (which was tagged with “from the makers of Transformers). I remember being intrigued because I always really liked when magic and technology were combined, which is what Visionaries did. The story took place on the planet Prysmos, a world with three suns. The suns recently aligned for the first time in millennia and inexplicably caused all advanced technology to stop working, plunged society into a feudal, medieval-like state. Noble and evil knights battled to rule their respective territories, and the mysterious wizard Merklynn appeared, promising great magical power to those who could enter his sanctuary on top of Iron Mountain. A handful of knights managed to accomplish this. The knights were gifted with animal totems, which appeared on the chestplates of their armor. The knights gained the ability to transform into these animals at will. The animals were selected by Merklynn based on their personalities. Those carrying battle staffs were also given additional powers. Those without staffs later found they had the ability to make special vehicles operate. Merklynn dubbed these knights The Visionaries.

What was great to me about the Visionaries is they were built like G.I. Joe figures, only about an inch taller, which means they were really articulated and easy to play with. The vehicles and accessories and concept were all cool enough that they captured much of 8 year old Joey’s attention. The good guys were called the Spectral Knights and the bad guys were called the Darkling Lords. The Spectral Knights were Leoric (lion), Witterquick (cheetah), Arzon (eagle), Cryotek (bear), Ectar (fox), and Feryl (wolf). The Darkling Lords were Darkstorm (Mollusk), Cindarr (Gorilla), Cravex (phylot… some kind of pterodactyl-like bird), Lexor (armadillo), Reekon (lizard) and Mortdredd (beetle).

The toy line was supported by both a cartoon and a comic book. The comic only lasted a handful of issues and died off with a cliffhanger. The cartoon and the accompanying toy line were cancelled at the same time all 1980s Sunbow cartoons were cancelled (particularly Transformers after the episode Headmasters: The Rebirth, and the G.I. Joe Movie - Sunbow was unable to renew their contract to keep their cartoons running). A huge second wave of characters was actually planned for release in 1988. It would have included 18 new figures, 6 Sun Imps (creatures introduced in the last episode of the cartoon), 6 new vehicles and an Iron Mountain playset.

Sadly what killed the line off wasn’t poor sales, as the toys actually sold well enough to justify the really ambitious plans for the second wave. Also, Hasbro was trying real hard to get a working holographic projection of Merklynn into the Iron Mountain playset, technology I’m not even certain exists today. Unfortunately, the holograms were just too cost-prohibitive to produce, had to be outsourced and would deteriorate over time. Oh well, here’s a look at what could have been.

BATTLE BEASTS (Hasbro, 1987): Lastly we have Battle Beasts. These little guys originated in Japan, where they were called Beastformers and were actually part of the Takara’s Transformers line. Hasbro brought them over here as part of its licensing deal with Takara, but Hasbro chose not to market them as part of Transformers over here. In Japan, rubbing a Beastformer’s rubsign would reveal an Autobot or Decepticon symbol, just like on regular Transformers. Here, rubsign hid one of three totems, wood, water or fire. Essentially the concept of the line was “rock, paper scissors” only in this case wood floats on water, water puts out fire and fire burns wood. You could build your army of Beasts and challenge your friends. No Beast had a set symbol, so it was really supposed to be a mystery until you actually rubbed the sign. The concept is pretty well illustrated in the commercial below.

I’m not quite sure why I loved these little guys so much. I certainly didn’t play along with Hasbro’s ridiculous concept for the line. In my world a fish just couldn’t be fire, a bat couldn’t be water, etc. So I would switch the signs up to keep them more consistent. This got a little tricky with fire, which I decided was either desert or plains… pretty much any environment not covered in water or trees. Then my little 2 inch anthropomorphic armies would battle each other, with the idea being to conquer territory.

So in my adventures, the Water team wanted to cover the world in oceans, the Wood team, trees, etc. I also rationalized away the “wood beats water”, “Fire beats wood” thing, theorizing that strength in numbers could overcome the natural hierarchy (enough water could wash away a dam, a hot enough fire could evaporate water). Which didn’t really work for fire vs. wood, but whatever, I was eight. Also, in my world, another way to defeat a Battle Beast was to stab him in his totem, which would teleport him back to his base for a set period of time. Oh yeah, the other reason I loved these things, the bases, a.k.a. The Wood Beetle, The Blazing Eagle and the Shocking Shark.

These things were awesome. Aside from being vehicles that could hold a ton of Battle Beasts, they opened up into full fledged headquarters for the Beasts. This is where the wounded Beasts would be teleported to for healing after being stabbed in the totem, and also from where the Beasts would govern their territory. Aside from the large vehicles, there were also three battle chariots that pretty clearly mirrored after specific Battle Beast figures (the ram, the tiger and the reindeer), which was a problem for me since there was no obvious Water chariot. I never got around to solving that problem

Hasbro was also cool enough to release a mail-away poster, so you could learn all the Battle Beasts’ names (for some reason the names weren’t printed on the Beast’s individual packages, probably as a cost cutting measure). The poster was also great because each Beast’s name included what kind of animal it was, because it wasn’t always clear from looking at them (for example, before getting the poster I always assumed Killer Carp was a pirranah). I had one taped to the wall in my basement for awhile as a kid. Unfortunately I could only find a pic of the French/English version that was released in Canada.

JoeyEsq is a Darkling Lord and fights for the Wood team. When he isn’t layin’ back in the cut at the Fortress of Steele or cruising the hood in his Battle Base, he can be found ranting on his own blog, Perpetual Dissatisfaction.


  1. I definately remember 'Visionaries' I thought the whole hologram concept was especially cool as were the whole knights motif. For the time those holograms were pretty sophisticated. I really liked the cartoon. I remember it being on the same time as 'Skeletal Warriors' so in my mind I often mix up the two storylines. Besides, skeletons fighting knights with holograms was the next natural evolution of both toy and cartoon. But, as usual, I was too ahead of my time to convince others of the coolness of the project and the idea just died on the vine.

  2. BATTLE BEASTS, FTW!!!!!! I love, love, loved those guys. Wonderful stuff... they are the precursors to Marvel's Superhero Squad guys that my son Mikey loves so much. Toys did not have to be large to be cool. These little guys were so fun. Great job as usuall Joe. I love ya kid... keep em coming!

  3. I loved RoboForce. Good stuff, Joey. A fun read.

  4. Visionaries was a great toy line. They had such good detail and brutal weapons. They had really cool helmets as well that you could take on and off which I really liked.

    Battle beats were great as well. I had a bunch of them along with the bird and shark play-sets I believe. I too did not let myself be burdened with the assigned elemental category. My favorite one was the rhino with the mace hand. I think I was partial to all the one's with weapon hands, it was a cool little touch.

  5. Man, this was another great read, Joe. I remembered all of these toy lines (after you jogged my memory, of course) But, no others from this week's post hit home harder than the 'Battle Beasts' portion. Man I loved those little fuckers. I remember my mom had gotten me a couple of 24 packs of these guys to start me off while shopping one evening on The Home Shopping Club of all places. After that, I loved growing my army with the 2packs (4packs?) that I found on the toy shelves. I started buying these up at the tailend of my toyplaying years and was very disappointed that I was unable to get my hands on any of the battle stations.

    Last I heard they were giving away an updated 'Battle Beasts' gator figure at last years Comic Con ...and that there were mutterings of a reboot in the toyline. I hope this to be true because from what I saw, that gator looked INCREDIBLE and I think I might just come out of toy-playing hibernation to pile my coffee table high with the battles of the new beasts.

    Great post! Can't wait to see what you remind me of next!

  6. Here's a link to that new Gator 'Battle Beast' incase any of you missed it.

  7. There was also some talk I believe around SDCC time of a new line of larger more detailed beasts.

  8. Those are F*ckin' awesome, too, Rob. Gotta get my hands on that Octopus!