10. ThunderCats LJN 1985
The cartoon was easily one of the bigger hits of the 1980’s, with over 130 episodes. “ThunderCats,” who flee their dying planet, are attacked by Mutants of Plun-Darr. With their starships damaged while escaping, they are forced to stop and arrive on Earth. The Mutants then locate the ThunderCats on Earth. And the battling ensues! The toys each have a “Battle-Mattic” action, or simply a gimmick. The toys were released over 3 years. They are big but not too big at 5”, with excellent sculpts that matched the cartoon. IGN ranked the ThunderCats cartoon the 49th greatest cartoon of all time.
9. M.A.S.K. Kenner 1985
Created by Kenner, M.A.S.K. is a battle between the underground task force Mobile Armored Strike Kommand (M.A.S.K.) and the criminal organization Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem (V.E.N.O.M.). Each mask worn by the drivers has a special ability. After the M.A.S.K. launch in 1985, it ended after four series of action figures were released. Over 70 episodes of the cartoon aired. A live-action theatrical film has been in development by Hasbro Studios and Paramount for about the last 10 years.
The toys outlived the cartoon and lasted 4 years. Oddly the toys shifted focus late in the series. In 1987 they moved from the original theme of crime-fighting and terrorism, to instead focus on racing. The original toys have some clever gimmicks built-in. IGN ranked the cartoon series 99th greatest of all time.
8. Masters of the Universe (MOTU) Mattel 1982
Masters of the Universe was created by Mattel in 1982. The story details the conflict between He-Man and Skeletor on the planet Eternia. It’s a mashup of the medieval and sci-fi tech. The 5.5” action figures seem right at home at that size. I have tried to imagine them at 3.5” and the image isn’t a pleasant one. The cartoon debuted in the fall of 1983, which saw a whopping 130 episodes made. In the series, He-Man battles with Skeletor to prevent him from conquering Eternia. Who hasn’t heard “By the power of Grayskull?” IGN ranked the series 58th greatest of all-time. It also spawned a spin-off called She-Ra.
7. Dino Riders Tyco 1987
Dino-Riders first aired in 1988. Another show made to sell Tyco’s toys, what great toys they were. Unfortunately, the cartoon didn’t last a year. Dino-Riders focuses on a battle between the heroic Valorians and the evil Rulon Alliance on a prehistoric Earth. The Valorians and Rulons are both 65 million years from the future. The Valorians were a superhuman race, while the Rulons comprised several breeds of humanoid animals. While the Valorians befriended dinosaurs using their Amplified Mental Projector (AMP), the Rulons brainwashed them using devices called brain-boxes.
A battle quickly ensued when the Rulons launched an attack on the Valorians, who used their dinosaur friends to beat them back. After words, the Valorians renamed themselves Dino-Riders. I’m sure the series bothers anthropologists since the dinosaurs span a timeframe somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million years apart and were never found on earth in the same period of time. Toys don’t get much better than high tech, loads of guns and dinosaurs.
6. Star Wars Kenner 1977
Kenner was the toy company lucky enough to land the Star Wars action figures line. More specifically from what I have heard, they were the only company even interested. Making over 110 unique action figures produced and sold from 1977 to 1985. On the order of 300 million figures made. Making it the first commercially successful attempt to sell action figure toys from a movie. A recipe that many toy companies tried to duplicate to their peril.
Additionally, the Lucas Kenner pairing led to 3 ¾” figures becoming the almost default size moving forward still to this day. Lucas did Kenner no favors in helping to get production going, with only the early bird offer available in 1977. This was largely due to Lucas’s paranoia that his designs would be stolen. Demand was such that there were still shortages at Christmas in 1978. Demand remained strong until mid-1985 when Kenner discontinued production. What shop doesn’t have some Star Wars collectibles?
5. G.I. Joe Hasbro 1982
With roots older than any other action figure, G.I. Joe spans back to 1963. G.I. Joe was a “mobile strike force” assembled with the mission of protecting America from threats. The number one enemy quickly became the Cobra Commander and his Cobra army.
Basically, Hasbro copied Kenner’s Star Wars packaging style and figure size. However, they vastly improved the figure’s articulation and instead of giving one or no accessories, they often gave a handful! This is why Joes for me are ranked higher, simply put they have better play value. A new movie, “Snake Eyes” is due to come out in 2021. IGN ranked the cartoon the 19th greatest of all time with the toys being gobbled up by toy buyers ever since.
4. Voltron Matchbox 1984
The top 4 are dominated by very high-quality toys. Matchbox probably saw their rival Mattel making money hand over fist with He-man so they likely figured they needed to figure this out. So they did like everyone else, what show can I make or acquire to peddle some wares?
Right out of the box, Matchbox truly had a better plan. They wanted the show in syndication immediately. To do that, they needed a large number of episodes upfront. They accomplished that by acquiring the rights to two cartoon series from Toei Animation. With that deal, Matchbox acquired Popy, a division of Bandai as a partner as well. The only problem was that Matchbox had to tweak all the toys to make them safety compliant for the US market. IGN ranked the cartoon 76th greatest of all time.
3. Shogun Warriors Mattel 1978
In 1978, Mattel’s Shogun Warriors arrived in stores. They were well-made, durable robots with spring-loaded weapons. In some cases, giant robots standing 24” tall. Another toy from Japanese anime programs and franchises.
The shogun Warriors encompassed the robot franchises of Brave Raideen, Divine Demon-Dragon Daiking, Getter Robo and Mazinger Z. Shogun Warriors were then fully immersed into the Marvel Universe, with appearances from other Marvel characters. Not only did the line include figures, but it also included land and air vehicles and monsters such as Godzilla. While as a child I only had 4 of the basic figures, I was sold on these toys. A well-made, very durable, high-quality metal toy! What’s not to love?
2. Godaikin Bandai 1982
Mattel had canceled the Shogun Warrior line due to safety concerns. So where Mattel left off in 1982 Bandai’s Popy division decided to make their own attempt. Godaikin was born. Godaikin name originates from “gokin” and “dai, which means big alloy.
Popy, a division of Bandai, selected some of their Chogokin figures for release. Standing 10-12” tall the figures were impressive. By targeting a slightly older demographic this allowed them legally to keep their spring-loaded weapons. The toys were expensive, over $70 in some cases, which was a lot in 1982! So the following year Bandai decided to try a new assortment with many smaller 6” figures. While getting the price more in line with parental expectations, they missed their window. Go-Bots would arrive in 1983 and then Transformers in 1984 taking over. Bandai still sporadically released Godaikin figures until 1986.
1. Transformers Hasbro 1984
Transformers action figures were originally released in 1984 by Hasbro. The Transformers brand has been for sale ever since. Robots in disguise was a great concept. Hasbro loved the Diaclone and Micro Change lines and made a deal with Takara to sell them in the US market. Hasbro followed their game plan with G.I. Joe and turned once again to Marvel to develop the Transformers Universe. Marvel delivered in a big way. Including the factions, names, backstories, bio’s and even personalities. Marvel gave Transformers their depth. They started as very high-quality toys but seemed to decline every year after. I think the technical term is a cash cow. IGN ranked Transformers as the 23rd all-time greatest cartoon!
We’re a vintage toy shop and we love old vintage action figures toys. I hope you enjoyed this article! Please feel free to comment, on who we missed, Super Powers, Rock Lords, Battle Beasts, Food Fighters, Computer Warriors……. We welcome your feedback. Thank you.
Author: Chris Ingledue
Bio: I’m the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys, triggering fond memories and reigniting their imaginations. Every day I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year; scouring the internet – like we did the Sears Catalog of yesteryear – for the next great treasure, awaiting the arrival of the postman as if he was Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their own versions of Christmas. Every day is an absolute joy!