In 1978, the Star Wars 3.5″ action figure line revolutionized the way kids played with toys. Finally kids could fit their action figures into inexpensive toy vehicles that didn’t take up a ridiculous amount of space, like the huge, 8-12″ poseable dolls that dominated the market up to that point. Then in 1982, Hasbro expanded on the Star Wars concept and introduced the now-legendary G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line; a series of modern military action figures with weapons and accessories that were the size of Star Wars figures, but were made of better plastic, and had articulated, poseable joints! The G.I. Joe line took the toy universe by storm, dominating the market for well over a decade and producing iconic characters that are still being immortalized in plastic today. Here’s a look at five of the absolute coolest and greatest classic 1980’s Real American Hero action figures:

5.) Storm Shadow -Wave Three (1984)

Around 1983, a huge, and I mean HUGE ninja craze took hold in America. I’m not exactly sure how it all started, but all of sudden there were ninja magazines, ninja movies, ninja TV shows, ninja merchandise, and ninja weapons everywhere you looked. This was, naturally, the coolest thing to ever happen in the life of 9-year-old kid. Everyone on the schoolyard wanted a pair of  nunchaku, a katana sword, tabi boots, and a shinobi mask.

Sadly, not many of us had the scratch to get a full ninja outfit, but we had the next best thing: the new “Cobra Ninja” action figure: Storm Shadow. Decked out in his white ninja outfit, Storm Shadow was simply the lord of the badasses. The figure came with a nunchaku, a bow, and two swords which slid into the built-in scabbards on the “quiver” backpack. Stormie here also had a dagger and two shuriken (throwing stars) tucked into his sash, but unfortunately, they were just sculpted into the plastic. Bummer!!

In the G.I. Joe comics, Storm Shadow started off as an evil bodyguard to Cobra Commander, but it was later revealed that he was just working undercover in the organization to uncover the identity of his Uncle’s assassin, which turned out to be Zartan. He later left COBRA, and joined his “sword-brother” Snake-Eyes on the side of justice.


4.) Destro – Wave Two (1983)

Destro’s back story was that he was a Scottish Lord who owned a weapons-manufacturing company called M.A.R.S. industries, and he supplied arms to the COBRA forces. But he was also evil enough to become Cobra Commander’s right-hand man, and smooth enough to get that leather-and-spandex clad naughty Baroness in the sack. How was Destro able to accomplish all of this? Well, for starters, he wears an AWESOME chrome mask. Seriously, just look at that thing. As a kid, any action figure that had shiny, “vaccuum-metalized” parts was automatically mind-blowingly cool. Destro here was the coolest of the cool.

Destro also came a nifty backpack that could open and close! Again, another mind-shattering innovation for 1980’s playthings. The total package was finished off with wrist-rockets (dude could shoot missiles from this bracelets! Painted on, sadly), and that giant red-collared jacket, zipped open down to his navel to reveal a sweet ruby pimp medallion!


3.)  Mutt & Junkyard- Wave Three (1984)

Mutt was the G.I. Joe’s team’s K-9 officer, and the joke involving this particular character is that he was the mean and ornery one who needed to wear the muzzle, and not his dog Junkyard, who was just a loveable, loyal goof. I was always drawn to this character for some reason, probably because of that cool removable muzzle that you could affix to his head (or the dog’s), and the other array of accessories he came with, like that small nightstick (which I’m sure he never used on poor Junkyard!). Mutt also had a totally rad 80’s mustache, and that giant protective gauntlet looked like it could do some serious damage to some poor COBRA schlub’s face. Of course, Junkyard himself was a big selling point for this action figure, because it was like getting two toys in one! Plus, look how cute he is. Awwww….


2.) Zartan W/Swamp Skier – Wave Three (1984)

Ahhh, the evil COBRA master of disguise. Zartan was the Holy Grail of the third wave of Real American Hero figures series, mostly due to two unique characteristics: 1.) He could turn color when exposed to sunlight, and 2.) He came with a small vehicle – the uber-cool Swamp Skier!  These features instantly made Zartan into the object of playground lust. We’re talking Ralphie/Red Ryder BB Gun fervor here, boys and girls.

The first feature was probably the coolest and held the most appeal for G. I. Joe-crazed youngsters. However, this gimmick got old pretty quick and was rather disappointing as the dramatic “color changing skin” turned out to be just one sickly shade of purple. I don’t know how useful it would be for someone’s skin to turn purple in the middle of a battlefield, but hey, it was pretty cool at the time. Zartan also came equipped with his super-secret disguise kit, which was basically a snap-open backpack with a creepy little rubber mask that you could affix over Zartan’s face.


1.) Snake-Eyes – Wave Four (1985)

Oh yeah, feast your eyes on the epitome of action figure badassery, ladies and gentlemen. The Wave Four Snake-Eyes was the second and best version of the character (he was part of the original wave in 1982), and this outfit made him instantly iconic. He was already a very popular character, but the introduction of his ninja background in the comic book series sent his appeal among Joe fans into the stratosphere. He remains the most popular G.I. Joe character of all-time.

Just look at this toy! It’s pure awesome. It features the super-sweet metal visor, black outfit with grey grenade bandolier and accents, ninja sword, backpack, Uzi machine gun (Snake-Eyes’ firearm of choice, FYI), and Snake-Eyes trusty wolf Timber. Yes, that’s right, decades before the Stark children of Winterfell kept direwolves as pets, ol’ Snake-Eyes here had a loyal lupine companion that would tear your throat out if you looked at him sideways!  This action figure was my most coveted possession; the one that did the most damage to the legions of plastic COBRA goons dumb enough to point a gun at him, and – in my humble opinion – the greatest and best 3.5′ action figure of all-time!

What was your favorite classic G.I. Joe figure?


About Author

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.