If you were a kid growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, or early ’90s, toys—specifically toys from movies and afternoon cartoons—were absolutely crucial to your everyday existence. Since we didn’t have advanced home or portable video game systems, smartphones, hundreds of channels of cable TV, and thousands of movies and shows available for instant streaming – our plastic playthings were the only baubles we had to keep ourselves occupied and entertained. They were also a way for us to “own” a piece of the incredibly popular genre properties that we loved, like He-Man, Star Wars, and G.I. Joe.
But along with massive success came the imitators; lesser toy companies looking to strike gold capitalized on trends and piggybacked on the success of these mega-popular brands/toylines by rolling out derivative and shoddily made TV shows and toy lines of their own, and occasionally a clueless parent or relative would deposit one of these off-brand, rip-off misfits on the birthday gift table or under the Christmas tree, much to our chagrin. Here then, are ten of the lamest toys that you may have been stuck with instead of the real deal that you coveted:
10.) Lost World of the Warlord (Remco)
What you really wanted: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
You are going to see the name Remco on this list a lot – as they were the leading producer of cheap knock-off toys that ended up buried at the bottom of the closet or blown up by M-80s. The “Lost World of the Warlord” line was a horrible 5 1/2″ line of barbarian warrior toys meant to cash in on the success of He-Man & The Masters of the Universe. The lead character himself looks like a homeless Green Arrow who made a cape out of a dirty animal print rug, then wandered into Asgard’s coat check room and stole Thor’s helmet.
Based on an obscure DC comic book by Mike Grell that nobody read, the Warlord action figures were crafted out of low-grade plastic that makes Chinese Dry Wall smell like fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies by comparison. They were often advertised on the cheap at stores like Woolworth’s and K-Mart, which is fitting, considering The Warlord is essentially a discount He-Man. Blue light special in the toy aisle!
9.) Battle Beasts (Hasbro)
What you really wanted: M.U.S.C.L.E.
In late 1985, my fifth-grade world was turned upside down by the arrival of Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere. On the surface, there was nothing particularly special about the M.U.S.C.L.E. line – they had no articulation, no weapons to speak of, and no spring-loaded missiles, but they were weird and fascinating and cheap and eminently tradeable. Seriously, my schoolyard became a Middle Eastern Bazaar that dealt solely in the sale and barter of crazy-ass 1 1/2″” pink wrestler figures imported from Japan (Kinnukiman). Plus, they had this smell that was just…indescribably awesome…*ahem*
By all rights, Battle Beasts should have been viewed as the superior “tiny” toy line – they were colorful, had weapons and articulation, and they had a gimmicky “rock paper scissors” feature in the form of heat-sensitive stickers on their chests that—when rubbed—would reveal their “elemental power”: wood, water, or fire. (Water extinguished fire, fire burned wood, and wood floated on water.) But they just never caught on and their value at the M.U.S.C.L.E. market was minimal at best. It probably would’ve cost you at least five Battle Beasts to nab you one hot M.U.S.C.L.E figure like Terri-Bull or THIS GUY:
8.) Filmation Ghostbusters (Schaper)
What you really wanted: The Real Ghostbusters
Ahhh, the strange saga of Filmation’s Ghostbusters franchise. See, in 1974, the company ran a short-lived live-action Saturday morning kids show that featured washed-up former stars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch stumbling around cheap haunted house sets, “busting” ghosts and vampires with the aid of a guy in a bad gorilla costume. It was sort of like a Worlds of Syd & Marty Krofft show, only with less charm and an even lower budget. Here’s the show intro:
Unsurprisingly, the show was a turkey, and was all but forgotten by Filmation until 1983, when Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray wanted to make a movie called Ghostbusters. Not knowing the film would be a gargantuan blockbuster hit (and a bona fide phenomenon), Filmation licensed the name to Columbia pictures for $500,000 and 1% of the film’s profits (which turned out to the zero, thanks to some studio accounting chicanery).
After the movie made gobs and gobs of cash, Filmation did concept art for an animated series based on Egon, Ray, Peter, and Winston, but Columbia was all like, “Nah, we’re good, dudes,” and went with another studio. But Filmation, which still legally owned the rights to produce a Ghostbusters series, turned around a quickly crapped out 65 episodes of poorly animated dreck based off their failed live-action ’70s The Ghostbusters show. They beat Columbia to the punch, so they were forced to title their movie-based show The Real Ghostbusters.
Filmation also produced a line of shitty action figures to go along with their dreadful cartoon. Needless to say, confused Aunts and Grandmothers across the country picked up Tracey the Gorilla figures and that dumb ol’ possessed jalopy, thinking they would be showered with adoration and laughter. Instead, they were met with tears and looks of abject horror by kids hoping to see an Egon action figure or the Ecto-1 under all that gift wrap.
7.) Photon (Entertech)
What you really wanted: Lazer Tag
I never had either of these toys, so to this day I have absolutely no clue if Photon functioned better than Lazer Tag, but I do know one thing for certain: Photon was treated like the Pepsi—nay, the RC Cola—to Lazer Tag’s Coke. Who really knows why? Kids are fickle. Maybe we thought Lazer Tag had cooler guns and more awesome helmets? It’s a mystery that only archaeologists digging up plastic space guns 1,000 years from now will be able to determine.
6.) Street Sharks (Mattel)
What you really wanted: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Cowabunga, dude! In the early to mid ’90s, you couldn’t set foot in any retail location in America (and perhaps even the world), without stumbling over aisles and bins loaded with lunch boxes, bath towels, Slurpee cups, t-shirts, decorative vases, crockpots, toilet lids, footwear, mops, and marital aids – all emblazoned with the visages of Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. No, not the Renaissance artists, the mutha-truckin’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, boyyyyy. When the G.I. Joe and Transformers toy lines/animated series began to wane in the late ’80s, the totally tubular terrapins pounced on the opening and almost overnight, became the hottest kids commodity since the invention of fruit roll-ups and lunchboxes with thermoses. (Oh, and the Turtles would get their faces on those, too.)
The Turtles ubiquitous popularity spawned dozens of radical, extreme, wise-crackin’, catchphrase-spoutin’ skateboardin’ anthropomorphic animal gangs with accompanying toy line and animated series. The most memorable of the Turtle rip-offs is probably Battletoads, but since they were strictly a video game property that never got a toy line, the runners-up are the Street Sharks, four totally extreeeeeeeeeme mutated shark bros who bit crime in the ass while belting out their trademark catchphrase, “JAWSOME!!!” Yes, jawsome indeed. What wasn’t so awesome was receiving a “Moby Lick” figure when you were hoping to get the latest Michelangelo variant. Moby Lick? Really? This guy may need to get on anti-fungal medication. Looks like he has a bit of oral thrush there…
5.) Starcom (Coleco)
What you really wanted: M.A.S.K.
In the ’70s, Kenner and Fisher Price revolutionized the toy industry with the introduction of the 3 3/4″ size action figure for their Star Wars and Adventure People lines, respectively. Hasbro would later adopt the size for their wildly popular G.I. Joe line, as would dozens and dozens of other popular ’80s toy lines like A-Team, Visionaries, Star Trek, Mego Pocket Superheroes, and more. Then M.A.S.K. burst on the scene in 1985 and did something that hadn’t really been done since 1976: they shrunk the action figure again. Because the animated series and toy line would be built around an armada of transforming vehicles—including huge tanker trucks and planes—and costs would need to kept down so families could afford to complete the collection, Kenner introduced the teeny 2-inch action figures to rousing success.
Coleco soon followed this trend in 1987 with their Starcom line, which of course had the obligatory, poorly produced animated series designed to sell as many bits of molded plastic as possible. Now I just want to state for the record, that the Starcom line isn’t lame at all; it’s actually quite cool in many respects. The toys were built incredibly well and had a ton of great features like motorized cockpits and storage hatches, good quality die cast metal parts, and the real selling point – action figures with “Magna Lock” (magnetic feet!). It was far from a crushing disappointment to get a Starcom vehicle, it’s just that M.A.S.K. was so much more memorable and popular at the time that anything else but a 2-inch figure with a colorful costume, mask, and a cherry red Z-28 Camaro that transformed into a plane, just wasn’t cutting it.
4.) Sergeant Rock (Remco)
What you really wanted: G.I. Joe
Ahhh Remco, you did it again. Not content to co-opt the success of barbarian/sci-fi -themed toys like He-Man with their execrable Warlord toy line, the second-rate toy hucksters decided they wanted a piece of that sweet G.I. Joe pie in as well. So, in 1982, they took another long dormant, completely irrelevant comic book property—in this case artist Joe Kubert’s World War II hero Sgt. Rock—and fashioned a low-rent, copycat line of tough guy military action figures with generic handles like “Gunner,” “Mack,” and the wildly creative”Airman.” They were even brazen enough to completely rip off G.I. Joe’s enemy terrorist organization Cobra, with a snake-themed cadre of elite assassins known as…
“The Bad Guys?” Seriously? “The Ultimate Enemy?” More like the ultimate disappointment when you got “Snake” in your Christmas stocking instead of Cobra Commander. Cripes.
The problem was, G.I. Joe figures were so colorful, and had such high-tech, cutting edge technology at their disposal, that Sgt. Rock figures seemed like ancient relics from a bygone era; a half-step up from the stationary, obsolete “little green army men.” It certainly didn’t help matters that they weren’t nearly as articulate as G.I. Joe figures, and were made out of that same shitty, smelly plastic as the Warlord figures. Sgt. Rock figures did serve a purpose, though. Since they were dirt cheap, you could buy up a bunch of them to serve as Snake-Eyes practice dummies, or Cobra’s torture victims, or speed bumps for the VAMP jeep or the MOBAT tank. Ahhh…wholesome memories…
3.) Voltron (Matchbox)
What you really wanted: Wait for it…
In 1984, the American syndication studio World Events Productions partnered with Japanese animation company Toei to bring their series Beast King GoLion to the States. Re-christened Voltron: Defender of the Universe, the show became a gigantic hit with kids watching five days a week after school. Soon Matchbox got the license to import the Voltron action figures from Japan, and they unleashed the massive, awe-inspiring, Holy Grail of the 1984 toy universe: the Matchbox die-cast metal Voltron. I’m not being hyperbolic at all when I say that many children wept at the sight of this glorious metal specimen. The robot could also be broken down into its individual lion parts, adding a dimension of awesomeness and playability few robot toys—or toys in general—could compete with. So imagine the thrill of seeing a gigantic, heavy box under the tree on Christmas morning, tearing off a bit of shiny wrapping paper, and catching a glimpse of that famous Voltron logo. Now imagine that child-like rush of adrenaline and glee intensifying as you shred the remainder of the wrapping paper to reveal…
Ohhhh man…not vehicle Voltron! *sigh*
Yep. Vehicle Voltron. You see, World Event Productions had to chop so much violence out of Beast King GoLion so it would be palatable for American children, that they needed to buy another entire series to pad out the syndication order. (Seriously, if you want your childhoods ruined, YouTube “Beast King Golion and watch the horrors unfold.) That series was called Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, but was passed off as another Voltron series set in the same universe, where the “Galactic Alliance”—who sometimes popped up in awkwardly inserted footage during the Lion Voltron show—needed a team of space explorers to seek out new hospitable planets. They piloted three teams of vehicles – Air, Sea, and Land, which formed a new Voltron robot that fought the obligatory giant monsters. Yes, it was as lame as it sounds.
So imagine the letdown it must have been to get this pile of cars and ships, instead of the five powerful lions. Lion Voltron had a mighty blazing sword, a badass spiky round throwing star thing, and lions that detached and shot missiles and blades out of their mouths. Vehicle Voltron had…cars on his feet that could serve as roller skates, I guess? Which, come to think of it, were completely useless since he spent 99.9% of the show floating in the vacuum of deep space. Nice one.
2.) Go-Bots (Tonka)
What you really wanted: Transformers
Oh, Go-Bots….Go-Bots were like the annoying little brother who wanted to tag along with the big kids and play with all the cool big boy toys. Everything about the Go-Bots, from their limp, bland packaging design, to the insipidness of their half-assed animated series, reeked of unadulterated lameness. To be fair, a majority of Go-Bots were solidly made out of die-cast metal, and Go-Bots actually beat Transformers to the market (Go-Bots hit shelves in 1983, Transformers in ’84). But, Tonka imported an inferior line (Bandai’s Machine Robo series) and had no idea how to market it, while Hasbro struck gold with the Diaclone and Microchange lines, and the classic Sunbow animated series took the Transformers property to new heights of popularity.
If you wanted Transformers toys and you ended up with Go-Bots, it was the equivalent of Charlie Brown getting rocks in his sack on Halloween night. The heartbreak was immeasurable. I don’t mean to pile on the poor Go-Bots here, but if the entire Go-Bots roster—Guardians and Renegades— teamed up with vehicle Voltron, to take on the duo of Optimus Prime and Lion Voltron, you’d have a makeshift scrapyard of Go-Bot and Galactic Alliance exploration team spare parts in about eighteen seconds.
1.) Starroid Raiders/Space Raiders/Space People (Tomland)
What you really wanted: Star Wars (duh)
Wow, just look at these guys. Just look at them. “Starroid” raiders? “Starroid?” Is that like a hemorrhoid you get from sitting in an uncomfortable spaceship? Great googly moogly, that figure in the upper right…it’s as if someone decapitated an albino wookiee and mounted its head on a horrifying cyborg body. These things are unholy abominations, and I wish they never existed. Second one in from the left on the bottom row…is that a buck-toothed Miss Piggy with devil horns?
What the hell, Tomland, was I supposed to seamlessly integrate these space derps into my Kenner action figure collection? Were these guys meant to pass for Cantina aliens or Jabba’s henchmen? Who are you kidding? These cheap jamokes couldn’t afford a drink at the Cantina. The bottom row, however, may have hope of signing on to Jabba’s bedpan crew, or tending to his exfoliation needs.
Star Wars, being the insanely profitable worldwide phenomenon that it was, launched hundreds upon hundreds of imitators looking to make a quick buck off of the sci-fi/fantasy craze that George Lucas set off in 1977. Shady toy manufacturer Tomland was no different, quickly slapping some paint on some waxy plastic aliens and shipping them to stores in 1977 ahead of the actual initial Star Wars action figure assortment! Starroid Raiders were available next to authentic Kenner Star Wars figures on the racks of supermarkets and discount chains from 1977-1982, under various names like Space Raiders and Space Fighters, and they always sucked. Imagine being a good boy for Santa all year, hoping he brings you a Chewbacca and a Luke Skywalker figure, and instead you get a year of night terrors from Papi, the horrific Cyclopean product of a Darth Vader action figure mating with a creepy clown doll…