Action figures are probably the main toy genre of the 80s. So many big franchises started out during that time, many of which are still going strong. For the purpose of this list I’m taking into account vehicles too. So if a toyline has cool vehicles in it then it will rank higher. But I’m only counting toylines that do have action figures as their main sell. And they don’t have to be fully posable, just as long as they can be played ‘in action’ (i.e. not just used as statuettes).
The main obvious one that is missing is GI Joe, so I’m going to mention that right away before any of my American friends go crazy. Basically I really don’t remember GI Joe being that big in the UK. We had the 12” Action Man dolls in the late 70s and early 80s which were equivalent to the early GI Joes but I never liked those. Then when GI Joe changed to the 3 3/4” line it got renamed to Action Force here. I absolutely loved the Action Force comic from Marvel UK. But the toyline never really ’entered my wheelhouse’. It’s strange because I was so into the comic. And I do remember some of the early Action Force figures which were just generic things like ‘Frogman or’ ‘SAS Trooper’ etc but I never really got into them. I just don’t remember myself or any of my friends ever getting Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow figures. I’m gutted because I would have loved them.
So the list below is just my personal list of action figure toylines that impacted on me heavily in some way.10. Centurions
The one thing I loved about these toys was the sheer concept of them. It was like mecanno mixed with action figures. I loved the idea of a full body suit with lots of holes and slots to attach various weaponry and propulsion systems. Perhaps without the cartoon the toys wouldn’t actually have been as exciting but that just goes to show the power of 80s cartoon advertising.
9. Marvel Secret Wars
This one is an interesting one. I really don’t have any specific memory of owning these. I don’t even know how easy they were to get in the UK. But they made a huge dent in my 80s mindset because I think they were hugely heavily advertised in Marvel comics. Just looking at those adverts in every single Marvel comic I read for several years was enough for me to get enjoyment out of them and for them to leave a massive mark on my toy psyche.
I always loved the ThunderCats cartoon and to have toys of these awesome characters was so cool initially. Personally though I just don’t think they were all that well made. I think I got a bit picky at how they didn’t look as nice as their cartoon counterparts and the build of the toys in my mind wasn’t up to scratch. Great to have but not up there with the top guns on this list.
7. Battle Beasts
I’ve surprised myself by having these so high on my list. They’re kind of just static little lumps of plastic and the ‘hologram’ rubs off fairly easily, and you can’t even get much playing out of them in terms of the hologram because you very quickly remember which one is fire and which ones are wood and water. It’s like playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with someone who always goes Rock. But there was something about these little dudes that was just awesome. They were almost like those vinyl collectors toys you get now that everyone loves. Cute little colourful animals and monsters. Great to collect, awesome to look at and fantastic for throwing about in games.
Asterix really does not get the recognition it deserves. Firstly, the books are absolutely amazing. They are works of art. The artwork by Albert Uderzo is sublime and I was over the moon when these toys came out because they perfectly capture the colour and personality of Uderzo’s drawings. It’s like 3D versions of the artwork from the books. I particularly love the Roman soldiers. I didn’t have all the figures but I had a lot. And I only had one other friend that I knew who had any of them. It’s strange how they didn’t get the love I think they deserved. And they’re very difficult to find online nowadays. I just used to spend hours staring at the leaflets which showed the whole range. That was almost as good as reading the actual books. You can see a couple of them here.
Now we’re into the big guns. There were many WWF, and subsequently WWE, toylines over the years but the ones I’m talking about are the ones made by Hasbro. They were very cool, stylised figures which also had awesome action features to replicate their special moves in the ring. They were just so cool to look at but also incredibly fun to play with. Particularly if you had the awesome ring too. These are toys that just scream nostalgia when you see them today.
A great idea for a toyline. The toys were kind of a hybrid of Transformers and Star Wars. The cars and vehicles transform into cooler battle modes, and the figures were smaller than normal so that they can fit into the vehicles. But it wasn’t just about the vehicles. The figures themselves, although small were very cool and of course they all came with their own awesome masks. And one thing we haven’t mentioned yet which really does affect a toyline in my eyes… great packaging.
3. Star Wars
Of course one of the most iconic towlines ever. Probably the toyline that reinvented how franchise toys were made. Very cool 3 3/4” figures and very cool vehicles. There’s not much else to say about the Kenner Star Wars line. It was just so cool and is so synonymous with the late 70s and 80s. I have a distinct memory of collecting the Return of the Jedi line and staring at the back of the card for hours, working out who else I had to get. I love how the Star Wars line didn’t pander to kids too much either. A lot of the toys were grey and brown and pure representations of their on-screen characters. They didn’t jazz the toys up or change the colours to cater for a younger audience. They treated you like adults and I think we all respected that all the more. One thing I also really like about the Star Wars toyline is how they gave toys to some characters who only appeared on screen for literally a few seconds. People like Hammerhead for example. You only learnt these characters’ names through the toys, but it seemed to open up the Star Wars universe even more, which was fantastic.
I loved everything about Transformers when I was growing up. The packaging was easily one of the best packaging around. Fantastic artwork of their robot form on the front, extremely cool stats on the back which you could see with the red perspex strip that was inside. And then you had an awesome vehicle such as a Lamborghini Countach, a Porsche, a jet fighter, a semi-truck or a US army jeep which not only looked awesome in their vehicle form but also transformed into a freeking robot! This blew the minds of us 8 year old kids back in the 80s. And they weren’t flimsy plastic things like some other toylines. They were solid, die-cast metal, which felt sturdy in your hands and could inflict pain on yourself or others, plus paint that I’m sure could do some damage when swallowed too much too. But all that made them better. They felt real. And they felt good to transform. It just doesn’t feel the same when it’s plastic. My personal favourites were Optimus Prime, Sideswipe, Hound, Soundwave, Ravage and Bumblebee.
1. Masters of the Universe
He-Man stands out head and shoulders for me in the action figure toyline category. They reinvented the action figure in some ways. They went for a bigger, nearly 6” style and they also went for a very chunky approach, making a figure that was almost as wide as they were tall. They may get a big ridiculed for having bandy legs and for everyone having the exact same muscle definition but hey, maybe they just all had the same personal trainer, ok? But what a toyline it was. Such a wide range of figures. There was something there to keep everyone happy. Warriors, skeletons, monsters, robots, even cowboys and ninjas! Not to mention the subsequent She-Ra line to allow a more diverse clientele enjoy the MOTU universe too. It really was a very inclusive line. The mix of science and magic also made them very versatile to play with as you could make up lots of different stories for them to play in. Some great vehicles and playsets too of course, and the artwork on those boxes was just out of this world. I remember that for about two years of my life He-Man and Skeletor went absolutely everywhere with me. Easily my favourite toyline just for the sheer audacity of the creators’ imaginations.
What were your favourite action figure toylines? Let us know in the comments below.