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The Mini & The Mighty

There is no doubt that the 80’s were the age of the action figure boom. Prior to the introduction of lines such as Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles it was mostly Barbie-sized toys like the original G.I. Joe line that kids had to settle for (yes, Star Wars in 1978, but that was really the exception). These “action-dolls” were better than nothing, but if you compare the Mego version of Superman with his Super Powers counterpart, you can truly appreciate the artistry of these plastic creations.

But there was another exciting development in the world of action figures during this neon-laden decade that became the talk of the playground and sometimes the focus classroom witch hunts, of course I’m talking about the mini-action figure. Now I don’t know if there is an official term for these types scaled down figures, but once we get into the discussion I think you’ll see what I mean. So let’s power on in to the world of the mini and the mighty!

Probably the best example of these tiny toy box titans is the line of anthropomorphic, cyborg animals called Battle Beasts. Basically a robotically armored torso with the head, arms and legs of a wild animal, you couldn’t dig through a friend’s toy collection from 1987-1989 without finding a couple of these crazy creatures taking up space next to their Silverhawks or Visionaries figures. From Lions, to Sharks to Ducks, these things were as wacky as they were cool.

Now during my childhood I always thought the Battle Beasts were just the result of a hurried marketing meeting held over McD.L.T., “Quick, I’ve got tickets to see Debbie Gibson tonight, what’s the hottest thing in toys right now?’ “Uh, Transforming robots” “OK great, what else?” “Um, my kid loves his Pound Puppies” “OK, throw some animal heads on a robot body and let’s get them out by Thursday!” I still don’t doubt this is not 50% of what led to the creation of these miniscule marvels, but it turns out there is more to the story.

Are you ready for this? Battle Beasts are actually a spin-off from the Transformers! I won’t go into all the details, but suffice to say that in the Japanese version of the Transformers cartoon they came upon a race of robotic animals that were originally called Beastformers. Crazy, huh? Now I own the Battle Beasts comic book and at no point does Optimus Prime or even Hot Rod for that matter make an appearance, so really the only way a kid at the time could have made the connection was stickers on their chests that declared what tribe that creature aligned themselves with.

You might recall that the Transformers had a similar gimmick that when you pressed your finger against the square stickers on their bodies the heat would reveal an Autobot or Decepticon logo to reveal their alliance. With just Fire, Water or Wood to choose from, the Battle Beats were a few elements shy of being able to sue Captain Planet and the Planeteers for copyright infringement, but it was still a pretty neat way to find out how you should set up your battles during playtime.

Another group of pocket-sized warriors during this time that were sure to be filling the drawers of elementary school teachers nationwide, were the weird and wild Army Ants. Operating under the simple premise of Orange vs. Blue, the various types of ant soldiers on each side declared their military specialty through different colored abdomens, though we just called them “Butts”.

Army Ants were the kinds of toys that filled my Easter baskets along with Food Fighters and Barnyard Commandos as a kid, but due to the lack of a syndicated cartoon or at least more distinctive paint schemes for each character, I quickly lost interest or just lost them altogether through childish irresponsibility. I guess you could say they were like Pop Rocks candy, good for a cheap thrill but no lasting enjoyment. Still I get a kick out of the fact that such a toy existed, if only for a short while.

Though not quite putting the “action” in action figure, the M.U.S.C.L.E. series more than made up for it in sheer volume and variety. These pink tinted figures appeared to be carved from blocks of hardened Bazooka Joe bubble gum and based on doodles found in a 7th grade boy’s notebook. What really set them apart from a cheap toy you would get in a vending machine was that each figure was so uniquely sculpted and there were so many to collect.

I remember my friend’s brother had a poster in his room that featured all of the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures and there were over 200! I used to stare at that thing for a long time, trying to take in the idea of that many characters. The ones that always stood out to me were the guys with x’s or holes for faces, but a special part of my admiration was reserved for the blocky guys with a grid pattern on them. Those characters were larger than the rest, so I always consider them to be more valuable, because with kids bigger is better.

It was only years later that I realized M.U.S.C.L.E. was yet another Japanese import based on a manga and anime series about a wrestler called Kinnikuman. I never even occurred to me that there would be a story behind these completely insane meatheads. I just took them for what they were, tiny tough guys I could bash into each other. I had handfuls of these guys stashed all over the house and they were perfect to take with me on boring trips to the bank with my parents.

Though technically released in 1990, I think the spooky, but brightly colored series of Monster in My Pocket figures easily falls into the same category as the figures above while still offering something really special. Even though we may have this series to blame for the Pokemon craze of the late 90’s (Pikachu and the gang were originally called Pocket Monsters, coincidence?...probably), I still give them a pass for being right up my alley.

I was really fascinated by the classic movie monsters growing up, though too frightened to see the actual movies, I loved the designs. Monster in My Pocket made these murderous creatures of the night accessible and very fun to collect. My personal favorites were the Wolfman, The Scream and the Gravedigger, but the truth is I was happy with all the little horrors in my modest collection. In fact, it pretty much consisted of the figures you see in the box above.

Though I never got one myself, I did get to witness one of my friends open up a secret 12-pack, which was always the most exciting way to collect anything as a kid. Basically they showed you one figure through the plastic and then you had 11 more to be surprised by. There was also some kind of point system that each character was marked with in a circle on their back, but I never saw any game instructions, so I guess Matchbox just thought it was a cool way to rate your collection. My friend got the 25-point Griffin figure that day, which I guess was something to celebrate, though neither of us quite knew why.

Well that about wraps it up for this look at the mini and mighty.  Let me know about some of your favorites in the comments below. I always look forward to hearing your stories and memories.

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Hoju Koolander Posted on Oct 13, 2014 at 06:41 PM

@Fulton4V I personally have always held Super Powers as the high standard for 80's action figures. From the sculpts, to the box art to the sheer number of characters, it was a beautiful line of toys. I still have my Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman and Lex Luthor!

Fulton4V Posted on Sep 09, 2014 at 04:00 PM

The Super powers toys were some of my favorites. I had many of those. I had Batman, Superman, Mation Manhunter, and some others. I also had some Muscle figures too. Not very many though. My younger brother had more than I did of those. And I think he still has some of those. Ill have to ask him about that.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 08, 2014 at 05:44 PM

I remember some mention of Z-bots in that forum thread on things we'd like to see brought back. That was another line I had no familiarity with. I think I just wasn't into the minifig craze then. I was still wanting the 6" to 12" style lines.

vkimo Posted on Sep 08, 2014 at 11:39 AM

One of my favorite mini fig lines were Z Bots. They were made by Micro Machines and looked like little robots. There were tons of them and I think I have exactly 1 left from the dozens I had as a kid.

pikachulover Posted on Sep 08, 2014 at 07:58 AM

I'm trying to think if there were other mini girl toys besides CUTIES. I think the Petite Ponies. They were really small My Little Ponies and the Littlest Pet Shop toys. Companies liked to market tiny playsets to girls.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 07, 2014 at 11:15 PM

No doubt. If nothing else, your bound to find inspiration for writing by sifting through the stories and memories of others. Though something tells me you have a pretty good amount of inspiration as it is. lol

Hoju Koolander Posted on Sep 07, 2014 at 11:05 PM

Yeah, her article on C.U.T.I.E.S is what got me thinking about the other toys of that size from back int he day. That's the great thing about this site, we can spark those memories in each other with our own.

Vaporman87 Posted on Sep 07, 2014 at 09:20 PM

I'm pretty certain I never owned any Battle Beasts, though the seem familiar to me. Like you said, without a syndicated television show to go along with them, it would have been difficult to attract those He-Man and G.I. Joe obsessed kids like me.

I did, however, have many, many, M.U.S.C.L.E. figurines. I had a pretty extensive collection of them, though several of those were doubles (sometimes triples). I have a very clear memory (one of only a few) of finding some of them at a department store here locally that is now closed (and turned into a flea market) called Big Wheel. Not long after that it became a Pamida. It was during those days that I found a nice haul of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures that I had yet to own.

Miss M did a nice article that had info on the female equivalent to M.U.S.C.L.E. and Monster In My Pocket that I didn't even know ever existed. You can find that here: http://www.retro-daze.org/site/article/id/181 . So the "mighty minis" weren't just a boy thing apparently. :)

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