Kenner Action Toy Guide '94
The Kenner Action Toy Guide was to me, what the monthly issue of Motor Trend was to my Father. Dad could tell you the year, make and model of just about any vehicle within 10 seconds of sighting it, whereas I could tell you the year, manufacturer and series of any action figure line in the same amount of time. My old man’s gift may be a little more universally appreciated by the world at large, but my “expertise” gives me the ability to gush about a 20 year old booklet from 1994 for for your enjoyment. As stated in my previous article about the 1991 guide, these little beauties came packaged with vehicles and playsets and at the end of the article I’ll tell you where I got this one.
As was the case with most editions of this amazing catalog, Kenner led with what had to be their biggest seller in the 90’s, Batman. In this case, we got 2 different series of figures inspired by 2 different mediums. The first was The Legends of Batman collection of figures which contained variations of Gotham’s protector in more muscular, dynamic poses than the previous movie based toys. These alternate takes on Batman were actually inspired by a comic book imprint inside DC Comics called Elseworlds, where they told alternate reality stories about their world famous heroes. These comics also happened to be my favorite way to experience the well-established (ahem, boring) icons of DC.
You see that little blue circle next to “Power Guardian Batman” or “Dark Rider Batman”? That’s the Elseworlds logo, which proves that that these weren’t just desperate ideas cooked up by Kenner’s burned out toy developers, they were actually translated from 2-D drawings found in graphic novels like Batman: Master of the Future or The Blue, the Grey and The Bat. I personally have a lot higher opinion of these figures than the repainted gold or camouflage variations of Batman they were selling 2-3 years earlier, whose only distinguishing feature was what kind of weapon/accessory they came with. How much cooler was it knowing you could actually read the story that inspired the toy? If you ask me, WAAAY cooler.
Going more mainstream, we have the Batman: The Animated Series toy line. Starting in 1992, this show was a major hit and you’ve probably seen dozens of episodes yourself. Just 2 years into this series and they already had 10 variations of Batman to pad out the line (which were actually the same accessories they used for the previously mentioned repaints in The Dark Knight Collection). I get the biggest chuckle out of “Retro Batman”, who is clearly lacking the Hypercolor t-shirt and slap bracelet that would justify his name. Couldn’t they have at least given him Squeeze-It fruit drink? I know those items were still pretty current at this time, but if that was the case, why not give him bell bottoms and peace symbol necklace? OK, enough of that nonsense. Speaking of retro…
With Jurassic World roaring into theaters this summer, it’s crazy to realize that the film is in many ways a nostalgia piece taking inspiration from the original back in 1993. Has it really been 22 years? Featured here are the second series of figures and what makes them special, aside from a few weird dinosaurs (Baryonx? What the heck?), is that these toys actually look like the actors from the film. In the comparison below you can see the difference between the original Ellie and the series 2 version meant to look more like actress, Laura Dern.
They also added some “Bad Guys” in the form of the Evil Raiders, which is funny since the antagonists in the film are the dinosaurs themselves, although I guess it depends on your point of view. If you’re a disciple of that know-it-all, Ian Malcolm and his Chaos theory you might see the dinos as innocent pawns in an evil corporation's greedy game of genetic chess. But as Samuel L. Jackson's Mr. Arnold would tell you, they're far from innocent. Back to the toys, I guess the Evil Raiders were the Cobra of the Jurassic Park toy universe, especially with names like "Dr. Snare" and "Skinner". I've always wondered if they were anticipating The Lost World sequel, where "dino-poachers" were in fact the villains and not a hungry T-Rex. But Jurassic Park wasn't the only dinosaur game in town, tell me if you remember these "Robo-Creatures".
I remember seeing these Techno Zoids on store shelves back in the day, but they never made their way onto my Christmas list. Even so, the massive "Battlesaurus" was hard to ignore entirely since Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus were my favorite "thunder lizards" growing up. The naming logic for this series kind of escapes me though. On one hand you have derivative names like "Iron Kong", mixed with on the nose descriptions like "Armored Gator", but then you have nonsense combos like "Strike 'Zila" and "Electronic Storm Tiger" (which actually sounds like a cool Anime or Manga title), it's just plain confusing. According to the description above you had to assemble them yourself, which is probably why I didn't bother with these robotic warriors. I had my fair share of Construx, but my few attempts at model making didn't end well. I was more of a free-form builder. From free form to free throws, it's time for the Shaq Attaq!
I knew the man had inspired a video game (Shaq Fu anyone?), but had no idea that non-Steel related action figures were part of Shaquille O'Neal's 90's media dominance. In my last article I admitted to unknowingly sporting a hat for his team the Orlando Magic, but had I been aware of his toys, it may have been a conscious choice. Of the figure styles available, "Rap Master Shaq" is the clear winner for most memorable. There was nothing cooler than being a "rapper" in those days, but his "fight the power" raised fist is in strange opposition to the fact that he is clearly doing a jig of some sort. This is long before he was trash-talking Kobe Bryant with his rhymes, so maybe Shaq was trying to get in touch with his "Irish Roots" through a hip-hop/Riverdance crossover. Speaking of crossovers, do you remember this line of violent, plastic monstrosities?
The video games and comics books that inspired this toy line (predating the eventual cinematic meeting of these butt-ugly creatures) were pretty fun adventures. Aliens and Predators eventually fought the likes of Superman and Batman in comic book form as well, several times actually. I have to say that for some reason I was a bigger fan of the separate ALIENS toys that featured the fully-armed space-marines like Apone and Hicks, which I actually owned. Even though I had never seen the movies in their entirety, I knew the characters from my friend's descriptions during recess. This series had quite a few interesting breeds of each group like dental nightmare "Cracked Tusk Predator" and the albino "Stalker Predator" who would have a hard time blending in with the South American jungle. On the Xenomorph side, it seems kind of cheap that "Panther Alien" and "Night Cougar Alien" were just identical figures re-painted to claim more space on toy shelves. Still, it was a better crossover than say, Mighty Max and Polly Pocket.
Now it's time for a NERF break (which I never realized was a Kenner property). Every kid had something NERF related in their early 90's toy box. NERF basketball hoops and footballs were standard issue in the suburbs. I particularly remember the sting of catching the sonic siren football, sometimes in the face. Hard plastic does not belong on spongy sports equipment. While those NERF missile gun and suction cup darts were pretty popular, I really loved the NERF fencing swords where you tried to knock out all the tabs in your opponents circular handle with a blade that looked like a fun noodle. Now it's time for the most important entry in this edition of the Kenner Action Toy Guide (at least to me), "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...?"
"...The Shadow Knows!" I have great affection for this film, as is apparent from the fact that I own way too much merchandise from it's brief and failed attempt to grab the attention the "Extreeeme" generation in 1994. I have the official movie magazine, joined the official fan club, bought old school The Shadow comic books and even got the trading cards. In case you were wondering, yes, I own most of these figures (though I'm still on the hunt for Ninja Shadow, Battle Shiwan Khan and the elusive, Dr. Mocquino), all the vehicles and the official carrying case. My favorite of the collection has to be "Ambush Shadow". Aside from the fact that translucent action figures are pretty much the best thing ever, I love how dramatically posed his left arm is. When you squeeze the legs, he draws his gun and masks his nose with the cape in that classic old timey mystery man style.
I actually got this copy of the Action Guide with my purchase of The Shadow Thunder Cab. Now you may be thinking I was pretty spoiled to be lavished with an entire collection of toys all at once, but the truth is much sadder. See the movie was released in July of '94 to little fanfare, so by August all the toys could be found in the Toy R' Us clearance aisle for $1.99 a piece and $5 for the vehicles. It didn't take much convincing to get my Dad to fork over $40 for that many toys, especially since he was the one that got me into The Shadow in the first place. I have cherished these flop-inspired figures for the last 20+ years and still hold the film in my Top 10 of all time. I even double dipped and bought the Collector's Edition Blu-Ray released last year, just for the 5 minutes of Alec Baldwin reminiscing about the film that marked the downturn of his career until his revival on 30 Rock. You can see a small portion of my collection below.
So which of these toys from Kenner did you play with all those years ago? It was Rap Master Shaq, right? I knew it!