12 Toys From the 1980s That Didn't Take Off
Many people of a certain age look back at the 1980s as the golden age of toys. But some action figures just didn't resonate—at least back then. Here are 12 rejected toys of the 80s that, in some cases, are now sought after by collectors.
1. Food Fighters (Mattel, 1988-89)
The backstory of the weird and oft-forgotten Food Fighters line of action figures plays out like every 80s toy franchise: The good guys (in this case, the "Kitchen Commandos”) fight the bad guys (“Refrigerator Rejects”) for control of… your refrigerator? The five members of each faction of the 80’s Food Fighters line—regardless of whether their affiliation was good or evil—are manifestations of the worst forms of junk food America has to offer: The good guys are Burgerdier General (a deluxe hamburger with ketchup), Lieutenant Legg (a fried chicken leg), Major Munch (a glazed chocolate doughnut), Private Pizza (a slice of pepperoni & mushroom pizza pie), and Sergeant Scoop (a two-scoop chocolate & vanilla ice cream cone). The bad guys are Mean Weener (a hot dog with mustard), Chip-the-Ripper (a chocolate chip cookie), Fat Frenchy (a sleeve packed with “crinkle cut” French fries), Short Stack (a stack of pancakes with syrup and butter), and Taco Terror (a hard-shell taco).
It makes sense that Mattel refused to construct the good guys as health-food characters, since children probably wouldn’t respond to those choices. But they didn’t react well to the existing product either. These fully poseable “squeaky-toy” action figures (which are filled with air) only lasted for one series of production.
On today’s secondary market, the Food Fighters have made a resounding comeback, with their peculiar vehicles leading the way: the Kitchen Commandos’ Combat Carton (an egg carton modified into an armored personnel carrier), the Fry Chopper (a frying pan that became a helicopter with spatula blades), and the Refrigerator Rejects’ BBQ Bomber (a barbecue grill that transformed into an armed assault vehicle). Even the figures command decent money—more so if they are still sealed in their original packaging.
2. Barnyard Commandos (Playmates, 1989)
The Barnyard Commandos line of “action figures”—non-poseable squeaky-toy pigs and sheep with military armaments on their backs—was produced by Playmates in 1988. These mutant anthropomorphized sheep and pigs were the result of a secret military experiment buried on their farm. From the packaging: "After eating some of the grain the Pigs and Sheep started acting kind of funny. Some started driving the tractors around like tanks, others started digging trenches. Soon after, an all-out war erupted between the Barnyard Commandos!”
The sentiment behind the two warring factions of Barnyard Commandos was defined perfectly by their acronyms: the R.A.M.S. (Rebel Army of Military Sheep) fought the P.O.R.K.S. (Platoon of Rebel Killer Swine); these foes fought against one another in military fashion. Each individual action figure package contained a “Secret Code Book” which taught the consumer how to speak a top secret language: Pig Latin.
The non-poseable nature of the action figures may have caused retail sales of the toys to suffer when children could choose from a myriad of more popular, more malleable options at their local toy store. Despite disastrous sales, the Barnyard Commando toy line continues to tickle the funny bone of many a modern toy collector—and they’re quite inexpensive on the secondary market. Urchasepay omesay Arnyardbay Ommandoscay odaytay!
3. Army Ants (Hasbro, 1987)
In 1987, Hasbro believed they had struck gold by modernizing the “green plastic army men” concept, and introduced their new Army Ants toy line to retail as a more intricate collectible toy—one with a backstory. "The Army Ants struggle to conquer the vast land that is your backyard," their packaging reads. "Two opposing armies engage in deadly combat to control important resources." But these figures were strange. Army Ants were odd little “peg warmers”: those action figures that—due to a lack of demand by consumers—languished on retail pegs, “warming” the shelves and pegs as children ignored them.
Regardless, Hasbro organized their Army Ants toys into two different warring factions of anthropomorphized insects: the Blue Army (commanded by General Mc-Anther) and the Orange Army (ordered by General Patant). These toys were solicited in five different retail sets on blister cards, each of these “squadrons” containing three or eight Army Ant members; each side had 20 soldiers.
For action figure collectors and devoted fans of rubber figurines (such as M.U.S.C.L.E., Monster in My Pocket, etc.), the forty total pieces of this toy line makes it fun and desirable to collect. However, because every Army Ant figure included a hard-to-find removable accessory unique to each figure, a removable soft abdomen, and a distinctive mold unique to each character, obtaining a complete Army Ants collection is quite challenging.
4. Sectaurs, Warriors of Symbion (Coleco, 1984-85)
A play on the word “insect,” the imaginary world of the Sectaurs is the planet of Symbion, where insects have grown to ludicrous proportions thanks to an experiment. Many Sectaur soldiers—humanoids who share characteristics with insect and arachnids—have telepathically bonded to their insect companions via a process called “binary-bonding” that benefits both creatures when engaging in combat.
Coleco only offered one series, which consisted of eight action figures and one playset. Regardless of price point, each action figure came with a host of weapons and accessories (such as bandoliers, belts, pistols, rifles, swords, and shields) and a unique insect companion with an action feature.
Coleco also sold higher-price point deluxe action figure sets. Each of these four larger sets included a humanoid Sectaurs figure accompanied by an oversized insect companion that was basically a hand-puppet. Kids would attach the humanoid figure to a saddle that rested on top of the insect companion. The child would insert a hand into the underside of one of these hand-puppet steeds, which fit like a glove; the kid's fingers would then function as the insect’s legs. Some sets even had insects with thin, twin, translucent (and awfully fragile), battery-powered wings that would flap when you flipped an “on/off” switch. These motorized wings, combined with the movement of the child’s hands as an insect’s legs and appendages, were a marvel of toy engineering.
Other than eight action figures, an immense and highly desirable Hyve action playset was also produced. With two “Hands-In” monsters, the Hyve, Forbidden Fortress is an oft-requested piece by collectors. The playset’s tremendous size and vast number of parts (many of which are quite delicate) suggests that any surviving samples of this toy from the 1980s will not usually be found intact or complete—adding to its rarity and the toy’s exorbitant cost on the collector’s market.
5. Rock Lords (Tonka, 1986-1987)
Tonka’s Rock Lords action figures captured the attention of children with a unique concept: instead of creating robots that transform into vehicles, why not have these detailed characters change into… colorful rocks? There were two warring factions of Rock Lords from three different series of toy releases: Good Rock Lords were Boulder (tungsten), Nuggit (gold), Granite (granite), Marbles (cristobalite), Crackpot (azurite), Pulver Eyes (Dolomite). The Bad Rock Lords were Magmar (Igneous), Tombstone (quartz), Sticks ‘N Stones (a two-headed Rock lord with two rock types—anthracite and magnetite), Stoneheart (slate), Brimstone (brimstone), Slimestone (silver), and the insidious Sabrestone and Spearhead (whose rock types are unknown).
Beyond the first two series of “Good versus Evil” GoBots Rock Lords action figures, Tonka also offered a set of furred companions known as “Narlies.” Along with these Narlies, Tonka produced a series of dinosaur companions to the Rock Lords—the Rockasaurs’ Terra Rock and Spike Stone. The (ahem) crown jewels of the toy line are the Rock Lords’ stunning Jewel Lords. Although only three of these toys were released—Solitaire, Flamestone, and Sunstone—these are highly prized: Even loose samples command high prices on the secondary market. The toy line was rounded out with a few other sub-collections such as the Shock Rocks, whose action feature was to… roll on the ground. Or shoot a rock. Or throw a rock.
6. Computer Warriors (Mattel, 1989)
“An accident in a top-secret government computer lets loose hordes of evil Virus troops on an unsuspecting world. ... Their goal: global domination through total control of the world's computers... even yours! To fight this menacing evil, the computer generates heroic micro soldiers—COMPUTER WARRIORS designed to recapture the marauding Virus troops and to make sure computers are used for the good of mankind!”
So goes the backstory of the 2-inch tall Computer Warriors. And what child wouldn’t want to play with an action figure playset that transforms from a soccer trophy to a “radar rover”? From a flashlight into a “flash craft”? From a Pepsi can into a “hyper hover jet”? Or from a PC board into an “aerial assault bomber”? Apparently, most children.
Although a complete collection of these toys is difficult to find on the secondary market due to the scarcity of the higher price-point pieces, it is easy to pick up a single sample of one of the more common figures: The heroic Debugg and Romm, or the evil members of Virus, Asynk and Megahert.
7. The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior (1982)
Based on an 11-issue Marvel Comics title produced in 1983, The Saga of Crystar, Crystal Warrior yielded a series of odd-looking action figures produced by Remco—a company noted for producing low-quality yet charmingly cheap toys in the 1980s. The backstory of the action figure line reflected the narrative contained in the pages of the Marvel Comic series: Remco pitted the “Forces of Order”—which included the blue translucent "crystal" Crystar and his allies Warbow and Ogeode the wizard versus the “Forces of Chaos”: Solid red Moltar, red-robed Zardeth and the Magma Men, which were molded in red plastic as well. In total, Remco produced seven figures, four small playsets with figures, two large dragons with figures, two hard-to-find catapults, and one large, super-fragile Crystal Castle playset.
Although The Saga of Crystar line was initially successful, sales waned rather quickly, and as with most failed 80s toy lines, many extant samples feature price tag reductions that reflect a “deep discount” strategy. The more common figures from the line (Zardeth, Ogeode) nearly always show up in 80s collections. They’re certainly cool to look at, and lately there’s been a rise in interest on the secondary market.
8. Inhumanoids (Hasbro, 1986)
With the tagline “The Evil That Lies Within," Hasbro’s Inhumanoids franchise has a small base of loyal fans on the secondary market due to the strange malevolence evoked by the toys’ construction—most had glowing eyes that lit when exposed to sunlight—and an unusually sophisticated backstory, which was recounted in a 13-episode TV show.
A heroic group of government-funded geological scientists—the Earth Corps—encounters three horrifying, giant subterranean monsters dubbed the Inhumanoids who wreak havoc on the surface of Earth: Tendril, a brutish creature that can regenerate its limbs; D’Compose, a flesh-corrupting vampire with an exposed rib cage he uses to trap his enemies; and their leader, Metlar. Ruler of the blistering realm of Infernac, Metlar is the master of fire and commands an army of living statues. With the assistance of the kindly Mutores, another subterranean population of powerful beings, the Earth Corps scientists defeat the sinister Inhumanoids.
The great disappointment of the line was the action figure form of the four Earth Corps protagonists: each of the action figures possesses very limited poseability (five points-of-articulation), and looked a bit awkward when displayed. Although the figures’ possessed “Interchangeable Arm Implement[s]” that could “be used by any member of the Earth Corps team” (according to their package backs), and “Glow-in-the Light” helmets, these features did not make up for the lack of articulation collectors were accustomed to with Hasbro’s 3 ¾-inch G.I. Joe line.
This tertiary toy line only lasted one short year due to poor sales—yet the creepy vibe projected by the toy line and the accompanying animation may still haunt the dreams of many children of the 80s.
9. Super Naturals (Tonka, 1987)
Today, we take holography for granted—some form of hologram appears on nearly every driver’s license or government-issued piece of identification. But when holograms appeared on Tonka’s Super Naturals, kids were fascinated. In place of a three-dimensional molded face and chest piece, each Super Naturals’ action figure mold was flattened, with a holographic sticker affixed onto the plastic of the toy.
With a directive to “Release their hologram powers!” on the front of each toy package—where each character’s hologram “transformed” from one image to the next (on both the figure and the figure’s shield)—Super Naturals were only produced for a single series, yet there was a good deal of product manufactured. The most popular of all the Super Naturals characters were the six large, standard-sized action figures. Each came with one holographic shield accessory, a unique glow-in-the-dark weapon, and a short mini-comic explaining the Super Naturals’ back story. Every large-scale Super Naturals figure possessed a removable chest piece that functioned to hide a good deal of the toy’s “hook”—its two-phase hologram sticker—which would essentially function to make the figure’s holographic innards a surprise feature.
For consumers who wished to pick up a less expensive toy, Tonka created a series of smaller-scale figures. Packaged with removable cloaks, a single glow-in-the-dark sword, and a Super Naturals mini-comic, the eight Ghostlings were sold at a lower price point than the standard-sized figure.
For many years, the Super Naturals figures were relegated to discount bins in secondary shops. But within the last few years, they’ve begun to rise in both cost and estimation in collector’s hearts and minds.
10. Air Raiders (Hasbro, 1987)
In the late 1980s, the idea that somehow purified air would be such a commodity that an entire world would base its economy and social status on a “free” part of a planet’s atmosphere was a bit of a stretch. But this was the story behind Hasbro’s Air Raiders toy line. Although ingenious in its delivery—each Air Raiders vehicle possessed one or more “air-powered” features that kids could repeatedly activate to achieve a desired effect, such as firing missiles, racing vehicles, or opening panels—children simply didn’t respond to the gimmick.
Without a motion picture or syndicated cartoon to drive sales, Air Raiders languished on retail toy shelves. Many sealed pieces purchased today will evince this grim reality: They'll show the original prices slashed viciously.
Today, Air Raiders are desirable to many die-hard toy collectors. Some hard-to-find figures include the Man-O-War and the mail-away “Air Raider Survival Kit” featuring Emperor Aerozar and Baron Jolt; both command more than $500 sealed.
11. Chuck Norris & Karate Kommandos (Kenner, 1986)
In 1986, exploiting Chuck Norris’ burgeoning popularity with children, Ruby-Spears produced a truly awful five-episode animated mini-series recounting the adventures of U.S. government operative Chuck Norris (voiced by the actor himself) and his team of martial-arts experts as they fight the evil organization of ninjas known as VULTURE (the acronym’s origin is unknown) and their leader, Claw. The cartoon tried to capitalize on the ninja craze of the mid-eighties, but Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos is remembered more for its unintentional comedy.
Following 80s convention, in conjunction with the cartoon, Kenner Toys released a series of nine Karate Kommandos action figures: Chuck Norris (available in three different uniforms), Kimo (the resident samurai of the Kommandos), Reed Smith (Chuck’s apprentice), Ninja Serpent, Ninja Warrior, Super Ninja (Claw’s right-hand man), and Tabe (a champion sumo wrestler) and one vehicle (the Karate Corvette). There was no Claw figure released in the assortment of figures—perhaps Kenner had decided to offer him in Series Two, if a full season of the animated program was ordered. But that was not in the cards.
12. Police Academy (Kenner Toys, 1989-1990)
Although not a critical success, Police Academy was warmly embraced by the American public: the franchise grossed nearly $250 million. The characters featured in 1988’s 65-episode run of Police Academy: The Animated Series were based on the personalities in the films. Many of the major characters were then translated into plastic action figures by Kenner.
The cast of characters for Kenner’s Police Academy toy line included the officers’ charismatic leader, Sgt. Carey Mahoney; Sgt. Eugene Tackleberry, the bellicose weapons expert; antagonistic martinet, Captain Thaddeus Harris; the tight-lipped, near-superhuman Sgt. Moses Hightower; massive Officer Thomas “House” Conklin; former-antagonist-turned-police Officer Zed McGlunk; Zed’s partner, the meek, mild-mannered, bespectacled Officer Carl Sweetchuck, and of course, the miraculous sound effects and martial-arts prowess as rendered by Sgt. Larvell Jones.
Mark Bellomo is the author of Totally Tubular '80s Toys. He has 45,000 action figures (all of the pictures in this article were taken from his personal collection) and he's taken every single one of them out of their boxes.