Okay, so yeah… “dark side” may be a bit extreme… more than a bit, actually. I was going for the whole “red-headed stepchild” angle, but in these days of Political Correctness, I wanted to avoid offending red heads and stepchildren. You never can be too careful. I wasn’t really sure how else to put it when you consider the overwhelming reaction from the fandom over the good and bad of the G.I. Joe mythos specifically over the past twenty-five years. Without a doubt when you talk to the fans you hear it time, and time again… “I was a big fan until the 90’s“…I was a big fan until “the neon“…until Ninja Force and Star Brigade. Until the line got “dumb”. Whether it’s the weapon trees, the bright colors, or the spring-loaded missile launchers, plenty of fans can find reasons to hate the 90’s, and label that particular decade as “deth of teh line”.
There’s no argument that during the 90’s, G.I. Joe went a little bit bright. There was plenty of yellow, orange, and yes, even some pink, all of which have zero place in a Special Operations military force, right? Problem is, in the 90’s, that wasn’t really what G.I. Joe was. It was much more a “super hero” mythology, and much less a straight-up military force. In the fantastic and informational book Toy Wars by G. Wayne Miller (which dives behind the scenes at Hasbro during their run with G.I. Joe) it’s stated that “super heroes” were in vogue during the 90’s, particularly Spider-Man and the X-Men due to their Fox cartoons and the Toy Biz product. Hasbro wanted to emulate that with G.I. Joe.
But I would argue that even with the color differences, the cursed weapon trees, and G.I. Joe traveling to the outer reaches of space, that there was still a LOT to love about the G.I. Joe brand and the toys, yes even in those widely panned 1990’s.
- Standard Single Packs, 1990 – 1992
Everyone knows that in 1993, the line moved to separate sublines, including Battle Corps, Ninja Force, Star Brigade, etc… but a lot of fans lump the standard single packed 90’s figures into the Battle Corps series, not realizing that there was a lot to love about the 90’s single-packed figures prior to shoe-horning them into the repaint-happy subthemes of the later 90’s.
1990 especially, in my opinion, deserves a LOT more praise than it receives, but unfortunately due to the awfulness of the DIC cartoon, it probably won’t ever get the credit it deserves. Hasbro went out on a limb in 1990 and brought us a whole series of new characters without any repaints, re-hashed characters, or tired old concepts. There were a ton of updated specialties that almost seemed like Hasbro was “resetting” in a way, most likely due to the new animation. Yes, the Dic cartoon was ridiculous, but if you can overcome the silliness of the fiction, there is a lot to enjoy.
Figures like Freefall, Salvo, and Bullhorn are an almost perfect representation of various military branches and specialties, and they’re totally new characters, with interesting personalities to boot. Not to mention the almost unfathomable number of accessories that each and every single pack figure came with during this series…more than almost any figure had come with to date. It’s almost a shame that they were relegated to the Dic universe, because I think that really impacts them negatively.
But the Joes aren’t the only ones who got some awesome new troops and cannon fodder…COBRA got it’s fair share, too. Granted the bright colors had already permeated the paint schemes, but even beyond those colors, the figures themselves are pretty freaking cool. Night Creeper is a permanent fixture in the COBRA mythos, Range-Viper is a very popular wilderness trooper, and the moustachio’d Rock-Viper is a very cool looking new trooper specialty as well. These figures all have very nicely detailed uniforms, large, stocky body types, yet are still at least somewhat grounded in reality. At this point, too, even the colors were acceptible, yet this year doesn’t nearly get the credit it deserves.
Beyond 1990, 1991 almost took an opposite approach. While 1990 gave us a wealth of new recruits, 1991 and 1992 gave us an onslaught of repaints and retools of existing characters, but in my opinion, many of the repaints or new figure versions were actually quite superior to the originals.
As classic as Low Light, Dusty, and to a limited extent Mercer’s original versions were, there was just something about these updates that gave each soldier even more personality and uniqueness. For some reason I just love this new Low Light and Dusty, and Mercer sort of evolved into his own character rather than just being one of the Renegades. I’m sure I’ll receive my fair share of flak, especially because of Dusty and Low Light, but I for one actually prefer these more elaborate and unique later versions to the more generic and common previous ones. Yes, the ’86 version of Low Light had his own personality, but Dusty was more or less a faceless guy in a desert uniform. Both of these figures to me just seem to have more “life” if that makes any sense whatsoever.
While the members of G.I. Joe were getting new uniforms and updated looks, COBRA sort of branched out. They also got some re-hashes with the B.A.T, Snow Serpent, etc… but also evolved with new desert specialists, an even more highly trained Crimson Guard, flamethrower specialists, and a contingent of other COBRA troopers. The Desert Scorpion is a highlight of the 90’s to me, managing to look like a trooper who belonged in an arid desert environment, yet also having a unique COBRA look. Even with some lame accessories, the Crimson Guard Immortal was also a nearly timeless upgrade from the standard “Siegies” that had all of the regal flair, yet a more imposing, physical appearance. As awesome as the original Snow Serpents were, the ’91 versions managed to streamline a bit yet still retain the arctic uniform and terrorist angle.
In 1992, things kind of exploded into the subteam angle. While we did get maybe a dozen single pack figures, most of the offerings for this year were in the forum of various other branches of service (which I will cover later on). Yet even with a scant few offerings of G.I. Joe singles in ’92, we end up with some decent figures. Even with his pointy nose and crewcut, this somewhat desert themed Duke is a favorite of mine that is woefully underrated. I love the tac vest with the 40mm shells and the pistol in the holster dead center of his torso. Barricade is another figure that quickly became a favorite of mine back then, mostly due to the size of him. Because of his armor, he’s got massive legs, a large well-protected barrel-chest, and even with that goofy smirk on his face, he looks to be a force to be reckoned with. I was never a big fan of Gung Ho’s original figure, either, mostly because of how scrawny those early 80’s figures came off as, and this is a very nice, much bulkier update, yet it still retains the character that makes the first Marine of G.I. Joe who he is.
Other notable figures for the COBRA side were mostly updates to existing characters, and those updates were of mixed success. With a slightly larger head, Destro would be a nice addition, and I absolutely love that Firefly figure, even in the super-neon green. Colors draw a lot of attention away from what are really quality figures, which is a shame. Yes, there are bright colors, but no, I don’t believe that it takes away from the sculpting, design, and overall look of these later year figures. Flak-Viper has a very nice look as well, even with that strange green coloring…the blue works off of it very nicely.
- Battle Corps
Probably the subtheme that gets the most hate tossed at it is Battle Corps. Running from’93 to ’94, this run of figures gets universally lambasted as being the demise of G.I. Joe as we knew it back in the day. It is almost astounding at the sheer volume of figures that hit in 1993. By and large to that point, we got around 30 “main line” figures per year, with some others sprinkled throughout vehicles, exclusives, and subthemes. In 1993 the unsuspecting 10 year old suddenly had over 100 various figures to collect through vehicles, Mega Marines, Battle Corps, Ninja Force, and dozens of other sub teams and branches. What’s really amazing about this year, though, is just how many repaints suddenly found themselves thrust upon the buying populace. No doubt something that lends itself to fan complaints about killing the toy line, Battle Corps was rife with new paint jobs, often times brighter and more obnoxious than ever before. That being said, though, there are a number of gems buried in the dirt.
A very generically styled desert themed Duke was released as a new mold in this series, and an excellent version of the G.I. Joe Top Kick, to boot. I know I just complained about Dusty’s plain desert look about 5 paragraphs up, but honestly I like this look for Duke a lot, and I think it really deserves some mention, especially considering how outlandishly “non-military” many of the 1993 offerings were. Roadblock was an excellent update as well, coming in considerably larger and more imposing than any previous version, and Mace, formerly of the Drug Elimination Force was a nice undercover soldier, with a fairly muted paint scheme (yellow straps aside).
COBRA got their own fair share of nice updates and new characters, even here in repaint-heavy 1993 as well. Alley-Viper got a pretty cool updated look, with a mix of the bulkiness, but a little more streamlined than the previous rendition. Sure, he’s yellow and black, but even the widely loved ’89 Alley Viper was a garrish orange and blue. The Crimson Guard Commander built further on the Elite Troopers of COBRA, and the Headhunter Stormtrooper is without a doubt one of the finest figures made post 1986. The fact that some of these fantastic figures are mingled in with the bright colors that overwhelm the goodness of some of these characters is just a shame. Nothing is perfect, of course, and there are a fair share of stinkers in the 90’s, too, but many of these are better than their reputation. Sometimes it’s the little things that appeal, such as the Crimson Guard Commander’s well-detailed armored gauntlets, his embossed COBRA logo, or even the Storm Troopers amazingly sculpted skull-themed mask.
In the last year of the G.I. Joe line, 1994, the rosters were drastically cut, and the colors were toned down a lot, but perhaps the damage was done. Still, though, in ’94 there were some fantastic offerings that often get overlooked.
More rehash characters were infused with the line in ’94, but with a lot more military aspects in design and colors. Lifeline had a throwback to his vintage uniform with those colors, but with a cool new head sculpt, a nice quilted vest, and some interesting accessories. Stalker came from his previous “Tundra Ranger” specialty and the Talking Battle Commander, and was a more toned down, covert ops type of operative, though the shoulder pads and battle vest made him look a bit more futuristic and a little less standard military. Flint branched out into a desert-based uniform, but with a broad-shouldered tunic, iconic new face sculpt (without his trademark beret) and much more toned down colors, he separated a bit from the typical Battle Corps look, and started working back towards the military roots that eventually would take over under the Battle Rangers moniker (that unfortunately never came to be).
COBRA got in on the act, too, with some of the most unheralded figures in the later years of the line. Sure, this version of the COBRA Viper isn’t the same iconic look as the original, but there is a LOT to love here, but the purple and red killed it for a lot of folks, unfortunately. Metalhead is an upgrade in pretty much every avenue compared to the original, except with the pink uniform. Once again, color choices negatively impact the core of a great figure. This version of Bludd isn’t necessarily my favorite, but I think he does have some pretty cool qualities, that once again get overshadowed by strange paint choices that take something away. It would seem in 1994 Hasbro went the more standard military route with the Joes and really went over-the-top with the COBRA side. Purples, pinks, bright reds as well as various layered armored gauntlets and shinpads make for a very “super villain” look and much less the “terrorist organization” that COBRA had been previously. Looking beyond the colors, though, the COBRA themed figures are still excellent and deserve their own bit of praise.
- Star Brigade
While there are plenty of subteams that got showcased in the 90’s, I decided to focus first on Star Brigade, which often gets the bulk of the 90’s hatred. Yeah, I’m not particularly sold on the fact that G.I. Joe voyages to outer space, but that doesn’t mean that the toys are bad. In fact, many of the Star Brigade toys are fantastic.
The repaints in Star Brigade definitely had a limited shelf life…I loved the Hawk repaint as Roadblock, but wasn’t wild about all of the Eco-Warrior Barbecue Payloads or Countdowns. However, the figures that were newly sculpted for Star Brigade ended up being, by and large, incredible. I absolutely LOVE this version of Sci-Fi. That angular helmet and quilted uniform? Very cool…and come on? A wrist mounted gatling gun? Who doesn’t love that. Duke’s uniform was considerably more under-stated, but still awesome with the padded vest and well detailed layers underneath. Space Shot comes straight from the bars in Mos Eisely and looks great in his 80’s moustachio’d splendor. A very nicely designed helmet, those great padded boots, and a stark white space suit? Yeah, I’m a huge Space Shot fan, all the way.
And the same could be said of the COBRA side… I’m not big on the Astro-Viper or TARGAT repaints, but the new figures are pretty stellar (excuse the pun). COBRA Commander’s textured helmet, scowling face sculpt, and rocky armor are all bad ass. Blackstar uses some great parts from Barricade, and has a nice bulky look to him that could still potentially work as a more normal ground troop as well. These two figures mesh the stocky spacesuit look, and retain full articulation to boot.
When it comes to Star Brigade, I try not to think of the Armor Tech debacle, to me, it’s all about these fantastically sculpted original figures, especially the ones from 1994.
- Mega Marines
Like Star Brigade, the Mega Marines get their own fare share of ire thrown at them, all due to the color scheme of the figures. I find it hard to hate anything about the Mega Marines figures, even with the oranges, yellows, and marbleized plastic. Besides those horrid “Mega Monsters” every single Mega Marines figure is nearly flawless, in my mind. They are terrific. If you can get your head around the armored look and the concept of the “super suit” these are some of my favorite figures in the entire run of the line, and that’s not hyperbole.
All four of these figures are nicely armored, well sculpted, and add a lot of character to the team. Best of all, is the sheer uniqueness of these figures. These go above and beyond your typical military fare, with a great blend of science fiction and fantasy, as G.I. Joe has been from day one. It’s always the colors that draw the attention away from the fantastic molds used in this line. Sure, collectors got real sick of Mirage as he permeated the line in the early 2000’s, but I would still argue that he (along with the others) has a lot of merit and some fantastic sculpting.
The COBRA side of the Mega Marines are just as cool, although just as maligned due to the neon hues. Cyber-Viper is a great looking cybernetic tech-trooper, and the Mega-Viper has his own share of greatness about him, too. The yellow and pink certainly don’t help much, but I still don’t think the entire figure should be looked down upon just because of color schemes.
- Air Commandos
A mostly unheralded part of the later years of G.I. Joe, The Air Commandos came out in ’92 and like these other subteams, the colors really drove these figures down in the collector mindset.
While the above picture is certainly an exercise in brightness, there is some quality beneath all the neon. Skydive’s wrist knife and visor, Cloudburst’s tactical vest and armored sleeves, the detail throughout Spirit’s figure…there’s a ton there to love, that is so overshadowed by the yellow, pink, and white. But even better than the Joes were the COBRA’s.
I mean come on…how can you not like those two figures? Hell, Air Devil even has some great colors. The flip-up facemask, the sculpting in the flight suit…it’s all great stuff. But Night Vulture is really where it’s at as far as the Air Commando figures go. The tightness of his mask almost emulates a skull, he’s got an awesome tac-vest and nunchuks for crying out loud! He’s a glider pilot and a NINJA. In all seriousness, if this figure weren’t orange and purple, he would be one of the beloved figures of the line, as well he should be. Instead he’s shoehorned into the 90’s aesthetic and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Heck, the new Anniversary Para-Viper borrows his paint scheme to a certain degree, and even that figure is panned, as bad ass as it is. Mind-boggling.
Yes, it’s easy to pick apart “the 90’s” and find faults with the figures that contributed to the “deth of teh line”. But in my mind there is plenty to love about all years and all “era’s” in G.I. Joe history, and dammit, the 90’s had a lot of great stuff to offer, and do not deserve to shoulder the lion share of the blame for what went “wrong”. So much cool stuff throughout even those last 2 years, and I can’t help but love some of these figures, even though they came out after the “golden age” of a Real American Hero. Fans who are shoving this era into a dark corner without even giving it a chance are really only doing themselves a disservice, as there are plenty of things to enjoy straight through to the end.
Keep in mind, too, I didn’t even focus on the absolutely fantastic D.E.F., Mega Marines, or even the Eco Warriors and Air Commandos. You’ll see plenty of examples of great looking figures from the 90’s in the huge gallery below that I just didn’t have time to focus on in this article. Rest assured though, as many figures as I’ve shown here only scratch the surface of the offerings from 1990 through 1994. New fans who don’t have these figures should do themselves a favor and try them. They’re cheap, and they’re terrific. For some more examples of great looking 90’s figures, along with some comparison shots showing just how much difference a simple color change makes, check out the gallery below.
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