Worst to First: My Star Wars toys
As classic as the original trilogy of Star Wars movies was, who are we kidding? The lasting love many of us have for George Lucas’ space opera series has at least as much to do with the associated toys we managed to get our hands on. After all, Star Wars and its immediate sequel The Empire Strike Back, were released at a time when home video had not yet become prevalent. Even when Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983, mainstream U.S. consumers were still a year or two away from thinking of watching movies at home as something that could be a common occurrence. Without the ability to constantly revisit the movies, we reinforced the existing stories we’d seen on the big screen and invented more stories of our own through the time-honored tradition of play.
George Lucas famously held onto licensing rights when his contract was written up for the making of the first movie, and we all helped to make him a very rich man. In a sense, we are guilty of creating the circumstances under which the reviled prequels happened. But nobody was actually prepared for how popular Star Wars would become. The movie opened as a ‘B’ feature and got kicked out of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood after just two weeks because of a pre-existing contract. Kenner secured the licensing for creating toys, but couldn’t produce them fast enough, leading to kids going to Sears and coming home with a piece of cardboard promising them a set of action figures once the darn things got made. My parents wouldn’t buy us a piece of cardboard, but as soon as the figures were actually in the store they happily let us choose one. I don’t think they quite understood at the time that wouldn’t be close to the end of it.
For several years these were some of my favorite and most coveted toys. I didn’t come close to collecting it all, but I sure feel like I got my share. Join me as I rank my favorites!
I’m going to start with the vehicles and play sets I personally had, beginning with the worst and working up to the absolute best, I’ll choose my ten favorite action figures and then you can judge my childhood toys from the comfort of thirty-five years later.
Vehicles and Playsets
8. Twin Pod Cloud Car
This is the hunk of junk that went a long way toward convincing me that some of this stuff was a ripoff. After seeing loving photos of it in the Sears catalog I marked it as something I really wanted for Christmas. After all, look at it. The unique design and cherry red color was really appealing and it was a new vehicle from the best movie in the series. Unfortunately, unlike the vehicles I’d gotten up to that point, the Twin Pod Cloud Car had no lights or sounds that could be produced by pushing a button and did no tricks of any sort. While that meant you didn’t need any batteries, it also meant a toy that really was just a piece of plastic. In addition, it was really light, lacking the heft and substance of the earlier toys. To top it off, the bright red color on the box was not matched by what you found inside, which was more like a dull industrial orange. Big disappointment.
7. Droid Factory
I don’t remember for certain, but I’m pretty sure I got this toy by saving up Kenner proof-of-purchase emblems from the boxes of my other Star Wars toys. Although the overall quality of the toy was pretty low, with some of the plastic being a little flimsy and the design being uninspired, this was actually a pretty fun toy. I was always a fan of toys that let me use my imagination to build different stuff and that was the main appeal of the Droid Factory. This was one of those Star Wars toys that did not originate at all from something you actually saw in the movies. There’s no suggestion in the original movie that the Jawas actually build droids, just that they fix and re-sell them. It’s only now, having typed the word “Jawas” and having seen the gross cultural stereotypes in the prequels that it has occurred to me that the word looks a little too close to “Jews.” Considering that they’re depicted as swarthy, unscrupulous businessmen just out for a buck, that kind of makes me uncomfortable. Kenner apparently didn’t make back enough money on this toy, because a few years later they repurposed the mold and sold it as “Jabba’s Dungeon.”
This dungeon set came with three really unpopular action figures, so we can look at it as a double dump. If you remember, in Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s dungeon included a section for the torture of droids which had displeased him. So if you own both versions of the toy, what you’ve got is a really dark lesson in the nature of a self-aware existence. First you create life…then you torture it.
On the bright side, if you were one of the many kids who managed to lose or break your R2 D2 action figure, you could build a new one with the Droid Factory playset…and then torture it.
6. Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer
I’m going to rank Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer playset relatively low based largely on overall value. This is one of the first toys I remember buying for myself, and I have a hard time feeling like it was actually worth the $20 in 1981 money I spent on it. Like with the two toys discussed above, the star destroyer featured portions which were made of very flimsy plastic and the spots where they were joined seemed to be tiny trails of melted plastic, creating an unsightly ridge. I was pretty unimpressed by having to do a little more than “some” assembly. The positives which allowed it to be this high on the list made the Star Destroyer a useful part of everyday Star Wars play. It was an environment for the characters to inhabit and interact in, and since it didn’t really look like anything specific I was able to pretend it was the Death Star if I wanted to. Part of what sold me on it to begin with was a number of bells and whistles, including Darth Vader’s meditation chamber, the pad where he talks to the hologram of the Emperor, an escape hatch, and a clicking laser gun for shooting at other ships. These features were helpful in providing story ideas when I was putting my action figures through their paces. Still not one of my better purchases, though.
5. Land Speeder
This might have been the very first Star Wars vehicle I ever received, and despite the fact that the plastic involved is again a little thinner than that on the higher quality Star Wars toys, it definitely has its share of positives. Because this was basically Luke’s car and an open-air conveyance at that, your action figures could easily walk right up to it and have a conversation with whoever was driving it (for some reason I remember C-3PO being at the controls an inordinate amount of the time). It also featured a pop-open trunk where you could keep a couple of those easy-to-lose guns. My childhood bedroom had a really cheap thin blue carpet that allowed the land speeder to roll along really nicely, so sometimes I’d pretend it could double as a speed boat. This rolling function was pretty novel among Star Wars toys, which was nice, but unfortunately the land speeder was neither aerodynamic nor heavy enough to maintain a good head of steam. Typically, like in the first movie, the land speeder would come out and get our heroes from one place to another and then they’d jump on a space ship and kiss the land speeder bye-bye.
4. Empire Scout Walker
This was just really cool looking and helped to even out the battle of my bedroom floor between the rebels and the Empire. The Scout Walker could carry one of your imperial antagonists and boasted four different laser cannons for torching any Ewoks who might show their furry little heads. Although again this toy didn’t have any lights or sounds, it did have a fun walking action that could be operated manually with a button by your thumb and of course encouraged lots of kicking and stepping on unwary action figures. Jawas, in particular, make a sound like a fart when the Scout Walker steps on them. The overall quality of the plastic was a little better than on some of these other toys, but I personally found that it took a few seconds longer to re-set it into a stable standing position than would have been ideal. Still, this was a fun toy that helped restore my faith in the Star Wars toy line a little.
3. The Millennium Falcon
When it came to being excited to get something for Christmas, the Millennium Falcon ranked pretty high up in my kid life. My family traveled to see my Grandparents that year, and I could see the gifts all wrapped up in the back of the station wagon. Nothing looked even close to big enough to be the Millennium Falcon, which caused me just a little chagrin. So when I saw the huge wrapped box with my name on it Christmas morning it was a true surprise and one of those moments parents live for around the holidays.
The reality of the Millennium Falcon toy was more of a mixed bag. On the plus side, it featured a unique alarm sound, clicking laser cannons, plenty of space for action figures to sit and interact, and IT WAS THE MILLENNIUM FALCON! On the minus side, some of its moving parts weren’t very reliable. The ramp door which allowed figures to run up into the passenger area to make a quick retreat was constantly coming loose and falling off. It got to the point where I just stopped opening the darn thing. And anyway, the ship had to be sitting up with its landing gear down and in place, but at least one of the rear landing legs was really loose and couldn’t hold much weight without collapsing up into its flight position. Because of this, my Millennium Falcon pretty much exclusively made crash landings on its belly. The Falcon’s large size was both a positive and a negative, allowing for lots of play inside its walls and making it an effective carrying case for my figures if i wanted to move to another part of the house (a practice my parents usually discouraged), but also making it a little unwieldy for flying around unfettered throughout the house. The fold-down hand grip helped in this a little bit, but any such venture required consistent two-hand operation.
2. The X-Wing Fighter
These top two toys could be swapped on another day. They were the meat and potatoes of any day playing Star Wars. The X-Wing Fighter was a pretty ideal toy, made with a heftier plastic than many others, but small and light enough to fly around the house relatively safely. It had a cockpit for one of your action figures and a fold-away piece of front landing gear. A battery-powered laser cannon offered both a flashing light and a blasting sound, which any kid can tell you are very important to add that final touch of realism for your outer space dogfight. In addition, the X-wing boasted a “goes to eleven” move in which pressing down on R2 would make the wings swing out into the “X” position the ship was named after. The only real negative I can think of is that the canopy on the ship’s cockpit fell off easily and many of my friends had broken or lost theirs. Otherwise, this was a pretty great toy.
1. Imperial Tie Fighter
Like the X-Wing, the Imperial Tie Fighter was an ideal size for flying around the house and was made with sturdier plastic than most of the toys here. Like the X-Wing, it featured a battery-powered laser cannon with light and sound. So what made me pick the tie fighter for first place when it would have been very easy to allow the excellent X-Wing piloted by the good guys win out? Well, two things: First, I never experienced any nagging maintenance issues with the Tie Fighter. The cockpit canopy always did what I wanted it to, and so did the rest of the ship as long as it had fresh batteries. Even the stems on the break-away solar panels that would sometimes snap off were designed to snap right back on very easily. Secondly, the afore-mentioned break-away solar panels never failed to please as a practical play effect. There are few things as fun as a toy that is designed to be destroyed, but then keeps on ticking. I hope whoever came up with this idea for the toy got a fat raise and a piece of chocolate cake.
Okay, so that covers the Star Wars vehicles and playsets I owned as a kid, but we all know that the heart and soul of playing Star Wars had to do with an effective lineup of action figures. There were plenty of characters who felt absolutely necessary (as a 7-11 year old boy it never occurred to me that Leia might be one of those), but there were others that paid off in being very versatile and useful in filling out the cast of your personal space movies. Between my older brother and I, we had something like thirty Star Wars action figures, which might seem like a lot, but depending on which lines you count is really only about a quarter of the figures that were available. What I’m going to do is to list and say a little something about my ten favorite action figures. Ready? Let’s go…
Next: Action Figures
Posted on December 13, 2015, in 1970s, Christmas, Movies, Nostalgia, Star Wars, Worst to First and tagged Lando Calrissian, Snaggletooth, Tie Fighter, X-Wing Fighter. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.