In the 80s, GI Joe was the king of action figures. But there were plenty of competitors that also did well: He-Man, Star Wars, Ninja Turtles. These all had other media to back them up. Usually a tv show, sometimes some movies and comic books. Then there were the secondary lines of popular figures like Thundercats or MASK. These lines would last about 3 years with several waves of toys. But then there were the toys that came out with a massive gimmick and tons of promotion that just did not take off for whatever reason. Maybe the toys weren’t that good? Or the story wasn’t engaging enough? Here are five lines that seemed to have every reason to take off, and may even still be remembered, but pretty much failed to sell.
Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light
Visionairies were a fantasy line of knights, manufactured by Hasbro. So they had the same swivel-arm poseability as the GI Joe line but slightly larger in stature. Their big gimmick was holograms. Every knight had a hologram on his chest of an animal that they could turn into (in the story, the figure just had a cool hologram). They also all carried a house banner of sorts with a hologram of a type of genie or god. They could cast a spell once a day to use their power: speed, intelligence, things like that. The storyline was set in the near future of our world when magic came back and technology stopped working. It was a cool steampunk kind of idea. The toyline only lasted one year in 1987. The tv show had 13 episodes but when the toys failed to sell, they didn’t bother with a second season. There was a comic that was cancelled after 6 issues, right in the middle of a 4-part story. A second wave of toys had been developed but were scrapped.
Hasbro really doubled down on their gimmicks in 1987 because they also came up with Air Raiders: figures and vehicles that took place in a fantasy world where good guys and bad guys battled for air. I don’t know how they did that but basically they all had jets (that looked more like tanks). They almost definitely failed because they had no tv show to back them up (though they did have animated tv commercials. There was a very short-lived comic book. The toys had air-powered firing missiles. I guess no one cared about fighting over wind.
Another one-year and done toyline from 1987, but this time from Mattel, who made He-Man. The idea was novel: a live action series that the toys could literally interact with. But the interaction element wasn’t very interactive. Basically, your action figures sat in vehicles that you could also hold as a gun and you’d shoot at the bad guys on tv like a Lazer Tag game. Obviously the tv show would have the bad guys lose so it really didn’t matter if you hit them or not. If they hit YOU, your pilot would eject. So it was more fun to lose. The story was sort of like the Future War from the Terminator movies with men vs. machines but the people wore “power suits.” Another problem was the show was really, really cheap. It was co-produced with Canada and it looked like everyone was wearing cardboard and hanging out in an office or a rock quarry. It just didn’t last long.
We can all figure out why the Computer Warriors toyline of 1988 failed. Mattel decided to get in on that sweet Transforming toy craze. But instead of having robots turn into vehicles or animals, they had tiny robots that transformed into everyday objects like pencil sharpeners, books, flashlights and… a Pepsi can. Well, they were more like viruses that hid inside everyday objects. It’s confusing. The storyline went that an evil virus got out and he became Megahert. He and his team were chased by the good programs led by Romm. The good guys would capture them on CD Roms. It had one pilot tv episode produced and promptly bombed. Oh, and the robot’s base that transformed into a Pepsi can was in fact named Pepsi.
Silverhawks is unique in that the idea came from animation company Rankin/Bass instead of a toy manufacturer. Rankin/Bass was at the time doing well with Thundercats and wanted another sci-fi/fantasy show. They commit to producing a 65-episode season (which was fairly common at the time because it allowed shows to run in syndication every weekday). LJN was going to make the action figures just like they had with Thundercats but backed out at the last minute because they figured (correctly) that the show and toys weren’t really going to take off. Kenner stepped in and produced action figures based on the galaxy-protecting cyborgs and a few of their monster enemies. But Silverhawks never really became popular and a second wave of toys was scrapped. Marvel produced a comic book but it was quickly cancelled after issue #7.