The toy industry is by far the most lucrative when it comes to children’s products. Every single show, movie, or book series aimed at kids is quickly followed by a line of toys in order to make a quick buck with the merchandising rights. Toys like the original G.I. Joe and the Star Wars action figures had been around for awhile, but it was in the ’80s and ’90s that the action figure business really started to balloon. It hasn’t stopped yet; nowadays people who were children in those decades are targeted with “Legacy” and “Retro” lines that are basically higher quality redesigns of classic figures from their childhood, while companies still continue their lower quality lines for modern kids.
It’s easy to see why action figure collecting is still so popular – there were some really freaking cool toys that came out back in the day! Not gonna lie, we totally want a Black Series Darth Vader and the Legacy Dragonzord. The nostalgic wave that hits us just from thinking about some of the great toy lines back in the day is enough to send us scrambling to Ebay to see how much it would cost to rebuild our childhood!
Here are the 15 Greatest Cartoon-Based Action Figure Lines.
15. The Real Ghostbusters
“Who ya gonna call?” You all know the answer… The Ghostbusters franchise practically defined the 1980s. The first film had a unique mix of supernatural horror, dry humor, and relatable “average joe” characters. Although they never quite lived up to their predecessor, a sequel, a comic book series, a cartoon, and a 2016 reboot followed. Surprisingly the best thing to come out of all these spinoffs was The Real Ghostbusters, a cartoon that followed the original team as they busted their way through all the creepy inhabitants of NYC. The show was a huge hit and ran for seven seasons before its cancellation in 1991.
The Real Ghostbusters toys were about as good as you can get. They were created by the legendary company Kenner (which you’ll see quite often on this list) and consisted of a ton of different characters, gadgets, and vehicles from the show. Right off the bat these things were a hit; the first wave was made up of the show’s main characters (Venkman, Winston, Egon, Stantz, Slimer, and Stay Puft) but eventually spun off to include just about every single ghost that appeared on the show!
Perhaps the most awesome things to come out of this line were the Ecto-Plazm (a colored goop that could be used with many of the line’s playsets and figures) and the life-sized Proton Pack. Just the fact that we could create our own adventures using the Ecto 1 and Stay Puft outside of the Ghostbusters Fire House was cool enough!
14. Super Powers Collection
When it comes to children and superheroes, it’s hard to go wrong. DC Comics has been around since the ’30s, meaning that toys from their most beloved franchises were not something new when they decided to launch the Super Powers Collection in 1984. However, this was the first real “action figure” line the company had ever produced. Previous toys had been more doll-like and gimmicky in nature. After seeing the success of other action figure sets DC asked (who else?) Kenner to help them create a line based on their greatest heroes and villains.
The Super Powers Collection of toys gave us some of the best DC figures to date. Sure, you can grab a decent Hawkman or Green Lantern or Aquaman figure nowadays. But for the longest time the creations of this series were the cream of the crop when it came to non-Batman or non-Superman toys. Every figure in the Super Powers Collection came with their own “action” they could perform by squeezing together their legs and a miniature comic book based on the respective character in the packaging. The designs were loosely based on the Super Friends TV show that was airing at the same time, but it also brought in characters that were unknown to the general public at the time. Where else could you get a figure of Doctor Fate or Steppenwolf in the ’80s?!
13. Dino Riders
If you want to know why this toy line was so awesome just take a look at that picture and bask in all its glory. Kids love dinosaurs. Kids love futuristic vehicles. Somebody at Tyco got the genius idea to combine the two, and Dino Riders was born. Unfortunately the show was more of an afterthought; it was created primarily to act as a toy commercial and not much more. Unlike similar shows like Transformers or TMNT, this series never took off and was cancelled after fourteen episodes. The plot followed two groups of characters from the future who were transported back to Prehistoric Earth and used dinosaurs to do battle. But who cares about the plot? There are dinosaurs with lasers!
The toy line for Dino Riders lasted way longer than the show (three more years, to be exact). The appeal of this toy line was massive; the heroes were humans with futuristic armor and the villains were mutant animal-humanoid hybrids. You could buy the characters as a set (one hero and villain each) or individually with their own accessories. These individual figures were fairly low-quality, but that didn’t matter because the dinosaurs were the bread and butter of the line!
Dinosaur “playsets” featured creatures that were about as high-quality as you could get in the late ’80s and came with all sorts of weapons and figures of their own. Unsurprisingly there have been recent talks to bring Dino Riders to the big screen in all of its glory.
12. Marvel Toybiz Series
Much like the Super Powers Collection, the Toy Biz line of Marvel action figures was the quintessential series to fans for the longest time. In the ’90s the publisher attempted to launch its own animated universe with varying success. The Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons took off like wildfire, while others, like The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Iron Man, never quite caught on. There were even plans for an animated Captain America series that even had its pilot finished before it was scrapped.
In 1994 the company Toy Biz made a deal with Marvel to create and distribute the toys for the publisher’s upcoming animated series. This turned out to be a great decision, as Toy Biz would produce Marvel lines all the way until 2007 and gave us some of the coolest figures of the characters to date.
The biggest seller of this line during the ’90s had to be the X-Men: The sheer number of characters involved with the mutant superhero title alone presented opportunity for endless new figures and variants.
Their Spider-Man toys were pretty awesome, too; the tie-in line to the animated series was somewhat lame but the company more than made up for this with their incredible early 2000s line that included just about every major Spidey villain.
11. Pokemon (Burger King)
Oh boy, were these things popular. The Burger King line of Pokemon toys is the stuff of legends to Millenials. Nothing could touch the popularity of Pokemon in the late ’90s and early 2000s: It was easily the most profitable franchise of the time and, though it has since dropped off some in popularity, is still a massive cash cow today. To coincide with the release of Pokemon 2000, Burger King added a massive line of toys to their kids meals in hopes that people would return to the restaurant repeatedly to “catch ’em all.”
The legendary main toy line had 57 unique Pokemon that each came packaged in their own individual Pokeball and had unique variations; some were bean-bag plushes, some acted as tops, some could squirt water, some would light up, and some were key chains. On top of this, parents could purchase collectible golden Pokemon cards that came in a special “shiny” Pokeball.
Naturally, children of the time went crazy for this toy line! However, there was a dark side to this toy line as well. The small Pokeball packaging poied a choking hazard for children and Burger King had to issue a massive recall on the packaging.
10. Batman: The Animated Series
Another entry for Kenner? What a shocker! After their hit Super Powers Collection line, DC pegged the toy company to produce a series for their upcoming show Batman: The Animated Series. We all remember what happened next: Batman: TAS went on to become many peoples’ favorite incarnation of the Dark Knight, launching the voice acting careers of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and creating Harley Quinn. Despite being made primarily for children, the TV show offered many deep and adult themes and wasn’t afraid to give us character-driven plots. To many, this show is the greatest thing to ever come out of the DC Universe.
It’s only fitting that such an epic show had such an epic line of toys. Kenner’s Batman: TAS line gave fans action figures of the well-designed and noir-like characters of the series. One of the coolest things about this toy series was the dozens of variations on the Caped Crusader himself; there was a Batman that came with a parachute, a Batman that would change color when placed underwater, a Batman that had a detachable glider, and too many other versions to count! Each of these variations gave the Dark Knight a different-colored costume, meaning that no matter how many you had you were unlikely to have any duplicates.
9. Incredible Crash Dummies
Try as you might, you could never keep these little guys together! The Incredible Crash Dummies were the stars of an insanely popular PSA campaign about the importance of wearing your seat belt while driving. Shorts would typically show two dummies named Larry and Vince as they got into slapstick antics that usually resulted in their destruction (due to not wearing their safety belts). The ad would then end with the phrase “You could learn a lot from a Dummy.” The characters returned in 1993 with a horrific CGI animated short and then reemerged once more with some PSAs in 2004.
Somehow, the people over at Tyco Toys thought that these characters would make excellent action figures. The insane part is that they were right! The Incredible Crash Dummies toy line was very popular, mostly because of its subject matter. Each one of the figures and accessories was meant to be destroyed! The dummies themselves were modeled so that their head, arms, and legs would go flying off in different directions whenever the little insignia on their chest was impacted. Likewise the vehicles in the toy line were made to shatter into pieces when they were put under any sort of collision.
8. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
You can thank He-Man for every single entry on this list. There were action figures before the He-Man line came about, but the Masters of the Universe series was to action figures what Jaws was to summer blockbusters; it completely revolutionized the industry and made it the lucrative venture it is today! Action figures before He-Man fell into one of two categories: They either appeared more doll-like (early G.I. Joes) or were very small, basic, and undetailed (like the original Star Wars figures). Now there were high-quality toys that each had intricate designs, several accessories, and their own backstory.
Part of what made the He-Man series so popular was its mix of futuristic weaponry with the “swords & sandals” setting made popular by films like Conan the Barbarian. The first wave of figures was launched alongside the cartoon in 1982 and featured the story’s main heroes and villains. From there, new characters were created specifically in toy form and then the writers would somehow have to find a way to incorporate them into the cartoon.
Unlike some of the series that we’ll talk about later, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe stuck with its original theme throughout the cartoon’s run and never gave us anything as ridiculous as “Sportscaster He-Man” or “Firefighter Skeletor” (although those both sound hilariously amazing).
7. Mighty Max
In 1992 the creators of the popular Polly Pocket toys decided that they needed to broaden their market by reaching out to the young male demographic. The result was Mighty Max, a series of toys that had a similar concept but featured a much more grisly and gruesome theme. To promote this new idea, a TV show was produced under the same name as the toy line; Mighty Max premiered in 1993 and ran for forty episodes. It followed Max, a young boy who finds a mysterious red baseball cap that allows him to teleport anywhere in the world. Joined by Virgil (an owl-like creature) and Norman (his Viking bodygaurd), Max travels across the globe to stop the evil minions of an evil monster named Skullmaster. It’s just as insane as it sounds.
Each Mighty Max set came with its own dark theme and characters. The sets came in different sizes, as well; there were the “doom zones” and “battle warriors” that were large playsets and came with a variety of characters. Then there were “heads” that were shaped like the heads of the monsters they were themed after and included just one or two miniature figures.
What really made these toys cool was that, much to the horror of parents, they were somewhat sinister and gory in nature. Some of the sets were littered with skeletons or had devices like iron maidens or guillotines that had small splatters of blood on them. Kids loved it!
6. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
With the surprise success of the recent Power Rangers movie and the high demand for the Legacy Line of action figures, these are probably on many fans’ mind right now. If you owned any of the old single-episode VHS tapes of the show you got to witness the awesomeness of this series’ ad every time you popped the it in. The commercial featured a booming voice describing how evil had returned to the planet; the only thing standing in their way was the Power Rangers and their ancient dinozords. At the end of the ad, the camera pulled back to show a kid holding all the toys in his room, which had been destroyed by “battle” and exclaimed “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Too hot to handle.” There were two more variations of the ad featuring the Megazord and the Ultra Megazord, but both followed the same formula.
These toys were something else. There were the “giant” line that featured all five (eventually six) of the Rangers and their villains that were fully posable and had their insignias on the front. Then there were the “morphin action” toys that were cheaper quality but had the ability to morph; the rangers had their human heads on their ranger body, and pushing down on their morpher caused their heads to flip down into their bodies and be replaced with their helmet. Of course, we can’t forget about the Megazord toys that lit up and could combine together to form the Ultrazord!
“Thundercats hooooo!” Alongside Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the Thundercats were one of the most recognizable icons of the ’80s. The adventures of Lord Lion-O and his loyal servants were a staple of the Saturday mornings of our youth and the series’ action figures were in every toy box across America. The premise was simple: yhe Thundercats, a race of human-feline hybrids, are driven from their dying planet. They crash-land on a world called Third Earth, inhabited by the evil sorcerer Mumm-Ra. The villain teams up with the Thundercats’ sworn enemies, the Mutants of Plunn-Darr, to try and steal the source of the heroes’ power and wipe out the Thundercats once and for all.
The company LJN, best known for its role in creating terrible video games, took on the task of creating the Thundercats toy line. Thankfully the series was nothing like the quality of LJN’s games; many of the figures had the ability to interact with their corresponding playsets via “lasers” that would cause them to light up when their sensor was placed next to the proper spot. Sadly this toy line only ran for three short years and was never as detailed as the He-Man or Transformers toys of the same generation. Also, the Mumm-Ra looked much different than he did in the show. Still, the pure creativity that went into the Thundercats action figure line made it one of the decade’s best.
What if Transformers and G.I. Joe had a baby? The result would be M.A.S.K. Kenner, fearing that they were losing to their rival Hasbro’s more popular toy lines, created their own military and vehicular-based franchise. The members of Mobile Armored Strike Command, an elite military force, used their powerful weaponized vehicles to stop the evil terrorist organization V.E.N.O.M. The catchphrase of the series was “Illusion is the ultimate weapon.” An evil acronym crime syndicate with militarized vehicles disguised as regular cars and characters with over-the-top names that matched their themes? This sounds awfully familiar…
Though the show was anything but original, the toys captured what made their competitors so successful and ran with it. Seriously, you had a DeLorean-type sports car that could shoot missiles out of its doors and a semi that could detach its trailer section and use its tailpipe as a machine gun. As the name of the show would suggest, each character wore their own special mask that would grant them superpowers as well as make them appear badass. Quality-wise, these figures were comparable to the G.I. Joe line, with more of a focus on function over style.
3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the toy franchise that will never die. It all started back in the ’80s with the release of the original show. Currently we are on our fourth TMNT show (with another soon on the way) and the action figures just keep coming! Even if you take off your nostalgia glasses and realize that the original show was just an intricate toy ad, you still can’t deny how great the TMNT toys were back in the day.
The TMNT toys had just about everything you could ask for; each figure was based on a character from the show and came with a number of small accessories and a collectible card on the back of the packaging. As the show grew in popularity, Playmates (the toy company responsible for the line) came up with new figures in rapid-fire succession and then told the writers to put them in the show. Even when they couldn’t oblige, Playmates would make the figure and market it anyway!
By the end of its run, this series was off-the-wall insane; you had “sports turtles,” “clown turtles,” “surfer turtles,” and even “troll turtles.” Then there were the characters that were seemingly thrown together in an hour or two, like the mutant giraffe that played basketball or the medieval king who was turned into a mutant lion. The toy line may have gone off the rails near the end, but the vehicles and action figures are still desired by collectors to this day, as the recently-released “retro” TMNT toys would suggest.
2. G.I. Joe
Over-the-top film series aside, G.I. Joe is the greatest toy ever made. The character was revolutionary back when it was introduced in the ’60s simply because it gave boys their own “Barbie” to play with. Kids have always had toys, but the original G.I. Joe was the very first mainstream action figure! In the ’80s, the toy line converted to the style popularized by the Star Wars line of the ’70s; they were now smaller-scale figures that focused more on the vehicles and story behind each character. The line was based on the insanely-popular G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon that saw the Joes taking on the evil organization known as COBRA.
What really made this line of toys stand out was its ability to accessorize. The vehicles that were created for the characters could be interchanged between any of the figures, creating endless possibilities for the adventures that kids would come up with in their head.
This line helped pioneer the idea of using a cartoon and comic book series as promotional tools; G.I. Joe was the first to do it successfully and every single entry on this list borrowed the technique in some form or another.
Admit it, just seeing the name made “Robots in disguise!” pop into your head! G.I. Joe may hold the title of best toy series ever, but there is nothing that can top the Transformers in the category of nostalgic toys. You all know the drill: two factions of cybernetic aliens, the Autobots and the Decepticons, bring their war for their home planet of Cybertron over to Earth. To blend in with human culture they take the form of Earthling vehicles, with the Autobots normally going for personal vehicles and the Decepticons opting for the more militaristic ones. With the help of their human allies, the Autobots vow to never let the evil Megatron and his goons get their hands on the Allspark.
The Transformers cartoon was used to market the toy line of the same name. Even so, it was one of the best action cartoons ever made! The action figure line was incredible; each Transformer started out as a vehicle and then kids could manually rearrange the parts to form a giant robot. This was a new concept at the time and is still endearing decades later.
The amount of iconic characters to come from this line is ridiculous; Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, Starscream, and Soundwave were all included in the initial lineup. Eventually it broke away from its vehicular base and introduced characters who transformed into giant bugs, household objects, and yes, even dinosaurs . If you can ever get your hands on one of these figures, consider yourself very lucky.
So, what do you think of our list? Did you feel as nostalgic reading it as we did writing it? Did we miss any big toy lines from your youth? Let us know in the comments!
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