Previously, I remarked upon how those of us who were children in the 1980s “knew disappointment by name”, thanks to the deluge of new toy lines leaping at us from store shelves, most of them doomed to two-year lifespans and discount-bin futures. Companies were just beginning to learn how the lack of a Saturday morning cartoon could put an ugly dent in their profits. The hunt was on for the next best gimmick, the hook that would bring in the kids and establish the next He-Man or GI Joe. Not coincidentally, those lines were also infusing gimmicks circa 1987 in a losing battle to stay on top.
Transformers, arguably the decade’s most popular toys, were expensive to produce. The supply of repainted robots that comprised the line’s first few years had run dry, leaving Hasbro no choice but to design the toys themselves, an extra step that was not only also very expensive, but resulted in the far simpler Pretenders and Firecons. Few, if any, will argue that either was a high point in quality. For the uninitiated: Firecons used the same sparking mechanism as Doc’s DeLorean from Back To The Future, and that was a Happy Meal toy. (It was recalled because “kids” could chew off a rear tire and choke on it, not because of the sparks as you might assume. I have two of the worthless things.)
So it was that in 1987 Hasbro began to try some new tricks. Here is but one example of something they threw at the wall with the greatest effort, and try as it might, it just didn’t stick. Ladies and gentlemen of the Internet, I give you Air Raiders.
In case you can’t read it clearly, here’s the text:
Airlandia! — A distant world where air is more precious than gold! Where the cruel Tyrants of Wind have seized control of ALL THE AIR. Only the Air Raiders, a band of valiant rebels, dare defy these evil dictators! With a convoy of air vehicles, these brave heroes battle the Tyrants, struggling to restore the breath of freedom.
How about that, huh? For starters, there’s the eerie coincidence with the Dick Van Patten subplot of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, released the same year. The bad guys stole ALL THE AIR! That’s just how tyrannical they are! Never mind the logistics of such an act, they’re EVIL!
That’s right; the central gimmick of this particular dead toy line is AIR. Air powered missiles, air powered weapons, air powered vehicles, even air powered escape cars. But most importantly, air powered missiles, which you can gleefully fire into the eye socket of a wandering parent. Air Raiders- THE POWER IS IN THE AIR.
Fun and injury aside, clearly a lot of thought went into the design and overall concept of Air Raiders. (The same can’t be said for the hackwork Marvel comics unfortunately, but that’s a whole other story.) There’s a bit here and there cribbed from Dune and Bespin, sure. And yeah, the quality of the plastic was lacking, and the action figures were little more than gumball machine trinkets, by modern standards. But oh my, was Air Raiders eager to please. And if you were young and uncynical, or at least willing to overlook its shortcomings, Air Raiders did just that.
Before I begin, I’d like to note here that this is one of the few toy lines I’ve ever come close to collecting in its entirety. I have/had all of these, except for one. I’ll explain, but when you see which one, you’ll probably understand why anyway.
We begin with the smallest offering of the assortment. The figures were about 1.5″ tall, or 4 cm. They came in packs of five, one of which was a special troop leader. They were articulated only at the shoulders and the crotch, so they could sit in the vehicles. The arms were on one connected piece through the body, so you could only raise or lower the arms together. Moving them separately would eventually result in the connector breaking, and the arms falling out. Turning the head (or rather attempting to) would produce a similar result.
The molding on these guys was pretty nice, in spite of the “cheapness” of the overall feel. The Raiders looked like they had some kind of heavy duty stillsuits on, and the Tyrants were vaguely similar to Slayers, the only semi-decent thing about Krull. Plus, the economy of the production paid off; you could amass an army of these guys in no time, and burying or destroying them in “battle” was no big deal. Vehicles came packed with even more.
As for me, I must’ve shoplifted a hundred of the things. Their tiny size and blister card packaging made them perfect to open quietly and cram two corduroy pockets full. At 15 I was like the cat burglar of the Garden State Plaza Child World. To this day, I still find errant Raiders in various toy boxes. Apparently I literally couldn’t get enough of the little guys.
Here we have the basic priced vehicles, aka the Battle Dashers. All four of these came with an unwieldy pump device (not shown) roughly the size of the vehicle itself. Ideally, you would place the vehicle on a smooth surface, insert the long phallus of the pump into the vehicle’s rectum, and then pound your fist onto the pump’s thoracic bulb. This would blast the little craft across the floor, pilots skittering every which way, usually finding refuge under the fridge. You could also fire the patented air missiles with the pump, landing them in the same area.
At top left: the Thunderclaw. Like GI Joe vehicles, these had to be put together from parts, by you. Decal stickers included. So you knew when you built your proud Thunderclaw that it was based around a cheesy plastic clamp that opened when you squeezed the flanges in the back. The orange pontoons are empty underneath, with black plastic wheels stuck into the support braces, like you’d find on a party favor toy car. Hoo boy… yes my friends, we are in cheapsville. Still, 2 figures included. Gotta give ’em that.
Speaking of those decals, the dark maroon hull of the Thunderclaw was made of a Teflon-like plastic that ensured they would slide right off. Which is a terrible shame, really, because the decals were not only pretty snazzy a lot of the time, but upon closer inspection, many of them reveal the faction or the name of the vehicle, in “code”. The Tyrants of Wind had a legible logo, but the other vehicles have lettering so subtle you don’t even realize it’s English at first glance. I’ll do my best to show you what I mean when it comes up.
Anyway, back to the vehicles; below the Thunderclaw is its dainty sister, the Storm Dagger. Kind of an alien sailboat thing. Its narrow wheel base and off-kilter windshield made shattering wipeouts a breeze. Ha! BREEZE! I kill me, says ALF on TV as I play with this in 1987.
The Tyrants fared a little better on the basics. The Wind Razor, at top right, had a wide wheel base and a sweet translucent yellow canopy. Simple, but it works well. Hasbro must’ve liked the name, because there’s been a Transformer or two named Wind Razor. You can’t tell from the picture, but the Wind Seeker (bottom right) is a six-wheeler. Cheap wheels, but there’s six of ’em. Plus, the turret is removable, adding an extra level of cat torment to what the pumps provide.
At the next price point up, on the Air Raider side, is the Twin Lightning. You get no points for guessing from whence its inspiration sprang.
The round orange section at the rear is the bellows, made of rubbery plastic. By squeezing it, you would (ideally) fire the missiles, in tandem. It was a little harder than that in practice, and you would usually end up firing just one. At center is a dial, so you can alternate the air power to the individual missiles. You could fit four figures in the twin cockpits, and any worries over the logistics of flight in this case would dissipate as you ran around the house with this thing in your hand, making all manner of obnoxious racket. Flaws aside, it was pretty damn cool. (It’s two-tone, too; the underside is white.)
The equivalent Tyrant vehicle was the Hawkwind. The name always makes me think of Neil from The Young Ones, saying “Play some Hawkwind, or Marillion.” If you know The Young Ones, you know why that’s funny.
The two-missile gimmick worked a little better with the Hawkwind, since the missiles were closer together. However, the toy itself had a tendency to come apart when you squeezed the bellows. It looked nice, and you could put a bunch of dudes in it, but it was not at all durable. Most of these things were inexpensive, but putting a toy together only to have it continually pop apart was disappointing to say the least.
Closer to the $30 range is the Thunderhammer, a prime example of the Raiders’ talent for shooting themselves in the foot. Let’s start with the guy in the turret. First off, it’s not a turret– it’s the handle of the pump with a seat on it. Whomever you place in that seat gets crushed into your sweaty palm as you pump up the weapons. Like the battering ram, where, as you can see, four lucky Raiders are comfortably seated. Perhaps chatting quietly amongst themselves. Then the ram discharges, mashing them all into oblivion and paste.
See the two guys on the top in the love seat? It was all their idea.
On the dark side is the Dragonwind, my personal favorite, despite a name sounding like a dragon fart. It’s essentially a very nice design… with a bunch of crap stuck all over it. The missiles that pop out of the panel on top are a nice touch, but god knows who decided to ugly it up with all those day-glo armaments. As for the “air-launch glider”; like too many other aspects of Air Raiders, it was made out of infamously eternal foam rubber. Its doom could be spelled by a dropped textbook.
The Dragonwind was pretty sweet once you held it in your hands, but it just had too many pointy parts. Lastly, the bulk of the vehicle isn’t used to contain anything, though it appears that it easily could have. The cockpit is cramped and doesn’t look like anyone would be able to see out of it. Still, I loved it for some reason. (The “some products not available” line probably refers to the one toy I didn’t get, coming up at the end.)
The Man-O-War was the real jewel of the line, and you better believe Hasbro pimped this baby all over Saturday morning commercials. If nothing else from this article causes you to remember Air Raiders, without a doubt this will:
It’s all coming back now, isn’t it? I bet you even remember the song from the ads now: AIIIIIIR raiders…/The power is in the AIIIIIIRraiders… I didn’t even YouTube that. It’s been stuck in my head since ’87.
Friends, I have been fortunate enough to witness this phenomenon myself, in person, in the form of the Man-O-War I got 20+ years ago, and still possess. Oh, the Ball is long gone, probably flattened, having been made of the aforementioned non-archival styrofoam. But there was once a time when I saw the Ball in all its glory. And it was reasonably awesome.
Within the bowels of this gargantuan beast was a battery-operated fan, that blew air through the top of the vehicle when switched on. It also sounded like a hair dryer, and annoyed my mom. But the sight of the “surveillance pod” hovering in midair, for the scant seconds before a passing air current or fart would send it tumbling to the carpet, was amazing stuff for a kid. I don’t know if I’d bank a whole toy line around it, but it was amazing nonetheless.
The Man-O-War was packed with features. A little scout car poofed out of a ramp on the underside. There were turrets everywhere. It had a bridge, an exclusive commander figure in the form of Admiral Fury, and best of all; a BRIG. That’s right, another positive aspect of the tiny scale of the figures was the option to imprison them. For good if necessary! Who knows what they might have did, or what secrets they need to cough up. A brig!
The massive size of the Man-O-War also meant lots of decipherable decals, to which I referred earlier. If you can’t make it out on the above picture, here’s a close-up:
See? The red symbols spell “Man-O-War”, and there’s a little symbol for it on the right! (See the “pod”?) There were actually enough of these coded decals for me to make an alphabet legend, which I’ve unfortunately long since lost. I’d love to make a font of it. As far as I know, I’m the only one who ever noticed this, which is a shame considering the effort that was no doubt involved. So almost thirty years later, I am acknowledging this detail for everyone to see. Without a doubt, it’s one of the things that got me into typography at a young age.
Also note: the red bubble, where a figure could be placed standing underneath, and have a 360-degree view. Great stuff!
Almost as impressive as the Man-O-War (and just as expensive) was the Command Outpost. Remember how much better life was when toys could be photographed in environments? Then Nickelodeon comes along, and all of a sudden toys can’t be shot in anything outside the boundaries of boring-ass reality. We didn’t know how good we had it back then, I tell ya.
Like the Thunderhammer, the Outpost has another poor bastard perched on the pump handle. This is why the Raiders were wiped out. They kept putting infantry on handles and the ends of weapons. The Tyrants just sat back and waited until they could simply take the air.
The Outpost was an excellent place to pack your zillions of figures. The half-pipe section came off, exposing a little command room. The triangular sections of the dome raised up individually like flower petals, revealing a large, round control area. Then you could pump the bellows, and everybody fall down go boom.
Above the Tyrants is the “air-activated rockslide”, which wasn’t too terrible all things considered. The rocks were not very big, but Hasbro should be commended for the fact that they managed not to make them look like poops.
I can’t remember the name of the red guy standing on the top next to the dome, but he was my favorite figure. He had a (partial) face!
Lastly, as promised, is the ultimate monster playset of the Air Raiders line: the Air Refinery. I don’t know if I ever really saw it on the shelf, but there was no way I could talk a relative into getting me this. God knows where I would have put it, but it sure looked sweet. On one side, it looked like a mountain; this was a common playset design technique at the time, to cut down the need to fill every nook of the toy. Probably the best example of this is the Sectaur Hyve, another huge playset almost nobody had.
The green Kryptonite-looking tube was, I believe, an elevator to escort your little Tyrants to the necessary floor. As you can see, there are many floors on the inside, and all sorts of doodads. “Four-stage air-powered missile launchers”– that HAD to have been at least somewhat awesome, whatever it was. And look closely at the bottom right; there’s a groovy little escape car for dude to get away in. Man, I coulda had a blast with this thing.
Air Raiders hung in until 1988, but what you see here was the extent of the line. For whatever reason, possibly the intrinsic dullness of air, it didn’t catch on with the youngsters. You can’t say they didn’t try, though. Collecting points from toy boxes allowed you the opportunity to receive mail-order figures of obscure Tyrant Barons, which I still have somewhere. The effort was there. Air Raiders wanted you to love it. I mean, look at this:
Look at that badass battle, suitable for framing! What a golden age; the art department uses actual paint!
So long, Air Raiders. The public at large may have ignored you, but I appreciated you in your day. You were just cool enough to get me to buy you, and just lame enough to make me steal you sometimes instead. And always remember; I almost completely collected you.
Somewhere that’s gotta be worth something.
(This article originally appeared on Mike The Pod, 6.5.2009, as Air Raiders: The Eager-To-Please Fat Girl of 1980s Toys. I meant this to be cute, but you know how people are these days. I considered replacing “fat” with “chunky” or “plump”, before finally capitulating. I still think it’s a great analogy, I just don’t want to deal with the whining.)