Action figures were incredibly popular toys in the 1980s. Most of action figures produced and sold during the 1980s ended-up in the hands of children, and they were removed from their packaging and played with. The concept of collecting figures and keeping them unopened in mint condition was not popular in the 1980s, and, unlike today, hardly any adults collected action figures or toys in any form.
Many hundreds of millions of action figures were sold in the 1980s, and here are just some of the most popular ones.
Star Wars Action Figures
Although US company Kenner manufactured the first Star Wars action figures in the late 1970s, they remained an incredibly popular line of toys throughout the the first half of the 1980s. With the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and the Return of the Jedi in 1983, Kenner produced approximately 300 million Star Wars figures to satisfy the demand of the children of the 80s.
Kenner did manufacturer larger Star Wars figures, but it was the 3.75″ size ones that were the most popular, and vehicles and playsets were also sold so that children could recreate scenes from the Star Wars movies.
The popularity of Star Wars waned during the late 1980s, and demand for Star Wars action figures declined. As a result, Kenner stopped making their classic Star Wars figures in 1985. And, although they did start to make Star Wars toys again in the mid-1990s, the last wave of figures produced in the 1980s are some of the most sought after by modern-day collectors.
Known as the Last 17, these final figures included the Ewoks Lumat, Paploo, Romba and Warok, Luke Skywalker in Stormtrooper Disguise, A-Wing Pilot, and Anakin Skywalker.
Kenner’s 1980s Star Wars figures feature as props in one scene of the 1982 film ET.
Kenner also produced Star Wars action figures to tie-in with the animated series Star Wars: Droids, and Star Wars: Ewoks.
Masters of the Universe Action Figures
Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe 5.5″ action figures first appeared on the shelves in 1981. The first wave of characters included He-Man, Skeletor, and Beast Man.
Mattel continued to produce Masters of the Universe action figures until the late 1980s. Approximately 70 different figures were made along with numerous vehicles, beasts and playsets.
The popularity of the Masters of the Universe action figures led to the release of the classic He-Man and the Masters of the Universe animated series.
M.A.S.K. Action Figures
M.A.S.K. stood for Mobile Armored Strike Kommand. Developed by Kenner, the franchise was based around the conflict between M.A.S.K. and the villanous V.E.N.O.M. organization.
The Kenner M.A.S.K. action figures and vehicles were first released in 1985 (the same year as the launch of the animated series), and continued to come out until 1988.
All of the vehicles could change form into a combat-ready mode, and all of the action figures came with masks.
A-Team Action Figures
Galoob produced two A-Team action figure toy lines (one 3.75″ and 6″) to tie in with the weekly 1980s live-action TV series the A-Team.
The 3.75″ figures came in four-packs, while the larger figures were sold individually. The most popular four-pack was the one featuring the TV show’s maian charcaters – Hannibal, B.A., Murdock, and Face.
Another popular set was the A-Team Van packaged with a B.A. Baracus figure.
The Transformers franchise was developed Takara (a Japanese company) from its Diaclone and Micro Change toy lines.
The first US and UK Transformers toys (transforming action figures that could be converted from a vehicle form into a robot mode and then back again) were released by Hasbro in 1984. Transformers action figures have been produced ever since, and they remain a popular toy to this day.
Popular Transformers figures include Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, Soundwave, and Cliffjumper.
The Transformers toy line inspired numerous animated TV shows and movies, and a series of live-action movies.
GoBots were another line of transforming figures. Manufactured by Tonka from 1983 to 1987, they competed for sales with the Transformers toys.
Divided into Guardians (good guys) and Renegades (bad guys), the figures were very popular for a number of years in the 1980s.
A cartoon series called Challenge of the GoBots ran from 1984 to 1985, and in 1986 an animated film called GoBots: Battle of the Rock Lords was released.
In the early 1990s, Hasbro purchased the GoBots toy line from Tonka and they began to incorporate GoBots into the Transformers universe.
Created by Takara and distributed by Hasbro from 1986, Battle Beasts were 2″ action figures with heat-sensitive signs on their chests that revealed a symbol when rubbed.
More than 70 Battle Beasts were released in the US and the UK, often sold in packs of two figures.
The chest symbols were fire, wood, or water, but you had to purchase the figures to discover which symbols they had been given.
ThunderCats Action Figures
Launched to tie-in with the animated ThunderCats animated TV series, ThunderCats action figures hit the shelves in 1985. Produced by LJN and measuring about 6″ in height, the ThunderCats action figures line featured al of the charcaters from the TV show (including the heroes Lion-O, Tygra, Panthro, and Cheetara).
LJN stopped making the original ThunderCats figures in 1987, athough several figures and vehicles were advertised in an LJN toy catalogue but were never released to toy stores.
G.I Joe / Action Force Figures
The first 3.75″ G.I. Joe action figures were released in the US by Hasbro in 1982 along with a comic book and an animated TV series.
Featuring soldiers and warriors, the toy line proved to be incredibly popular until the early 1990s.
Palitoy produced a similar type of figure called Action Force. Designed for European markets, the Action Force range was later purchased by Hasbro, and from 1985 they started to combine the G.I. Joe and Action Force toy lines and franchises.