1984 was a perfect storm of toy robots marketing in North America. Tonka launched their GoBots in late 1983 and they'd be among the most popular toys the following year. Hasbro debuted The Transformers at Toyfair 1984 and they would go on to break the sales record for a first year toyline. '84 would also see the launch of another brand of robot action figures that were totally unlike anything else released that year. It was Robo Force, Ideal's nontransforming, 5 1/2 inch tall action warrior robots with crusher arms and gripper bases! Although Robo Force would be canceled after its debut and nothing new was released beyond the initial line of figures and vehicles, Ideal initially gave the line a tremendous marketing push that forever etched it into the memories of an entire generation of toy robots-loving kids growing up in the eighties. Of course Hasbro would dominate in 1985 with the market supremacy of The Transformers overwhelming Robo Force along with countless knockoffs and imitations looking to cash in on the transforming robot craze. But back in 1984 before there was a clear winner in the Toy Robots Wars of the 1980s there was a variety of options and ideas of what a toy robot could be. The unique direction Ideal went with the Robo Force designs would make them a true standout among the overwhelming flood of toy robot Volkswagens and their transforming dinosaur cohorts. So to celebrate the line that reminded us there is more to being a robot than just turning into a Lamborghini, I want to take a look at where Robo Force essentially began-in the pages of the 1984 Ideal Toy Fair catalog!
But before we delve into Ideal's sales pitch to the retail chains, I think it's important to understand that Ideal developed this line totally independently of outside influences. According to a ToyFare interview with Paul Kirchner (the artist who drew the pack-in comics), Ideal was totally blindsided by the more popular GoBots and Transformers competing alongside Robo Force in 1984. Robo Force wasn't an attempt to cash in on the toy robot action figure boom of '84-'85, it was just timed fortunately (or unfortunately) enough to be in the running when transforming toy robot mania hit America. 1984 was not the first time toy robots of Japanese origin would invade the U.S., as kids who lived through the Shogun Warriors and Micronauts era of the late 70s can attest. It was also not the first time Ideal launched a toy robot line. Almost twenty years earlier it was Ideal who came out with the very first mainstream American toy robots ever-the Zeroids. But 1984 would be the first year that Ideal's American born and bred robot designs would go up directly against the radically different toy robots from Japan. And the rest, as they say, is....page 98 of the 1984 Ideal ToyFair catalog:
NEW Robo Force Action Robot Figures Assortment No. 48075
Warrior Robots with Crusher Arms & Gripper Bases
Assortment consists of the following figures: Wrecker The Demolisher, Coptor The Enforcer, Maxx Steele The Leader, S.O.T.A. The Creator, Blazer The Ignitor, Sentinel The Protector, Vulgar The Destroyer, Enemy The Dictator, Hun-Dred The Conqueror and Cruel The Detonator.
Robo Force delivers the action that ordinary poseable "action figures" only promise-and in a theme that's as "now" as tomorrow! Each of the 10 different figures has pushbutton-activated, moving crusher arms, suction gripper base and a 360° swivel waist. And each has a different set of detachable, interchangeable weaponry, conceal-and-reveal warrior gadgetry, hidden compartments and working accessories. Complete with full color Robo Force comic book/cross-sell brochure, Robo Force fan club offer and more.
For ages 4 years and up.
Pack:24 pcs. Wgt: 14 lbs. Cube:2.2
THIS IS WHAT SEPARATES THE -TRONIANS FROM THE -OIDS!
What made Robo Force not just different but radical was the design of the robots and how they incorporated short, squat proportions with accordion like arms, giant suction cup bases and no discernible faces. The easiest and most common jokes about Robo Force are how they resemble vacuum cleaners or gas pumps but the comparisons are valid. I thought it was comedic genius when I wrote a couple years ago that Roboforce robots are what you'd get if a bunch of astromech droids from Star Wars got together to make a heavy metal band called GWAR2-D2. But although I was joking I think the resemblance to R2-D2 belies Robo Force's place in history as the ultimate evolution of the original American perception of what robots in science fiction looked like. I think the chunk-ily proportioned, squat, vaguely humanoid but very vacuum cleaner-ish look was pretty common in the late 60s/early 70s as exemplified with the Zeroids. It's a look I think started with Robby the robot from Lost in Space. Even Twiki from the Buck Rogers tv show had those accordion arms that Robby, the Zeroids and all the Robo Force robots share. There's so many examples in pre-1980s American movies and television of robots being these midgety looking things with weird, oftentimes non-humanoid shapes with some vestiges of vacuum cleaners parts. Then the more traditionally humanoid and less cartoonish looking Japanese idea of what a robot could be took over in the 80s, leaving Robo Force as the evolutionary end of the line for the great American sci-fi robot.
Fishers Drug 05 November 1984
I'M CRUSHING YOUR HEAD!
The text of the Ideal catalog would be echoed in retailer ads for the line, bringing the term "Action Robot Figure" to newspaper ads all over the country. Robo Force was the perfect combination of the action elements from action figures with the toy robot genre, creating figures that had features so bizarre they could only make sense with robots. Aside from the crusher arms, gripper bases, detachable weapons and swiveling waists, each robot also had an additional feature unique to it, usually in the form of some sort of pop out weapon. Robo Force robots could do things no other toy robots before or since could do. Transformers or GoBots oftentimes sacrificed so much for their transformation gimmick that the resulting figures were very low on action features. (Although I gotta admit, turning into a Tyrannosaurus beats sticking to the side of a refrigerator anyday.)
A ROBO FORCE IS A FORCE, OF COURSE, OF COURSE?
The one area where Robo Force fell most notably short was in the development of a strong storyline to accompany the figures and create a mythology behind the toys. Whereas Hasbro and Tonka had their stories of transforming robot Volkswagens amidst the backdrop of alien robot civil war, Robo Force only had the vaguest notion that maybe some of these robots were up to no good, based mostly on their color schemes and job descriptions. There was no clear delineation between good and bad guys aside from how they were grouped on the two page spread introducing the figures and even that was odd because instead of splitting the two factions evenly among ten figures, the good guys got six and the bad guys got four. This is really strange because five of the good guys make very little use of red in their color schemes (while the bad guys use it a lot) and then you have the sixth good guy who's body is almost totally red, plus he's an arsonist. To make matters even more confusing, every robot has "Robo Force" in big letters emblazoned across their torso as if they're all on the same side. The only reason I know the characters' alignments is because it's charted out in the mini pack-in comics and you can usually tell who's fighting with who in the other books and stories, otherwise I'd have no clue just from going off the Toy Fair book. Allegiances or delineations between two opposing sides aren't made explicit anywhere in Ideal's catalog, unlike how Hasbro handled the Transformers in their 1984 toy catalog. That's why the one pair of Robo Force ads I found pictured below from 1985 is so fascinating. Usually retailers would just use whatever flavor text the toy manufacturers provided them when it came time to write ad descriptions. And those texts usually came straight off the copy from the Toy Fair catalogs. But in these Service Merchandise ads from November 3, 1985, the robots are divided into "Heroic" and "Defiant" case assortments. I have no idea where those alignments came from because I've never seen them used in any Robo Force media. The robots shown in the ads don't line up with their good guy/bad guy affiliations as presented in the comics and other books but that could be due to a number of reasons, from laziness to flat out mistakes on the part of the photographers and typesetters. Still, labeling one faction as "Defiant" hints at a possible backstory that would make some sense even if all the robots have "Robo Force" on their chests. Maybe some robots rebelled? Could they all have been part of one big happy Robo Force family and Hun-Dred led a rebellion in defiance of Maxx Steele's leadership? Only the members of the Robo Force know for sure (plus somebody who used to work at at Service Merchandise).
GO FORCE YOURSELF!
Well that does it for this look at the first two Robo Force related pages of the 1984 Ideal Toy Fair catalog. Later in the week I'll cover the other assortments including the vehicles, the Fortress of Steele and the other miscellaneous Robo Force merchandise that appeared in the book. You won't want to miss it!