Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Back to the 90s: G.I. Joe – Ninja Force

Logo sourced from here

I don’t think action figures hold quite the same sway that they used to among kids as they did when I was a child. But journey back to the early 1990s, and you have a very different story indeed. Video games are very popular, but nothing like on the scale like they will be in the future. The internet still borders on science fiction, though personal computers are starting to make inroads into homes around Australia. Action figures still have a tight grip on the young male audience. Mainstays of the mid-80s are still around – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, Transformers – taking up considerable space in the toy aisles.

From this era was birthed GI Joe: Ninja Force. Running from 1993-1994, Ninja Force was a subset which really couldn’t have been made any time but the 1990s. Neon pink packaging, garishly coloured characters and a fairly large dose of EXTREME ATTITUDE meant that these guys were very much products of their time.
If I recall correctly, my introduction to Ninja Force came through my parent’s Bible study group. Each week a whole group of parents from the church would visit the house of a family friend, and the children would be left to entertain themselves for a couple of hours. It was a lot of fun – this isn’t going to turn into some kind of “I was raised in a cult” story – the kids were all nice, and so were the parents. We would watch TV, play with toys and generally muck about. It was on one of these occasions that I was also introduced to Commander Keen, but that’s a story for another time.

The hosting family had three kids, two boys* and a girl. The eldest of the two sons was a few years older than me, and his brother was one year younger than me. Between them, they owned what (in hindsight) I realised was quite an impressive collection of 1980s-1990s toys – including a Millennium Falcon!  
Photo sourced from here
Not yet having seen Star Wars, I was more taken with their collection of G.I. Joes. If I recall, they owned two at least members of Ninja Force – Storm Shadow and Scarlett. They also owned Zartan and Slice, two members of Ninja Force’s Cobra counterparts, the Night Creepers, who were also released under the Ninja Force banner.
But it was Storm Shadow who made the strongest impression on me. He was a ninja – that was pretty badass to begin with – had a large white katana and his costume was an incredibly cool twist on the archetypal ninja get-up. White hood, black face mask, vaguely arctic camo – I can say without any irony whatsoever that I would still love to own this as a real outfit. Even now, the artwork on the box causes me to fall into something of a state of awe. My debt to this family is a great one indeed.  
But for all my love of Storm Shadow, I never actually owned this iteration of him. I still hold a few regrets about to this day. I suspect I didn’t buy him under the logic that I had friends who owned him, so I “didn’t need to”. This was a rookie error on my part. One day I may just cave, hang the expense and buy him on eBay...sigh.  
Photo sourced from here
However, I did own a number of his companions. Banzai, with his fluoro pink facemask, T’Jbang with his unpronounceable name, Dojo with his “real-hair” ponytail…but of those who weren’t Storm Shadow, Bushido was the coolest – an ice ninja who wore a samurai-esque helmet. He was a very close second to Storm Shadow, and remains so to this day. Unfortunately though, while Storm Shadow has garnered around 302842903740934831209378 variations by this point, Bushido seems to have been released in only two versions -- the one pictured below, and a colour-change version from the "Shadow Ninjas" spin-off from Ninja Force. No modern update :(
I only owned one of the Cobra enemies – Dice, who wore a purple jumpsuit and had ridiculously large shinpads. His costume may not have been stealthy, but it was a legitimately menacing villain’s outfit in the early 1990s. It was a different time…a time before everything had to be DARK and TORMENTED to get a look-in. Though it was definitely all about being edgy.

The Ninja Force range also included a few vehicles, too. One was the Pile Driver, which featured T’Gin Zu, a repainted Storm Shadow with a hilarious pun name, and there was also the Battle Ax, boxed with the Red Ninja. Snake Eye’s Ninja Lightning cycle was the third, and probably the most prominent of them. I still remember my excitement on Christmas morning of 1994, waking up early and finding this cycle in the stocking at the end of my bed. Sadly, this excitement was fairly short-lived. Snake Eyes was one of only a couple of figures who actually fit properly on the bike – and I didn’t own him or any of the others that did. Disappointment only increased further when it broke a within a few weeks of being opened. I was not rough with my toys, so I can only assume that the Ninja Force cycle was a bit on the flimsy side.
Photo from here
My last experience with Ninja Force was probably in about 1997, when my move away from action figures was already well underway. Apparently I was too cool for them at age 12, but once I turned 18 it was okay again...the pubescent mind is a strange thing.
Photo from here
A local Coles supermarket somehow ended up with a bunch of Joes. Among them was the Ninja Force Snake Eyes – a figure I had admired, but never actually owned – and would have matched well with my long-broken bike. Dad bought him for me, and  it was nice to get him, but it did feel a little incomplete without Storm Shadow. Memory does not record if he was also available that day, but I would assume not. I would definitely have bought him over Snake Eyes (though ideally I would have bought both of them together).   
Sculpting, articulation and paint technology have moved on in leaps and bounds since the days of Ninja Force. But there is something deeply special to me about that time in the early to mid-1990s. You could walk into a toy store and find a huge variation of characters on the shelf. Toys also hung around on the shelf for a lot longer. So if you missed a character you wanted one week, you didn’t have to live in fear you’d never see him/her again in the way you do now. No doubt I’m looking at this through some heavily rose-tinted glasses, but it was indeed a special time of my life – and probably something that I’ve (perhaps misguidedly) tried to replicate with my adult collecting ventures. I wouldn't say that it's been entirely successful, but I've had a lot of fun along the way.    
Looking back over images, Ninja Force seems a little more ridiculous than I remember, and I can appreciate why G.I. Joe fans that primarily enjoy the relative military realism of the early 1980s don’t look on the line with fondness. It seems somewhat cynical in the way it was designed to capitalise on a bunch of hot trends – ninjas and fluoro colours – but it worked on me and many of my friends as children. And I still enjoy the live action ads they made for it, which you can view here and here. 

*These two brothers would later go on to form the prominent Central Coast band Angela’s Dish. So there’s one of my brushes with fame.  

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