Top 10 Action Figure Lines of All Time
Posted 10/25/00

Action figures have existed, at least in the sense we understand today, for almost 40 years.  In that time there have been thousands of lines, many of them very successful.  I've put together my list of the all time best, and I've used a slightly different metric to decide.

The first requirement for a figure to get on my list is that it be in some way ground breaking.  It should effect the industry, or change the way we look at toys.  To be one of the best, it's not good enough to be a great line - it needs to make a difference in some way.

But that's not the only criteria.  The line should also be popular.  If people didn't enjoy the line then or now, all the innovation in the world doesn't matter.  On top of that, the play value should be exceptional, and it should be the kind of line that kids could love.  Something they'll remember fondly when they grow up, and will rekindle great memories when they see it at the local flea market.

That being said, let's take a look at my picks.  I've listed these in psuedo-chronological order.  I'm sure you've got your opinions as well, so why not head on over to the message board after reading through mine and let us know what you think!

Up first is the line that started it all, G.I. Joe.  Not only that, but easily the longest running line, being on the shelves in one form or another for most of the last 36 years.  These dolls for boys made a tremendous impact on the way we played as children, giving boys the same opportunity for role playing through figures that girls had with Barbie.  Through all his versions, from hard head to fuzzy, from 12" to 3 3/4", Joe has made millions of little boys happy.

During the 60's and early 70's, another major line were the figures produced by Marx.  The variety was terrific, from cowboys and Indians to vikings and knights.  With a tremendous number of accessories packed with every figure, and something for everyone, this is one of the most versatile lines every produced.  The figures held up to rough play admirably, and they were one of my childhood favorites.

In the latter half of the 1970's, a new company and format appeared - Megos.  Easily one of the most popular lines for collectors today, these 8" figures popularized a new format, and again provided a tremendously wide variety.  While the quality and detail varied as much as the source material, this line is one of the best loved ever produced.  Most important to the industry, Megos were the first to use licensed characters successfully, especially in conjunction with the Planet of the Apes movies.  Action figures would never be the same.

As the oil crisis of the 70's dragged on, toy manufacturers felt the pinch.  Producing large figures was no longer cost effective, but early attempts by companies like Mego with smaller scale figures proved unsuccessful.  That is until Kenner produced the first line of Star Wars figures.  These small figures allowed the company to produce a tremendous variety, and most importantly, scale vehicles and playsets.  Children loved them, and the rest is history.
During the 80's, lots of lines were produced, but two stand out as exceptional.  The Super Powers line by Kenner gave us some of the best representations of comic book characters ever produced.  With good action features and cool vehicles, this line is one of the most popular super hero based lines ever created.

The second is He-Man, Masters of the Universe (not picture).  While some may argue that the figures weren't as good as say, Micronauts, these figures started the trend of tying cartoons and toys directly together, and eventually caused new laws to be put in to place to keep kids shows from becoming nothing more than half hour commercials.

The late 80's and early 90's saw toy companies looking for new ideas and new licenses.  While Star Trek had been popular before, most notably during the 70's when Mego produced some great figures, the line produced by Playmates is one of the best.  The 9" scale sported terrific likenesses and great variety, while the smaller 5" scale gave us literally dozens of characters.  No Star Trek appearance was too brief, or part too small, and some truly surprising characters were made.  This line is also important to the industry, because it proved beyond any doubt that abusing your collectors with impossible to find exclusives or variants can destroy a line.  The '1701' limited edition figures in this series are considered it's undoing, and in the future companies would be wise to learn from Playmates mistake.
After the Super Powers line, it was several years before another super hero line came along that really took off.  The Batman the Animated Series line was it - terrific sculpts that were extremely true to the source material, along with the fact that the show was a huge hit made this line tremendously popular with kids and adults alike.  No other super hero line has produced as wide of variety of villains, and although the line has been through several versions now and isn't nearly what it once was, it's still producing the occasional cool figure.
The single most influential line of the 90's was the first Spawn line from the new company, Todd's Toys.  Shortly it was renamed McFarlane Toys, but not before the impact had been felt.  While I'm not singling out any one line by Todd here, overall his company has managed to raise the bar both on sculpting and detail.  While the company has been prone to quality problems at times, and articulation isn't always job 1, their movie related lines some of the finest ever produced.  Pushing a higher price point, McFarlane toys upped the scale on standard figures to 6"-8", increased the level of sculpting detail on everything, and ushered in the era of collecting variations.  While not everyone is happy with the changes, no one can deny that Todd McFarlane was THE influential force across the industry during the 90's.
Twenty years after Mego, Toybiz brought us the Famous Covers.  These 9", cloth costumed super heroes were immediately a smash with collectors.  Focusing on Marvel characters of course, we've already seen a fantastic variety of male and female characters.  The body design is one of the finest in years, and while some of the costumes have been less than stellar, overall the line has been huge hit with adult collectors.  Unfortunately, it hasn't been as big a hit with kids, and the future of the line is unsure.  But Toybiz has managed to bring us back full circle, and now other companies like Hasbro have begun experimenting once again with the 9" clothed format.
So what will the first decade of this century bring us?  What lines will be added to this list?  I know of three that have real possibilities already.  Sideshow Toys has produced four series of their 8" Universal Monsters series.  These figures provide fantastic sculpting, and excellent design.  Another line showing great promise are the super heroes from DC Direct.  While the price point is still too high, they are succeeding at producing an interesting variety of DC heroes solely through the specialty store retail market.  And finally, Playmates has just started giving us the terrific Simpsons line, with excellent figures and a great play angle with the playsets.
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