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Tag: opinion

Why the original Kenner Star Wars toys were the best (and worst)

Contributed by
Dec 18, 2017

Back in the '70s and '80s, Hasbro undoubtedly ruled the toy roost. The company made Transformers, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony household names with toys that were on the top of everyone's Christmas list.

And then there was Kenner.

While Kenner was a much smaller company and may not have had the greatest sculpts, paint, or gimmicks, they did have one very important property that made them a giant on the toy aisle. Kenner made Star Wars toys.

The Force (Injected Plastic) Is Strong With This One

The original Star Wars figures are prime nostalgia-bait for those of us who grew up on the original trilogy. There were no third-party toy companies, no hyper-detailed sculpts out of Japan. If you wanted to bring Luke, Ben, R2, and 3PO home, you had to go troll your K-Mart and keep your eyes peeled for Kenner's distinctive white-bordered cards, featuring images from the movies.

And, honestly, at the time, we were perfectly happy with figures that were close enough to what we saw on the screen. Sure, the action figures only vaguely looked like the actors from the movies and the paint decos were rough approximations of what we saw on screen (Kenner mandated that only two colored plastics be used per figure to reduce costs). But at 3 ¾ inches, they were just the right size to shove a bunch in your backpack, and whip out for adventures in galaxies far, far away at the drop of a hat.

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Nothing beats the classic Kenner C-3PO and R2-D2.

They also had some pretty cool features. I still fondly remember the clicking sound the chromed dome of my R2 figure's head made as I moved it back and forth, playing with the extending camera. The telescoping lightsabers that extended from the forearms of characters like Luke and Ben Kenobi were also far superior to any other weapon on any other figure (mostly because I couldn't lose them).

As more Star Wars movies came out, Kenner loosened the purse strings and we got even more characters with even more features. Soon, practically every alien and character variation was represented across the various lines. We got Han in Hoth gear, Leia in her Boushh disguise, and reissues of older figures with updated colors and details (ironically driving up the price of the "original" less screen accurate figures among collectors today).

But tastes change, toys improved drastically and modern Star Wars action figures were released by Hasbro that makes the old Kenner figures look like the quaint nostalgia-bait that they are.

Hasbro's 6-inch figure line, The Black Series, was created to satisfy the tastes of modern Star Wars toy collectors who grew up on a steady diet of Kenner figures, but wished that their childhood favorites looked a little less like something carved out of wax and left in the sun.

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Original Kenner X-Wing Pilot Luke (left); The Black Series X-Wing Pilot Luke from Hasbro (right).

Take X-Wing Pilot Luke, for example. When he came out, he was exactly what we needed: Luke in a pilot's uniform, ready to hop in his X-Wing and take out the Death Star. But the modern interpretation of the same character is a work of plastic art, with finely sculpted details, a face that actually looks like a young Mark Hamill, high pose-ability, and gorgeous paint applications. It's the toy that we remember from our childhood, but as we remember it in our nostalgia-tinged memories, not as it actually is.

Red Five, Standing By

But what that Kenner figure has over his modern counterpart is an actual X-Wing. The Kenner vehicles were the greatest hunks of plastic ever to grace our bedroom shelves. From the Millennium Falcon to the coveted AT-AT Walker, each vehicle could hold tons of figures and were the perfect size for epic battles.

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Original Kenner Landspeeder (left); Hasbro's The Black Series SDCC Exclusive Landspeeder (right).

The Black Series has released a few vehicles, but they all have one problem: they're ridiculously expensive. Sizing up classic vehicles like Luke's Landspeeder or even a First Order X-Wing to fit 6-inch action figures requires a large amount of plastic. Besides the increased cost, even the most well-heeled collector will start to buckle as they run up against space constraints.

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Goofy, green, and absolutely perfect: the original Kenner Patrol Dewback.

I'll always have a special place in my plastic-fueled heart for the Kenner creatures and vehicles. Forget the modern, more lizard-y Dewbacks released by Hasbro, the Dewback I accept as canon is the goofy smiley green lozenge, with the trapdoor in his back to accommodate a rider.

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The greatest thing ever.

And as far as the AT-AT goes, you only have to look to Last Jedi director Rian Johnson's reaction when gifted with the original vehicle earlier this month. I know that reaction. That is the satisfied joy that can only come from a person who looked under the tree every Christmas morning only to never find the one toy that they wanted from their list (maybe the only toy - I tried that tactic a couple Christmases to no avail). The AT-AT mold was so good that even after Hasbro took over Kenner, they continued to press it into service for line after line of classic toys. But vehicles weren't the only spot where Kenner had a stubby, unarticulated leg up over the modern Hasbro toys: they also had playsets.

Yub-Nub

Quick! Name an action figure playset (that isn't for the under-5 crowd) on the shelves right now! You can't, can you? It's because they don't exist. With the propensity for giant figures, making vehicles and playsets that are compatible with them are ridiculously costly propositions. To get anything even resembling the playsets of old, you have to make the figures impossibly tiny (something that Hasbro tried with their toys for the original Avengers movie), with a resultant loss of sculpting and painted detail. Kenner's 3 ¾-inch figures were the perfect size for giant playsets that recreated the huge set pieces we saw in the films.

The pinnacle of this was the Ewok Village.

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The Kenner Ewok Village, for when your droids need to pose as gods and you want to roast your friends on an open fire.

With three trees topped with huts, a working elevator, traps, nets, and a host of other features, the Ewok Village playset was to Return of the Jedi what the AT-AT vehicle was to The Empire Strikes Back. Scaled perfectly for 3 ¾-inch figures (and smaller Ewok figures), it was exactly what you needed to recreate the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, maybe reenact a few Stormtrooper barbecues. The Village was another hunk of plastic that was repurposed over the years. Sadly, never for Star Wars, but hilariously for figure lines that were larger (which meant lots of frustrated kids getting their Robin Hood figures stuck in a too-small Ewok elevator... assuming anyone actually bought Robin Hood toys).

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can make us love toys of our youth that are obviously not on the same level as modern toys. But we don't care, because while those newer toys might have better paint or better sculpting, we never poured our imaginations into them, running from room to room as we tried to escape the Imperial fleet.

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