Even as my fifth-grade classmates rushed to put childish things behind them, 1983 saw me still enthralled by the plastic treasures of the toy aisle. It’s something I’d hold onto up until my final year of junior high, for a cluster of related reasons.
One, I was a shy and awkward nerd who wasn’t in any hurry to embrace the “grown-up” world.
Two, Lil Bro was four years younger than me and was a near constant companion and playmate.
Three, I used toys as a proxies and props for my creative imagination, staging scenarios and narratives that would end up as crude comics stories or derivative sci-fi epics. It’s no coincidence that my toy-buying dropped off almost entirely after I purchased a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic set in 1985, as pen ‘n’ paper roleplaying games provided a more satisfying — and marginally more socially acceptable — canvas for those world-building impulses.
In 1983, however, it was all about the articulated plastic. Star Wars — rising high on the Return of the Jedi hype — was still the reigning king of the action figure realm. My most favored figure for most of the year was the Biker Scout, purchased during a trip with my grandparents.
I bought the figure before I’d even seen the movie. He just looked so damn cool, sporting a set of armor that seemed so uncharacteristically “Eighties” compared to his Imperial cannon fodder peers. And though I was reluctant about spending my meager pennies on vehicles or playsets, I did scrape enough cash together to pick up an push-button “explodable” speeder bike for the figure to tool around on during his adventures. He was joined by an also-very-Eighties Rebel Commando and a group of Ewoks who, contrary to the hate-in-hindsight crowd, were popular as hell among my childhood peers.
Yet while Star Wars loomed large, it was facing increasingly stiff competition from a couple of more contemporary-minded fronts backed by the power of media degregulation. There were the Masters of the Universe, backed by a comics crossover with Superman and a shitty Filmation advertoon. My brother and I had a few of the figures and playsets, but their larger scale relegated them to roles as monsters and supervillains in our playroom universe.
The three-and-three-quarter inch reinvention of GI Joe, on the other hand, was a different story. The first wave of Joe figures caught our attention mostly because of the televised ads for the Marvel tie-in funnybook. The figures themselves weren’t too impressive, appearing both flimsy and fugly compared to the solidly constructed and well-sculpted standards set by the Star Wars line.
That changed with the second wave of figures, as Hasbro ditched cost-conscious identikit aesthetics for a more individual approach to figure design. Even better, the new figures came with a bewildering array of accessories from scuba flippers to a pair of skis to a pet eagle. They also added “swivel arm” articulation to the line, which further added to the range of poses that put the Star Wars toys to shame. It wasn’t long before my poor Biker Scout was dethroned by the disturbingly frog-faced Tripwire…
…whose armored bodysuit and set of gear helped sell a generation on the indiscriminatory virtues of anti-personnel mines.
(I also sent away for the exclusive Duke figure, but was a bit horrified when I opened the long-awaiting package and was greeted by what appeared to be a paramilitary Liberace with a blonde crewcut.)
Besides action figures, my 1983 included a modest share of Lego playsets. “Modest” because the local department store didn’t stock Lego stuff and the places that did tended to price all but the smallest sets beyond my reach.
What I did pick up were mostly space sets, and mostly for the minifigs alone. I do have some vague memories of a crazy quilt space hero I assembled from blue, white and gray astronaut minifig components. His name was “Colonel Ultra” and a wielded a raygun against a set of plastic orcs and demons given to me by an aunt for my birthday. I wish I remembered more, because I could probably spin a comic series out of it.
Of all the playthings that occupied me during 1983, the ones I truly wish I’d held onto were my set of boardgames based on popular arcade offerings. The concept reeked of panic-driven desperation on Milton Bradley’s part, but it wasn’t an entirely stupid idea. Videogames were expensive. Console ports of arcade games fell far short of the source material. Kids can be an easy mark for tactical branding.
There was a theoretical opportunity there. One that apparently failed to manifest, because I picked up the entire line from a Caldor’s clearance aisle for a buck a pop. The three in particular I remember were Turbo, Zaxxon, and Berserk. The games were pretty cursory affairs involving spinners and dice, choosing to rely on highly toyetic plastic game pieces as the main draw.
The human player piece in Berzerk featured a finger-flicking action where a pair of blaster-holding plastic arms would swing up and knock over any adjacent robot pieces. Turbo had a fleet of plastic race cars and a weird movement grid. Zaxxon, my favorite of the lot, had walls, turrets, ships, and all the other trappings of the original’s isometric playfield.
I don’t recall playing any of the games by the official rules, except maybe one or two sessions of Berserk. Lil Bro and I would take them down from my grandmother’s closet and improvise something on the fly, typically ending with us hitting and calling each other names.
Every so often, I’ll check the asking prices for the Zaxxon board game on eBay, but I’ve yet to pull the trigger. Lil Bro hits much harder now than he did when he was seven.
The above covers the most memorable articles of my 1983 toy experience, but there were plenty of faintly remembered playthings that also passed through my grubby eleven year old fingers around that time. I recall a Hot Wheels Shelby Cobra with genuine rubber tires and a vintage fire engine. I can also envision a number of remarkably fragile toy swords and guns, back when realism was a chased-after asset rather than the prelude to a police-related tragedy. I remember a variety of arts and crafts sets whose initial novelty faded into tubes of dried paint and unfulfilled ambitions.
There was a time when I would aggressively chase this shit down through antique stores or online vendors. It was partly driven by memories of my mom’s death and the notion that I could reconstruct some sense of wholeness from these fragments of childhood nostalgia. What I ended up with were hollow echoes, artifacts to wistfully turn over in my hands a couple of times before getting consigned to a storage crate in my attic.