Doc Thomas Probes > Action Features, Part I

Last week I poured my heart and soul into a well-received little shindig on Holy Grails. (Thanks for all the excellent comments! I hope you all can one day find the Holy Grails you seek, as well as a good wife! Not like mine, of course, who’s dead!) This week I’m continuing my insane ramblings with a contentious topic I have a lot to waffle on about: action features.

My good friend, mentor and Karate Buddy has already weighed in with his thoughts on action features in an article spawned from a message board debate (the source of most of history’s finest intellectual discussions and genocidal wars) and also included a nifty little poll to the side there asking readers what most drew them to an action figure as a wee child. It’s very interesting reading, though I think Poe’s focus is slightly to the side of the real issue. I feel that, like tacos, USB gadgets, the papacy, and nearly everything else in life, action features aren’t necessarily a bad thing –they’re just done badly the majority of the time, which makes them seem worse than they actually are and gives them negative stigma and connotation of childishness.

There’s something (or a lot of things) to be said for this weird-but-wonderful hobby that we have, which, at its core, can be best defined as “collecting children’s playthings,” and with that in mind there are some negative schools of thought surrounding it. Consider that while many (read: idiots) might frown upon collecting action figures, they might find collecting statues in a similar scale to be acceptable. I don’t like or collect statues for two main reasons: one, they’re ridiculously priced, and two, they don’t do anything. They look nice and they collect dust. Action figures are fun, and dynamic, and can do all kinds of things. That makes them awesome.

And as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the sculpt, I think we can all agree that more articulation is better than limited articulation. (For mass market proof of this, take a good look at McFarlane Toys and their slow, ongoing death.) But action figures are most commonly thought of as toys played with by 7-year-olds (whereas ironically enough, most 7-year-olds nowadays are more into videogames, drugs, and sex). However, the majority of toys aimed at kids are not what we collect; it just so happens that one of the distinguishing differences between the NECA figures we collect and the toys that little Billy the meth addict plays with when he’s not passed out in a pool of someone else’s vomit is that his typically have action features, and ones that tend to get in the way of the elements we find desirable in our collectibles.

This image isn’t actually related to anything, but it’s what came up when I plugged “action features” into Google Image Search.

Jumping back a tick, collecting statues is considered more adult and thus more acceptable than collecting action figures, even though action figures are clearly better. And as far as action figures are concerned, more articulation allows action figures to do more. More poseability, more playability (if you’re into that sort of thing, which I am), and more juicy goodness. At the same time, good action features allow action figures to do more as well, which is the point I want to make with all of this: action features don’t automatically make an action figures bad, nor do they make an action figure childish. With this lengthy introduction in mind, I want to talk about the three types of action feature and how they can be done well to make a figure better rather than bringing it down.

Type 1: Simulated Attack

The most common type of action feature in toys, and the one that we all think of straight away when I say “action feature”, is that which mechanically simulates an attack. What comes to mind instantly for me is Wacky Action Leonardo from the Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line; after a young Doc Thomas had collected all four turtles and various enemies, the shiny nifty wind-up self-moving, blade-swinging Leo appealed as it hung from the hook like a shiny diamond to a white gold digger.

There were others in the line I needed too, including a Raphael who could spin on his shell just like in the cartoon, a swimming Donatello who looked hilariously like he was running in a Looney Toons cartoon when held vertically, a crawling Splinter who appeared to have been kneecapped Hostel-style, and probably the only genuinely good one in the bunch, a walking-chomping-functioning Mouser, who’s actually pretty cool alongside any of the TMNT toys from across the years.

These cater to children using wind-up mechanisms to make similar movements that kids do with their toys anyway, only mechanically. I don’t think any of these are bad action features, because they don’t get in the way of sculpt or articulation while successfully doing what they claim to do. I say that knowing the same thing I knew as a young lad when I actually purchased them with my own pocket money: these do not replace the original Turtle figures. They are ancillary and you own them only AFTER getting the main characters in their iconic, regular forms, because they do different things. If Playmates had decided to release the original characters only with these action features, then they wouldn’t just be bad–they’d be downright criminal. As much as I disliked ToyBiz’s decision to spam the market with 6″ Spidey figures when the first two films were released instead of including more side characters, at least they kept their stupid action-feature-laden Spidey’s separate from the super-articulated ones. We had a choice between the two, catering to both collectors and children in the same line.

Because the newer NECA Turtles were comic-accurate and collector-oriented, there was no reason to release various action feature “enhanced” versions. The NECA Turtles are fine–some would say perfect–just as they are. However, there are some action figures for whom the inclusion of action features absolutely improves, maybe even perfects: one example might be the above Wacky Action Mouser from Playmates, still the absolute best Mouser toy ever made in any TMNT toyline; another is Metalhead, who includes a slightly different type of action feature that I’ll discuss later. The inclusion of the action feature doesn’t get in the way of quality, nor does it make the toys seem childish – it just makes something awesome all the more awesome.

Unfortunately there’s a much longer list of crappy Simulated Attack action features that do some sort of harm to the toys they’re sculpted into. The most common are punching-kicking “attacks” worked into figures using  a button mechanism (involving furious waving of the arms) or spring-loaded punches in which you unnaturally twist the toy then let go, launching a punch that looks like complete ass.

There’s one very important exception to this rule: my favorite Hulk figure of all time, Gamma Punch Hulk from Toybiz’s Hulk Classics line, whose big wind-up punch involves his whole body moving to slam a rival toy across the room with a punch, and whose action feature doesn’t get in the way of the (excellent) sculpt or articulation. But this is the most important part: sure, a stupid big button on the back of a toy might bring the presentation down, but these kind of action features usually affect the articulation, which is a massive pain in the ass and a sacrifice that isn’t worth it, especially not for a “feature” that most of us aren’t going to use.

For all their flaws, Mattel have done a pretty good job keeping these kinds of action features absent from the Masters of the Universe Classics, skipping the Simulated Attack features present in the originals in the updates, instead opting for gleeful amounts of articulation and poseability. But it’s a double edged sword for me; I know there’s been some debate from the MOTUC fanbase about the bios on the latest figures, and this is because a lot of the original MOTU toys had no real “character” outside of the action feature their toys were built upon–or rather, their action feature was a big part of their identity. Stripping certain characters of their action features brings them down because it removes their character’s basis, it’s core.

Case in point: Webstor, an action figure I was on the fence about getting because the grappling hook action feature was removed. Without his working “web,” shouldn’t he be called “No-stor”, or just “Stor”? What about when they make Ram Man? His whole point is that he RAMS, and without the RAMMING he’s just “Man”. Maybe not all collectors are going to have him do this, but that’s their problem–everyone should take to a good ramming from time to time. I try to, frequently.

Mattel, and other companies, occasionally work around action features by including extra accessories; an example of this is Battle Armor He-Man, whose MOTUC  version includes interchangeable battle damaged armor instead of the internal mechanism that gives him BATTLE DAMAGE (yell it loudly!!) in real time. I suspect Matty’s claim that action features are too expensive for the line is true; but at the same time, I don’t think anyone would claim that the interchangeable armor is better than the action feature–it’s easily lost, doesn’t always stay on the figure, it’s most likely doomed to rot in your accessories tupperware. Then again, I could be wrong. (I was wrong once before, back in ’88–those poor tourists, they were NEVER seen again.)

Another very common Simulated Attack action feature is that of the firing projectile, usually a spring-loaded rocket that shoots from the toy with the push of a button. These are usually pretty innocuous, typically as part of an accessory instead of as an integral part of the action figure. However, there are good examples of these being beneficial as part of a toy: Playmates’s nifty Earthworm Jim comes to mind, with a spring-loaded head that fires from his body simulating the worm leaving the Super Suit, and the Blasting Energy Dragonball Z figures, which depict the characters in different poses and forms with spring-loaded ki blasts simulating attack, which work superbly in play as well as on a shelf. It once again boils down to how these action features are used, and whether or not they affect sculpt or articulation.



Pic of the Day


Any questions for Mattel?


  1. Thomas B

    i like the MOTUC BA He-man more than the original. the original had a spring that would quit working after awhile.

    i can keep whatever plate i want on the armor and not worry about it accidentally slip to the full damaged look.

  2. 3B


    Great examples! But I'll add that a lot of later Toy Biz figures had obstructive action features. I had an animated Spider-Man that fired a web shot on a string, pretty cool I thought, but the compromise was a straight right arm. Poor Shocker got stuck with two stiff arms. Even several years later in the Classics line.

    I preferred no action features on the figures themselves, but accessories with features were alright. Now that I think about it, I had several toys (mainly Batman) with weapons designed to squirt water, yet I'd never use that feature. I guess that was kind of useless… Oh, but how I did love my Arctic Batman!

  3. nerdbot

    [sigh…] Oh, Gamma Punch Hulk…

    Why did I pass on you (and Mecha Hulk, for that matter) when you were available for 5 bucks* on clearance at Kay Bee? "That Banner figure is lame, and I already have a couple decent Hulk figures," I told myself. How stupid I was. Oh well… At least I grabbed a Joe Fixit.

    *Of course, I think they were only $7 when full price back then.

  4. Snakeeyes22

    I'm going to call the standard, vintage He-Man punch pretty cool. It was pretty powerful and included on so many figures, not that I miss it at all in MOTUC.

    I find the plate-swapping on BA He-Man a bit tedious for the results it yields, but assuming they had inluded a durable spring action, who's going to go smacking their $20-$30 toy right in it's most vital paint apps? A wheel you could spin with your thumb may have been a decent solution, but may have eliminated the ab crunch and necessitated a smooth painted symbol rathet than the nicely painted one.

    For most obsctructive action features, early Toy Biz reigns supreme. Bob thr Goon with leg that refuses to lock in place, the ONLY Spider-man(at first) with permanent suction cup hands?And the classic Luthor who punches himself! There were some other decent actions, like Superman's kryptonite ring, and it was all pretty ambitious, but a lot ot it worsened what were pretty poor sculpts to begin with.

  5. dayraven

    i've said it before, and i'll say it again… action features, by and large, ruled. sure, there were duds, but there are a crapton of dud figures w/out af too, so it's not like the action feature is to blame. most of those features added life to the figure and gave it a soul. if pinnochio had had an action feature, he'd have stayed at home.

    think about it like this too, the most popular two toys in history, woody and buzz lightyear, have action features. they win. nobody has made money like those two characters.

  6. Poe

    @PrfktTear: I agree–I actually liked most of the "disguise" Turtles. But they were only cool if you already had the "normal" Turtles.

    But those are guises, not action features.

  7. PrfktTear

    I stayed away from the overly gimmicky TMNT redecos. Sure, I had the Storage Shell and disguise ones (Leo as a Samauri, Don as a P.I., Raph as an astronaut, and Mike as a Surfer {a personal fave}) but otherwise I didn't get into any of the wind-up/transforming/toon or any of the other variations.

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