It’s fairly well-known among collectors that the 1980s fad known as Madballs – foam balls shaped like monsters – also had a short-lived action figure line with notoriously poor quality control.*

The line was officially called “Madballs Head Popping Action Figures,” produced by AmToy in 1986. The bodies of the 5″ figures were inspired by the design of the specific Madball itself. My own favorite, Oculus Orbus, was just a veiny eyeball, so the action figure featured a body evocative of the tiny muscles that control one’s eye.

Oculus Orbus (image from Figurerealm.com)
Madballs Head Popping Action Figure Oculus Orbus (Image from FigureRealm.com)

The “Head Popping” name referred to the line’s gimmick: when a button was pressed on the back of the figure, the head was launched into the air via a spring. It’s worth noting that these heads were solid rubber and surprisingly heavy, so the spring had to be strong to compensate for that weight. When not being fired at an unsuspecting parent, sibling or neighbor kid, the heads were held in place via a tiny tab. If – or should I say when – that tab broke, the heads would no longer stay on the body, as the spring would simply just launch it off immediately.

I won’t guess at a statistic, but if the number could be obtained, I would happily put big money down on a bet that more than half of all extant vintage Madballs figures have broken tabs. As a kid, I owned Oculus Orbus and Wolf Breath and yes, both had broken tabs. If I recall correctly, my solution was to work to break the spring so that the heads could just rest safely (if not securely) on the bodies.

Over the years Madballs themselves have been resurrected a few times, but the figures remained rare – especially on card or with the aforementioned tab. And so it was with some excitement that I learned that a new player in the action figure market, PremiumDNA, were bringing Madballs Action Figures back. I ordered Oculus Orbus and another of my favorites, Horn Head.

(Editor’s note: I am aware there is a long, troubling story associated with how PremiumDNA got their start. I have neither the time nor inclination to go into it here. If you want the details, this article is very thorough. Suffice to say, I ordered these figures before I was aware of the situation.)

It took quite a while, but – somewhat to my surprise – the figures did finally ship. When I got them in-hand, I was surprised again to discover – they were great figures! They’re 6″ tall, very solid and surprisingly heavy, with great articulation and nearly all the parts can be swapped among the characters. They also came with loads of accessories, including alternate hands. Unlike the original figures, there was no head-popping gimmick, so there were no tabs to worry about.

I happily put these figures on display in my room. And then one day, Oculus Orbus fell off my desk and…his head snapped off.

Or more specifically, the peg that held the head on snapped off. You see, these new figures’ heads were held on by a long, narrow peg ending in a ball joint. This long, narrow plastic peg just stuck out from the body, and that set-up was clearly just as fragile as it sounds. Thinking about it later, I realized the pegs probably would have broken simply from pulling them the heads on and off a few times.

To say I was angry about that broken head is an understatement. The irony of it all only added to my frustration. I had spent $50 on something that had arguably proven even less sturdy than a figure from forty years earlier.

I managed to come up with a Frankenstein-like fix for Oculus Orbus that involved using a Dremel to glue in a metal peg that sat inside the base of the peg and the upper torso. This wasn’t perfect, but it made Oculus Orbus usable.

Then Horn Head broke. Almost the same thing happened – I dropped Horn Head, only this time it was from maybe two feet off the ground. He didn’t even hit that hard, but snap went the peg.**

Broken Horn Head figure
The aftermath of falling maybe two feet. You can see just how thin and tenuous the base of the ball-joint’s peg is.

Now I was so annoyed I just tossed both figures into baggies and left them in storage, figuring I’d give them away to some enterprising customizer or even just throw them out at some point.

But then, my friend Doc Thomas (who has written for this blog before) told me to try some rare earth magnets. This wasn’t as uniquely clever as it sounds; Doc Thomas suggests magnets to fix everything from broken toys to ethnic conflict. But in this case, it seemed worth a try.

So I went and got some magnets at a hardware store and super-glued them on to the figures. And guess what?

The heads stay on perfectly now. They’re still articulated and can move horizontally and even a little bit vertically (although even when they had the ball joint, they didn’t move very much vertically, so this isn’t really a loss). Obviously, the heads can be easily swapped for fun. And most importantly, if the figures fall and the heads come off, they go right back on. The only potential issue I can see is that the paint on the bottom of the heads might get worn over time, but that’s only because the heads weren’t designed for magnets.

It’s clear PremiumDNA should have designed the Madballs figures this way from the start. Embedded magnets in the torso and head could be even less obtrusive than the ones I’ve used here, and completely eliminate the breakage issue. It also makes it easier and more fun to swap the heads or just remove them to display them as “regular” Madballs, because there’s no concern about breaking the peg accidentally.

I’ve noticed toy companies are beginning to make better use of magnets; NECA’s recent Ultimate Feral Predator uses a magnet to attach its backpack. I think it’s a novel way to solve some tricky design issues, and I’d be happy to see more of it.

I’m very happy to be able to enjoy these figures again. If I decide to pick up their upcoming Wolf Breath, I may deliberately break it so I can do the same to that figure. And if you got these figures and ran into the same issue, well, now you’ve got a solution.

*In fact, in the Rifftrax of Retro Puppet Master, there is a moment where Greg Sestero (of The Room fame) is gingerly setting up his puppets for a magical spell, and Bill Corbett jokes, “This is how carefully I handle my Madballs action figures.” Talk about an inside joke!

**You might be getting the impression I drop my action figures a lot. I don’t! Well, I don’t think I do. At least not any more than anyone else does…look, as I mentioned, the PremiumDNA Madballs figures are surprisingly heavy and the big heads make them awkward to handle. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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