“Fire burns Wood! Wood floats on Water! Water puts out Fire!”
Battle Beasts finally gave us the answer to a question that has plagued mankind since the dawn of time: If animals were bred into anthropomorphic warriors with cool-looking weapons and body armor, how would they play Paper, Rock, Scissors? But even better than answering that question, Battle Beasts let you play along, pitting your armada of wolves, hawks, walruses and spiders against your best friend’s legion of snakes, elephants, deer and gorillas. Oh, what a time to be alive…
In the mid-’80s, Japanese toymaker Takara added a new subset to its Transformers line: the Beast Formers. Like the early American Transformers, the Beast Formers had heat-sensitive “rub signs” on the front of their chests, revealing the toy’s allegiance (Autobot or Decepticon) with the touch of a human finger. When the toys came to the U.S. in 1986, courtesy of Hasbro, the Transformers connection was dropped, and the Battle Beasts took on a style of their own.
The Beasts themselves were anthropomorphic “half-animals, half-warriors” from all over the wild kingdom. And we do mean “all over.” Pirate Lion and Ferocious Tiger may have seemed like naturals for combat, but Slasher Sea Horse, Panzer Panda, Killer Koala, and Frenzied Flamingo had a rough time overcoming the cute and friendly reputations of their animal counterparts. Each small action figure also came with its own plastic weapon, but the real battles took place on the beasts’ chests.
Instead of the Autobot/Decepticon rub sign, the Battle Beasts wore “Battle Badges” on the front of their armor. When touched, the Battle Badge showed one of three Elemental Powers: Fire, Water or Wood. The idea was that kids could play a newer, higher-tech version of Paper, Rock, Scissors, with Fire burning Wood, Wood floating on Water, and Water dousing the Fire. And for a kicker, a small number of Battle Beasts held the power of the “Sunburst” in their Battle Badges. This Elemental Power trumped all, winning any battle it entered (the equivalent of the “Bomb” or “Superman” option, depending on which made-up Paper, Rock, Scissors rules you used).
Taking their Battle Beast forces into combat, kids went one-on-one with each other’s collections. Pick one figure from each side, rub the Battle Badge, and see who was victorious. But therein lay the problem for the casual Battle Beast player. There were several dozen Battle Beast animals, but if you only had two or four in your collection, it was kind of hard to pretend you didn’t know that Bloodthirsty Bison was Wood and Armored Armadillo was Water. Each animal came in at least three versions (one of each element, with the occasional Sunburst), but collecting them all was an expensive undertaking. Add in the problem of not knowing which element you had until the package was opened (“FIRE! WOOD! or WATER! You’ll never know until you own them!”), and you had the potential for much Battle Beast frustration.
Still, there was something cool about playing schoolyard games with deadly warrior animals, and the Battle Beasts became a minor rage for their short life span. Three series were released in the U.S., along with a few vehicles and assorted merchandise. Japanese kids got a fourth series, the Laser Beasts, which exchanged the rub signs for clear gems in the beasts’ bellies that showed their signs when held up to a light. But by that time, American kids were left playing Paper, Rock, Scissors the old-fashioned way.