It’s 1988, you’re a kid who loves playing with G.I. Joe: Real American Hero and Transformers. Suddenly while browsing the aisles at Toys R Us you lay eyes on what is sure to be the new favorite in your toy bin, RoboCop! Fully sculpted in three dimensions of molded plastic is Officer Alex Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, just hanging on a peg ready to be drafted into the ranks of your action figure army.
A robotic armored policeman hits all the radical sensors in your brain, but how could this awesome plaything based on the ultra-violent R-rated movie that Mom wouldn’t let you rent at the video store actually exist? Best not to ask questions, just grab the figure and his Robo Cycle vehicle, then head for the register as quickly as you can. It’s your move, Geek.
As a kid, I was introduced to RoboCop at my friend David’s 7th birthday party sleepover, where all bets were off as far as his parents were concerned. It was pizza, Pepsi and R-rated VHS violence that my young mind was not prepared for. Despite the bloody bodies being ripped to shreds by bullets on the TV screen that night, I woke up the next morning with only one thought in my head, “RoboCop looks awesome”.
That must have been the same line of thinking when the creative minds at Kenner obtained the license for RoboCop from Orion Pictures and set out to design a toy line based on Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 satire of America’s appetite for violence and commercialism. Unfortunately, just as with films like First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II any deeper moral, political or sociological themes were quickly overlooked by the public. Instead, the story of a heroic cop resurrected by a mix of technology and corporate greed after a brutal murder at the hands of criminals was boiled down to: “Cyborg Cops Kick Butt!”
Kenner likely knew that any “robo-themed” toys were a surefire way to have kids shouting, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” based on their experience with droids like C-3P0 and R2-D2 in their hugely successful, but now defunct Star Wars line. Heck, they had already produced an 18-inch Xenomorph toy based on the titular Alien made famous in the R-rated film from 1979 which featured similar levels of gore, so the barrier of marketing violent toys to kids had long since been torn down.
Luckily for Kenner, VHS rentals were not the only source of marketing for the RoboCop brand, Marvel Productions was launching an animated series based on the film as part of their 1988 Marvel Action Universe syndicated cartoon block, in addition to an ongoing comic book series. Yes, it was a full-throttle heat-seeking RoboCop marketing missile aimed at kids of the late ’80s, who much like myself had somehow seen the film and wanted a version of the heavy metal hero they didn’t have to feel squeamish about.
Thus in the 1988 Kenner Action Toy Guide, RoboCop and The Ultra Police were revealed in all their glory. The first wave included a beautifully sculpted RoboCop figure with removable helmet flanked by a trio of hi-tech officers including “Wheels” Wilson, “Birdman” Barnes and “Ace” Jackson who was all set to face off against 2 tough looking baddies named Headhunter and Nitro from an evil street gang called the Vandals.
Also included was the radical Robo-1, a futuristic police car borrowing it’s naming style from the Ghostbusters favorite vehicle and even a stylish Robo-Cycle. Big bad Headhunter was even given the Skull Hog chopper to wreak havoc on across Old Detroit.
As a kid, this initial release of figures was confusing to me because until the 2nd wave of figures was released with Robo’s partner Anne Lewis and his commanding officer Sgt. Reed added to the mix, none of the Ultra Police were characters that existed in the cinematic, comic book or animated universes of the character. The cartoon was simply titled RoboCop, with the Ultra Police being a brand existing only on the shelves of toy stores.
Luckily Kenner did eventually add Dr. McNamara, a minor character from the movie who became the main villain in the cartoon, as well as a devious bleach blonde member of the Vandals named Chainsaw who had an animated counterpart to please kids like myself who were looking for some type of synergy to inform their role-playing.
But the adversary every kid wanted to pit their RoboCop figure against was the imposing ED-260, which you could think of as younger brother of the deadly ED-209 from the bloody conference room scene in the original film. This was an absolutely beautiful robot toy that even without the connection to the movie would capture the imagination of any child.
What the expanded roster of RoboCop may have lacked in recognizable faces, they made up for with a unique feature referred to on the wonderfully designed packaging as “Rapid Repeat Cap Firing Action”. This was achieved through a mechanism on the back of each figure which allowed kids to feed a roll of appropriately branded “RoboCaps” (a pun that still makes me laugh) into a slot, then flick a metal lever as fast as they could to create a satisfying snapping sound and even more enjoyable, a puff of smoke.
It should be mentioned that this merging of cap guns and action figures wasn’t unique to RoboCop, as Mattel’s Masters of the Universe line had released their Thunder Punch He-Man in 1984, but no major manufacturer had touted integrated cap-firing mechanisms as the central feature of an entire line. That is unless you count RoboCop’s neighbor on toy store pegs C.O.P.S. N’ Crooks which also debuted in 1988 and featured cap guns that the characters could hold during playtime.
Kenner took the cap-firing experience to the next level however with the release of “Gatlin’ Blaster Robocop”, where a double-barreled crank-operated backpack firearm could be attached to Murphy to help him dispense maximum justice.
To bring violent playtime into the real world, there was even a dress-up set that in addition to a cool Robo-Helmet included a rapid-firing Ultra Blaster cap gun with a rotating barrel. It was hard to compete with this kind of firepower.
The line lasted from 1988 to 1990 and as a result more characters were added to the mix like Ultra Police “Torpedo” Thompson or “Claw” Callahan who was needed to combat the Vandals expanding ranks which included the inevitable Toxic Waster (unfortunately not a reference to Clarence Boddicker’s goon who goes splat after a swim in the stuff) and winner of the craziest face sculpt award, Scorcher (no wonder they packaged him with a helmet). But if there was one figure that signaled the end for this creative toy line, it was a certain mail-away figure that eventually found it’s way to store shelves.
Night Fighter Robocop was a figure molded in glow-in-the-dark plastic that featured a “Mission Arm” gun to give Murphy an edge he sorely needed since glowing brightly during a “Night Fight” is about the worst offensive strategy you can imagine. There’s no denying that kids love things that glow-in-the-dark, but there was just no justifiable reason for OCP to greenlight the expense of such a pointless upgrade to the Future of Law Enforcement. As it turns out, RoboCop and the Ultra Police’s future was not so bright after all. The cartoon that served as a marketing tool for the toys lasted only one season and soon the sun set on Robocop in toy form. At least for a few years.
Looking back, RoboCop and The Ultra Police was a toy line that logically should not have existed based on the extreme nature of the source material, yet Kenner delivered at least 2 essential figures that every action movie-loving kid truly desired. Being able to stage the battle between RoboCop and ED-260 is an investment with endless returns that should never be taken for granted, while the existence of a glow-in-the-dark RoboCop toy is too campy not to appreciate.
In fact, NECA recently paid tribute to the concept by releasing its own exclusive re-imagining of Night Fighter RoboCop, proving that children of the 1980s enjoy novelty over logic any day.
If nothing else RoboCop and the Ultra Police served as a pre-cursor to Kenner’s all-out invasion of R-rated action figures in the ’90s with amazing movie based lines like Aliens and Predator for which we should all be grateful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime being committed.
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