12 April 2016

FWS Military Sci-Fi Toys: The TYCO BATTLETECH Toyline


In 1984, Chicago gaming publisher, FASA, would create an hybrid child of the giant combat robots anime/manga genre and American hex-based wargames. This would become BattleTech, and it allowed fans of the giant robot warrior of anime, like me, to pilot their own giant war-machines through war-torn cities and worlds of the old Star League while battling fellow mechas and vehicles. BattleTech still continues onward today in various media forms, and has become one of the best known military sci-fi franchises in America. In the 1990's, FASA was eyeballing their most successful franchises to be pushed out into other media and grow the audience and the profit. In 1991, FASA hired agents to find an toy company to produce an line of robot toys based on their creation. At the time, BattleTech and Mechwarrior were populated into the world of computer games, VR arcades games, books, comics, television, and the subject of today's blog article: toys. Throughout this blogpost, FWS will be using the acronyms of BTBT:TAS, MW, for BattleTech and BattleTech: The Animated Series, and Mechwarrior.

What was the Battletech  TYCO Toyline?

This was the TYCO produced mecha-centered toyline that was tied-into the 1994 Saban Entertainment BattleTech: The Animated Series that was being broadcasted on FOX stations in America. This military science fiction cartoon was being marketed to kids who were interested in manga/anime, giant robot warriors, as well as established fans of the BT/MW universe. It was hoped by Saban, FASA, and TYCO, that the popularity of the BattleTech wargame and the Mechwarrior RPG would be extended into the realm of TV and toys. The toyline would appear on American toy shelves in 1994 and last until 1995 with only one real wave of mecha, figures, and vehicles being released by TYCO before cancellation of both the toyline and the cartoon.

Who was TYCO Toys?
While TYCO is not the big powerhouse American toy companies like Matchbox, Hasbro, and Mattel; it has been around longer than most think (1926) and it has produced some icons of American toys, like electric train and slot cars. In the US, TYCO is best known for RC cars, Magna-Doodle and trains, but they also were known for producing figure-based toyline lines in the 1980's with Dino-Riders, and by the 1990's, TYCO would buy Matchbox and develop an preschool line. However, TYCO was bought by Mattel on March 27, 1997, and the brand survives today as TYCO R/C for the Mattel toy empire.

The Historical Context of the TYCO BattleTech Toyline
Throughout the 1980's, the toylines aimed at boys was an "who's who" of iconic toys like G.I Joe, Masters of the Universe, and Transformers. By the 1990's, those kids grew up (sort of) and they left their toys behind to play video games and chase girls. That left the toy companies scrambling to find the new big fads in boys' toys. It was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that was the first giants of 1990's toys, and it broke the molds for some schools of thought in toy design and marketing. Of course, it was packaged with a cartoon series and video game that all were successful in their own right. Then came the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, that combined American and Japanese elements. This was what Saban, TYCO, and FASA were seeing when they decided to take BattleTech into the realm of toys and cartoons. They already had the successful computer game, RPG, and a built-in audience. What could go wrong?

The Toyline and Its Issues:
Unlike many other boy toylines before it, TYCO's BattleTech was nearly 100% laser-focused on the mecha, which was the real star of the animated series along with the original FASA wargame/RPG. Of all the released toys in the 1994/1995 line, only one was not mecha. Most of the mechs featured "battle-damage" panels, so that kids could aim and fire their spring-loaded projectiles at the panels (and their eyes), having the mech toy react with ejecting the pilot or body parts. Each Mech and vehicle came with a tiny character from the television show. How tiny? Try 2 3/4 inches. Since the toyline is quite limited, I will be discussing each mech in some depth and even comparing the toy vision to the original wargame version. How does the 1995 line differ from the 1994 line? Not much. The 1995 line of mecha was simply repainted with some bold color and patterns, and unlike the original 1994 release, the 1995 release was much harder to find. These colors and patterns were called "Tiger Camo" and "Assault Color". The overall quality of the TYCO BT toyline is just okay, and it is a kick in the balls when you realize just how small the actual figures are for the mecha and how poorly done they are. The mecha themselves seemed to have been designed to accept figures as an afterthought. Why did TYCO design their line around 2 3/4 inch figures? Price and scale. Unlike the more standard 3 3/4 inch size of GI Joe and Star Wars figures, these BT:TAS figures were very small in comparison, especially considering the size of the original Matchbox ROBOTECH figures.
However, the main rival to the BT toyline was Exo-Squad. They also used smaller-than-standard figures for their mecha centered toyline: about 2.5 inches. Why did they both do this? Developing play-vehicles around nearly four inch figures is difficult, they would be more expensive for the toy company to produce, higher in price, more space taken up for the retailer, and plus, GI Joe and Star Wars had the war-toy vehicles dominated; so it was better for these two mecha toylines to play to their strengths. In order to bring the toyline to the market at the right market price, smaller figures were needed....but this decreased the cross-playability for the consumer. After all, how badass would it have been to use GI Joe, Star Wars, and ROBOTECH figures in conjunction with your Exo-Squad and BattleTech mecha?! Too awesome is the answer to exist apparently. Anyways, here is the list.

The Inner Sphere AXEMAN Heavy 'Mech

One of the most iconic mecha toys for the line was the Inner Sphere AXEMAN heavy mech that carried the melee axe of the original BattleTech wargame model. This was based on an actual mech from the FASA wargame, and it was more or less reproduced with the basic design of the AXEMAN. The cockpit/head of the mech was altered to easier access for figures. Some fans of the original wargame actually bought this due to its presentation for a decorative piece on their bookshelf. This is one of the more popular mechs in the entire toyline due to its axe and double missile packs. The ejecting escape pod was a nice touch to the battle-damage feature and shows wer future additions to the toyline may have been going.

The Inner Sphere MAULER Assault 'Mech
The MAULER assault mech was another classic BattleTech mech brought into plastic reality by TYCO, and it is one of my favorites of the entire line. I hope to own one for the FWS offices one day. The interesting thing about the MAULER is that is armed for more long-range engagements and it is unsuited for urban or close mech-to-mech combat. This was mech was fielded in 3050 during the uncomfortable peace between the Inner Sphere and the Clans. I think that TYCO got the MAULER pretty close. This is the largest mech in the toyline, and features another ejecting cockpit for the battle damage function

The Inner Sphere BUSHWACKER Medium 'Mech
Much like the AXEMAN and the HUNCHBACK, the BUSHWACKER was drawn from the original wargame and the mech was featured on the cover of the FASA 3058 Technical Readout manual. This made the BUSHWACKER more popular among original fans, and I've known a few that have this as a display piece, but the one I handled felt lights and my friend said that it had fallen on hardwood, breaking, making superglue the order of the day. The BUSHWACKER itself was actually an failed prototype that attempted to design a leaner profile. However, the design was resurrected during the Clan invasion when element being used from the Clan Omnimech designs and salvage. This mech became part of the Inner Sphere rearmament program during the Clan/Inner Sphere Truce of Tukayyid.

The Inner Sphere SLOTH Heavy Battle-Armor
This has to be the single ugliest mech in the entire toyline, and the price for it on eBay confirm that. The Inner Sphere SLOTH heavy assault battle-armor is drawn from the original FASA wargame, and the SLOTH was one of the original Inner Sphere battle-armor (think Powered Armor). While the Clan Elemental battle-armor was the template for most Inner Sphere battle-armor, the SLOTH was intended for much more, like being a mobile weapons platform. But the overall design was flawed and the SLOTH being fielded in very limited number and saw little combat use. This was one of the more unpopular mecha of the BT:TAS toyline, and I cannot imagine why TYCO drew upon this mech for their toyline.

The Inner Sphere INFILTRATOR Battle-Armor
After the Invasion of the Clans in 3049, their new ways of combat altered the ways of the Inner Sphere factions. One of those was the Battle-Armor AKA Powered Armor CLASS I & II that was exemplified by the Clans' Elemental CLASS I APS. The Inner Sphere responded with Battle-Armor like the INFILTRATOR. The use of the INFILTRATOR by the Inner Sphere was to be an intelligence gathering/scout sneak suit using advanced stealth technology. This Inner Sphere battle-armor was in both the original game and the toyline.  I've always felt that this mech in the BT:TAS toyline was ugly and misplaced.

The Clan THOR Omni 'Mech
In the Clans, the THOR is actually called the "summoner", but this is one of the common Omni-Mechs used by Clan Jade Falcon. The THOR was considered a well-balanced mech with being a general used mech. This is one of the weaker translations of the drawing in the original games to plastic, but it does feature the battle-damage feature by ejecting either arm when the action panel is hit.

The Clan HUNCHBACK Medium 'Mech
The HUNCHBACK is a standard Medium mech of the Inner Sphere, and copies were taken with the exodus fleet. Respected and accomplished, the HUNCHBACK is seen in most Inner Sphere military organizations. The central armament of the HUNCHBACK is the single shoulder-mounted Autocannon that fires a HEAP projectile doing 20 points of damage to their target. The TYCO plastic translation features twin 20's on either shoulder, making the BT:TAS version very deadly, but these spring-loaded firing cannons fire more "missile" like projectiles rather than shells. The HUNCHBACK does feature the battle-damage feature by ejecting either arm via the action panel


The Clan ELEMENTAL/TOAD Battle-Armor
This is one of the most iconic mecha of the Clan Invasion
period of 3049-3050, and it is my personal favorite of the TYCO toyline. I bought this toy in the original 1994 release and I still own it today. Overall, the Elemental or TOAD appears similar to the original game version, but with the laser-arm being replaced with an projectile firing arm and the twin missiles on the shoulders being only decorative. The real issue with the TOAD is the "V" sticker on the chest...it comes off and peels, and the figure rattles around inside. I've been on the lookout for the 1995 repaint that features a bold red colored exterior. Overall, I enjoy having this one in my decorative collection.

The Inner Sphere BSE-X BANSHEE Experimental AeroFighter

The BANSHEE transformable fighter has the distinction of being the only non-mech produced for the TYCO tie-in toyline and being the only one that is not rooted in the original FASA wargame. The BANSHEE is seen in the fourth episode of the BT:TAS and was designed to be a dual-atmospheric combat aerofighter that could hover using VTOL thrusters for greater endoatmospheric combat abilities. However, it was highly experimental and the project never achieve full in-field acceptance during the Clan Invasion. I've never seen the aerofighter in the real world, and it looks like a reject design from a bad Wing Commander game. I am not sure why TYCO decided to produce this instead of another mech. Bad call. This was added into the BattleTech game via the 1st Somerset Strikers sourcebook that attempted to add an element of the BT:TAS into the canonized game material.  

Cancelled Prototypes and Rumors
Since the BattleTech: The Animated Series was cancelled so early into its life, we cannot really predict the plans of TYCO, FASA, and Saban Entertainment on the future of the toyline. One of the best resources on the internet for the toyline, The Tyco Battletech Archive, has a picture of the only known prototype mecha for the toyline: the Clan VULTURE Heavy 'Mech. However, over the years of playing and discussing BT/MW, I've heard rumors of what could have been and what was planned. Take these rumors with an whole ocean of salt because I have no idea how true they are and no really way to validate them. Of course, TYCO was going to put out more mecha for their toyline, and that is a no-brainer, but it was TWO specific rumors I heard over the years I wanted to discuss here. One being an extension of the "battle damage" feature on most of the original line. Some of these rumors point to larger mecha being produced like the ATLAS and the MAD CAT that would have allowed for "combat" via IR signals and sensors. If a hit was registered, there would be battle damage like the original line, with pieces of the mech flying off.  If it was serious enough, the mech would go critical, and the pilot figure would be ejected out of the mech using springs like the AXEMAN mech ejection feature. We know that TYCO was eyeballing the MAD CAT for production and this could have been a way to inject something new into the toyline. The other interesting rumor was the expansion of the vehicles. Some say that TYCO was going to make a vast Dropship spherical playset or even an Jumpship playset. This would be similar in concept to the Matchbox ROBOTECH SDF-1 playset from the rumors I heard, but it never made it beyond the discussion phase.

The Playmate/FASA/Harmony Gold Lawsuits
In odd twist of fate and irony, FASA sued Playmate Toys over their Exo-Squad toyline being similar to FASA's mecha designs in 1994. At this time, Harmony Gold was in partnership with Playmate Toys to reissue some of the old Matchbox ROBOTECH toys. So, Harmony Gold decided to hit FASA with their own lawsuit over an old wound: the unlicensed use of mecha designs from Macross and other anime works for the original  BattleTech wargame. The background of this lawsuit was when FASA was shopping BattleTech around toy companies, Playmate Toys was already in some stage of development of Exo-Squad, and they turned FASA down. The case of FASA vs. Playmate was decided for Playmate. In the case of Harmony Gold vs. FASA, the case was settled out of court and dismissed.

What Happened to the TYCO BattleTech Toyline?
Television series and movies attempting to capitalize on their popularity by adding tie-in products is an old and established business model. While some toy tie-in lines were popular prior to the 1970's, it would take the Kenner juggernaut Star Wars toyline to fully demonstrate the full power of how successful an tie-in toyline could be. After that, the trend exploded with cartoons being developed solely for the toyline marketing, and Saturday morning cartoons were awash in thinly veiled 30 minute adverts for the toys. It worked very well, with 1980's staples like Thundercats, GI Joe, My Little Pony, and M.A.S.K. But, as I've said before, the toyline and the visual media product have an symbiotic relationship, and when one dies, so does the other. There are a few rare examples of successful films/TV shows not breeding successful toylines or vice versa.
Much like 1980's casualties of Lazer Tag, Centurions, Photon, and Air Raiders; BattleTech: the Animated Series would be a casualties of the 1990's along with its TYCO toyline. That symbiotic relationship between the syndicated cartoon series and the toyline would cost BT:TAS its continuation. What killed the bold experiment of BattleTech: The Animated Series was the TYCO toys not selling, and Saban Entertainment pulled the plug on the animated series. I believe that even if the toys had been somewhat of an success, the poor quality of the show and alienation of the original wargame fans by the show would have killed it before its was renewed. The other nail in the coffin was the other American mecha show: Exo-Squad. BattleTech was simply overshadowed by the superior Exo-Squad in the toy aisle and the airwaves. By 1995, the animated series off of FOX and the toys were poured into the sale bins and outlet malls until the era of the internet and eBay.

Could Have TYCO's BattleTech Toyline Been a Success?
Yes...but not in the mid-1990's. The sad thing is that the BT toyline could have been an success during the mid-1980's...maybe. FASA's BattleTech/Mechwarrior games were very successful during the "Big Robot Craze" of the 1970's and 1980's, and I would have loved a tie-in toyline to the tabletop wargames I played during the 1980's. Hell, I had to make my own mecha out of Lego's! By the 1990's, the "Big Robot Craze" was running its course and the fever was cooling, but BattleTech was still enjoying success with recent computer mecha combat games. The shame was that the BT:TAS toys could not share the toy aisle with the likes of Exo-Squad and what was left of Transformers. While the BattleTech toys, if it had existed in the 1980's, could have been a failure as it was in 1994; but I think the timing/climate would have been better in the 1980's than the 1990's. Of course, the Matchbox ROBOTECH toyline failed while the series was still massively popular, so the theory on timing doesn't always apply. No guts, no toyline, I guess.




My Own Experiences with the TYCO BT Toyline
When the BattleTech animated series was being aired on FOX in fall of 1994, I was a senior in High School in northern Oklahoma, and BattleTech was still something I played with my friends and I still bought the FASA technical manuals. When the BT:TAS came out, I attempted to watch one episode, and I was horrified at just how shitty it was and how they betrayed the entire FASA BattleTech/Mechwarrior universe and its basic foundation. However, TYCO did produce one of my favorite mecha into plastic reality: the Clans' Elemental powered armor. So, I journeyed to the Ponca City Super Wal-Mart, and bought TYCO's plastic copy of the Elemental. I still have the toy to this day, and while it does indeed look like the Elemental (or "Toad") in the wargame, it has a cartoony color scheme, limited movement, and an oddball micro Jade Falcon Clan figure. This figure was one of the weak links in the entire toyline. My Clan warrior just rattled around inside the mech, and I couldn't see this little shitty figure being as imposing as the Clan warriors in the original game. The stickers never stayed on well enough and it seemed to be less playable than other robot toys...however, it does make a nice decorative piece for my bookshelf.

The BattleTech Toyline Now and Its Legacy
Currently, there only a few websites devoted or discussing this 1990's toyline, and even these few sites do not discuss the toyline in-depth. Sadly, when this blogpost is published, it will be one of the only in-depth articles on the internet. It is only the internet, the fading memories of old-school BT/MW fans, and eBay that prevents the TYCO BT:TAS toyline from disappearing and allowing a new generation to discover how unpopular this cartoon and toys were back in 1994/1995. Today, current source of traffic on search engines about the toyline and BT:TAS is forums. This lack of sites informs you a great deal about the legacy of the TYCO toyline...it doesn't really have one. The Exo-Squad toyline and cartoon is fondly remembered and beloved by fans with cartoon being streamed on Hulu.com instead of the fate of the BT:TAS being crappy fan converted videos on Youtube.com. In some ways, the BT toyline is a reminder that timing is everything along with being loyal to the original concepts of the source material and the core fan-base. In addition, the animated series and the toys also remind us that popularity in some forms of media do not translate into others.

Next Time on FWS...
Chris Rock once said that:"every punk can fire from across the room, but it takes a man to get close enough to stab", but why not both? Firearms sometimes can be use as a melee weapon and as a tool. Bayonet stabbing, Buttstoke kick, barber wire cutter, window breaker… in the next installment of FWS Armory, we'll examine closely the different ways a firearm can cause harm without any trigger pull whatsoever.


7 comments:

  1. Sean Robert MeaneyApril 12, 2016 at 6:34 PM

    My little brother loved battlemechs. Built his own from balsawood. He died before he could get to see two giant robots kill each other.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your brother was more talented than me...I just built mine from Lego's. And I am sorry for your loss and hope this brought up some happy memories.
    Thanks for reading and commenting

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'll admit, even as a lifelong fan of the tabletop and video games, I had never heard of this prior to now. Thank you indeed for an interesting look into this particular chapter of the franchise, it's given me a few things to think about.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for producing this in-depth look at the history of Battlemech toys. Like you said, there's not much info out there on the internet, so this blog post goes some way to rectify the deficiency.

    Cheers :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. These military sci-fi toy blogposts are something of a labor of love (like all of FWS) to bring to the world of MSF, and I very happy and glad that you guys have enjoyed the read. For the next Toys of Military Sci-Fi, FWS will exploring a long-forgotten 1980's toyline...again, thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I really wanted the Battletech toys but I could never find them.
    Ahh the days before online shopping.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sorry but I have to be "that guy"
    I think the Hunchback was supposed to be the Clan Hunback IIC

    ReplyDelete