17 September 2021

Military Sci-Fi Toys: The Kenner Star Wars MICRO Collection (1982)





















The world of science fiction, cinema, and even the toy industry all changed when Star Wars was released in May of 1977. For a time, the brainchild of George Lucas dominated the toy stores and allowance money of kids of my generation due to the awesome offerings by Kenner. While its seems that the iconic and nearly holy Kenner toyline was nothing but a raging success, there were some failure among the various Star Wars toylines, and one being the subject of this installment of Military Sci-Fi Toys, the Star Wars MICRO Collection from 1982. 

What was the Kenner Star Wars MICRO Collection and Why did Kenner Make this?
In the summer of 1982 while some of the most iconic movies of the decade we were being released, Kenner would release one of the oddest members of their legendary Star Wars toyline: the MICRO Collection. This was a diecast line of painted 1 1/4inch tall static action figures with accompanying vehicles and playsets to match the scale being presented. Some modern Star Wars collectors have nicknamed it: "the Lilliputian Star Wars Collection". According to Kenner sculptor Rudy Vap, his vision for the MICRO Collection was centered around the concept of showing the true scale of the Star Wars locations seen in the first two films. Unlike the primary toyline centered around the 3 3/4th inch figures, the MICRO Collection was envisioned by Mr. Vap being a collectible more than a true toyline. 
For many toylines, one of the key questions is in what scale should the line be designed around? Kenner's Star Wars nearly four inch figures soon became the standard of the industry and it was smaller than most action figures at the time. This scale for the action figures was done due to the heavy focus on the iconic machinery of the films, like the Millennium Falcon, X-Wing, and the TIE fighter. In order to build and sell these vehicles for the figures, they had to be in a scale that allowed for a marketable price point, playability, and shelve space at the retailor. 
However, the environmental set pieces of the Kenner line were limited, lacking in structural integrity, and expensive. This was the pièce de résistance of the MICRO Collection, it could display the grandeur of Cloud City that the 3 3/4inch line could not. Given this, most of the MICRO Collection was centered around an location from the films with four-to-eight 1 1/4th inch miniatures packed inside. Several of the location pieces were combined into a boxset called an "World" with three World being released in 1982. In total, the MICRO Collection topped out at nine playset locations, four vehicles, and the mail-away "Build Your Own Army" offer of six diecast painted figures for the Hoth World location. For modern day collectors of the MICRO Collections, one thing really shines through about the MICRO Collection is its level of detail and craftsmanship. While the paint does indeed peel off easily with the miniatures, the other all construction and presentation of the playsets, coupled with the damage feature, is first rate.  
 
The Different Between the "Micro Collection" and "Star Wars Micro Machines"
Given the brief length of time that the Kenner MICRO Collection was out in the toystores, there is some natural confusion between it and the 1990’s Galoob Micro Machines Star Wars collection. One interesting difference is when Galoob and Kenner got their licenses from the Studio. Kenner was in on the ground floor when Star Wars was an unproven concept and was predicted to be a bomb. However, Galoob entered into the Star Wars world well after the brand was established and a cultural icon…that was in demise and waiting for Episode I to lit the fire again. 
During an interview with Starwars.com, the chief designer for the micro machines line was Jim Fong and recalled that when Galoob got the license for Star Wars, it was during a time when Star Wars was old news and no one was really that interested in the license, which allowed Galoob to acquire it for their micro machines line. Much like the sacred Lego Star Wars line, it seems to be a match made in heaven. Fong recalls that when Galoob got the license that it was during a slow sales year at the company and the company itself was downsizing. However, the tri-pack of classic Star Wars vehicles was a massive success and turned the company around after the 1994 launch of the Star Wars Micro Machines line. During the first year of run of the line, Galoob would launch a line of micro-figures (sold in “packs” of around 9 micro-figures) and a series of environmental playsets based on locations in the Holy Trilogy. Unlike the 1982 Kenner MICRO Collection, these would be success and playsets would be designed and released for years. However, unlike the previous MICRO Collection, these micro-figures would not fit into the vehicles. Some of the Mirco Machines playsets would directly correspond to the MICRO Collection and this gives us a window into what the MICRO Collection could have done with the ROTJ film locations. 

The Historical Context of the MICRO Collection
At the time of release in 1982, Kenner itself was spinning down their TESB toyline and was deep in production for the ROTJ toyline. Given this, the company was willing to take some chances with the monumental success of the Star Wars toyline in general and the MICRO Collection was a symbol of that risk taking. Also, during this time, we can see the trend of miniatures for role playing games and tabletop gaming, like D&D, Battletech, and the Star Trek combat simulation game by FASA exploding onto the hobby market. I can remember walking into hobby and gaming stores, and seeing walls of unpainted miniatures and some painted examples during the 1980's.  It is likely that Kenner saw this trend with miniatures and decided to tap into that market with some interesting results. We have also remember that in 1982, the Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe: Real American Hero had been released and they were a real threat for the Kenner domination over the toy market. This also the time when the 2nd Generation of home video game consoles was on the market and was in its prime with machines like the ATARI 2600, the newly released (in 1982) 5200 and ColecoVision and VecTrex machines. 

Why FWS Will Never Discuss the Kenner Line in Full
There is no military science fiction toyline that has generated as much cold-hard cash and impact than the original trilogy Kenner toyline that ran from 1978-1985. It altered the entire toy industry to this very day and few toyline since have even come close to the power of the Kenner line. I lived through the Kenner Star Wars toys and I had many...but Legos were the toys I loved and Kenner Star Wars toys were just a prop to occupy my time. Many of my generation love and worship the original Kenner line and if they had a time machine, they would certainly go back and buy original figures and vehicles. Given the amount of love and nostalgia associated with the Kenner line, there are hundreds of websites and videos detailing in masterclass levels every aspect of the original Kenner line. With this in mind, FWS has decided NOT to devote a full article on the original Kenner line itself. There is just nothing we could say about this much mined topic to be of any value. Only the MICRO Collection of original Kenner line peaked my interest enough to devote some digital space to it. To me, Retroblasting continues to covered this topic better than I could ever.   

Where Does the MICRO Collection fit into the Entire Kenner Line?
Among the most iconic and most profitable toylines of all time, the original Star Wars Kenner line that ran from 1977 until 1985 is counted along side Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Lego. Like all successful toylines, not everything in the collection is a smash hit and Kenner has two lines that did not survive: the 12inch dolls and the MICRO Collection. It seems that once Kenner deviated outside the realm of 3 3/4inch figures, it was destiny to fall. That is how the MICRO Collection seems to fit within the narrative of the Kenner Star Wars toyline...however, there is another way of viewing the MICRO Collection among the complete Kenner line: as a symbol of how much Kenner had mastered the universe of this galaxy far, far away in plastic. 
What I mean is that the playsets based around the nearly four inch figures did not or could not represent the location of Baspin nor Hoth in its full scale. But, the MICRO Collection could and did. Besides a lame Sears-exclusive cardboard "Cloud City Playset" issued in 1980, Cloud City was ignored in favor of other locations in Empire in the main toyline, but was a key location for the MICRO Collection and we got to see and work within Bespin via the Lilliputian-scaled plastic world. In addition, the attention to detail and clever features were symbols of the Kenner MICRO team being passionate for the project with the skills to bring their vision to the market. To me, that is how the MICRO Collection fits within the larger Kenner toyline. Side note, Michael of RetroBlasting recently commissioned a upscaled version of the MICRO Collection from Joe Dickerson and it is in the prototype phase.   

The Overview of the Kenner MICRO Collection
The entire 1982 MICRO Collections amounts to 70 die-cast metal miniature figures, nine playsets (combined into 3 World sets) and four vehicles. Besides the mail away “Build Your Armies” offer from Kenner of Hoth themed Snowtroopers and Hoth rebel soldiers, the die-cast metal miniatures figures were packed in with the vehicles or playsets and not sold separately. Each of the miniatures were painted but were prone to chipping and rubbing when played with. The Bespin, Hoth, and Death Star playsets were combined into three massive World sets with all of the figures. 
Three out of the four vehicles, the X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and the Snowspeeder all were fitted with this “battle damage” feature that allowed for the vehicle to break apart, but the pieces were connect via wires and the vehicle could be restored at the press of a button. Every playset and vehicle had some very cool features that were not present on the larger scale playsets and these features show off the love and attention paid to the MICRO Collection by Kenner. Some elements of the playset could explode, spring-loaded doors, and a the carbonite-freeze chamber could swap the Han Solo miniature with an miniature carbonite frozen Han Solo. Very cool. 
There is the entire line:

Vehicles
- Millennium Falcon (Sears Exclusive) w/ 6 figures
- X-Wing w/ 1 figure
- TIE Fighter w/ 1 figure
- Rebel Snowspeeder (JC Penny Exclusive) w/ 2 figures

Playsets
- Bespin Control Room w/ 4 figures
- Bespin Gantry w/ 4 figures
- Bespin Freeze Chamber w/ 8 figures
- Death Star Escape w/ 4 figures
- Death Star Compactor w/ 8 figures
- Hoth Generator Attack w/ 4 figures
- Hoth Turret Defense w/ 6 figures
- Hoth Wampa Cave w/ 4 figures and the Probe Droid
- Hoth Ion Cannon w/ 8 figures

What Happened to the MICRO Collection?
From everything I could read, the people at Kenner that were involved with the creation of the MICRO Collection believed in their vision of a smaller Star Wars play world for kids and collectors...sadly, no one else did. This toyline did not last a year. It was born and died in 1982, taking down the prototype Return of the Jedi MICRO Collection as well. If the Kenner Star Wars toyline enjoyed so much success and praise, why did the MICRO Collection crash and burn in less than one year? The plain fact is that we do not know preciously why the Kenner MICRO Collection failed…we have only assumptions. It is assumed by most that parents and kids were unwilling to invest their cash into another Star Wars toyline when there was a massive line of figures and vehicles designed around the 3 ¾ inch scale that they already owned figures for. 
Then there was playability, some kids got the idea of the MICRO Collection with its toy soldier favor, but most did not and rejected it out-of-hand, especially at the price point of about $8-$15 per set ($22.62-$42.44 in today’s money) about $32-$37 set ($93.53-$104.67 in today’s money) for the Death Star World and the Hoth World combined playsets. For some perspective, the Millennium Falcon vehicle cost $26 ($73.56 in 2021 money) new in 1982. While the MICRO Collection was awesome in its details and the cool battle-damage feature, you could not change the figures from the static pose and that limited play to kids used to adjustable figures. Within a short amount of time, the MICRO Collection was not moving at the original price point and discounts were made…and then again…and again. Then the line was cancelled and the remining stock went on deep discount with some pieces at 70% off of their original price tag. This is when some buyers got into the line and scooped up the entire collection on the cheap. By some accounts, boxed examples of the MICRO Collection could be found on the store shelves until 1987!      

The Lost MICRO Collection Prototypes
Despite the hard work by the people at Kenner, the MICRO Collection died on the vine, and just as new product was coming to the Hoth and Bespin playset lines. The Hoth Bacta Chamber and the Bespin Torture Chamber were both far enough in development that there are boxed prototypes of both. Besides these, there are several cancelled prototypes that were cut down in different stages of development. The Bacta Chamber would have been added to the Hoth World and the Bespin Torture Chamber would have rounded out the Cloud City World. These were the closest in the cancelled prototypes. For the addition to the Death Star World, Kenner would have added a playset from Return of the Jedi: The Throne Room. This set was far in development and would have made a nice addition to the Death Star sets. Coming with two versions of the Emperor, Vader, Luke, two Royal Guard, and a rumored royal Dignitary. This was next closest in development, with several plastic mockups of the set in several levels of detail. 
Three new World would have been added for the Return of the Jedi and Empire Strikes Back: the Forest Moon of Endor, the Dagobah Swamp, and Jabba’s Court. The Endor World would have had the Ewok Village, the Bunker, and rumors point to the shuttle landing pad or the forest. Wax molds for Ewoks, Biker Scouts, and Rebel Commandos have been located for the Endor sets, but no mockups of the playsets, only text and some production art. Jabba’s Court was farther along with a Jabba throne (complete with a slave Leia!) mockup, a Droid Dungeons, and likely a pit set. Lastly, the Dagobah swamp would have been in the MICRO Collection scale with Yoda’s home, the “grotto” where Luke confronted Vader, and possibly, the X-Wing swallowing bog. There is only one prototypes of an new MICRO Collection vehicles and it was close to completion: Boba Fett's Slave-1. We do not have any information on ROTJ vehicles though, but it was likely the Imperial Shuttle, A-Wing, and the B-Wing would have been likely targets for production.  

The Other Attempted MICRO Collections
When Kenner was developing the MICRO Collection in 1981, the initial rollout of the concept was to be with the most successful franchise in their inventory: Star Wars. Once the Star Wars MICRO Collection, being the vanguard force, established a beachhead, Kenner had plans to rollout two more MICRO Collections: Super Powers and Indiana Jones. During this time, Kenner was spinning up the Adventures of Indiana Jones toyline based around 3 ¾inch figures (I had some of these back in the day) and they devoted some effort into scaling down the world of Dr. Jones to less than two inches. 
Much like the Star Wars MICRO Collection, we would have seen the environments presented in Raider of the Lost Ark rendered in much grandeur than the Kenner playsets we did get and with great playset interactivity pieces. According to some that have seen the Kenner mockup material for the Indiana Jones MICRO Collection, there would have a playset with a rolling bolder and one with intercepting the Ark on the Nazi truck, complete with a drag-capable Indy miniature. The work on this was mostly confined to concept art and a single converted Luke Skywalker miniature into an Indiana Jones with a whip. Then there is the Super Powers MICRO Collection prototype. 
Super Powers was the name of the 1984-1987 Kenner DC action figure and vehicle toyline that attempted to capitalize on the success of the Super Friends ABC cartoon based on the DC Justice League. DC themselves heavily promoted the Super Powers toyline in comic adverts and even a tie-in comic limited series. There are prototype miniatures of the Riddler and Batman, who were converted Vader and Luke miniatures with some playset locations in the early mockup stages. However, this leaves me with some questions. The Kenner Super Powers figures did not come out until 1984, some two years after the Star Wars MICRO Collection was released AND cancelled all within the same year. Why was there work on a Super Powers MICRO Collection undertaken? Maybe a better question would be when was the work undertaken to bring the DC Heroes and Villains in the dicast two-inch scale?      

The Legacy of the Kenner SW MICRO Collection
When the MICRO Collection came out in the summer of 1982, there was not much of an impact made, save for the lack of profit on Kenner’s balance sheets. For years, the MICRO Collection was marked down and waited for their fate while gathering dust. At the time, there were fans and collectors of the line and they moved in and bought the deeply discounted line. Another impact at the time and it is a legacy of the MICRO Collection is that some kids got the MICRO Collection toys by mistake instead of the full-sized toys. This was mentioned repeatedly on boards and comments when the MICRO Collection was discussed. However, some became fans of the line via these mistakes. 
The other legacy is the micro-sized toylines owe a big debt to this vanguard of the trend and the loss it suffered. The micro machines Star Wars is one of the legacies of the MICRO Collection. Another legacy is the workmanship that went into the MICRO Collection playsets, and this commented on by modern day collectors. One legacy I witnessed is that elements of the MICRO Collections were used in Westend Games RPG as gaming pieces given their scale and already painted. Lastly, the lasting legacy is that the MICRO Collection is one of the lost lines of the classic Kenner toyline and one of its rare failures. Unlike the failed 12inch doll line, the MICRO Collection showed some passion, thought, and talent of the Kenner team and it is true shame that we never got to see the ROTJ MICRO Collection toys.  

The MICRO Collection Today
Since the invention of the internet and video-hosting sites, fans of Star Wars and toy collecting have created cyberspaces for discussion and dissection of this iconic toyline. Some of the websites and channels cover the MICRO Collection from 1982 in some way or fashion. Some collectors that lived during the time of Kenner have been rediscovering the MICRO Collection and buying examples of it. Others that are getting into vintage collection have also been venturing into the waters of the MICRO Collection. Currently, there is a market for the MICRO Collection and boxed examples go for solid money with the most expensive being the exclusive Millennium Falcon and the Rebel Snow Speeder selling in the hundreds of dollars all the way up to thousands. However, many consider the Kenner MICRO Collection to be one of the accessible collections in the entire line due to its scale and size of the line. When I called around in the DFW Metroplex to vintage toy stores, they had a few MICRO Collection items and they informed me that these toys came in with much less frequency then the regular Star Wars toys. Some stores confused the MICRO Collection from 1982 with the Micro Machines line in my experience, but said demand for these smaller Star Wars lines were much less than the other full-sized toylines. 

Next Time on FWS...
In nearly all modern military organizations, MILSIM paintball and AirSoft teams, online shooters, and even toys; military camouflaged patterns are used for weapons, uniforms, and vehicles. Patterns of tans, greens, browns, and yellows are used to allow soldiers and vehicles to blend into the background. While camouflage has been used humans were hunting and gathering, the practice of blending was rare once civilization and professional military organizations were established. However, during the Great War, it finally was made very painfully clear that the old garish uniforms of the past were dangerous in the era of modern warfare. In the next installment of the Barrack, we shall be exploring and explaining military camo in a few months time.  

2 comments:

  1. Great article, I never had these but my friend did and I remember playing with his Hoth playsets with fond memories

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  2. I grew up well past these but had some hand me downs and was always curious about them. Great article.

    ReplyDelete