In the mid 90s, an all-new line of STAR WARS toys reached dizzying heights of popularity.
And yet, just a few years earlier, the franchise was all but dead.
1986 thru 1994.
Nine consecutive years without the release of any new STAR WARS 3.75-inch figures.
Except for one.
According to Stephen Sansweet’s excellent guidebook,
Vlix (a character from the DROIDS cartoon) was released in 1988 for a short time only in Brazil.
And on page 146 of Mark Bellomo’s outstanding guide,
“…the Vlix figure is the single hardest-to-find vintage Star Wars action figure… It is rumored that less than a dozen of these figures exist in the hands of collectors…”
So, yeah. Unless you lived in Brazil in 1988, there were no new STAR WARS figures available for nine years. A tough time to be a fan, and for a while there was no reason to believe we would see anything more from the galaxy far, far away.
However, in May 1991 a new hope arrived with the release of HEIR TO THE EMPIRE, a sequel to RETURN OF THE JEDI written by the great Timothy Zahn. Some at Bantam Books doubted it would be successful and wanted it to be a straight to paperback release to save on production costs. Understandable, as STAR WARS seemed dead at the time. But others at Bantam fought for it, arguing this continuation was an important publication and deserved hardcover status.
My source for this internal Bantam conflict?
I heard it from Timothy Zahn himself at a 2013 book-signing event while he was touring for SCOUNDRELS.
Fortunately, HEIR TO THE EMPIRE was released in hardcover and surprised everyone by exploding onto the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and would go on to become what many considered to be the publishing event of the year. For the first time since action figure sales declined in 1984, STAR WARS was suddenly hot again.
Following the tremendous success of Zahn’s book, Dark Horse Comics began publishing new STAR WARS comic books, beginning in November 1991 with the DARK EMPIRE mini-series, which was also met with much success.
Zahn followed up HEIR TO THE EMPIRE with DARK FORCE RISING (1992) and THE LAST COMMAND (1993), completing the original “Thrawn Trilogy” which would go on to sell over 15 million copies.
This began an avalanche of new STAR WARS novels and comic books, and proved that people were still hungry for new stories from the space saga.
In 1994, George Lucas announced to ILM that there would be more STAR WARS movies to come, and in 1995 a remastered original trilogy VHS set was released which sold like crazy.
It was only a matter of time before Kenner would respond to the rekindled hype.
At this point, Kenner was owned by Hasbro, but still in operation.
They introduced a new line of STAR WARS 3.75-inch figures in the summer of ’95, including a special promotion through Froot Loops for a free Han Solo in Stormtrooper Disguise.
It didn’t come with a weapon, but looks great brandishing an E-11 Blaster, borrowed from another figure.
And here’s the first wave that was released into stores.
The line was called THE POWER OF THE FORCE, the same name as the short-lived line from 1985, so fans often refer to these figures as POWER OF THE FORCE 2.
Though the figures are ridiculously muscular compared to the characters in the film, there was no denying the excitement that came with seeing new STAR WARS figures for the first time since ’85, and Kenner was not prepared for the overwhelming demand, making them difficult to find at first.
Here’s the backer card:
For the first time STAR WARS figures had bios on the back, borrowing the idea from the G.I. JOE ’80s line. And while the figures are all new sculpts, the vehicles are pretty much the same as the vintage ones, with different paint and minor details changed.
There was also a rare Princess Leia figure out around the same time, though it wasn’t pictured with the other figures on the cardback at first. Maybe it came out a bit late because Kenner was having trouble designing this one…
Let’s take a look at the bios:
In December ’95, a three-figure wave hit. With the first wave being from STAR WARS, these are from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. (Luke’s pilot gloves are black in STAR WARS, and white in EMPIRE.)
The new Boba Fett especially had everyone in a frenzy trying to find it!
The backer card was updated, finally showing the Leia figure with the others, but the three new figures weren’t included. Figures were being released faster than the backer card roster picture was being updated.
Around this time, a 4-pack came out; a re-release of four of the original figures from the ’70s.
As ’95 came to a close, excitement among fans was off the charts for this new line. After nearly a decade of famine, we suddenly had 13 new figures and 4 re-released vintage ones. There had never been a Stormtrooper Disguise Han from the vintage era, so that one was particularly exciting.
Of course, everyone compared the new figures with their vintage counterparts, and for the most part I found myself liking the originals more, despite my excitement for the new ones. Two of the new ones, though, I had to admit were superior to the originals.
The new Obi-Wan didn’t look like he was on steroids (unlike some of the other new ones). Combine that with a great face sculpt, a cool lightsaber that was removable from his hand, and a removable outer robe that wouldn’t easily tear like the original’s vinyl cape, and ’95 Obi-Wan was a clear winner.
The new R2-D2’s mid-section was sculpted onto the figure instead of being a sticker that would often fade. Also, the new R2 had a retractable third leg that could be moved into the figure out of view when wanted, just like the R2 in the movies. So this was another rare case where I liked a new version over the original.
Early in ’96, a four-figure wave hit, keeping with the EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. And Dagobah-Training Luke had never been produced during the vintage run.
I don’t have a backer card for Dagobah Luke, but above is an image provided by one of Stephen Sansweet’s guidebooks. (I’ll be providing more images from this guide for figures or packaging I’m missing from my collection.)
With this wave, the backer card was updated, finally showing all the newer figures, while leaving off some of the ones from the first wave, though they were still in production.
And let’s take a look at the other bios:
A new Biker Scout released about this time that came with a speeder bike.
The speeder bike is the same as the one from 1983 except for being painted a bit darker.
But supply was still far beneath demand, creating a lot of frustration (and scalper problems) among collectors. Check out this statement from the STAR WARS INSIDER magazine #30 which was published mid 1996:
The rest of that sentence continued on the next page and said: “Pay $40 to a scalper for a figure that he bought for $5 or $6? No thanks!”
In summer ’96, the next wave hit – figures based on SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE, a new novel that took place between THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. The packaging included these cool hologram stickers.
The SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE wave also included a figure that came with a Swoop bike,
…as well as a couple of two-figure packs that included a comic book.
Shortly after this wave, three more figures released:
Leia in Boushh Disguise was first released on SHADOWS OF THE EMPIRE packaging because we see how she obtains that disguise in the book, previous to the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI.
Note the three “Deluxe” figures on the above backer cards. A slight variation of Han, Luke, and a Stormtrooper that came with Kenner-imagined mini-vehicles.
Later, STAR WARS INSIDER #31 offered a peek at what was to come, which had fans drooling for months, waiting for the next wave to hit shelves. Amazing new sculpts, and a never-produced-during-vintage-era Sand Trooper and Cantina Band Member! The Cantina Band Member was a fan club exclusive and wouldn’t be out until ’97.
But the others hit store shelves in November/December ’96, in time to be hot-selling Christmas gifts.
The Jawas have a patch on their hoods where light can pass through to light up their eyes – so cool!
I only have one backer card of this wave, as originally released. This is because they were released at the end of ’96 and starting in ’97 Vader’s lightsaber on the packaging was changed to Luke’s green blade, so the original packaging of these figures was only distributed for a month or so, when they were near impossible to find due to the great demand.
Note the bio on the backer card is now a large picture and a few stats instead of a written paragraph that details the history of the character. Also note that once again, the new figures are not all pictured on the cardback.
The figures in this wave were based on the original 1977 STAR WARS, their release coordinated with STAR WARS SPECIAL EDITION, which would hit theaters soon in January 1997.
1996 ended with STAR WARS mania at an all-time high with the Special Edition version of the trilogy right around the corner and Episodes 1, 2 and 3 to come. Of course, at this time, some of the aspects of the Special Editions and Prequels that would turn out to be blunders were not yet known, and the only thing fans were split on was whether you liked the Ewoks or not. This was a very fun, rose-colored-glasses time to be a fan, and the toy/merch sales were off the charts. Just five years ago, nobody would have predicted a comeback of this scale.
A picture I took around this time – Stormtroopers Han and Luke at the beach!
Here’s a few shots comparing vehicles released in ’95 and ’96 with their original versions from the ’70s and ’80s. Pretty much the same but with different paint and a few changed details here and there.
(Though the ’96 version looks cooler with the scout on the bike, when the figures are off the bike, the ’83 figure is much better.)
I no longer have the 1981 Boba Fett ship, but the ’96 version is identical to it, except having more movie-accurate coloring.
I continued to like the figures from the ’70s and ’80s more overall, though as in ’95, there were two exceptions from the ’96 figures:
Gotta say – the ’96 Stormtrooper Luke and Carbon Freeze Han were improvements over the awkward-looking originals.
Though some of the sculpts are too muscular, the figures from these years are a lot of fun and were exciting to collect when they first came out.
Few escape the dreaded “deluxe” Crowd Control Stormtrooper!
Thank you for reading!
In a future post we’ll take a look at the figures released in 1997 and ’98.