When it comes to toys in the U.S., the 1980s was the decade of the robot. Sure, we had robot toys such as Shogun Warriors and Micronauts in the 1970s and the 1977 release of the first Star Wars movie certainly helped to promote the popularity of robots during that decade, but toy lines that were completely devoted to robots really didn't come into their own here until the 1980s. I'm not sure what caused it. Maybe once the first Star Wars trilogy came to an end, toy companies felt that robot merchandise could fill the void that the discontinued Star Wars toy line left behind. Maybe it was the steadily increasing import of anime, toys and model kits from Japan, where robots have always been popular. Maybe it was both.
Regardless, the 1980s saw the arrival and popularity of the Transformers, Voltron, and Robotech, along with several other less-popular toy lines and TV shows. This post is devoted to one of the more obscure toylines, Zoids, along with two of its spin-offs, Robo Strux and Starriors. There actually is a Zoids anime series from Japan that was aired here a few years ago, and there are avid Zoids collectors all over the world even to this day. However, the Zoids and its sister toy lines arrived on toy shelves in the 1980s without any TV series to support them, thus leaving them vulnerable to the other robot toys that had the power syndicated TV shows to help boost their popularity. What made these robot toys distinct from the others is that they were robots that you could build yourself as if they were model kits, and then you could play with them like toys and watch them move via wind-up or battery-powered motors. Read on for a more detailed look at these fun, creative robot toy lines from Tomy.
In addition to the robot toys of the 1980s, there were also plenty of robot model kits during that decade. Revel had the Robotech model kit series (which was only tangentially related to the syndicated anime series of the same name), and the GoBots had its own line of model kits. (There was another series of robot kits that I think was designed to compete with Revel's Robotech line, since it featured both transforming and non-transforming robots, but I can't recall the name of the series.) Many of these robot kits were fantastic in their posability and detail, but they couldn't be played with like toys since they would most likely break. Furthermore, if you didn't have the talent, time or money to assemble even one of these robot kits to the level of detail shown on the kits' boxes (in other words, me), then all you could do was stare at the box photos in the toy store and drool.
Solving all of these problems was Tomy's Zoids toy line, where you could put the toys together without an ounce of modeling glue and they still looked pretty spiffy, and you could play with them without the worry of breaking them. The Zoids weren't quite as durable as many of the other robot toys, but they were tougher than the robot models and that was all that mattered. Added bonuses were that the Zoids came with tiny, removable pilots and the robots themselves were armed to the teeth, so you could easily imagine that these pilots were involved in some kind of heavy metal war on some distant, desolate planet.
Other cool features were that the Zoids robots were modeled after dinosaurs, insects, arachnids, and other interesting creatures, and all of them featured motorized motion. Even the early Zoids series that was released in 1983 had one frog-like robot that you could wind up and have it swim in the water. The initial Zoids were all wind-up toys, while some of the later and larger Zoids were battery-powered. The two battery-powered Zoids that were released were shaped like a brontosaurus and a woolly mammoth, and each came with three pilot figures. When activated, these larger Zoids would lumber forward with their neck or trunk moving up and down. In total, there were five small wind-up Zoids and two large battery-powered Zoids and two smaller battery-powered Zoids in this first run. Interestingly, the Zoids line was a flop when it was initially release in Japan in 1982 under the name Mechabonica, but it became a hit in Japan after it found some popularity in the U.S.
Tomy followed up their intial Zoids line with Robo Strux later on in 1985. The Robo Strux line was more diverse, detailed and colorful than its predecessor Zoids line. Like the Zoids, it was a combination of wind-up and battery-powered robots, with the larger robots featuring more pilot figures than the smaller robots. However, even though these toys were sold under the Robo Strux title, they were still sold as Zoids in Japan. In fact, when the Zoids line was re-launched in the U.S. in the 1990s, many of the Robo Strux robots were re-released as Zoids anyway. Of the Robo Strux line, I picked up the Godzilla-like robot Terox and the robot ape Badox; I reasoned at the time that this was the closest thing I'd ever get to staging my own Mecha-Godzilla vs. Mecha-Kong fight. (For a robot-obsessed country, it always puzzled me that no filmmaker in Japan ever thought to make that kind of a mecha-kaiju brawler movie.)
Tomy released another toy robot series in 1984 called Starriors, which had robot designs similar to those of Zoids and Robo Strux but were marketed as a distinct, separate line. Tomy created this line in conjunction with Marvel Comics, complete with its own comic book story that had nothing to do with any of the Zoids anime. While the Starriors toys also had pilot figures similar to those as the Zoids and Robo Strux toys (except that they could not be removed from their cockpits), the Starriors in the comic books didn't even have pilots! In spite of the combined effort by Tomy and Marvel, the Starriors toy line was a flop.
It's a shame that Starriors was marketed separately from Zoids and Robo Strux, because their fun designs and compatible, inter-changeable parts would have added a new level of play to Tomy's other robot toys. Among the more awesome Starriors toys that would've worked for the Zoids and Robo Strux lines were a command base that looked like a coiled cobra, transforming robots (Speedtrap and Strazor) that used ripcords to zoom across the floor, and a remote-control robot called Deadeye that looked like a big red Tyrannosaurus Rex that shot plastic discs out of its mouth. Starriors even had a robot with a skull-like head and a scythe-like arm weapon--it was like the Grim Reaper in giant robot form.
Tomy also produced a robot toy series called Z-Knights, which was similar to Zoids and Robo Strux--the toys had to be assembled, they featured wind-up or battery-powered motors, and they came with the same tiny pilot figures. However, the Z-Knight robots were all humanoid in shape with very Gundam-esque designs, and they were never widely released in the U.S.
This post is just what I know of the Zoids, Robo Strux and Starriors toy lines as they appeared in toy shelves in the U.S. during the 80s. While they didn't become blockbuster hits here, the Zoids and their spin-offs were released in Japan and other countries throughout the 80s, 90s and beyond. Check out these following sites for more information about these incredible toys:
- The Official Tomy Zoids site
- The Zoids Wiki
- The Zoids Poison Fan Site
- The Zoid.US Online Resource Site
- The Starriors Fan Site
- The Digital Lifestyle Z-Knights Tribute Site