There has been a lot of talk about the Toys To Life genre (or perhaps subgenre is more apt?) of video games ever since Disney announced that they were shutting down Disney Infinity. Of course, Disney has had a rough go of it in the gaming business and are getting out of it altogether in light of various factors, both game-related and not.
That’s why I still feel confident in an idea I’ve had kicking around in my head for a while now, and which now seemed like a good idea to pull out, in light of this new opening in the marketplace. (If you want to know just how long, all the images in this article are from October of last year. Got a little sidetracked with other things.)
Now, I realize that this isn’t going to be a very popular opinion for some people, including fans of the franchise itself, but I think that (as the title says) that Toys To Life could be the key to helping revive Masters of the Universe for a new generation — something that Mattel has been trying to do for a while now, but with limited success at best.
For those not familiar with it, Masters of the Universe is an action figure toy line originally released by Mattel in 1982 in a bid to compete with Kenner’s hugely successful Star Wars toys. Without going into how they got there (there are plenty of resources for that), they succeeded — perhaps well beyond their wildest imaginations, as Masters of the Universe would go on to last for six years, encompassing some 68 figures that popularized the 5 1/2 inch scale (as well as numerous vehicles, beasts, and playsets), a 130 episode cartoon series (the first based on an action figure line since U.S. President Ronald Reagan deregulated children’s programming in the 80’s), three series of comic books, and a movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella.
The main story stars Prince Adam of the kingdom (and planet) of Eternia, heir to the Power of Grayskull, which he uses through his Sword of Power to transform into He-Man: The Most Powerful Man in the Universe. He uses his power to fight against the evil Skeletor, who seeks to invade and plunder the secrets of Castle Grayskull so that he can conquer Eternia for himself. Many more characters fall in with either side, to say nothing of other factions as well, but that’s the basic gist of it.
Aside from two different continuations/spin-offs (more on those later), an attempt was made to reboot the series in 2002 with a new action figure line and 39-episode cartoon show from Mike Young Productions. Though many enjoyed the richer storytelling and animation of the new cartoon and the more diverse aesthetics of the characters, the relaunch wasn’t as successful as its predecessor. This has been attributed to a number of factors, including Mattel releasing too many figures of He-Man and Skeletor and not enough of other characters to Cartoon Network giving the show unfavorable time slots (and thus pulling in low ratings). In all likelihood, it was a combination of everything that eventually dragged everything down.
Since then, Mattel has been trying to get a new live-action movie off the ground for the last decade, and recent developments suggest it might gain some traction soon. Mattel relaunched a new action figure line in 2008, Masters of the Universe Classics, which evoked the original toys with more modern toy design sensibilities and was aimed at adult collectors (and were priced accordingly), but has recently all but finished running its course. In 2012, DC Comics launched a new comic book which ran through February 2016 and met with mixed reaction, largely due to taking on a more “adult” tone.
Therein lies the rub. Ever since Masters of the Universe‘s 2002 incarnation fell through, Mattel has instead focused almost entirely (if not exclusively) on the adult collector, effectively relying on pure nostalgia to keep the brand alive. While that’s good for the short term, the fact of the matter is that we fans who grew up on the original Masters of the Universe are not getting any younger, and I would imagine our numbers aren’t really growing, either. If the brand is to survive, to say nothing of thrive, it’s going to need the new blood of a new generation of fans.
In addition to the blend of science fiction and fantasy, part of what helped the original toy line stand out was its use of gimmicks. Every character had a different skill or action feature which helped them stand out from the pack. He-Man was incomprehensibly strong, Skeletor was a master of magic, Man-at-Arms was a master of weapons, Beast Man could command creatures great and small, Sy-Clone could spin like a tornado, Tri-Clops had three rotating eyes that afforded him different types of vision, Snout Spout squired water from his trunk, and so on.
Today, however, everyone from the Transformers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Power Rangers has a gimmick; it’s practically Masters of the Universe‘s lasting legacy. So what then?
Enter Toys to Life.
In a video game not unlike Skylanders, Mattel could leverage their core competency — toys, which is put forth as a reason LEGO Dimensions has effectively taken Disney’s spot — and their myriad gimmicks in a new way. In this modern era, this acts as a perfect platform for revival and reinvention as they try to establish what the franchise needs to be going forward.
There are different ways to go about designing the figures, including various aesthetics. On the left is the Classic look of the figures, while on the right are the designs used in the 2002 series. Finally, in the middle is the more cartoony “chibi” style from the Masters of the Universe Minis collector toy line, which lends itself well to the scale of the figures. Of course, a new design aesthetic (not shown, obviously) may be the order of the day as well.
Personally, I prefer the 2002 aesthetic, as they are more visually distinct from one-another. Plus, I doubt the Toys to Life style of figure would benefit from bulk part reuse the way the more articulated versions have in the past. That said, I’m going with the Classics line for most of my visual aids going forward, since I was able to find those images in abundance at MattyCollector.com.
If there is one thing He-Man (or Skeletor) has no shortage of, it’s variations. As He-Man progresses through the game, he could power-up with new abilities and weapons based on classic toys, such as his Battle Armor (center) or Thunder Punch (right). Still further variations could be introduced in subsequent titles in the series as necessary.
Incidentally, they could get further mileage and value out of the prospect by recreating the part of playing with toys wherein you get to play with both sides of the conflict. Playing as He-Man and the Masters could unfold one side of the story, while playing as Skeletor and his Lords of Destruction would give us a look at how the other side lives.
While He-Man would naturally take the pack-in spot in a Starter Kit for an adventure game, the various gimmicks of his allies could be more fully explored in a virtual world as Mekaneck can use his extending appendage to see things others cannot, while Stratos takes to the sky to reach new areas, or Moss Man merges with the local plant life to move around undetected. Without physical limitations, these abilities can be built upon and expanded in ways the toys can’t match as well.
Another fun aspect of Masters of the Universe is the variety of different animals which can be ridden, including He-Man’s own faithful sidekick, Battle Cat. And in much the same way as the characters could be leveled-up, there’s room for the animals to become more powerful, too. In this example, we’ve got the original Battle Cat at left, but imagine if leveling him up gave him some extra shielding and cannons to use while riding atop his saddle, as seen with the 2002 version at right.
Vehicles have become more of a thing in Toys to Life as well, and Masters of the Universe has no shortage of those. Seen here are just two of the rides the Masters have used in the past, which were recreated for the Masters of the Universe Classics toy line. (Of course, there would probably not be a He-Man in the seat of the Wind Raider; I work with what I’ve got.)
Through Classics, Mattel has created a pretty good framework around which a series of games could progress. There could possibly need to be some changes made to make things more game-friendly and iron out some wrinkles, but a fairly solid foundation is already in place.
You’d want to start basic, with your core origins and He-Man vs. Skeletor battle, with heroic and evil warriors alongside. Once you’ve got them established, things get even more interesting.
If Skeletor wasn’t enough, then what about Hordak and his evil Horde for a sequel? By that same token, you could bring in He-Man’s sister, She-Ra (The Most Powerful Woman in the Universe), and her Rebellion forces to even things out a bit more in the good guys’ favor.
Things are mapped out to escalate even further, with the introduction of King Hiss the Snake Men into the mix, leading to the war known as “the Second Ultimate Battleground.” It’s a four-way battle for the fate of the universe! From there, He-Man and She-Ra chase Skeletor into space, where they join the Galactic Guardians of the planet Primus as they stave off the attacks of Flogg and his Mutant army, as per The New Adventures of He-Man, which was folded into the Classics storyline.
There’s more material going forward as He-Man returns to Eternia victorious to take the role of king, and has a son to inherit his power. The past is ripe with potential as well, from the origins of the power passed down from King Grayskull to other forces for good throughout the ages, including the original Ultimate Battleground. All in all, breaking each chunk of the history they’ve established lends itself to a good number of games, which would keep things going for a good while.
This would be the time to consider enacting some change to the mythos, too. One possibility would be renaming He-Man himself. Sad as it is to say about the figurehead of the entire franchise, but it seems that “He-Man” may not be quite as inviting in 2016 as it was in 1982, with some pointing to it as a target for change. Mattel has tried to massage it into something more palatable, down to giving the Power Sword the alias “Sword of He” as the source of his name. Still, if they could get to “She-Ra” from “She-Ro” (a play on “He-Ro,” name of various other carriers of the Sword of He), they can probably do something for her brother.
Speaking of She-Ra, though, I personally would strongly consider looking at a way to introduce her with the first game. While Teela makes a good strong female presence, She-Ra is where it’s at, and if you can open things up to draw boys and girls alike in on a grander scale, then so much the better.
Besides which, She-Ra just rocks and waiting a year for her to show up would be killer.
In addition to reviving the brand for a more contemporary audience of new young fans and older fans alike, it would also serve as a nice foot-in-the-door for a game company who wants in on that Toys to Life action. Activision, Warner Bros., and Nintendo are all reaping the rewards as we speak, but heavy hitters such as Electronic Arts and Ubisoft haven’t even dipped their toe in the pool yet, and this could be their opportunity.
Heck, Ubisoft has already got some experience doing the He-Man toy thing in a game, thanks to Toy Soldiers: War Chest Hall of Fame Edition:
I imagine there would be some protest to this idea from some longtime Masters of the Universe fans, fans who might be less interested in video games and would rather have new, traditional action figures. Still, those people should bear in mind that this is about prolonging the viability of the franchise as a whole, and besides — they just got an entire second line that went above and beyond the original.
Then again, that could be further potential for Mattel to capitalize on. If they went with more radical redesigns of the characters for a Toys to Life series, then there might be room for regular collector-based action figures of those designs as well — never mind revisiting it when the fans who grew up with the Toys to Life games are old enough to want their own Classics line.
In any case, the key to going forward and preserving the franchise for any future it may hope to have lies in getting back to its roots and making it appeal to kids again. While a regular series of toys may not be up to the task, I’m confident that a properly-handled Toys to Life series would be.
Thanks to Matt Moylan for the image of the shield for the figure bases!
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.