It’s my personal belief that action figures–and possibly physical toys in general–peaked in the 1980s. Sure, I’m probably biased because I was a kid back then, before every house had an NES. And being a low-income household meant that we had only a few channels. So my entertainment options consisted of:
- Go outside and play
- Watch some VHS movie we recorded off someone else’s TV
- Play with toys
Boomers are fond of pointing out that kids were probably much more likely to go play outside back then. And I did that a lot too. But there was something positively blissful about playing inside with action figures and playsets and vehicles. It was also common to build forts and castles for my figures out of books, VHS tapes, boxes, and whatever else was laying around.
It was fun! And I think most millennials reading this can relate and will likely agree that kids these days don’t have the same options for indoor fun that we did.
Jeez, I feel like an old fart. But it’s true!
“When I was a boy” (forgive me a cringey old-man phrase), we had tons and tons and tons of options for action figures and cheap plastic toys. And almost each one had a cartoon to go with it.
There were the obvious heavy-hitters, of course. And I definitely enjoyed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe the most. It was my absolute favorite. And of course G.I. Joe, Thundercats, M.A.S.K., The Real Ghostbusters, and plenty of others.
But with the toy/cartoon market being so damned fertile in those days, companies were throwing all kinds of weird and bizarre concepts against the wall to see what would stick. A few of you may remember Gobots, Air Raiders, Starcom, and the main topic of this article: Dino-Riders!
The thing about Dino-Riders is this: It had everything kids wanted! It was good and evil space forces riding dinosaurs with frickin’ lasers on their heads! Whaaaaat!? It couldn’t miss!
And to be real with you, it totally didn’t miss! The first season of the cartoon did fine and the toys were relatively in-demand. So what the prehistoric hell happened? Because today, Dino-Riders are barely remembered and the toys are rare and expensive and quite hard to find. Check out the eBay snip below:
Dino-Riders: The Cartoon
So let’s take a deep dive into the world of Dino-Riders and find out just what went wrong with this franchise.
According to an article on Syfy.com, the Dino-Riders cartoon was contrived solely for the purpose of selling badass action figures. Which makes total sense if you think about it. Like I said, the franchise had everything!
The pilot episode The Adventure Begins was originally released on VHS in 1987. It aired on TV in the fall of 1988. And you know what? It was good!
For a cartoon that was thrown together just to sell toys, the quality was surprisingly impressive. The animation was on par or even better than many of the contemporaneous cartoons of the time. Voice acting was appropriately cheesy, but there are a lot of voice actors you will probably recognize.
The main antagonist, Krulos, is voiced by the prolific Frank Welker. I recognized his voice immediately as that of Dr. Claw in the original Inspector Gadget series, but he has also voiced characters in Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, G.I. Joe, Ducktales, Talespin, Muppet Babies… Name a popular animated franchise and he’s likely worked on it. He’s still working today, too. Here’s his IMDB profile.
Welker isn’t the only notable actor in Dino-Riders, though. Dan Gilvezan, Noelle North, and Peter Cullen have similarly impressive resumes and it seems the whole cast continued to work together on many projects. If you grew up in the 80s, there’s a good chance you heard these actors almost every time you turned on the TV.
The plot began with a futuristic race of humans called Valorians, led by Questar (Gilvezan) zipping through space to evade their mortal enemies: the lizard-like race of aliens called Rulons, led by Krulos (Welker).
The Valorians take heavy laser fire and in a last-ditch effort to escape, they activate the S.T.E.P.— the Space Time Energy Projector—and find themselves on Earth millions of years ago. Using telepathy, the Valorians are able to befriend the local dinosaurs and
enslave employ them as construction equipment, taxis, tanks, and whatever else.
Questar and his friends soon discover that Krulos and the Rulons managed to follow them through the timewarp and are likewise using their brainboxes to brainwash their own fleet of dinosaurs, tricking them out with even more lasers!
The first season lasted for 13 episodes and featured a full story arc. They also managed to work in every single Dino-Riders toy that Tyco made. After the final episode of season 1, the brains at Tyco decided to take the show in a new direction.
Season 2’s VHS-only pilot episode brought Valorians through the S.T.E.P. once again, but this time landing in an ice age. The new toy line consisted of mammals like the wooly mammoth and giant sloth. They were markedly less popular than the dinos had been and that’s where the show went extinct.
Season 2 turned out to be a single episode with an identity crisis. It was so different from season 1 that they renamed it to Ice Age Adventure, intending to return to the original concept for a full season 2. But the 2nd season never happened for the TV show and you’ll see it often referred to as Season 1 Episode 14.
Dino-Riders: The Toys
Alright gang, enough goofing around. The entire Dino-Riders franchise was centered around the toy line, so let’s have a look at them.
As a kid, I remember thinking the Dino-Riders toys were about as epic as possible. My older cousin had a few (he had everything), and I guess my parents saw me jealously trying to play with them. That Christmas (or was it my birthday?),I got my first and only Dino-Rider toy: A shiny new Quetzalcoatlus with wings that flapped when you pressed the button, and a poseable beak that opened wide to bite the head off its enemies…
Except that my Quetzalcoatlus and his rider Yungstar had no enemies. Unless I wanted to play with them alongside He-Man or Lion-O, but I was never a fan of mixing franchises. I was a toy purist. Not sure why.
Anyway, the fact was that I loved my Dino-Riders toy. So much so that when I got mad and ran away from home (for like a half hour) it was one of the only possessions I bothered to bring with me. But how could I possibly play with just that one toy when they had no enemies to battle?
And the problem wasn’t limited to my toybox. There were literally no more Dino-Riders at the local stores. They were impossible to find! And even today they are quite rare and quite expensive on eBay. Go see for yourself!
Upon release, the most expensive Dino-Riders toy was the impressive Tyrannosaurus Rex, which came packed in with figures of Krulos and 2 henchmen. According to a 1988 JC Penney catalog, it featured “Motorized walking action with bone-crushing jaws that open. Includes robotic claws, rear deflectors shields with twin cannons, buzz saw leg armor, pivoting command tower, gattling-gun laser cannons, and clip-on accessories.
With an MSRP of $49.99, I think you could argue that it’s a hell of a deal. The next most expensive Dino-Rider was Questar’s Diplodocus which was also quite tricked out and came with 3 action figures. It was $29.99.
However, when compared to other popular toy lines, parents may have felt the dinos were just too expensive. Castle Grayskull was a paltry $26.99. G.I. Joe offered a huge array of tanks and playsets with the vast majority of them costing under $10.
But again, the Dino-Riders were bundled and well-equipped. They were also relatively high-quality. So much so that the Smithsonian Institution contacted Tyco and wanted to repurpose their dinosaurs for their “Dinosaur and other Prehistoric Reptile Collection” (From Wikipedia)
There were 3 waves of Dino-Rider toys, with wave 2 culminating in the Diplodocus and T-Rex motorized toys. Wave 3 was where Tyco all but quit producing the dinosaur figures and switched to ice-age mammals like sabertooth cats, giant ground sloths and of course the tricked-out wooly mammoth.
But of course dinosaurs are objectively cooler than mammals, so season 2 of the show never happened and Tyco turned their backs on Dino-Riders almost entirely.
I say almost because the toys actually did live on. The Smithsonian toys were still being produced well into the ‘90s and you might have even recognized some of your favorite Dino-Rider toys re-used for the 1994 toy line of Cadillacs & Dinosaurs.
Dino-Riders Aren’t Completely Extinct
Interestingly, Mattel acquired Tyco somewhere along the line and therefore inherited the rights to Dino-Riders.
I’ve written a bit about Mattel before, in regard to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Origins, and how Mattel really seems to have identified an audience in the Aging Millennials market. Yes, we loved our toys in the 80s and now we’re grown and have money and can buy whatever we damn well please.
True to form, Mattel treated retro toy fans to a Dino-Riders throwback set in 2020. Sort of.
You see, they released a “Battle Pack” exclusive to Entertainment Earth that contains 6 dinosaurs and 15 other small figures. The catch is that they are unpainted 1-inch miniatures in the style of M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. Remember those guys? They’re back. In Dino-Riders form.
Yeah, the Battle Pack isn’t quite nearly as cool as a full-on Riders Revival, but on the bright side: You can collect a whole bunch of minis in a single set for just $20. The biggest dinos are about 7 inches long, which is pretty cool. And the mash-up style of Dino-Riders and M.U.S.C.L.E. figures is a bonus.
The best part about the Battle Box is that, with it being such a niche franchise, scalpers have left Entertainment Earth’s supply unscathed. You can still pick up a set today at MSRP. Go check it out.
It makes sense that Mattel didn’t re-release full-size figures. Dino-Riders have a small audience today and it seems very unlikely Mattel could have sold enough to make the franchise pay for itself. Although they really could have made some ultimate awesome modern laser-shooting dinosaurs, and the rumor a few years ago was that they planned to do just that.
I suppose it’s still possible they could re-launch Dino-Riders in a modern style. Perhaps with properly feathered dinosaurs and more “modern posing” and going all-out with a new Netflix series and all. But that seems really unlikely. For now we’ll have to keep battling scalpers to get our He-Man and MOTU fix.
Thanks for reading.