The Top 10 G.I. Joe Figures From 1982 - Present By Justin Bell
How is this even going to be possible?
Listen, I’ve been an avid G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero collector pretty much since the day they were released when I found that straight-arm Flash and COBRA in the Ames department store in Plymouth, New Hampshire back in 1982.
And yes, back then he was just “COBRA”… not “COBRA Trooper”, just plain old COBRA. Life was simpler back then.
Now, here I sit, thirty-four years and over 10,000 action figures later, and I’m expected to look back over the decades and pick my ten favorite G.I. Joe figures.
Might as well ask me to pick my favorite kid. Heck, I’ve only got two of them, picking my favorite kid is probably easier.
But anyway, as I look back through the different years and different era’s of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, it’s pretty amazing to see just how revolutionary that original toy line really was. It’s easy for us 40-something year old collectors to look at our shelves of Marvel Legends, modern G.I. Joe, Hot Toys, 3A, Masters of the Universe Classics and immediately scoff at the vintage G.I. Joe line from 1982 – 1994, but man, back in the day? No toys even came close in my household.
Then over the years, through the vintage line, through Sgt. Savage, G.I. Joe Extreme, the infamous new sculpt era and Sigma 6, right up into the 25th Anniversary “modern era” G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero seemed to continually re-invent itself, and has managed to stay at the top of the heap from a design and articulation standpoint over the better part of four decades.
So how in the world can I look through that vast library of figures and pick just TEN?
I guess we’ll find out.
10. Iron Anvil (G.I. Joe Convention 2005)
For a period of time in the early 2000’s, while Hasbro focused mainly on new sculpt product, the G.I. Joe Collectors Club turned their attention to the vintage o-ring figures, and did some truly amazing things with their Convention exclusives. My favorite G.I. Joe Convention set of all time remains the 2005 MARS Attacks set featuring the Iron Grenadiers and Steel Brigade. A highlight within that set was the Iron Anvil, which took a much frowned upon figure in the 1994 COBRA Viper and colored it in a way to make it far better than the original, and put it in a place of infamy within the G.I. Joe line as a whole.
Over the years the G.I. Joe Collectors Club has produced hundreds of figures, and the Iron Anvil still stands on the top of the mountain in my opinion.
9. Low Light (G.I. Joe: The Pursuit of COBRA)
There was a period of time from 2011 – 2012 where the entire run of G.I. Joe shifted into G.I. Joe: The Pursuit of COBRA, then an amalgamation of G.I. Joe: Renegades and a celebration of the 30th Anniversary. During those two years, G.I. Joe figures as a whole transcended toy design and bordered on poseable artwork. Sculpting, articulation, and accessories were all dialed up to 11 and some of the most amazing toys in G.I. Joe’s long history were produced within those two years.
High among that list was Low Light, a character who is remarkably obscure, especially when mixed in with many of the other 1986 characters like Sgt. Slaughter, Leatherneck, Wet Suit, or General Hawk. The Pursuit of COBRA version of Low Light was a new level of excellence in toy form, with a bulky sculpt which managed to retain near flawless execution. Removable goggles and an amazing suitcase with a sniper rifle that could be assembled from the pieces hidden within. He even came with a singular bullet, just in case as a 40 year old man you needed to be reminded that you’re still capable of losing action figure accessories.
It doesn’t get much better than this.
8. Roadblock (G.I. Joe: Retaliation Hot Toys)
While G.I. Joe obviously got its start in the 12” market back in the 1960s, the majority of my list focuses on the smaller scales because that’s what I grew up with and that’s what I’m most familiar with. However, in 2013, Joe fans heard the exciting announcement that infamous toy production company Hot Toys was working with the G.I. Joe: Retaliation license. Hot Toys is a high end one-sixth scale toy design company, and they are well known for making figures of excellent quality and accuracy.
Their version of Roadblock was no different. With an immaculately accurate Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson head sculpt, nicely weathered body armor on top of a real cloth uniform, this figure looked like he stepped straight from the movie screen. Add onto that his fully functional Battle Kata weapons system and movie accurate uniform camouflage, and you have one fantastic rendition of the most famous actor in Hollywood playing one of G.I. Joe’s most popular characters.
7. Zartan (1984)
You cannot fully appreciate where G.I. Joe is now unless you look back to where it came from, and there aren’t many figures out there that more clearly define G.I. Joe’s genesis than the original Zartan from 1984. With his rubber brown hood (yes that’s hood NOT hair you philistines!) chest plate armor, removable disguises and color changing skin, this original Zartan would be a marvel of toy design today, not to mention thirty-two years ago. It certainly helped that he came with his own Chameleon Swamp Sled, which could actually be taken apart and hidden in a tow crate.
Zartan immediately became an icon and remains one today, mostly because of the spectacular design and execution of his first figure so many years ago.
6. Hit & Run (1988)
For pretty much the entire run of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, the character of Hit & Run has flown under the radar, his camouflage skin rendering him unnoticeable to mass audiences. In recent years his character has made a bit of a comeback, being featured in various versions from the G.I. Joe Collectors Club as well as a founding member of Wolf Squad from the G.I. Joe: 50th Anniversary line a couple of years ago.
When he was first released in 1988, his awesome camouflage, real rappelling action, and duffle bag with grappling hook made him an immediate draw, at least to me. His tragic backstory (both parents killed by a drunk driver when he was young) only served to further develop the character.
While he’ll never be a showcase of G.I. Joe excellence, Hit & Run was a fantastic figure back in 1988, and his character still manages to make an impact twenty-eight years later.
5. Lt. Stone (Sigma 6)
As one of maybe five G.I. Joe collectors in the world who consider Sigma 6 as a critical point in G.I. Joe history, I couldn’t very well have this list without a Sigma 6 figure on it, and from a Sigma 6 perspective it doesn’t get any better than Lt. Stone.
A British secret agent, Lt. Stone lost his eye and arm in a combat exercise, and thanks to cybernetic implants returned bigger and better than ever! The design and articulation of Lt. Stone was pretty fantastic, with a semi-transparent robotic arm, a cool as heck eyepatch and removable beret. But what truly separates this figure from the crowd are the accessories.
Lt. Stone comes with a fully functional COBRA Trooper disguise, allowing the figure to look much like a COBRA Trooper, with barely any of his original look visible underneath the removable armor plating. Because of this you essentially have two figures in one (and in fact, I think I have ten or twelve Lt. Stone figures all told!). He also has a removable shoulder holster, two pistols, a removable knife, and spring-loaded net launcher. His fantastic back story, his great accessories, and the near flawless mix of cool collectability and child-friendly play puts Lt. Stone way up on this list, and in fact most of Sigma 6 rank pretty high on my favorite G.I. Joe toys of all time.
4. Storm Shadow (1984)
I think this is really when it happened. This was when I officially fell in love with the G.I. Joe vs. COBRA conflict. As most young kids are, I was a fan of super heroes to a degree, though it was G.I. Joe that got me into comics. When I read Storm Shadow’s file card, my eyes opened wide. He was my very first introduction to the mysterious world of “ninjas” and the idea that these shadow warriors could scale sheer walls with bare hands, move at blinding speeds, and disappear without a trace was simply fascinating to me. Back in 1984, Storm Shadow’s backpack, which managed to hold pretty much all of his weapons, seemed like an amazing marvel, and back in the day acquiring this figure was a life changing event.
These days it can be very difficult to find a Storm Shadow that’s as white as he was back in the 80s, but if you can, every collector needs a mint version of this figure in their collection.
3. Snake Eyes (G.I. Joe: The Pursuit of COBRA)
As I step back I’m a little surprised that only two Pursuit of COBRA figures ended up on this list considering how impressive that entire range was. It was very difficult to only choose two to represent the entirety of that series, but I think I got it right.
It can be easy now to overlook the greatness that was the Pursuit of COBRA Snake Eyes, simply because so many figures now use the parts that were developed right here. However, putting those updates aside, how often do you look at a figure and fail to find a single fault with it? It’s not often, but this figure qualifies. With flawless sculpting, amazing articulation, and some of the most intricate and well-designed accessories in G.I. Joe history, the Pursuit of COBRA Snake Eyes stands alone among a very short list of perfect figures throughout the past four decades. Coming with both a commando style head and a visor head, you could equip Snake Eyes however you wanted, and with a combination of plastic and rubber-strapped web gear, he looked as real as it got, especially in 2011. A pistol with a removable silencer, with both of them then sliding effortlessly into the holster on his leg? Perfection.
2. Storm Shadow (G.I. Joe: Renegades)
You can’t put together a “best of” list without looking very at the G.I. Joe: Renegades version of Storm Shadow released in 2012. Following close behind the Pursuit of COBRA greatness, the 2012 G.I. Joe releases continued pushing those envelopes, and Storm Shadow pushed those envelopes about as far as they could go.
With two different heads and belts to mimic the G.I. Joe: Renegades animated version or a more realistic version, this Storm Shadow tried hard to appeal to both sides, and did it well. Even with a baggy martial arts uniform sculpt, the articulation was perfect.
Like the Snake Eyes mentioned above, the parts used here have been translated countless times into other figures, so it can be easy to forget just how great the original was, but one look back at the sculpting reminds us just how great this original version was in balancing detail and movement. The fingers were even sculpted separately to hold his throwing stars, daggers and sai! Absolutely amazing.
The fact that a figure like this was produced and sold on retail shelves for less than ten dollars is almost astonishing today, when figures with half the articulation and no accessories retail for the same. The toy retail world has certainly changed in the past few years, and Storm Shadow remains a great reminder of how good we had it back then.
1. Snake Eyes (1985)
When writing these lists, occasionally you have to look past the design, look past the countless accessories, removable web gear, separated fingers, and just get down to the basics.
This version of Snake Eyes is, quite simply, an action figure icon that has yet to be matched in the entire G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero lore. From a craftsmanship perspective, it’s far from the best figure in the line. It has far fewer accessories or intricate paint applications than countless other figures out there, but when you think of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, you think of this figure right here, and for that reason, he needs to be on top of the list.
Packaged with Timber, an Uzi and a backpack with removable sword, this version of Snake Eyes carries the entire G.I. Joe mythology on his shoulders and does it without wincing. So impactful this figure is, that I remember the precise day I found it for the first time, shopping at a Rich’s Department Store in New Hampshire after school. I scooped Snake Eyes, Flint, and Quick Kick off the pegs within the span of thirty seconds.
It was a good day.
Being the rabid G.I. Joe fan that I am, choosing my favorite ten figures was an exercise of frustration and I suspect if I was asked to do this again tomorrow, the list might look very different. I tried to think outside the box a little bit and start some interesting discussion, and I think I succeeded.
But as difficult as choosing these figures was, I think it’s a testament to the timeless greatness of the G.I. Joe brand. The fact that I could choose the “best figures” and those figures spanned the years from 1982 to 2012 and most era’s in between speaks to the mythology of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. That mythology at large has been in a strange place the past few years, here’s hoping that ship gets righted, and when I do another one of these lists in 2020, I can include a few more figures from here forward.
Let us know what your favorite G.I.Joe figures are in the comments section below.