I've never been into train sets much, but how could I resist this? The G.I. Joe "Electric Train & Battle Set," made by Tyco in 1983, combines all of the glories of toy trains with a decisive military appeal and heaploads of tiny-sized "Cobra" soldiers. The playset hasn't gained much momentum as a collectible in today's market, but I think that's got more to do with the fact that only a handful of folks ever actually heard of the thing. A friend of mine has been suggesting this review for well over a year, though only now do I see why: it's a really great toy, and few kids who passed this beast in the stores back in '83 would've been able to hold the pity tears back on their eternal quest to take it home.

Best of all, it's remained fairly cheap. It's no more costly than any other train set from the time; in fact, it's probably even less. Boxed, complete editions rarely fetch more than 40-50 bucks, and though most of the available sets will surely be missing a few of the less integral pieces, it's a small grievance for something so unabashedly fun to play with. Generally, most of the in-house toy-toy pics you see on X-E were for that purpose and that purpose only. With the G.I. Joe train, admittedly, I spent a few more minutes than were needed. Who knew some green trains and cardboard playmat could be so amusing? Did Destro know?

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The box is massive even by my mid-20s gorilla standards, so you can imagine how huge it felt in the hands of a six-year-old. Throughout childhood, I was always of the mind that a big box compensated for a shitty toy. If the toy was worthwhile, that's just the gravy. This theory made some long ago Christmas just barely passable. It was either in '87 or '88, and though Christmas usually equated to a substantial haul, this one was shaping up to be terrible. Endless Mancala games, sweaters, generic art kits with those damn pastels nobody wanted to use...it was awful. Then, suddenly, there it was. A big box. It turned out to be another G.I. Joe toy, ironically enough -- the Cobra "Bugg." Just some big ass vehicle with lots of plastic guns and eighty-seven wheels. Not much really, but it saved Christmas. If you're a parent, please keep this in mind. No kid should go through the holidays without at least one gift that comes in...a big box.

Shown above are the many, many, many parts that make up the G.I. Joe train set. To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to putting this thing together -- avoiding that explains why I never owned many toy trains as a kid. The set I found was particularly complete; even the instruction manual and various promotional offer sheets were still present. I'm not even sure if its previous owner ever played with it -- the small parts were still bagged, and none of the tracks had any chew marks. Kinda disappointing in an odd way. Whenever I buy some old piece of crap with chew marks, I envision some grand murder case where I hold the sole dental evidence necessary to put Bubba in the chair. I haven't worked out the particulars and nuances of how the chewed toys proved anything, but it's being considered.

You wouldn't think the set could match up to how it was portrayed in the commercial, but for once, it does. The pic above is from an ad that was airing at least as late as the Christmas season of '84, so even if only a few people bought the thing, it was certainly on store shelves long enough for us to remember. I assume a number of customers were turned off by the box being too large to fit through doorways without unintentionally reenacting some long forgotten Three Stooges skit, but like I said, that's a plus.

Father and son bask in the glory of what appears to be a mile-wide playset topped with various trains and figures. While most toy commercials use extravagant settings kids weren't privy to, you actually received everything seen in this ad -- right down to the gigantic mat underneath. Wondering how big a playmat could possibly be? Take a look...

Yup, it's huge. Real huge. Huge with a capital HOLY. I threw in a box of "Mr. Bubble" so you'd have a size comparison -- and that's full-sized "Mr. Bubble," not some adorable mini-box from a laundromat's vending machine. Do they even make those? God, I hope so. Anyway, the playmat is easily big enough to play Twister on, assuming you know which screenprinted trees to step on when the spinner lands on "blue."

I'd imagine that the playmat was even more desirable to kids than the actual train -- picture all of the great wars you could've staged with the regular G.I. Joe action figures. Their battles had so much more of a realist touch when they weren't gunning at each other from the top of marble notebooks and kitchen tables. The set's massive size precludes it from being part of the perennial decor, unless you've been keeping a spare room empty specifically for the purpose of displaying giant toy train sets. Most of us haven't, so when the train got boring, back in the box it went. The big, big, big box.

Okay, I'm new to toy trains, and know as much about electronics as I do how to prepare Szechwan lumpfish. I forget what that thing up there is called, but it plugs into an outlet and serves the train with the raw power necessary to make it run in an endless circle at top speed. In tribute to Tyco, I should point out that this shit worked fantastically even twenty years later. Mere action figures find a way to rot and ferment even while still packaged, but Tyco's electronic train mess still rolls forward two decades later. Makes me feel bad that I always refused their bootleg Legos over the real kind. But not too bad.

And there's the five-piece convoy. You get the main train, an oil tanker, platform roller, troop transport, and a caboose. Of those five, I'm only sure that "caboose" was the correct name. You get the point. The thing that separates this set from other green trains is the sticker sheet, full of G.I. Joe logos and various nationalistic intents. Once applied, the trains go from generic to something worth bragging about.

Going back to the title of the toy, it's not just an "electric train," it's an electric train and "battle set." The latter term is loosely defined, though I think they were trying to explain the many plastic tanks and army jeeps found hidden inside makeshift Ziploc bags in the box...

Tanks! A jeep! A helicopter! Silly boat! All made from the cheapest plastic you've ever seen -- you know those bags of plastic army men? The deluxe versions that come with little vehicles and whatnot? Well, those blow away this crud. I guess Tyco felt that they'd taken things far enough with the train set -- no need to go all out on the plastic goodies.

After putting all of the stickers on the trains, all of the stickers on the plastic asshole vehicles, and all of the tracks on the planet-sized playmat, I was ready to go. Ready to operate. Ready to conduct my train. I let the sonic generator plug thing juice up for a few minutes, and after spending an hour trying to get the five trains correctly on the tracks, I sat in amazement as my toy gained life. It's moving, good lord, it's moving!

Seriously, it's pretty amazing. Between the huge playmat, giant track and impressively lengthy train, G.I. Joe really knows how to run with the best of 'em. It doesn't fly past you quite as fast as the commercial suggested, and while the caboose has this nasty habit of being a rogue who always falls away from the group, it's a speedy devil at heart. Since the track is just one simple circle, you won't run into many of the pitfalls a more involved and intricate path would become boggled down with. Perhaps the greatest glory could be found in placing an innocent puppy in the middle of everything, and watching it helplessly bark in fear of walking past the rapid and very living moving train. Definitely the greatest glory.

As you can see, there's specific spots on the playmat to place the assorted plastic vehicles -- the helicopter even got a landing pad, which according to scale would have a diameter of roughly 160 feet. Speaking of which, the set wasn't intended for use with the 4" G.I. Joe action figures we all loved and broke into pieces -- you could if you really wanted to, but it'd have to be under the premise that Storm Shadow drank a rare potion than made him taller than trains. Actually, if you searched through the cartoons and comics long enough, it's probably happened at least three times.

Daddy's fucked up face creates a Kodak moment for all the wrong reasons, but more importantly, check out the legion of army figures. Yes, they're also included with the set. Sort of...

The figures you receive are shorter than a penny in height, and as a collective, probably cost half of that to make. Worse yet, the only thing missing from my set was the baggie full of Joe soldiers -- I only got the two pictured above. Pretty pitiful for a ground force, but at least they're armed.

Course, a train containing two soldiers and two tanks roughly the height of said soldiers isn't going to stand much of a chance against Cobra. Those Joes better hope that Cobra doesn't know about this here little train party. Oh wait -- uh oh!

Cobra didn't get a train, but they had almost everything else. Coordinated in a royal blue color scheme, the villains are composed of some tanks and jeeps, and enough soldiers to take any all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas to task. There's got to be three dozen Cobra troops, and yet just two Joes. Pretty imbalanced, with or without the train. Despite Cobra's ability to shoot 5,000 rounds without actually hitting anything, I wouldn't bet on the heroes this time around.

The Joes have but one defense left, but Cobra shares a similar method...

Yes, they even give you God damned parachutes for the figures. You've likely seen these in action before -- they take ten minutes to put together and work extremely poorly, but you can't help but try, because the idea of little action figures cascading from the heavens by way of parachute is just too friggin' irresistible.

Still, the parachute troops were fairly ineffectual in the grand scheme of things, and Cobra, for once, looked to be taking a decisive victory. They derailed the Joes' train, ate the two loose soldiers, and confirmed to major news outlets that plastic helicopters can't fly. As the battle rages on, the invisible Joes riding in the train hold out hope that they can turn things around, while Cobra inches ever closer towards their first win.

Neither the heroes or the not-heroes realize that a much larger threat is on the horizon...

Say what you will -- Cobra Commander being eaten alive by a 400' frilled lizard is a much more fitting end than all that crap they put him through in the movie.

As for the G.I. Joe "Electric Train & Battle Set," it's an obvious thumbs up from where I sit. Remember those Transformers & Thundercats race car sets we reviewed a while back? They had nothing on this. It's not uncommon to find one of your favorite cartoons lumped into this sorta toy, but it's much rarer to find one worth the money. This thing was worth twice the money. Three times the money. Eighty times money times the hundred. Follow the link below to download and watch the original commercial, and if you're sold on the idea, don't worry -- they're pretty inexpensive, and surprisingly, not too terribly hard to locate. If the online auction outlets provide no assistance, just go to any nearby yard sale listed in the paper with a "comic books" notation. Those are the kinda greasy shitheads that'd probably have an old G.I. Joe train laying around. No offense if the shoe fits -- I'm pretty greasy, too.

They fought hard, they stood tall, they rode trains. Then a big lizard ate them. This article is dedicated to the memory of the tiny, nameless Joes who passed on the limelight for a more dedicated and grounded career in and around the destinationless railroad. May your sacrifices never be forgotten.

Haha a lizard ate you, hahahaah.

- Matt (11/17/03)



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