While action figures are cool, playsets are what really bring them to life. As a kid, they really made it seem like the hunk of molded plastic really was Batman or Spider-Man. Most playsets were just glorified dioramas, which at least gave the toys the proper backdrop. Other pieces, however, truly brought the comic book world to life. They weren’t all location based either. Some of the best playsets were based on a giant character or vehicle.
The real shame of action figure collecting as an adult is the loss of playsets. Getting vehicles in the modern 6 or 7 inch collector scales is rare. As action figure collecting is becoming a more mainstream hobby, playsets remain solidly “for children.” So, in celebration of these lost relics of childhood, here are the best comic book based playsets from the golden age of comic book toys, the ’90s.
15. X-MEN HQ W/ DANGER ROOM
The X-Men lead dangerous lives, so they can’t just practice in any sort of regular training room. That’s why Professor X built the Danger Room, a room capable of creating obstacle courses and holographic enemies for the mutants to fight against. It made its debut in “X-Men” #2 (1963) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although back then it was mostly filled with gymnastic equipment with the occasional flamethrower built in. The Danger Room was heavily featured in the 1992 “X-Men” cartoon, although that room was a full-on holographic war zone.
ToyBiz initially released two smaller Danger Room playsets during the first series of X-Men figures, but they were only big enough for one figure at a time and weren’t that impressive. In 1994, the “X-Men Headquarters featuring the Danger Room” was released, and this was the real deal. Large enough to fit the entire team, it had traps, ejector platforms, shooting guns and, best of all, a viewing area for Professor X to sit in and safely watch his students get pummelled.
14. THE SENTINEL
One of the X-Men’s main adversaries throughout their entire history has been the humble Sentinel. The mutant hunting robots made their first appearance in “X-Men” #14 (1965) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Developed by Bolivar Trask, the robots have varied in appearance over the years, but they’re most commonly recognized as three story tall purple automotons. They were one of the main antagonists in the 1992 “X-Men” cartoon, so it made sense that they would be included in the accompanying toy line (which combined characters from the cartoon and comics).
While the 10″ Sentinel isn’t a typical playset, it was meant to be more than just a giant figure. It came with several action features, including a launching fist, a retractable claw hook and even a cavity in its chest in which to keep mutants prisoner. Also, for some, there are buttons on the knees that shoot the feet out, toppling the robot over. What keeps this from being a giant figure is the fact that, aside from the action features, it’s mostly immobile. It was cool for the time, but it hasn’t aged well.
13. X-MEN LADY LIBERTY
The finale of “X-Men” (2000) heavily featured the Statue of Liberty, with Magneto using it to house his mutant transformation machine. While the main members of the team battle it out inside the statue’s head, it’s revealed that Magneto had the torch replaced with his machine, which imprisons Rogue as a battery. Storm and Jean Grey are able to combine their powers to throw Wolverine from the head to the torch, and Cyclops blasts Magneto, distracting him long enough so that Wolverine can stick his metal claws in the machine, destroying it and saving Rogue.
Technically speaking, the two Statue of Liberty play sets missed the ’90s by a few months, but they were just too weird not to include. There’s the statue head and a separate playset for the arm/mutant power machine. The head is the weirder of the two, because of the action features it includes. There’s a buckling floor option, as well as a launching platform on the statue’s head. It somewhat faithfully tries to recreate the final scenes of the movie, but it’s also out of scale with the the figures so they look like giants standing next to it.
12. SPIDER-MAN’S SKYLINE WEB RUNNER
When Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider, he developed a wide variety of spider powers, like enhanced strength, wall gripping abilities and an extra sensory “spider sense.” What he didn’t get, however, was web shooting powers; he built mechanical webshooters all on his own in “Amazing Fantasy” #15 (1962) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Despite that, his web swinging is probably his most well known ability. So, when ToyBiz launched a toy line to coincide with the 1994 animated series, they constantly were trying to find ways to get Spider-Man toys to swing around.
One of the answers was the Skyline Web Runner set. It came with two clamps, one of which had the top of a New York City skyscraper attached and the other had a water tower. They were attached with a string in-between them, and the set came with a Spider-Man figure with a wheel attached to his hands, so he could ‘swing’ between buildings. For what it was, it was a fun idea, but the main problem was that the included Spider-Man was too small to fit with the rest of the ToyBiz Spider-Man line.
11. HULK BREAKOUT
While it never hit the same heights of popularity as the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” cartoons, 1996’s “Incredible Hulk” cartoon still received its own toy line. The series began with Bruce Banner already turned into the Hulk and on the run. It also seemed to take place in the same continuity as the other Marvel cartoons, as it referenced Hulk’s appearances on the (1994) “Fantastic Four” cartoon, and it also featured guest appearances from other Marvel heroes like Ghost Rider, Thor and Doctor Strange.
Fitting with the show’s theme of “Hulk on the run,” ToyBiz released the “Hulk Breakout” set. It was basically just a giant mechanical cage for the Hulk. It had a timer, so when the Hulk figure was put inside of it, he could use his rage to break out. In terms of playsets, it wasn’t that exciting. However, at the time, it was rare for ToyBiz to pay attention to Marvel properties that weren’t “X-Men” or “Spider-Man,” so it was nice to get something else at least.
10. DAILY BUGLE
Unlike most superheroes, Spider-Man’s greatest nemesis might not be a supervillain, but one of New York City’s most prominent newspapers. To make matters worse, The Daily Bugle is often Peter Parker’s employer, meaning that Spider-Man is helping tarnish his own reputation. Ever since the paper’s modern publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, first appeared in “Amazing Spider-Man” #1 (1963) by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, he has been both a thorn in the side of and also a supporter of Spider-Man, even if he doesn’t know it.
ToyBiz released a city play set centered around the Daily Bugle as part of the “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” toy line. Of course, it took some liberties with the design. In this version, the Daily Bugle sits right next to a water tower full of toxic sludge, and also a building full of Doctor Octopus’ death traps. Also — not for nothing — but there’s a lot of trash on the sidewalk outside the Bugle. It makes the city’s top newspaper look like a bit of dump, to be honest.
9. CRIME CENTRAL
One of the main antagonists in “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” (1994) was the Kingpin, who ran much of New York City’s crime from his not-so-secret hideout, sitting on top of Fisk’s skyscraper. First appearing in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #50 (1967) by Stan Lee and John Romita, the Wilson Fisk of the cartoon was known to the public as a legitimate businessman, who secretly had a supervillain lab that created killer robots and cyborgs.
The Crime Central playset recreates his skyscraper lab, and it seems to be based on one of the series’ closing story arcs, “Spider-Wars,” although it looks like it appears in any of its other cartoon appearances. The set looks like a typical NYC skyscraper, but opens up to reveal Kingpin’s lab. There are guns and hidden compartments, and anything a wealthy criminal mastermind would need to run their empire. Combined with the other “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” playsets, kids in the ’90s could build a really odd looking NYC.
8. BATMAN’S BATCAVE
When it comes to Batman toys, there have been a ton of Bat-Caves. The hero’s famous base of operations actually first appeared in the 1943 “Batman” serials. Since then, every version of Batman has their own high tech, underground crime lab, and “Batman: The Animated Series” was no different. During the ’90s, there were actually several Batcave playsets released.
For “Batman Returns” (1992), “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992) and “Batman and Robin” (1997), the same set was released, simply repainted. The front looked like Wayne Manor, and the back opened up to reveal a bat-computer, batsuit changing area and even a garage door for the batmobile. For “Batman Forever,” two caves were released: the same repaint that had been used before, and a new, larger one featuring multiple platforms that reflected that particular movie’s over the top design choice. It had many of the same features as the other Batcaves, just spread out over a larger area. It’s a shame that one of the worst “Batman” movies got one of the coolest playsets.
7. GOTHAM CITY BANK
If there’s a bank in Gotham City, it’s going to get robbed. The ratio of banks to villains is just way too high. One of the most common places for Batman to fight villains is in or around bank vaults, so it made sense for Kenner to release a bank vault playset. It’s styled after the later episodes of the cartoon, when the series was rebranded as “The New Batman Adventures” and the animation was changed to match up with “Superman: The Animated Series” from the same time period.
This means that the bank has a retro style, and it fits with both Batman and Superman cartoons (Superman stops bank robberies too). The set itself is pretty simple, just being the bank vault doors themselves. The doors can be “blown open” or the metal bars can be bent (depending on which villain is committing the robbery). It also comes with money bags and bars of gold, giving the crooks something to steal. It’s not the most amazing set ever, but it’s a decent backdrop to give the heroes something to protect.
6. JOKER TOXIC LAB
While much of the Joker’s past remains shrouded in mystery, it’s known that the villain became the Clown Prince of Crime after falling into a vat of toxic waste. Whether or not he was knocked into the vat or allowed himself to fall depends on which writer is telling the story. Either way, the Joker has a history with vats of toxic chemicals. That seems to be the basis for the set “The Joker Toxic Lab,” released as part of the “The New Batman Adventures” line.
It’s a small set, pretty much just being an intimate room with a tub of “bubbling acid.” There’s also a capture claw that can pick a figure up and drop it in the acid. According to the box’s description, Joker is using the lab to make chemicals to poison Gotham. That would make sense, but the box art clearly shows Joker being held by the claw over the acid bath. That either means Batman found the lab and decided to drop Joker in the acid, or the story on the back of the box doesn’t make sense.
5. SPAWN ALLEY
When Todd McFarlane first released “Spawn” in 1992, he made it clear that he thought he should maintain full control over the character. After initially working with Mattel to bring Spawn toys to stores, McFarlane regained the rights for himself and launched his own toy company. With Todd Toys, now known as McFarlane Toys, the comics creator was able to bring Spawn to life without compromising his vision in any way.
This included releasing the “Spawn Alley” playset. In the comics, Spawn was essentially homeless, and lived in an alley with other hobos, which was supposed to be reflected in this set. It’s not really an alley, however, but rather a rundown, seemingly abandoned garage that Spawn has outfitted with traps and weapons. Aside from the set, it also came with a comic book showing Spawn using all of the action features. The detailing and paint are much more impressive than most other comic book playsets of the time, foreshadowing the high quality direction that McFarlane Toys would eventually follow.
4. MR. FREEZE ICE FORTRESS
One of the major complaints about “Batman and Robin” (1997) is that it seemed like a giant toy commercial. That being the case, the movie did inspire some pretty cool looking action figures. While the plot of the flick was pretty convoluted and included too many characters, the main villain was Mr. Freeze, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. While his wise cracking and ice-pun loving portrayal wasn’t embraced by audiences, he still had a pretty cool design.
The “Ice Fortress” is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a mini fortress built entirely out of ice. It’s a little weird that Mr. Freeze was somehow able to build working guns out of ice, but it’s still a pretty cool looking set. Kenner also repainted the “Joker Toxic Lab” to make it into a “Cryo-Freeze Chamber,” replacing the acid with what appears to be bubbling ice water. The “Ice Fortress” is a much better set, and deserved to be attached to a better movie.
First appearing during the first season of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1987), the Technodrome was the fearsome base of Krang. A giant, spherical vehicle with a gigantic eyeball attached to the top, Krang meant to use it to open a portal between Earth and Dimension X and bring his full forces through. It often appeared during the later levels of “Ninja Turtles” video games, even being one of the later bosses in the original 1989 NES game. Since appearing in the cartoon, the Technodrome has made its way to the comics and has become one of the most recognizable aspects of the franchise.
Playmates released the “Technodrome” in 1990, and it was gigantic. Outside, it was loaded with guns and even a sludge trap for the turtles. Also, the giant eyeball could be launched, because every children’s toy needs a projectile ball of some sort. It opened up to reveal a command center, a portal to Dimension X, a mutation chamber and even a prison to keep the turtles captive.
2. TMNT SEWER HIDEOUT
To be honest, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1987) really made living in the sewer seem great. The fact that they live in New York City makes their situation even better. While most New Yorkers are living in tiny, cramped apartments (and paying extremely high rents for them), the Turtles had a spacious and rent free lair. Sure, they had to travel through sewer tunnels to come and go, but their actual living space seemed to be sewage free… although they did have an issue with rats.
First released in 1989, this set was still readily available throughout the early ’90s. While the actual living space for the turtles wasn’t so big, the set made up for that by including a street level area, along with attachable sewer pipes. There was even a periscope disguised as a fire hydrant. This set also included a staple of playsets from the early ’90s: grated areas through which you could pour ooze or slime and cover unsuspecting figures.
1. G.I. JOE THE GENERAL
While most people remember “G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero” (1985) as a cartoon series, there was also a popular comic book line that actually debuted several years before the cartoon. The military themed franchise was known for high tech (and often outlandish) designs, and the toy line included a plethora of advanced vehicles and bases for the Joes and the Cobras to use during their fights. Also, Hasbro released some truly massive playsets, like the Joe’s aircraft carrier “The USS Flagg.”
In 1990, Hasbro released “The General,” a massive (although not as big as the Flagg) mobile strike headquarters. The vehicular base had everything: launch pads, missile launchers, turrets, more missile launchers, hidden compartments and enough space to store most of the G.I. Joe army. Unlike the Flagg, this beast wasn’t so big that only the richest kids could afford it. Most kids could eventually get their hands on it, and finally be able to launch coordinated missile strikes against COBRA from anywhere within their houses.
What was your favorite playset from the ’90s? Sound off in the comments!
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