Over the past few years, the toy industry has seen an evolution in scale. When it comes to playability and collectibility for kids, the physical scale has been shrinking. Moose Toys accelerated the process when, inspired by the earlier success of the micro-collectible Trash Pack, it launched Shopkins in 2014. The latter would eventually be reborn as the Grossery Gang, and before long, it seemed that everyone was launching their own line of tiny collectibles.
Fueled by the excitement of chase pieces and rare, super-rare, and ultra-rare figures coupled with the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” mentality of Pokémon, the popularity of the tiny trend shows no signs of fading; in fact, it may be growing. From Hatchimals CollEGGtibles (Spin Master) and Micro Squeezamals (Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co.) to ZooBalloos (Basic Fun!) and Smashers (ZURU), small is everywhere. Even Hasbro’s Transformers went small with the launch of BotBots last fall.
But elsewhere in the toy department, a trend from the past has quietly re-emerged: chunky, playable action figures with heroic, cartoon-reminiscent sculpts, and fantastic proportions are back. Heroes are practically bursting with power!
We may not owe the entire scale to Masters of the Universe (MOTU), but there’s no denying that Mattel’s classic line set the gold standard for 5.5-inch action figures. When they arrived at retail in 1982, they were a counter to the 3.75-inch scale that Kenner’s Star Wars collection made popular four years earlier — itself a transition from the 8-inch to 12-inch, clothed dolls and figures that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“The 5.5-inch scale is the perfect size for action figures because it feels like a great, meaty extension for play,” says Robert McCallum, director of Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. “It’s not too big and clumsy, nor too small and delicate.”
Right out of the gate, Remco released its own figures with bodies, poses, and themes that closely mirrored what MOTU was doing — essentially knocking them off in plain sight. Then Galoob and Coleco were in the mix, bumping the scale to 6 inches in some cases, but applying the muscular stature to licenses including The A-Team and Rambo.
In the decades since, 6-inch scale has become a popular staple, but the proportions have been streamlined as the market has moved toward a preference for a screen-accurate, or more grounded, true-to-life look.
When we hit the 2000s, the collector market started to embrace the past with reissues and revamps of classic characters, but none of that was geared toward kids. Eventually, some of the design elements, such as the unmistakable wide stance of those ‘80s collections, began to resurface in smaller, preschool-focused lines. Now, it’s come full circle.
MOTU is running strong across several collector lines from Super7, and Funko launched Savage World, bringing back the 5.5-inch scale and stance by pairing it with unexpected licenses. Characters from Mortal Kombat, classic horror movie villains, and even Thundercats — a former He-Man competitor — joined the fray. However, the most unexpected move was the release of DC Primal Age, a line that reimagines famous superheroes and villains from the pages of DC Comics as if they were fantasy creations from a more barbaric age. First sold on Amazon, the line gained prime endcap placement at Target stores in February, complete with a 100-page comic to provide some real backstory.
“Speaking as a kid from the ‘80s, these figures are appealing because of their beefy nature,” says Funko President Andrew Perlmutter. “They feel like action figures that can really take a beating! Nostalgia is really important to people, it helps take them back to another, simpler time.”
Target also served as the launch partner for Little Tikes’ Kingdom Builders last fall. Expanding across mass retail and specialty this spring, the new line from MGA Entertainment captures the chunky feel of a substantial toy while putting a completely fresh spin on a medieval world of fantasy. Combining figure play with role-play tools, kids can build (and demolish) through the Land of Buildera as armor-clad Builders face off against troublemaking Bashers.
At Toy Fair New York, Fisher-Price dropped the curtain on its all-new line of Rescue Heroes. The line, which first hit stores in 1997, went dormant a decade later, only to be partially resurrected in small scale as part of the Imaginext brand. This year’s full relaunch brings Rescue Heroes back to the classic scale with a new mission to honor real-life heroes — first responders. With the line’s exclusive launch at Walmart this month, Fisher-Price says it “aims to stimulate children’s imagination and sense of adventure without involving violence.”
“When kids grab ahold of these figures today, they feel proper agency, much like kids in the ‘80s felt when they grabbed a He-Man or Ninja Turtle,” adds McCallum, who’s starting production on a definitive action figure documentary. “That scale just has a powerful presence that’s impossible to beat.”
On the collector front, NECA recently revealed the first of its Alien & Predator Classics, a 5.5-scale series “meant to evoke a simpler time when action figures were tossed in the bucket to go to the beach, or left strewn across the stairs for parents to trip over.” The figures appear to be a continuation of the ‘90s Kenner series.
Meanwhile, Funko brings characters from Capcom’s evergreen Street Fighter video game series into Savage World.
“Bringing the Street Fighter characters into the 5.5 figure world is very exciting,” Perlmutter says. “This allows geeks like me the chance to build out my existing ‘80s figure collection with new licenses that were never made in this style. Whether it is a video game title like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, or DC Comics and horror classics, my collection can continue to grow.”
Finally, Hasbro refreshes its Marvel Super Hero Adventures and Star Wars Galactic Heroes with the debut of Mega Mighties — a sub-range that will also include Transformers and Power Rangers. The 10-inch figures bring new, muscular, kid-friendly sculpts to classic characters such as Spider-Man and Chewbacca, but even the smaller-scale figures in the range reflect the beefiness that was first seen in toy stores nearly 40 years ago.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of the Toy Book.