The arrival of the new Joes in 1986 marked the apex of my childhood GI Joe frenzy. I would never be more anxious than in the days leading up to the 1986 toy releases. I was old enough to walk home from school, and I stopped at Wally’s Drugstore and The Bay, along the way, everyday, praying to finally find the new figures. And I was fully capable of saving my allowances, ready to buy a good chunk of the new toys whenever they arrived at retail.
Hasbro had somehow continuously topped previous series with better figures, vehicles and playsets, every year, and 1985 would the peak for the whole toyline, with amazing new Cobra troops, the largest ever playset in the USS Flagg, some of the best ever pound-for-pound toys in the Mauler and Moray, and the strongest top-to-bottom GI Joe figure lineup, with Snake Eyes, Flint, Lady Jaye, Shipwreck and Sgt. Slaughter all playing featured roles in the GI Joe saga. The cartoon had completed its first full season, maintaining the pace set by two previous miniseries. And the comic was also moving at a feverish clip, with the culmination of the Hard Master murderer reveal story arc, and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battling their way through impossible odds on Cobra Island.
It was in that giant shadow that the series five toys would arrive.
When I finally caught a glimpse of the 1986 figures, vehicles and playsets, Hasbro had done the impossible and somehow met my expectations. I knew how special that 1985 series was and, even as a kid, there was no way I was expecting the manufacturer to match what had been done before. So I may have started from lowered expectations. But apart from a few of the vehicles, the new series of toys held that beautiful crescendo for just a little bit longer.
And now for Episode VII of recounting why 1986 was one of my favourite years…
There was the Terror Drome, Cobra’s only big playset, their first significant base in a long, long while. (The Missile Command Center was a Sears exclusive from 1982, after all.) There were two strong new troops on the Cobra side, Viper and BATS. GI Joe finally had a true leader in Hawk. Beach Head was nearly as cool as Firefly, a more realistic, less mystical version of Snake Eyes. The Tomahawk was an outstanding replacement for the Dragonfly, and the Night Raven was simply amazing. And they tied it all together with impossibly smart, sneaky cool playsets like the Outpost Defender and Surveillance Port, and small vehicles like the Devilfish.
When I finally spotted the series five figures at The Bay in Fort Smith, in May of 1986, I wasn’t carrying any money on me. And I spent a good, long time, that afternoon, studying the figure lineup on the pegs, giving special consideration to who had specialties I needed in my collection, who had the most accessories, who was packing pistols (which I had in short supply), who had the best artwork, who had the most incredible backstories, and who had that undefinable, wow factor.
My friends and I debated which figure was the best. Donny liked Low-Light and Sci-Fi because of the size of their rifles, even though they were on the opposite ends of the gritty realism/science fiction spectrum. Corey and I weren’t as close anymore, since an ugly fight in grade three, but he always favored the athletes (swimmers, skiers and martial artists). Since there were no new ninjas, I can imagine his favourites would have been Wet-Suit and Iceberg.
My favourite was Beach Head. By a country mile.
By the end of the weekend, all my saved allowances had been spent and I was in possession of five figures – Beach Head, Hawk, Leatherneck, Wet-Suit and Lifeline – and one new vehicle, the Devilfish.
Around the same time I spotted the Devilfish at The Bay in Fort Smith, that little boat was being introduced through one of the most eye-catching covers in the comic run, GI Joe #47. I was hooked on it immediately, and since the small vehicles weren’t much more expensive than buying a figure or two, I often tried to grab one, here and there.
Hector Garrido’s box art was nice, too, but it didn’t blow me away like Mike Zeck’s cover art.
As a one-man boat, the Devilfish was unique on the Joe side. There had not been anything, yet released, that combined speed and weaponry in a little boat. It was almost a scaled down version of the Water Moccasin, if you started to pick it apart, but Joe only had a few water-based toys at that point, and clearly needed something small to maximize the usefulness of the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform.
One can imagine that Hasbro saw small vehicles as the Joe equivalent of Cobra troop builders since they weren’t super expensive for kids to acquire, any figure could drive them, and they gave our favourite figures their own transportation in any situation. Few would buy more than one Skystriker, Mauler or Killer Whale, but many parents could afford multiple Sky Hawks, Armadillos or Devilfish.
There isn’t too much to complain about the Devilfish as a toy. The colours are odd (orange and grey), and the footpegs on the side are entirely impractical. (Although that wouldn’t have stopped most kids from using them.) But the number of features packed into it was phenomenal. The only small vehicle I can think of with as much built-in play value was the Polar Battle Bear.
Actually, the Devilfish might have just been the aquatic version of that old snowmobile…
The Devilfish had a nicely-crafted seat for a pilot, two main guns, and solid moulding and design touches, such as removable engine covers, pivoting engines, two torpedoes and four small missiles, plus the aforementioned footpegs for extra figures. One Devilfish could do a lot of damage if it happened upon a squadron of Eels or a Night Landing making landfall on a GI Joe-controlled beach, and might duel a Water Moccasin to a standstill, if the Devilfish had the right pilot at the helm.
The Devilfish arrived in my personal collection at just the right moment, five months after I received the Transportable Tactical Battle Platform for Christmas. So much of my regular Joe play was in the water. The Devilfish gave GI Joe a nice sized little boat at a time that the Whale felt like overkill. I mean, I didn’t have the Moray, so Cobra was outmatched against Joe in the water: the Water Moccasin and Night Landing against the TTBP, Whale and Sharc.
Suddenly, I could push the Whale aside and the Devilfish could be the underdog against the Water Moccasin.
In my collection, Beach Head, Leatherneck and Wet-Suit were my most frequent pilots, but others like Lady Jaye and Flint sometimes had a go in it, too. Lifeline, too, would commandeer it to make an aquatic rescue of someone in trouble. And sometimes it would be carried by the Tomahawk behind enemy lines for the Joes to do reconnaissance or sabotage, or simply go kamikaze. It was incredibly versatile.
There were a lot of nice, simple, small vehicles released by Hasbro during the original ARAH run. The Ram, Polar Battle Bear and Ferret come to mind instantly, but the Devilfish deserves similar recognition. It wasn’t groundbreaking in anyway, and it frequently gets tagged in bizarre vehicle lists, mainly because of the ridiculous footpegs and boxart that shows Wet-Suit floating beside this high-speed, attack boat without any obvious foot or handholds. But if you put that aside, what you have is something simple, fun and surprisingly substantial.
In many ways, 1986 was where the GI Joe toyline begin to recede from its former glory. But so much of what was released that year was quite good. They had reached an impossible to follow peak in 1985, and somehow kept producing a ton of impressive toys even as they started to descend, the following year. And the Devilfish is a prime example of this, because even though Hasbro was putting so much time and effort into developing the USS Flagg, Cobra Terror Drome and Defiant around that time, plus a bunch of strong, medium+ sized vehicles like the Mauler, Moray, Night Raven and Tomahawk, and continually releasing more-and-more well-designed, unique figures, the designers still had the wherewithal to sneak in a bunch of wonderful, little vehicles like the Devilfish.
I might be biased toward this little boat because it paired so well with my favourite figure that year, as illustrated on the box art and GI Joe #47. But even without that connection to Beach Head, the Devilfish was simply fun to play with. It was the kind of toy whose arrival justified a daily circuit through Wally’s Drugstore and The Bay on my way home from school.
And when I boil my childhood to its essence, having fun with toys like the Devilfish was all that really mattered.
***** Update: make sure to check out pictures of the Devilfish’s little brother, the Tiger Fish, from Dustin and guest contributor, Erick, at the Dragon Fortress.