GI Joe: The Ninjas
Little Green Plastic Army Men
Many look at GI Joe starting with the A Real American Hero line as a military toy, an evolution of the little green plastic army man. The line is definitely rooted in military tech and the US Armed Forces. Beginning in 1982 and 1983 the line released the original lineup and they were mainly dressed in green uniforms, came with green combat helmets and appropriate accessories. The MOBAT and VAMP were great vehicles for a modern army. Eleven green army men, Scarlett, with a not quite standard issue leotard, and Snake Eyes, clad in all black. From the beginning GI Joe was going to be a different toy line.
1982 & 1983-Just Getting Started
Snake Eyes and Scarlett only mention their martial arts background on the file cards. Scarlett merely came from a family of martial arts instructors and gained her black belt at the age of 15. Meanwhile, Snake Eyes is proficient in twelve different styles of hand to hand combat and adept at edged weapons. Both file cards go on to explain their military style training. Maybe the ninja stuff would just be a minor background trait.
1984-Now We’re Talking
The Cobra ninja Storm Shadow appears in toy form. He is pure ninja personified from his file card. There is no mention of military training and his look is all ninja, with the wrapped ankles, mask, and gi. The molded throwing star and his swords, backpack, bow, and nunchucks assure kids that this guy is 100% ninja. The same year Larry Hama pens the classic Silent Interlude issue of the comic that features the memorable closing panel revealing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes share a distinctive tattoo. I’ll mention here that as a kid Firefly got a lot of playtime as a ninja since he had a mask, which was enough for me. Dreadnok leader Zartan was released as well, I’ll get back to that.
1985-Gotta Have A Karate Guy
Hollywood stuntman Quick Kick signs up with GI Joe. While he wasn’t a ninja he was definitely a martial arts guy. Shirtless, barefoot, and a headband, he was hardly dressed for the battlefield. He is proficient in several styles of martial arts that sound made up but I haven’t bothered to research very well. The quote from the file card says nothing of being a silent ninja type, but a hard hitting brute. Snake Eyes gets an update with the iconic visor and he’s got a sword now, so he’s embracing the ninja life.
1987-New Masked Faces
Hasbro took a year off from martial artists but gave us the female ninja Jinx with the release of GI Joe: The Movie. She has trained in the same Arashikage styles as Snake eyes and Storm Shadow. Soon it will be revealed she is a cousin of Storm Shadow, both sharing the same Arashikage name. Her look is all “ninja” with the red gi and mask. I’ll also mention the Ice Viper came out this year as well. Maybe not a ninja but they came with twin sais that seem out of place for an arctic vehicle driver. One of my favorite accessories that was lost all too soon.
1988-Yo Ninja Joe
Storm Shadow gets an update for his defection to GI Joe. Still obviously a ninja, he gets a great new outfit with fantastic details. His red accessories seem odd but the backpack has nice detail and the short sword is one of the better in the line. The compound bow was a great item then and has been reused so many times it can hardly be thought of as belonging to Storm Shadow. We also are introduced to the new character of Budo. A motorcycle riding samurai from California. The figure is all samurai though with awesome detailing and great accessories.
1989-Yo Ninja Commando Joe
Snake Eyes gets another update in 1989. Personally its my all time favorite look for the character. The outfit isn’t so much ninja but not exactly military commando either. The huge trench knives across the chest are a great detail. The simple silver on black make this a great looking figure. The silver weapons are what sells Snake Eyes as a ninja. The “holey” sword, the broken staff nunchucks, and even blow gun. Snake Eyes is definitely silent but deadly.
1990-Time For Something Different
High tech ninjas are now a thing with Cobra’s Night Creepers. A great look with some neat accessories make this a favorite of some collectors. The strange crossbow and wavy sword were my favorites and they shared a backpack with the previous year’s Snake Eyes. Worth a mention are Laser Viper and Overlord for me. Laser Viper’s bodysuit and mask were ninja enough for me. They also looked like the Foot Clan from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie released that year. Overlord had a neat mask as well and I used him as an evil ninja master instead of battlefield commander.
1991-Maybe Not Too Different
No major ninja happening in the first year of the new decade other than an update for Snake Eyes. He adds some bright blues to the tried and true black with silver. It appears that he has been bulking up at the gym but that could have just come from toting the new rocket launching grappling hook. His new weapons are in bright orange just in case anyone forgot it was the 90s. The mold gets reused in a Toys R Us Desert set years later and it shines in chocolate chip camo.
In personal collecting news, I got the Night Vulture and glider that year as a gift and that guy had some serious ninja vibes. So much actually that I still see him as such in my collection now.
1992 changed everything. Ninja Force enters the lexicon of GI Joe and many fans mark this as when things start downhill. Cobra and GI Joe both lay claim to the Ninja Force name. Cobra introduces the ninjas Slice and Dice. Slice is the more traditional ninja looking character with a fencing mask over his face. He comes with a large knife and a neat hook sword, but no fencing epee as his mask would lead you to believe. His sword brother Dice is a bo-staff ninja with an axe. Cobra also dyes a bunch of Storm Shadow’s old uniforms teal and creates the Ninja Vipers.
Good guy Storm Shadow is in charge of GI Joe’s Ninja Force and recruits three new ninjas; Dojo, who looks evil, T’Jbang, with the unpronounceable name, and Nunchuk, because he’s good with nunchucks. Dojo is a martial arts instructor that won’t stop talking and likes to drive the Brawler tank. T’Jbang knows a deadly sword technique but no one has ever seen him use it. He is Storm Shadow’s cousin. Nunchuk trained under Storm Shadow until he was recruited. Storm Shadow gets a new update for his assignment which is he finally gets a more stealthy black added to his outfit.
This marked a change in GI Joe for me, not because of the strange new Ninja Force characters, but Hasbro added an action attack to the figures. This new feature abandoned the torso screw in favor of glued seams that made replacement of the o-ring all but impossible. Pegged torsos and waists also hindered the articulation that was a mainstay of the line.
1993-Why Stop Now
Ninja Force is still a focus in 1994. Storm Shadow recruits some new ninjas for his force. Bushido is a snow ninja that wears a samurai helmet and has trained in Iceland. He also wears high top sneakers. Banzai is his blood brother and is a nunchuck master, but that name was already taken. He is a Rising Sun ninja for what that is worth. This was one of the last joes I bought and it was simply for his resemblance to Street Fighter’s Vega.
T’Gin-Zu is the driver of the Ninja Force Pile Driver vehicle. Named after a wrestling move that was named after large construction equipment, the GI Joe Pile Driver is a strange go-kart with a spinning axe attachment that required T’Gin’Zu to stand on and spin to operate. The character is rumored to be named after the Ginsu knives from the infomercials of the day. He is a simple repaint of the previous year’s Storm Shadow.
Scarlett and Snake Eyes join the team after being the first martial artists in GI Joe eleven years earlier. Their action attack featured figures are probably the worst incarnations of the characters, although the designs were interesting.
On the Cobra side, Slice gets an update in orange. The Night Creepers get a more high tech look and join the Ninja Force. Remember Zartan from 1984. The popular Dreadnok biker gang leader finally gets a version 2 figure and he has to join the Ninja Force to do so. He now has a nice leather vest for the biker look, but now sports an orange mohawk with tight lime green pants. For some reason purple shin guards finish off the look. For someone who can mimic any look, Zartan really went out on a limb here. Cobra gets in on the action with a whirling deathtrap of a vehicle too. Christened the Battle Ax, it is designed exactly like the GI Joe Pile Driver with a different styled weapon. Must be a leak on one side R&D team. The Battle Ax is piloted by the long awaited Red Ninja, which is decidedly not red. The Dice mold is used here and given pink and purple. In other Cobra news, the Night Creepers now have a leader, called Night Creeper Leader. He is not in the Ninja Force and wears a tiger striped version of the old uniform. He is also blind. Or just always wears a blindfold.
Street Fighter joins the GI Joe universe and gets a line of their own figures reusing many Ninja Force molds. This gives the line 12 new martial arts characters.
Budo also makes a return as a mail-away premium figure as part of the International Action Force team. Big Bear and Big Ben represent Russia and England. Spirit is a Native American. I guess Budo is supposed to represent Japan but he’s from California. The figure is recolored in teal and black, which still works well.
1994-Maybe We Went Too Far
The line was in its death throes although many didn’t see it. The line had begun focusing on aliens and setting up a Star Wars-ish story with Spaceshot and the Lunartix. But never fear, ninjas are always ready to save the line. Or maybe not. 1994 sees the re-release of some Ninja Force molds as Shadow Ninjas. Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes are there of course, as well as new favorites Slice and Nunchuk. Night Creeper and Bushido, now with shadow action sneakers round out the line. The figures featured color changing effects and were oddly pale molds with few painted details.
The End Of The Line As We Know It, For Now
1994 was the end of the A Real American Hero o-ring line as it once was. I don’t know how many outside of the industry knew it was happening. There was a planned group of Ninja Commandos for 1995 featuring Budo and Storm Shadow for good reasons. But for some reason, Chief Warrant Officer Flint, Dreadnok Road Pig, and Urban Specialist Knock-Out are included. The prototype figures are interesting designs but it’s unknown where the line was headed in 1995 and beyond.
We all know that the GI Joe line has never stayed down and ninjas have always made a return with the line. Black Dragon in Extreme, Kamakura in the Spytroops era, and even Ninja BATs in the Sigma Six line. But no matter where GI Joe goes, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are at the heart of the story. And it does me good knowing that ninjas are the heart of the GI Joe.