The 1980’s was truly the greatest decade for boys toy lines!
1978 saw the incredibly successful introduction of Kenner’s 3 3/4″ Star Wars action figure line, which was then followed by Hasbro’s arguably as successful 3 3/4″ G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line and rebranded Japanese imports: The Transformers, Mattel’s Masters of the Universe and many more.
The Boys Toy Aisles were re-vitalized and the Golden Age of action figures was born!
And as any soldier will tell you, an awesome multi-cannoned base of operations is the other half the battle!
(Well…Knowing or Extreme Violence. One of those two.)
As any child growing up in the 1980’s, I had my fair share of castles, bases and play sets, but there were also plenty of ‘Unicorns‘ (fable creature that is impossible to catch) that were always just out of my reach.
Here are Geeky Daddy’s Top 5 Holy Grail Toy Play Sets From The 1980’s!
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5 Robotech SDF-1 Play Set
Like many North American kids in the 1980’s, Robotech: The Macross Saga was my first introduction to Japanese Animation and (Minmay musical numbers aside) I was blown away!
The Japanese style animation, the adult-concepts in the story, the detailed mechs, Rick Hunter’s sideburns…Everything about the series was so different then what I had previously been exposed to on television. I immediately went looking for the toys…and enter the legal nightmare that is Harmony Gold and North American copyrights to Robotech toys.
With the undeniably coolest toy already being licensed to Hasbro as the Autobot Jetfire, Matchbox launched transforming mech series of toys….without a toy that actually transformed.
The Matchbox Robotech SDF-1 Play Set really should have been titled “A Hanger Bay of the Robotech SDF-1 Play Set.”
The playset did have lots of play value featuring a detailed fold-out cardboard flight deck, working elevator, rotating cannons and radar, multiple command decks and a catwalk over the flight deck!
ToyWorth.com currently gives an unopened SDF-1 an estimated value of $700 and $300 loose complete!
The Robotech SDF-1 Playset was released in 1985 and had an initial MSRP of $79.95. If that sounds high to you, well apparently it did to lots of other people as well because, according to ToyWorth.com, the playset lingered on Kaybee Toy Stores shelves into 1987…when they sold at the discounted price of $29.99. Unfortunately, NOT AT THE KAYBEES NEAR ME!
4 Star Wars Death Star Play Set
I am referring the plastic Star Wars Death Star Space Station play set released by Kenner in North America in 1978 and 1979 and not the cardboard play set released internationally.
This play set was not distributed over seas for cost reasons (plastic became very expensive during the oil embargo) and those markets had a completely different cardboard Death Star play set. Except for Canada which was the only market to have both Death Stars available. I have never been so jealous of Canada before!
The Kenner Death Star was a cross-section play set featuring 4 floors of play gimmicks that allowed kids to re-enact various scenes from A New Hope.
The top floor features the terminal where Ben Kenobi disabled the power of the tractor beam and an anti-aircraft (spacecraft?) cannon that explodes with a simple lever pull.
The next floor features a command center and retractable bridge, complete with a string for Luke to swing across!
The second floor offered plenty of space for blaster shoot-outs and a trap door that leads our heroes down to the working trash compactor below (complete with Dianoga monster to eat Luke!)
This Play set is a mix of assembly-required plastic and printed cardboard graphics, much like the Robotech SDF-1 play set previously listed, but with one major difference! While the Robotech SDF-1 initially retailed at $79.95, the Kenner Star Wars Death Star Space Station retailed at only $19.99!
Per ToyWorth, a mint in box Kenner Star Wars Death Star Space Station play set is currently worth around $500.
3 Cobra Base Missile Command Cardboard Play Set
Nearly impossible to find in any decent condition to speak of at all, the Cobra Missile Command Headquarters was a rarity to see in 1983, much less today!
When Hasbro relaunched G.I. Joe in the Star Wars inspired 3 3/4″ size in 1982, Sears was a major retailer in the toy market and could call many of their own shots. They used this leverage to tell Hasbro they wanted an exclusive G.I. Joe play set for Christmas of that year.
Being exclusively available at Sears (and only being available in late 1982 & 1983) means the production run was very limited. Combine this with being made entirely of printed cardboard for time and cost reasons (minus a couple plastic pegs), the Cobra Missile Command Headquarters didn’t hold up long once kids got their discourteous, dirty little paws on them.
The Cobra Missile Command Headquarters play set actually had a good amount of play value for a cardboard project that was rushed to market. The ICBM could be rotated up to the vertical firing position, there was a 2nd floor crosswalk for sentries to keep post and plenty of cardboard chairs for the 3 included Cobra figures (Cobra Trooper, Cobra Officer and Cobra Commander) to man their computer consoles.
Not bad for a retail cost of $10.99! Current Ebay prices vary between $500 and $1,300 depending on cardboard conditions.
2 Eternia Play Set
Full Disclosure: I had both Castle Greyskull and Snake Mountain but had NO IDEA this thing ever existed until recently!
The Masters of the Universe Eternia play set (AKA Towers of Eternia) was extremely expensive at the time of its release in 1986, which led to very low sales.
The massive play set consisted of 3 towers and a working Disney World-esque monorail with multiple vehicles. The tallest tower was nearly 3 ft tall, consisted of 4 floors, had a moat, a working drawbridge and a massive lion with working arms! The other 2 towers are molded ala Castle Greyskull and Snake Mountain.
The overly engineered monorail is the main play feature and its track consist of 13 pieces! Through my research, I have not been able to confirm if it was designed and engineered by the same team that built the much criticized Detroit People Mover above ground public transit system, but based on the shape and fragility of the very breakable the pieces, it wouldn’t surprise me.
The rarest (i.e. most valuable) on this list, the most recent sale info I could find on a Masters of the Universe Eternia play set (complete in box) was for $4,900 in December 2019! If this were purchased back in 1986 at the original MSRP of $89.99, that is not a bad return on investment!
1 G.I. Joe USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier Play Set
The age old debate in the G.I. Joe community is whether the USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier is the Greatest Play Set of All Time or the Greatest Vehicle of All Time.
Since I qualify a vehicle as needing wheels, ability to float or at least be portable in some way (and since I already included the SDF-1), The USS Flagg counts as the Greatest Play Set of All Time!
Growing up, I only had one friend that had the USS Flagg in his basement, and truth is…I was only friends with him because he had the USS Flagg in his basement (he was kind of a spoiled brat).
A sticker price of $109.99 was a lot to drop on a play set in 1985!
G.I. Joe’s USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier was the largest play set ever produced at over 7 1/2 feet long! The USS Flagg was based on the USS Nimitz carrier, so if you are curious, for the Flagg to be to scale, it would have needed to be 65 feet long!
One of the few complaints about this awesome play set was the lack of underneath storage for vehicles and accessories. I mean an aircraft carrier needs to be able to carrier aircraft right!
That is until G.I. Joe customizers get a hold of them!
Complete USS Flagg play sets are always in high demand and complete sets get top dollar online or at comic book/toy shows (Man I miss those!). Mint in box USS Flaggs will generally fetch $2,000 to $3,000!
Most Honorable Of Mentions: MASK Boulder Hill Play Set, ThunderCats Lair, Action Force Zed Force Head Quarters Play Set
What are some of your 80s toy Holy Grails? Comment below!
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Here are some more 80s toy content, including The Top G.I. Joe Vehicles You May Nor Have Known Were Based On Real Vehicles, the Top Ten G.I. Joe Vehicles and Weapons You Don’t Want To Take Into Combat, The Top Six G.I. Joe’s You Would NOT Want To Roll Into Combat With and Remember When Rocky Balboa Was A Member Of G.I. Joe….For About 3 weeks.