Millions of unusual creatures lurking everywhere! Also known as M.U.S.C.L.E.! Were you a kid in the 1980s? If you were, chances are you ended up with some of these little 2 inch hunks of sculpted pink plastic. What are these guys? Where did they come from? Are there really millions of them? Do they really lurk everywhere (did you find them in your sock drawer, sandbox, your dog’s food bowl, etc)?
The Story of MUSCLE figures
The story goes something like this – Mattel was looking for a new product in the mid-80s, and came across the Japanese based Kinkeshi line (originally released in 1983). I won’t go into the Kinkeshi line that much, but it was basically a story that started as a parody of comic book superheroes in the 1970s, and morphed into a cosmic wrestling story. Mattel continued with the wrestling theme, manufacturing figures from 1985-1987 based off of the Kinkeshi sculpts. There were essentially good guys adn bad guys. They fight. That’s it. Oh, and they lurk everywhere!
The Good and The Bad of Mattel’s MUSCLE Action Figures
So good guys and bad guys – led by MuscleMan (good guy leading a group called Thug Busters) and Terri-bull (bad guy commanding the Cosmic Crunch-ers). These guys were the only MUSCLEs with names. The Kinkeshi line did name them, and MUSCLE fans tend to go with the Japanese names (as well as assigned numbers). Their names are fun, too. Usually, just like something you’d name them yourself as a kid (Planet Man, for example). Most of the names I gave them as a kid were obvious like that, though I did name some more creative names like The Destroyer and Stucko.
Were there really millions of MUSCLE figures?
Okay, so there were not millions, but there were a couple hundred and change. 236 different figures to be exact. Like any successful toy line, they used the same ‘collect them all’ tactics we all know and love! So how did you collect them all? Really, it was luck. You could buy them at the store, but getting them all this way was hard. You could trade them with friends, but this was tough too (who wants to let go of their favorite, hard to get figure?!).
28 Packs of Pure MUSCLE figure goodness
The quickest way to start was to buy 28-packs. There were 4 different packs available, identified by a number (1, 2, 3, or 4), color of the blast behind MuscleMan (green, red, purple, or yellow) and name (Thug Busters, Cosmic Crunchers, Mighty Maulers, or Cosmic Showdown). Each of these had unique figures from each other, but an individual figure set of 28 always came with the same figures in each pack. Only about 14 figures were visible through a window, though once you or your friend bought a 28-pack, you knew who came in each one. Aside from the first 2 packs, I’m not sure myself if the Mighty Maulers and Cosmic Showdown are good or bad. At any rate, buying all 4 of these packs would get you 112 (47%) of the 236 available figures.
4 Packs of MUSCLE
You could also buy 4-packs of MUSCLE figures. These had random figures packaged in them. The good thing about these was that they had transparent bubbles (like many typical 80s action figures), so you could see exactly what you were getting. The downside was, not all 236 were available in 4-packs. In order to collect them all, Mattel let you know what you could get in the 28 (partially visible) and 4 packs, but it wasn’t the whole list.
That leads us to 10-packs. This is where Mattel got you. These packages were in plastic trash cans with shrinkwrap. The catch here is, the trashcans were translucent, so you could kind of make out what may be in there, but not all of the figures and you could never be sure. You’d buy 10-packs and get doubles. And triples. And so on. You’d keep going, because of course, you have to collect them all!
The many colors of MUSCLE
M.U.S.C.L.E. figures started in a single color: Pink! (As an aside, doesn’t the success of a pink toy for “boys” show you that gender profiling toys doesn’t always work?) After a while, Mattel felt the need to change things up to make them more interesting again (now you have to get each one in each available color, and not just a single figure of each!). I see this as similar to Kenner introducing coins with Star Wars figures – an attempt to spice things up. The new colors that were introduced included red, orange, salmon, green, light blue, dark blue, magenta, and purple. There are a very small amount that also came in “grape,” but more on them later. The line transitioned from all pink figures to randomly placed colored figures in the various packs. To purist collectors, a run of all pink figures is a must!
The most desirable MUSCLE figures
So what are the most desirable figures among collectors? If I had to pick one, it would be the SAME ONE that everyone wanted when I was a kid: the Claw! The Claw is M.U.S.C.L.E. #153, and his Kinkeshi name is Sunigator Shotai. The Claw came in 8 of the 10 available colors, but the purple version is one of the most expensive “standard” 236 figures available due to its scarcity.
Another M.U.S.C.L.E. that has gained obsessive status (similar to Yak Face with vintage Star WArs) is “Satan Cross.” Just like Yak Face was not pictured on the back of a Power of the Force 92-back card, Satan Cross did not appear on the poster (more on the poster later). Once people started to discover this “rare” figure, and eBay came to prominence, he was all the rage. He is certainly not rare, but he is less common than any of the other 235 figures that went to production (with the possible exception of the purple Claw). He has a hole in his back, which many theorize is a carryover of the Kinkeshi version that came with a pair of those horses’s legs to stick in there.
After The Claw and Satan Cross, you get into some strange territory. There are what is known as “rare” and “super rare” figures. I’d call Spinning Head Ashuraman (6 arm guy with 3 spinning faces) and Black Hole Sunshire (similar to the “brick” guys like #003, but with a hole in his chest and a piece attached to his side to remove and put in the hole) rare. Beyond that, you are talking 2-3 examples of known super rare figures, and many of them just a single example. These super rare figures seem to meet the M.U.S.C.L.E. (vs. Kinkeshi) criteria, but no production examples have been found. I believe some folks have even tracked down former Mattel employees and couldn’t find a definitive answer. I don’t have any of these figures, so I can’t include pictures. Check out the resources list at the end of the article, and you can find more information there.
Bootleg MUSCLE Figures?!
Just like most popular toy lines, people tried to bootleg M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. The bootlegs are very easy to spot, as the quality is very subpar compared to authentic M.U.S.C.L.E.s. They are also usually in different colors and sizes from M.U.S.C.L.E. figures. The area where people most often get confused with regards to authentic M.U.S.C.L.E.s is Kinkeshi. They are very similar in size, shape, and sculpt. However, they are slightly more pliable, in different colors, and weigh slightly less. I have often received bootlegs and Kinkeshi in lots that I have bought.
Variants or Unique Characters?
One thing you may notice when looking at the 236 available figures, is that some of them appear to be related to each other. Maybe I’d call these “families.” They are obviously unique sculpts, but they really do look like they are meant to be related. For example, the figures with the name “Sunshire” in them all look to be like the same guy or family of guys. You could expand this though, as there are others that are similar. Sunshine looks like he’s made of blocks to me, while others look to be made of tile or bricks.
Beyond the MUSCLE Figures
The cream of the crop for the line was obviously the figures. Additional items seem to have almost been an afterthought, or maybe the line just died before they could erally get the accessories going. Extras, accessories, etc. include a ring, poster, belt, board game, and NES game.
The best “accessory” to me is the Hard Knockin’ Rockin’ Ring Wrestling Arena (a more palatable way to say it may be “wrestling ring”). It’s actually a playset, and it has two levers with connectors to put two figures in. They face each other, and there are handles on both ends of the ring so that two people can “wrestle” with a loser determined by whoever gets knocked out of the holder first. Many people will argue that the ring was cheap and that the clamps were easily broken. This may be so, but my brothers and I played with ours quite a bit and never broke it (though there are stress lines on the clamps). The ring came with 2 figures that were not available elsewhere, though they were actually just variations of MuscleMan and Terri-Bull.
An authentic 80s M.U.S.C.L.E. poster is actually considered uncommon (similar to Satan Cross), and there are a lot of reproduction versions out there. I still have mine from childhood (and my ring, figures, and trash cans too!). It showed 233 of the figures, but only #001 and #002 had names (as previously mentioned). It also included a little star in the corner of each block to make the poster a big checklist for you. Satan Cross, MuscleMan (Wrestling Ring version), and Terri-Bull (Wrestling Ring version) are not pictured on the poster.
The cool thing about the poster is you could only get it the old school way of collecting proof of purchases! I got mine like that (still waiting on my rocket firing Boba Fett though!). It was advertised on the 4 and 28-packs which also included the “form” to fill out. Then you could wait (no instant gratification in the 80s!) 8-10 weeks for it to arrive!
While maybe not the worst extra, the Battlin’ Belt is pretty disappointing. I remember seeing it in the store… or on TV… anyway, it looked cool. You could carry your figures around with you on a belt that doubles as a ring in which you could fight them! In reality, it only held 10 figures (and remember, these guys are small). The part that was most disappointing was the size of the “ring” – that being a little less than 2″ x 2″. It barely fit 2 figures, let alone provide room to move them about and fight. But hey, you could look totally tubular when you wore the belt to the playground!
I didn’t have the board game, so I can’t comment on it too much. The main thing to note here are the grape figures I mentioned in the color section: this was the only place you could get them. There were 5 grape and 5 green. The green are teh same figures as were available in the 4, 10, and 28-packs with one exception: Terri-Bull in green was only available here (and was the same sculpt as the exclusive pink one in the wrestling ring).
Last and definitely not least, we come to the video game called M.U.S.C.L.E. Tag Team Match. Where you’d expect someone like me who is a vintage video game lover, an NES game collector, and a M.U.S.C.L.E. collector would love this combination, it really isn’t so great. The gameplay was pretty lame, and the 8 available characters barely resembled the M.U.S.C.L.E. figures, but hey- the music is radical! Many completionist collectors will want to have a copy, just because!
How to start collecting MUSCLE Figures
If you are looking to getting into collecting, I’d recommend you start by buying lots. It is cheapest and easiest to get most of them this way (each figure for only $0.50-$1 on average). You’ll end up with a lot of extras, but then they can lurk everywhere around your house. I actually got 234 out of the 236 through buying lots. I had to buy Satan Cross (about $50) and one common one (#125 for about $3) individually.
So there you have it! My quick intro and summary of the world of M.U.S.C.L.E.collecting. I put some links here for you to check out as well as to learn more! There are a lot of far more knowledgable collectors out there. Aside from the reference websites, consider joining the little rubber guys forum if you need expert help! Still wondering if you should dive into collecting them,? Mattel makes me want to collect them all with their description: “They’re Weird, Wild Wrestlers! Hundreds of different figures!” So why are you waiting? “Collect ’em! Trade ’em! Build your own tag team!”