Every so often, if you’re an enthusiast of older 80’s toy franchises you grew up with as a kid, you hear the question posed by people of your generation “when is the next cartoon of G.I. Joe coming out?” or “What is the next Transformers cartoon going to be about?”. These people believe that the next cartoon and wave of toys will be another chance for their beloved childhood franchise to take off as big as, if not bigger than, the iteration they grew up with. And no franchise draws such furious shouts of “why don’t they do a new cartoon and toy line” than the beloved He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Fans of that franchise think that Mattel should just trot out a new show, attach a toy line to it and hope it catches on. And this idea of waiting for a new movie (whenever Paramount or whoever is apparently done being embarrassed by the idea) is absurd. Movies don’t guarantee that toys fly off of shelves (Transformers: Age of Extinction toys anyone?) and there’s no telling when a movie will even be made.
Frankly, I feel the days of toy-and-cartoon franchises are over, and have probably been over for a decade or more. People who want to endlessly trot out the old tired model of show-with-toy-line are frankly not paying attention to the modern toy industry.
Right now, the biggest thing going is Skylanders. That’s right, those figurines that you place on a plastic platform (the “Portal of Power”) so that the character can come alive in a videogame. First released in 2011, Skylanders crossed the $2 billion mark in sales in February 2014 with 175 million units sold up to that point. When it was released, it represented a brand new innovation in gaming that finally meshed toy figures with videogames seamlessly. Kids can play through campaigns in their videogame and then play with the plastic characters for hours on their own. Game publisher Activision and game developer Toys for Bob release a game every year with a new gimmick for the Skylanders, to freshen the line with new campaigns and play patterns. In 2012 there was Skylanders Giants that introduced Light Force characters who light up when placed on a platform and carry special “light bomb” weapons for the game. 2013 saw “swap force” characters where you can take figures apart and swap torsos from your other plastic Skylander characters to create new characters both for your toys and in the videogame. Now they’ve released “trap team” in October of this year, where you can “trap” a villain into a plastic avatar when you defeat them. After that, you can play as that character by placing your plastic trapping avatar on the plastic platform and releasing him into the game. Not to be outdone, Disney launched their version last year, called Disney Infinity. Their version has two modes: toybox mode where you create a world and place any characters you want into it (provided you have the figures), and playset mode where you buy a “playset” (disc representing an area from one of the Disney movies like Captain Hook’s pirate ship and corresponding figurines from that movie) and play campaigns in that playset to unlock characters, abilities and other things for toybox mode. So, here we have a new model for toy franchises: instead of a TV show dictating play patterns and the flow of toys off shelves, we now have videogames dictating the play patterns, stories and flow of toys off of shelves.
Why can’t this be done for Masters of the Universe?
If you think about it, Masters is ideal for this sort of model. It’s already got dozens of colorful, gimmicky characters that a kid can play as in a Skylanders-type videogame, with other characters that can be created by Mattel to fill out ranks. The world of Eternia itself is ready-made for a concept like this with scads of different areas (King Randor’s castle, Snake Mountain, Castle Greyskull, The Fright Zone, the badlands of Eternia, jungle, sea, etc.). The first game could be an adventure that all the characters could play in, so kids could get Skeletor and his evil minions as figures and play as them as well as the good guys. The play pattern could go something like this:
In far off galaxy lies Eternia, a world of adventure where powerful magic and high technology co-exist. Heroic He-Man leads the Masters of the Universe to defend the world against Skeletor and his evil Marauders. Now, a mysterious ship falls from the stars toward the far side of Eternia, holding untold secrets of power. He-Man and Skeletor must lead their teams in a race against time towards the ship. Whoever discovers the ship first will wield its massive power and become true Masters of the Universe.
Subsequent games with new figures and abilities could be Invasion of the Snakemen, Revenge of the Horde, or even other ideas that stray from classic continuity. As a toy company, Mattel should be more than able to mine this concept for game after game for years. The demo graphic could be the same idea as Skylanders, from 4 to 12.
There would have to be some tinkering with the He-Man concept to make it fit into this new model. For starters, I would get rid of the Adam-turns-into-He-Man idea and just have He-Man be He-Man all the time, a wandering heroic barbarian with superhuman strength that the people call on when there’s trouble, like a superhero. No kid wants to play as Adam, waiting for an opportunity to turn into He-Man, they want to play just as He-Man. You can work into continuity that he is really Prince Adam who was stolen away from his parents at an early age and was left to fend for himself in the badlands of Eternia, growing into the powerful and heroic He-Man, champion of the people. This doesn’t necessarily exclude his iconic phrase “By the power of Greyskull, I have the Power!” which can be worked into special attacks. I would also not hold off on including She-Ra as past continuity had dictated (influenced by a different gender dynamic in the 80’s toy industry). I would include She-Ra up front as part of the first wave of characters with the same strength as He-Man (they could be siblings or whatever Mattel wants). Girls are a big demographic for this type of toy. Girls play Skylanders too, and for Masters they would identify with She-Ra, Teela, and other female characters Mattel could create.
Some challenges do present themselves with a Skylanders model. One is that the play model doesn’t exactly encourage the use of main characters. Because the emphasis is on buying lots of characters and trying their abilities onscreen, a character like He-Man or Skeletor could get lost in a sea of Ram-Mans and Trap-Jaws. Videogame story writing would have to place importance on He-Man and anyone else Mattel wants to highlight. Another issue is the figurines themselves. For Skylanders and Disney Infinity, the figures are solid, non-posable figurines to accommodate a wide base at the bottom of the figure that holds the information that the “Portal of Power” reads (or whatever you want to call the plastic platform that one puts the figures on for the character to show onscreen in the game). Mattel could try to crack a way to make 3 ¾ inch Masters figures that have posable shoulder, elbow, waist, knee and neck joints and still have that character stand on a platform and read into the game. And if Mattel could do that, they could differentiate themselves from the other variations on this Skylander concept with, not just actual action figures instead of statues, but also vehicles. For example, you could sit a character into a Battle-Ram, place them both on the platform and now your character is driving a Battle-Ram onscreen with the added abilities the vehicle affords. Battle-Cat and Panthor could be their own playable characters, or other characters could be placed on top of them and ride them as vehicles in the game for added abilities. There are lots of exciting ideas.
So, that’s my idea for reviving He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. It takes the characters to brave new dimensions and makes them exciting and relevant again. I’ve never believed that the fantasy/sci-fi mash-up world of He-Man is an archaic concept, I believe it’s a timelessly exciting idea – it just needs a little love and creativity to help it along.