In the 1980s, robot toys were king. And while today Transformers and Voltron get all the '80s press, hardcore toy fans also extol Robo Force, whose accordion-like arms and suction cups made them stand out—despite the lack of a cartoon or comic series. Here ToyFare investigates their origins, and what made them such a Force to be reckoned with.
Power of the Force
The origins of Maxx Steele, Hun-Dred and the rest of the Robo Force
In the early 1980s, the CBS network decided to cut out the middleman by expanding into the toy market. They bought Ideal, a company best known for making dolls and teddy bears. Hoping to replicate the success of toy lines such as Masters of the Universe and Star Wars, CBS next developed their own line of gimmick-filled robot characters: Robo Force. Stylistically retro even in 1984, the figures were large, blocky robots that vaguely resembled vacuum cleaners—a similarity enhanced by the long, ribbed tubes that served as their arms, which could be brought together in a grasping (or hugging) motion by pressing a large button on their back. Each robot had a large suction cup on the bottom, allowing kids to stick them to windows, kitchen counters and well-varnished bunk beds.
The good guys included Sentinel, Blazer, Wrecker, Coptor and SOTA (an acronym meaning "State of the Art"), and they were led by Maxx Steele—not to be confused with Mattel's later adventure hero, Max Steel. Maxx's archenemy was Hun-Dred, a spikey brute with twin cannons hidden beneath his faceplate; his lackeys included Vulgar, Cruel and the aptly named Enemy.
For those not sold on their amusing names alone, Robo Force also boasted some great vehicles and playsets. Maxx could go joyriding in the Command Patroller, which featured a working hatch, a swivel laser cannon and a battering ram. The evil robots had the Dred Crawler, which could grab good guys in its giant claw. The real prize, though, was the Fortress of Steele, which towered over most other playsets and was crammed with more action features than a horde of neon Batmen.
CBS Toys also branded Robo Force on a broad array of merchandise. Maxx and friends could be found on lunchboxes, Erector sets, storybooks, stickers, painter's caps, table covers and a "Super-Pop-O-Matic" board game. There was even an actual working Maxx Steele robot!
Although a cartoon pilot was commissioned, CBS Toys went out of business before the line's second year of toys could hit the market. To this day, however, fan sites for the robots of Robo Force populate the Web, telling the story of these strange, clunky robots to a new generation.
KIRCHNER, THE ARTISTOR
'Toyfare' interviews Paul Kirchner, one of the creative forces behind Robo Force
ToyFare: What was your involvement with Robo Force?
Kirchner: I had worked on Eagle Force at Mego before they went bankrupt, and when they went bankrupt the people in the creative department scattered far and wide—some of them ended up at CBS Toys. The art director on Robo Force was a fellow named Bruce Stern, who had been the art director on Eagle Force, so I worked with him. [Stern] brought me in initially to do in-pack comic books. There were eight or ten characters, and they each needed a comic book to put in with the toys, so I got involved in that.
What was your process with those stories?
Whatever feature [each robot] had suggested the story that could be built around it, especially as short as these stories were. One guy had a fire extinguisher in his head, and so that would be the story.
What other items did you work on?
After I did the comics, we also did a promotional kit for kids who wanted to join the Robo Force [Fan Club]. You got a poster, which I drew, and some buttons and a little baseball cap. And I did licensing art, which was a number of illustrations of Robo Force in different situations, and some of these things were actually used on pajamas—things like that.
Do you know the origins of the bendy arms and the suction cups?
It may have just been they were fairly simple things that could be done. I think even when I came in on it and dealt with the art director, he almost introduced these features to me as if I would get a good laugh out of it, too.
Why do you think the line ended prematurely?
Of course the problem they had, and as I recall they were completely unaware, is that they were about to go up against Transformers. That came out at the same Toy Fair, and of course it just made the Robo Force look pathetic. In the toy business they always talk about "finger food"; finger food is the stuff on the toy you can play with. To go up against Transformers, with all the play value those things had, [Robo Force] just looked very much like a previous-generation type of a product. They were almost kind of retro, even when they came out.