The year was 1990. Now in its seventh year of existence, the Transformers toy line was on life support. Without an animated cartoon to help advertise the toys, sales were in decline, and gimmicks such as the Pretenders failed to reignite interest in the line. Hasbro needed to come up with a new gimmick that might interest toy buyers, but had to keep production costs low. What came out may have seemed like an act of desperation: non-transforming action figures that (in many cases) represented classic characters from the beginning of the line. These were the Action Masters.
I've defended Action Masters before, at least in part because I know how controversial the idea of "Transformers that don't transform" is among fans. Still, I grabbed a good number of these figures when they were originally out, and have accumulated most of the others in the years since (indeed, I now have all of the Action Masters released in America). If you can get past the idea of "non-transforming Transformers," these are pretty neat toys. I'll try to demonstrate by reviewing Action Master Megatron (Disclaimer: The fusion cannon on Megatron's arm was not an original part of the toy. I added that on using the fusion cannon from a PVC Megatron a few years ago).
Although the action figures themselves didn't transform, all Action Masters had either transforming weapons or, taking a cue from the Micromasters (the only other Transformers gimmick still available in 1990), transforming vehicles or bases. In Megatron's case, the transforming element was the "Neutro-Fusion Tank." This was one of the larger vehicles available in the Action Masters line, appropriate given that Megatron is the Decepticon leader.
The Neutro-Fusion Tank transforms into a base with lots of cool features. The seat in the tank comes off to form a jet throne for Megatron, and the rest of the tank opens up to provide spaces for many other Action Masters figures to interact (the other figures shown here were not available with the Megatron set, but had to be purchased separately). It's easy to imagine the Decepticons launching an all-out attack from this location!
Some fans argue that Action Masters are what caused the death of the Transformers line. It's true that 1990 was the last year to see new Transformers toys on the shelves in America for a while, but it's too simple to say that Action Masters were the cause. The line had already been on the decline for years, and competition from other lines (such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) also contributed to lower Transformers sales. Thankfully, Hasbro gave Transformers another chance in just a few years.
Although I have quite a few other Action Masters which I purchased in 1990, it will get boring pretty quickly reviewing another non-transforming figure each week for the next couple of months, so I'm going to skip ahead for now. Coming next week: Generation Two!