Thank you for attending my TED Talk.
In 1993 and 1994, many GI Joe figures came with “weapons trees,” which were multiple, reused weapons from earlier figures attached to a plastic sprue. They were all molded in one color, and very often made no sense for the character they were packed with. This often meant your brand new figure would be brandishing Rock Viper’s oversized sniper rifle in dark purple or neon green– hardly the “realistic” weaponry GI Joe fans of the 1980s (and early 90s!) expected to come with their military action figures.
But I’m here to tell you that these weapons trees were just as much of a blessing as they were a curse. Even if you’re currently balling up your fists and loading up photos of 1985 Snake Eyes to remind yourself of the “Good Ol’ Days” right now because the very thought that weapons trees might be somehow positive makes your brain vomit a little bit, just bear with me.
Because, once upon a time, I hated them, too. That’s right– as an unabashed fan of 1990s GI Joe, even I wasn’t always on board with weapons trees. As I became an adult and began collecting ARAH-style Joes again, though, I realized how much I actually used those weapons as a kid, and how valuable they really were to me.
Weapons trees, as it turned out, were a wonderful parallel to the “Battle Gear Accessory Packs” of the 1980s. But more on that later. For now, let’s focus on my childhood in the 1990s, and how I didn’t appreciate what I had at the time.
Additional Photos for this Post Provided By:
- Funskool Rony (Twitter)
- Battle Armor Dad
- The Fifteenth Doctor
- Nekoman of The Viper Pit
- Alexx of Toys and Tomfoolery (Instagram)
“These Guns Suck”
I was born in 1984, so my first GI Joe toys were from the late 1980s. I had a small handful of figures from 1989, fewer from 1988, and a single Crystal Ball from 1987, who must have been keeping those pegs nice and toasty until at least 1990. The first Joes I really connected to were from 1990 and 1991.
They came with unique weapons, helmets, backpacks, and gear. Some of them, like Heavy Duty and Pathfinder, had pretty intricate gear setups. They had a ton of small, highly specialized pieces. If you were an older kid then (and an adult now), it’s kind of amazing how complex and well-conceived the accessories for those figures were. If you were a 7 or 8 year old with those figures, though, you probably lost a lot of the pieces.
Still, each figure in those years had unique gear. The same was true for most of the 1992 single carded GI Joe figures. Every piece that came with every Joe made some kind of sense, and it was something that belonged solely to that figure.
And then 1993 came around. Even as a 9 year old, I noticed the difference. I still liked the figures, but I wasn’t thrilled that each toy now came with a tree of generic weapons and a generic spring-loaded missile launcher, regardless of their military specialty. I wasn’t a fan of either the weapons trees or the launchers at the time– at a pretty young age, I decided GI Joe was “cheaping out,” but I still loved it. Of course.
Alexx, writer and curator of the excellent Toys and Tomfoolery, is about the same age as me and also grew up with GI Joe, so I thought I’d ask him what he thought of weapons trees as a kid:
I don’t think I liked the trees much, as a kid. I had this little fold-out booklet that came with the HISS II, and it showed a bunch of 80’s stuff I had missed that wasn’t in stores anymore. All the figures came with (from what I could make out, given the tiny pictures) unique weapons that I wanted to mess with! All the Joes available around my heyday came with the weapons trees, and depending on what Joes you got, you might get the same weapons over and over. Now, you’d have a TON, if you had a lot of Joes, and you’d get a chance at some more unique weapons, but if you only bought a few and those few each came with the same tree in a different color….well, you wouldn’t be as thrilled. I wanted new and different weapons! The trees did vary a little, but not enough if you weren’t buying a lot.”
There was a lot of reuse among the weapons trees. They were sometimes molded in unrealistic colors for weapons, like red, purple, or bright orange. They were sometimes molded in black or grey, which was appreciated by my friends and I at the time. The weapons weren’t always appropriate for the characters they came with– for instance, most Star Brigade figures came with bullet-firing weapons which would not have worked at all in the vacuum of space (EDIT: I have been corrected on this by Funskool Rony, and my entire life is a lie. Here’s some science), and divers came with weapons that wouldn’t work great in underwater conditions.
Clearly, Hasbro was spraying and praying. It was quantity over quality. And even the 9 year olds were noticing.
The weapons trees were further divided into “good guy weapons” and “bad guy weapons,” and you’d see the same tree issued with multiple figures in different colors.
Common weapons for GI Joe figures:
- Tracker’s MP5
- 1991 Grunt’s Space Marine Machine Gun
- Muskrat’s Shotgun
- Hit and Run’s SMG
- Hit and Run’s Knife
- 1992 Shockwave’s SMG
- Muskrat’s Machete
- Shockwave’s Pistol
- Ambush’s Rifle
- Bullhorn’s Rifle
- Cloudburst’s SMG
- Eco Warriors Flint’s Laser Bazooka (it is totally a laser bazooka, shut up)
- Big Ben’s Machine Gun
- Updraft’s Laser Pistol
Common Weapons for the Cobra Figures:
- Annihilator’s SMG
- Rock Viper’s Sniper Rifle
- Iron Grenadier’s Laser Pistol
- Voltar’s SMG
- 1992 Destro’s SMG
- Incinerator’s Flamethrower
- Toxo-Viper’s… Thingy
- Hydro Viper’s Knife
- 1989 Snake Eyes’ SMG
- 1992 Destro’s SMG
- Shockwave’s Knife
- 1991 Sci-Fi’s Laser Rifle
So, if young kids noticed the blatant reuse and weird colors at the time, what did older collectors think? As a whole, these weapons trees still aren’t well regarded in the GI Joe community. When I started being a part of the online Joe community in the late 1990s, the sentiment wasn’t positive, either. But I definitely had no idea what adult collectors thought in 1993 and 1994, as my family didn’t have internet access until 1997 at the earliest.
So, what did adult collectors at the time think? They’d been raised on 1980s GI Joe where even if things were often science-fiction oriented and unrealistic, at least most figures had unique accessories.
I decided to ask Mike T, author of Forgotten Figures, who’s been writing about GI Joe since the late 1990s. He grew up on the earliest GI Joe: A Real American Hero offerings, and was a kid for what are considered the line’s “strongest years”– but he also sang the praises of 1990s figures before it was popular to do so. When I first started reading about GI Joe on the internet, Mike was talking about the figures I had and knew about, whereas everyone else was talking about toys I’d never even seen in person. If there’s anyone in the community whose insights I value above all others, Mike is that person. So I asked him.
From Mike T:
I didn’t have much money in the ’90’s as I was a student. So, I was judicious in what I bought. But, as ’95 went on, there were fewer and fewer options for figures. Pretty much all of the weapons on the trees were new to me. So, that was exciting. At first, the non standard colors were off putting. So, any figure that had black weapons was an instant purchase. But, slowly, I came around. So, if the gear colors worked for the figure, I’d get it. Eventually, retail dwindled to the point where I’d buy anything.
But, it was great to get a couple of guns with each figure. At the time, I had a bunch of un-accessorized figures around. So, the spare guns were great for them. Plus, it was cool to get knives and other gear since those weren’t overly common in the ’80’s line.”
Here’s where Mike hit the nail on the head– un-accessorized figures.
“What I Had”
I know some kids were organized and fastidious with their toys, but I never was. I wasn’t careless with my toys, but guns and gear went missing in lawns and sandboxes, were broken, or were buried at the bottom of toy boxes.
My friends were mostly the same way. That means we all had multiple figures from the early 90s whose small and intricate accessories were lost or broken. Several of my friends had hand-me-down or garage sale Joes with no weapons to speak of. I had a few of those, myself. After a few years of rigorous play, the Joe team from 1989-1992 was seriously underequipped.
So, even as I disliked weapons trees as a kid, I used the hell out of them.
That Heavy Duty who was missing his entire insano missile-launcher-machine-gun rig? He now had a matching bright green machine gun courtesy of Colonel Courage. Ninja Force Storm Shadow suddenly wasn’t hurting for martial arts weapons anymore. Incinerator had a brand new flamethrower and Ambush had a brand new rifle. You see where this is going.
In the 80s, kids lost their figures’ accessories, too. That’s why Hasbro released a yearly series of Battle Gear Accessory Packs for GI Joe– so kids could replace their lost gear and stock up on extra weapons.
The weapons trees of the 90s fulfilled the same purpose, even if the intent wasn’t the same and the execution wasn’t nearly as elegant.
We had our own Battle Gear Accessory Packs in the 90s but, instead of red Firefly SMGs and off-white Spirit arrow rifles, we got red Rock Viper rifles and yellow Storm Shadow claws.
Occasionally, you’d even have a figure with a weapons tree that seemed positively inspired– 1993 Iceberg, for instance, who came with Blizzard’s uzi and pistol in white. Or Mega Marines Gung-Ho, who came with everything he’d ever need (in ‘realistic’ black plastic) to take down a Mega Monster, conquer a Xenomorph hive, or splatter the Spiderdemon in Doom all across the pixelated scenery.
Sometimes, the weapons trees just transcended their “quality over quantity” origins. Such as with 94 Flint, 94 Shipwreck, every version of Snow Storm, 93 Leatherneck, or the aforementioned Iceberg.
My favorite whole tree was the one that came with the Ice Cream Soldier, for all sorts of boring reasons that were cool back when I was a kid. For one, it was finally a weapons tree with all new weapons that I didn’t have. For two, THERE WAS A PISTOL! My first pistol! None of the Joes I had ever came with a pistol. For three, they were gray! A semi-realistic weapon color! Once again…there’s a huge difference between child and adult. Back then, all the weapons were neon and I hated it. Now I like bright colors and the neon is nostalgic! Crazy how that works, eh?“
Exactly! When I got ICe Cream Soldier, I had some of the best weapons in my entire Joe collection– and each piece went to one of my favorite figures. It was like Christmas time in the PIT armory.
Needless to say, not every 93-94 figure’s accessory complement was that good.
I didn’t love most of those weapon trees at the time, but now I realize how much I used them and how much they contributed to my childhood GI Joe experience.
And as an adult, I’m downright fond of them. All of them.
“Age Does Weird Things to You”
When I look at GI Joe weapons trees now, I see a weird kind of fun– a strange kind of time capsule that represents the worst of the line and a good part of my childhood I took for granted. Today, I enjoy pairing figures with brightly colored weapons and collecting Rock Viper rifles in every color of the rainbow. For me, time has softened my views and brought perspective.
And I’m not alone. Here’s Alexx again:
Age does weird things to you, man. As I stated above: I didn’t like the weapons trees, back in the day. I haven’t had access to them until very recently (I mean, with the weapons still on the tree), when I bought a packaged Battle Corps Viper. It was nostalgic! How? I have no idea. I didn’t like these things! I suppose it helps that I never had any of the weapons that came with the BC Viper, but it was also kinda cool cutting them off the tree. Maybe because I gained an appreciation for Gundam models back in high school? Cutting things off a parts tree is kind of a soothing process, now. Plus, I guess it’s just AGE, like I said. Weapons trees were standard, when I was a kid, so it was more of the same. You don’t see them nowadays, so NOW they remind me of childhood! Hence the new view, I suppose.”
There’s nostalgia there for Mike T, as well, even though his childhood figures came with their own unique weapons:
I still like them. I use ’90’s figures more in my photos than any other year. So, I love having the weapons. But, I also love having unpunched trees. I still have a stack of differently colored trees from the figures I opened in the mid ’90’s. I can’t bring myself to take them apart because of nostalgia. I still get interested in color combos I don’t have. I tracked down the 1993 Star Brigade Rock and Roll variants this fall just to get the differently colored weapon trees. Seeing the MP5 tree in purple was just cool. I still open a lot of 1993/1994 carded figures to get mint samples of the figures. I never remove the gear from the trees.
But, one of the hallmarks of the ’80’s line was that gear was specific to a figure. Only Lady Jaye looks good with her spear gun. I can’t use Firefly’s rifle with anyone else. They’re just too iconic. The trees stripped some of that away. But, at the same time, it also worked for me for figures to have similar weapons. That way, they could easily interchange all the guys carried the same ammo.”
These days, I love getting carded 93 or 94 figures just to look at the weapons tree. Like Mike, I sometimes keep them intact. Other times, like Alexx, I snip those weapons off and make good use of them. It’s fun mixing and matching different characters with weapons of all different colors, and I find it livens up both displays and photos.
I’m obsessed with old Battle Gear Accessory Pack weapons and gear for the same reason. I love having these now-iconic GI Joe pieces in oddball colors. Red Scrap-Iron pistol? Yes please. Red Air Commandos Spirit pistol? Double yes please.
But still, many of the weapons from those trees were oversaturated to say the least. So, if you’re a fan of weapons trees, you’re bound to like some more than others.
We all have our favorites.
If you were collecting GI Joe figures in 1993 and 1994, you had a surplus of Rock Viper rifles, Annihilator SMGs, Destro SMGs, and crazy colored martial arts weapons. It’s easy to not focus too much on those accessories, since they’re everywhere and they’re plentiful.
Some weapons tree accessories are more special than others, but we all have our different opinions.
Some of my personal favorites include:
- The newly sculpted scimitar that was included with 93 Scarlett, Chun-Li, Sagat, and Shadow Ninja Snake Eyes
- Blizzard’s uzi and pistol
- Voltar’s SMG in dark grey
- Ice Cream Soldier’s entire weapons tree (as Alexx mentioned previously)
I’m also very partial to the weapons tree that came with several Battle Corps, Star Brigade, and Mega Marines figures in all black– the one that contained the machete, shotgun, MP5, and space marine gun. It’s always useful and the weapons always look great. They suit a variety of figures.
My favorite weapons tree, though, has to be the one that came with the 94 Viper. You got 92 Spirit’s pistol, Sludge Viper’s pistol, Monkeywrench’s trident gun, and Hydro-Viper’s knife. The trident gun works perfectly for the oddly-accessorized 1993 Eel, and the two pistols weren’t overused– plus, since they’re colored in a nice red, they look great with a variety of Cobra figures from across the scope of the entire toy line.
I wish they’d used that weapons tree a few more times, as it would be great to have all of that gear in different colors.
Mike T likes both the practical weapons trees (like the shotgun-SMG-rifle-machete combo I mentioned above) and the more whimsical entries:
My first favorite was the MP5 type weapon that came with the ’93 Duke and ’94 Stalker. I had no knowledge of Tracker at the time. So, those weapons were new to those figures to me. But, for overall trees, I liked both the 1994 Shipwreck since it had cool rifles and a great knife and the 1994 Flint tree. Flint’s was great as the Ambush weapon went to my 1994 Viper as I thought it looked like a Cobra weapon. I bought an extra ’94 Flint at retail just to have his weapons.
Now, though, I appreciate the different color combos. In looking through the old Hasbro solicitation catalogs and such, you can see there were colors that were considered, but never released. (There’s a light purple weapon in one photo.) On some level, I wouldn’t have minded trees in the 2000’s with the 2 packs. It would have lead to more weapons being released and the gun choices of that era didn’t make sense anyways.”
And Alexx has a lot of thoughts on which weapons tree weapons are good, so I’m going to let him finish this section. See you in a few paragraphs:
Anyway, regardless of my lack of love for most trees, there were still some bright favorites that were used often:
– The Rock Viper rifle, in HOT ORANGE, which came with the Star Brigade Astro-Viper. It was my only version of that rifle throughout childhood, and one of my largest guns, so it was my go-to BFG (besides the blue giant beast of a gun that came with Eco Warriors Flint, but figures could rarely hold that and it was a common thumb-breaker). The best thing about the Rock Viper rifle is the canister and the keypad on the side. The canister makes it seem more like it’s powered by energy, and the keypad made it seem like it could be programmed with multiple blaster functions, like a short burst or a BIG BLAST. It was a common weapon for when I made up my own video games.
– The machine-gun looking thing, also in hot orange, also with the Astro-Viper. It was just a cool basic machine gun, so I used it often with many figures.
– The translucent pink sword from Shadow Ninja Nunchuk, because DUH. It’s an energy sword, of course! I had no other clear swords, so that thing was put through its paces. I wish I had more Shadow Ninjas just for those clear melee weapons, but Nunchuk clearly got the best, because everyone knows that translucent pink is BEAM ENERGY. I mean, even before I knew about Gundam I knew that was an energy color! It played a role in every since sci-fi story I ever did, and I’m surprised the handle hasn’t broken off or something.
– the Dee-Jay gun, in bright yellow, which came with Battle Corps Dr. Mindbender. This one was so friggin’ crazy that I was okay with it being bright yellow. It just LOOKS like it should be that color, you know? I doubt anyone has ever been able to figure out what it is. I’m sure anyone who used it came up with a different function. Personally, I used it as an electrical-burst gun; discharging lethal doses of electricity at short distances.
– Finally, the BIG BEEF, or whatever it is. I only had access to versions of it at a friend’s house, but it was a favorite for being chunky and having a huge barrel. The thing looks like it can knock down a steel wall or tear open a hole in the hull of a space ship (and it often did, in our stories). I’m glad to finally have a few versions of it now, and it has been reunited with Star Brigade Ozone, who used it often when I was a kid.
An Eternal Supply
Looking at the weapons tree phenomenon objectively, it’s clear that these oddly-colored, somewhat-thoughtless weapons greatly enhanced my GI Joe experience as a kid. I didn’t appreciate them at the time, but my GI Joe adventures would have been left wanting without them. Thanks to weapons trees, even my wayward figures from 1989 had gear to call their own.
If you look down on 90s figures, and especially look down on the toys from 1993-1994, it may help to think of those weapons trees like you think of the Battle Gear Accessory Packs you had as a kid. Even conscientious kids lost weapons and accessories every now and again, and those accessory packs helped fill that gap. For those of us who grew up with 1990s GI Joes, our accessory packs were built right into the figures themselves.
Were weapons trees the result of Hasbro being lazy and cutting costs? Undoubtedly. Did they provide real value and fun play patterns despite themselves? Absolutely.
As an adult, I appreciate the era of weapons trees much more than I did as a kid. Now I realize what they did for me and all the fun they gave me, and I appreciate the sheer weirdness and fun they can provide in photos and displays.
None of us can go back in time and “stop Hasbro from ruining GI Joe” in the 1990s. But even if a time machine showed up on my driveway in the form of an overpriced, faulty, and impractical gull-wing sports car, I wouldn’t go back and change a single thing.
What were your favorite weapons trees? What were your weapons tree experiences? Did this post change your mind, or maybe help you think about them in a different way? Let me know in the comments!
Look out for a giveaway next week!