Drac helped write the review and also took a ton of photos for this post. I’m sure you can tell which are mine and which are his.
The 1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper is not technically a 90s figure, but it is a figure I got around 1990 and played with throughout my childhood. I asked Drac if he wanted to collaborate on a review with me, and he suggested this late 80s weirdo. I thought it was a great idea, because what is 1989 if not the dark herald of the 90s to come?
And boy oh boy, does this figure ever foreshadow what would happen in the 1990s with GI Joe.
1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper and His Bright Green Friend
Dustin: The 1989 Cobra roster is beloved by the kind of hardcore, crusty fans that get mad when you so much as mention an Eco Warrior or a spring loaded action feature. Highly realistic military figures like Alley Viper (perfect real world camouflage) and Night Viper (totally reasonable weapon the figure has no problems holding realistically) are held in the same high regard as earlier figures like Crystal Ball and Python Patrol Copperhead for these stalwart old school fans. Well, 1989 was the year many of my early childhood GI Joe figures came from. I had a couple earlier ones that were probably still hanging out on shelves in 1990 (Crystal Ball, Hardball, Dodgeball, Weiner Dog), but 1990 was the first year I started getting more than a couple Joes, and many of them were from 89. But I never had the fan favorites like Alley Viper and Night Viper.
Instead, I had HEAT Viper and Annihilator. They were my earliest enemy troopers.
As a kid, the HEAT Viper kind of baffled me. It was too avant-garde for my 6 year old brain to make any sense out of. The little missiles were quickly lost and its weapon was a little too cumbersome with the hoses attached. As soon as I got a BAT and Sludge Viper the next year, my HEAT Viper became Cobra’s #1 jobber. He was the first trooper the Joe team took out before moving on to tougher enemies. He would drive the doomed vehicles. He was there exclusively as cannon fodder.
The figure survived most of my childhood (and a house fire), but I eventually swapped his head with Annihilator’s because the figures were so loose and well-played-with that I didn’t even need to unscrew their torsos to remove their heads.
I never thought I liked HEAT Viper as a kid, but I’m appraising my experience differently, now. Maybe I did like him? Otherwise, why would he have gotten so much use? I’ve always had some mixed feelings about this figure, so when my friend Drac suggested we do a collaborative review of it, I knew it was a chance to process my thoughts on the matter.
Drac, did you have HEAT Viper as a kid? If not, what convinced you to finally buy one? I know you’re more of a Transformers guy, so what were your childhood experiences with GI Joe and this figure?
Drac: I grew up with the last couple years of ARAH, mainly the Battle Corps figures with their weapon sprues. Of those, among the first I had was the HEAT Viper v2, the bright green guy with the Judge Dredd helmet and the gigantic rocket launcher. Of course nearly every figure in Battle Corps had a gigantic rocket launcher, which my dad was fond of poking fun at (he used to tell me stories about his hyper-realistic original 1960s GI Joes, and how they could hold a rifle perfectly). But for HEAT Viper, the rocket launcher felt appropriate, because the guy’s whole specialty was having a rocket launcher, after all. Now the thing that confused me about this guy was how his launcher had a name, and the name was “FANG II.” It always made me wonder what happened to the first FANG.
Well, of course, the reason was because this dude wasn’t the first HEAT Viper. As I accumulated Battle Corps figures, I also started to learn about the earlier years of GI Joe figures that I missed. I was given some second-hand early 80s figures, and I started watching the cartoon on VHS. I immediately loved this older stuff more than what was on shelves at the time, so I started hunting for it everywhere.
I don’t remember where or when I first found an original HEAT Viper, but I definitely picked one up sometime, probably from a yard sale. He had none of his parts, the little peg on his head was broken off, but he had kind of a Cobra Commander-esque helmet, so I loved him.
I eventually figured out who he was when I mailed away for the Sky SHARC, which came with a 1990 foldout catalog. That foldout showed a number of the 1989 figures as well, including HEAT Viper. And oh, Dustin! How I pined after everything in that catalogue. I squinted so hard at the accessories to try to figure out what they were and what they did.
Anyway, without parts, HEAT Viper is a weird little dude. The helmet had some strange ridges along the side, it has half a face shield, and some of the figure’s chin pokes out of the bottom (but not all of it). The bright orange and purple make for an arresting color scheme, which is of course perfectly natural and appropriate for a military uniform. I like the rough strap that trails down the middle of his torso – what is it for? Who knows. He’s got some purple webgear on his legs and a molded-in silver handgun for the times when the Joes get too close for missiles.
So what do you think of the design of this oddball?
1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper Review
Dustin: I loved looking at the older catalogs, too, especially as we moved into the 93-94 era. I loved a lot of those Battle Corps-era figures, but they kind of lost a little bit of magic when they stopped coming with unique accessories in 1993. And I had HEAT Viper v2 as well! I remember being quite taken aback when I received that figure. “Why did the goofy-ass orange guy need another figure?” I asked myself. Of course, I got Countdown and Ozone v2 around then, too, who were also new versions of figures I already owned. But HEAT Viper v2 was something entirely different. I kind of just used him as another Cobra goon.
But, to answer your question, we’d better get on with the actual review!
The 1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper figure is an oddity, but he’s odd in a way that only later-era Cobra could pull off. He has an asymmetrical helmet with an exposed chin. As you said, Drac, he’s also done up in bright orange and deep purple with some dark grey and silver highlights. It’s honestly a stunning color scheme, and there was nothing else that looked like this figure at the time.
Even if you don’t like him, you probably look at him and instantly wonder “what’s this guy’s deal?” He demands your curiosity.
Well, he’s a Cobra Bazooka Man, which makes him the enemy equivalent of someone like Zap or, uhhh, Bazooka. That’s actually a specialty no Cobra troop type had before he came around. And he certainly does it with unique Cobra flair.
I mentioned that as a kid, he was a bit too off-the-wall for me. I didn’t know how to use him. But now I appreciate just how much he stands apart from everything else. The colors and the helmet are just so unique. As an adult, I really enjoy looking at this figure. He does have those pegs on his legs, though, which don’t look great unless you have the accompanying missiles. Which I don’t, really. I only have one!
Drac, what are your opinions on his overall look? How do you think he functions as a GI Joe figure, both as a toy and within the in-fiction universe?
Drac: In some ways I think he functions a little less well than HEAT Viper V2, weirdly enough. The asymmetrical helmet and felt-lookin’ straps kinda conspired to make him feel, I dunno, a little less tough than the V2 version? V2 has a distinctly more muscular torso, and he also has those knee-high boots with the giant kneepads which make him feel kinda like a motorcycle cop (plus, the kneepads do feel appropriate, since he’s probably gotta kneel to use that massive launcher…). The guy had the attitude of a boss enemy, or at least a miniboss, even without his signature weapon. V1 doesn’t feel quite as evocative on his own.
But on the other hand, it’s the guy’s weird details that make him stand out as a favorite for me. Like you said, he demands your curiosity. And it gets better when you read his original file card, which describes all the technology in his rocket launcher and his helmet (Active heat vents! Infrared suppressor! Fiber-optic link!). For me, these concrete details were the missing link between “neat action figure” and “imagination kindling,” and it’s one reason why I’m obsessed with vintage toy file cards like this, especially ones from the ARAH and Transformers lines. The quote from the bottom has always stuck with me too, and paints a picture of a lone HEAT viper hanging out in a bombed-out building, his range-finder and trajectory computer filling his mind with data he needs to take his one shot at a Rolling Thunder or whatever, knowing if he misses his shot, the Joes will be all over him in seconds.
So I guess it’s time to talk about those crazy accessories, eh?
Dustin: Yes, let’s talk accessories! But first, I must concede that HEAT Viper v2 does cut a very strapping, muscly figure. He is all frowns and biceps.
The 1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper comes with a light grey bazooka, light grey backpack, six light grey missiles (that attach to its legs), a thick light grey hose (that attaches to the weapon and the figure’s head), and a regular black accessory hose that connects the weapon to the figure’s shoulder. All of the grey parts are prone to discoloration.
With all the missiles attached to his legs and his hoses connected the right way, HEAT Viper is a visually arresting figure. He just looks armed to the teeth in a way that only the best GI Joe figures can capture. No other toy line really comes close to doing something like this.
I’ve seen people configure HEAT Viper’s gear a lot of different ways– rocket launcher held over the shoulder like a standard bazooka, the wrong end of the launcher pointing forward (see YoJoe.com), and plenty of other things.
Personally, I always keep the launcher held underhand in his left hand, where the pipes from the backpack can help support its weight. If you take that route, the figure is pretty easy to stand up and pose, even though the weapon is absolutely huge.
What’s your take on the accessories and how the figure interacts with them, Drac? Do you find them fiddly or frustrating? Personally, I think they could be much worse in that regard.
Drac: I’ve had worse times getting figures to pose with even simpler accessory sets (glares at original Alley-Viper). HEAT Viper is comparatively easy for me. The two rubber tubes can sometimes be a little too rigid to allow him to aim his launcher well, but it’s surprisingly easy to get him into good poses.
I do like trying to figure out alternate configurations for all the hoses and stuff. For one thing, the front end of the launcher, to me, looks less like a rocket launch barrel than the back end. And I always feel like a bazooka guy should have the thing braced on his shoulder. But either of these configurations end up with the “FANG” emblem facing the wrong way, which is completely unacceptable. It’s also impossible to get him into any sort of kneeling or knees-bent pose unless you remove the two missiles from the backs of his ankles, which you can see in some of the photos in this review.
I tend to stick one end of the black tube in the launcher, and the other end into the tip of a protrusion in the backpack, rather than the intended hardpoint on his shoulder. Speaking of the backpack, what on Earth does it do? The bio card only describes the launch tube and the targeting systems, leaving it up to our imagination what functions the backpack accomplishes. The sculpt suggests it might be a rack for more (or different types) of missiles, perhaps. But then it’s got this huge exhaust tube, like one that’s been transplanted from a motorcycle. I’ve never been able to reconcile this thing. Obviously a giant tech-laden rocket launcher would give off lots of heat, but I don’t know why the heat would end up coming out of the backpack!
What do you think?
Dustin: Okay, this is the part I’ve been eagerly awaiting– where we discuss how on earth this stuff probably actually works! You know, in the fake real world. The hyper-realistic military-only world of GI Joe.
I think as far as toy design goes, the pipes on the backpack exist to support the rocket launcher’s weight so the figure can hold it better. In fiction, though, I think those protrusions on the backpack are missiles. And I think they launch from the backpack! If you think about it that way, the exhaust pipes make sense. The bazooka can vent itself through the rear, like real world rocket launchers do, but if a missile launches from the backpack, that exhaust needs somewhere to come out, too. And I think the backpack missiles work with the HEAT Viper’s targeting stuff so he can easily take down enemy helicopters and such with a more vertically launched rocket.
The rockets on the legs are obviously extra ammo for the bazooka.
So, the grey hose on the bazooka plugs into the helmet– the orange part of the helmet (with no visor) serves as the area for all of the targeting reticles and HUDs and stuff, and the silver side (the visor) allows the HEAT Viper to see what’s actually in front of him. The black hose is the designer’s poor attempt at making the launcher “harness supported,” as it says on the file card. I don’t think it accomplishes that goal, but it does look very cool. I do like your idea of plugging that hose into the backpack, though.
Also, I have one more fun little topic to discuss before we wrap up, but I wanted to touch on something else first. The HEAT Viper was repainted into Fast Blast Viper in 2001-2002. The first version of that figure had most of HEAT Viper’s accessories, but used an Undertow head instead of HEAT Viper’s trademark helmet. I guess Hasbro was trying to make this late 80s weirdo more palatable to the hardcore army builders of the early 00s. But, without that helmet, the figure can’t properly interact with all of its accessories. The figure was also repainted into Python Patrol HEAT Viper in 2003, which is a neat looking figure with a slightly-remolded helmet that also loses the 89 version’s exposed chin.
What do you think of my half-baked theories? And what do you think of the repaints?
Drac: Well, consider my mind blown. I honestly never imagined the backpack serving as an alternate weapon, because I always assumed all of HEAT Viper’s gear served to help him fire his bazooka! The back-mounted rocket-pack makes a hell of a lot of sense to me (as far as a toy like this can make sense), and I can even see the differently shaped rockets as serving different purposes depending on what type of target the Viper is trying to hit!
I’ve never found Python Patrol to be especially compelling, and I can’t forgive the unpainted chin, but I do enjoy the two other redecos, even from just a colorway perspective. Red, gold, and black will always be a winning combo.
One last thing about the rocket launcher. I’ve always felt like the thing is shaped like it should shoot something other than rockets. Like, the narrow barrel makes me think of the beam rifles from Akira. The attached hoses make me think it could shoot out something else, too, like maybe flames?
Dustin: What an uncannily perfect transition!
As a kid, I at least subconsciously shared your thoughts and always used the HEAT Viper as a flamethrower trooper. At least when I bothered to use him with his launcher. It seemed like a sci-fi flamethrower to me and he had HEAT in his name.
Taxan, the developers of the first GI Joe NES game, seemed to take HEAT Viper’s name as literally as 6 year old Dustin did. They were flamethrower troopers! This influenced my thinking a lot as a kid, since a friend and I rented that game pretty consistently. I did have my HEAT Viper’s file card back then, though, and whenever I’d binge-read all of my Joe file cards, I’d remember that HEAT Viper was actually a bazooka trooper and then use him that way for a while. Until I forgot again. Fun times!
Any closing thoughts on HEAT Viper before we issue our final verdicts, Drac? I have to say that I like him a lot more now as an adult than I ever did as a child. I’m surprised at how much my opinion has changed, in fact.
Drac: Man, I’ve really got to sink some time into those NES games. I don’t post about it nearly as much, but NES and Famicom is another major hobby of mine. I tried both games, and I think I briefly owned one of them, when I was a teen, but not much since then. It makes me wonder if the Japanese developers had access to the file cards or if they just interpreted the character based on his visual design and name.
Drac’s Verdict: At any rate, HEAT Viper has been a longtime favorite of mine. I have a very tiny ARAH collection of less than 20 figures, and this HEAT Viper is among them. I even had (for a while) the no-ring version of the character that was released, I think, during the 50th range, but he was eventually sold along with nearly everything else from those years. He comes Recommended for me, with the mild caveat that he probably needs to be more or less complete to be enjoyed. You could probably lose the backpack and the black tube and still get the fun factor.
Dustin’s Verdict: My opinion of this toy has softened over time and now I like it pretty well. As Drac said, this is a figure you pretty much need to have complete. At least the launcher, backpack, and grey hose. It’s also weird and won’t suit everyone’s taste– but that’s why I like it as much as I do. HEAT Viper fills a necessary spot in the Cobra legion and does it with style. Still, there are much better Cobra troop types, in my opinion. But because he’s such an aggressive little oddball with delightful colors, he is at least Mildly Recommended.
Closing Thoughts on the 1989 GI Joe HEAT Viper
Thanks for reading! And thanks to Video Dracula for suggesting this weird figure, helping with the review, and making the whole thing much more interesting.
Did you have HEAT Viper during the years when you were actively playing with GI Joe toys? If so, what did you think of him as a kid? Or did you get the figure as an adult and what caused you to buy the figure? Let us know in the comments!