Last Sunday, my friend Mike T. (and a few other people) posted photos of various Vipers for the #CobraSunday hashtag on Instagram. These photos inspired me to take a Viper photo, and for some reason I decided on the 1990 Sonic Fighters version of the figure. The photo turned out okay and is embedded somewhere in this review.
But taking the photo made me remember how much this figure means to me and how it was a big part of my childhood. The years of 1990, 1991, and 1992 were my most formative GI Joe years. While I had several figures from before and after that time period, those years marked the time when I felt most aligned with the toy line and felt like it was being made specifically with my tastes in mind.
There’s no shortage of content on this figure available on the web, but I wanted to throw my hat into the ring. Both because I have some history with the figure and because I think Sonic Fighters have an unearned bad reputation. People make fun of the “oversized backpacks” all the time, but those people likely weren’t kids when these toys came out. They’ve always looked at Sonic Fighters through adult eyes.
Sonic Fighters and Super Sonic Fighters were a big part of my childhood GI Joe experience, though. They were sometimes the best way to get figures of older, legacy characters and they almost always had interesting colors and accessories. The Viper is no exception.
No one says the Sonic Fighters Viper is a bad figure, but I do think they unfairly deride the figure’s gimmick and the SF sub-line as a whole.
Here’s my opinion, based on both my childhood and the present day.
Making Noise with the 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper
I originally got the Sonic Fighters Viper sometime in 1991, at the age of 7. My memory isn’t extremely clear on everything that happened to me that year, but I do remember a good bit about the Viper.
My stepfather had a little keychain he carried around that made various weapon noises– exactly what you’d hear when you pushed the button on a GI Joe Sonic Fighters backpack. Machine guns, explosions, missile launching noises, and whatever else, all done in that charming and shrill digital style. You probably know the sounds.
I was obsessed with that keychain and had him make noises with it all the time.
When I got the Sonic Fighters Viper in 91, I finally had my own version of that keychain in the form of a huge gold GI Joe backpack. I was delighted.
I remember not understanding the Viper’s mortar accessory, which I also did not understand when I got Downtown a year or so earlier. His other accessories were fine, but kind of meaningless compared to the backpack. I took the figure and his backpack everywhere with me.
The Viper was my main enemy trooper for a while. He supplemented HEAT Viper, Annihilator, Sludge Viper, and the version 2 BAT. But, for a while, he was Cobra’s main soldier. I just loved his look and his noise-making backpack elevated him over his peers.
But, as I said, I took him everywhere with me.
One day while I was playing at a playground near a canal, I was having fun with the figure and his backpack. I was a little too close to the water. The figure slipped out of my hand and, before I knew it, both the Viper and his backpack were in the canal. Luckily my mom was watching and stopped me from going in after it.
That ended my two month friendship with the Sonic Fighters Viper. I lost him almost as soon as I got him, and I was devastated. He was never replaced during my childhood years.
I did get a Sonic Fighters Tunnel Rat and Lamprey in 1991 as well, and loved both of them. But neither of them filled the role that Viper did.
Soon after, I’d get Super Sonic Fighters Rock n Roll, Falcon, and Psyche-Out. They were three of my most treasured childhood figures. But I never played with their noise-making backpacks to the degree that I played with the Viper’s. It was almost as if I was dishonoring his memory by engaging too much with any other hunk of plastic that made machine gun sounds.
That Sonic Fighters Viper was the only version of the iconic Cobra infantry soldier I had until 1998, when I got the 97 Viper and Flight Pod pack. I cherished that figure from the moment I got it, and it brought back strong memories of the soldier I lost seven years earlier. To this day, that first 1997 Viper I bought holds a special place in my collection.
And, a couple years ago, I was finally able to replace my Sonic Fighters Viper. So let’s take a look at the figure.
1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper Review
1990 was a banner year for GI Joe. After some high quality, if strange and unfocused, releases in 1988 and 1989, GI Joe was set on reinventing itself. The main figure line in 1990 was made of all new characters, with no remakes or familiar faces. These characters were the face of the DIC animated series and the marketing blitz of the early 90s.
I never really watched much of the DIC cartoon. I only knew the Sunbow episodes I could rent on VHS. And, around 1990 or so, most of my collection was made up of characters that never appeared in the cartoon. So, to me, GI Joe was Freefall, Stretcher, Rampart, Bullhorn, and Captain Grid Iron as much as it was Flint, Roadblock, and Shipwreck.
GI Joe came out with guns blazing in 1990, not relying on the past to prop itself up. And, as kids at the time, we loved those figures and characters. They had cool sculpts, vibrant colors, and awesome accessories.
But that was just the main line. Over in the Sonic Fighters sub-line, we did get some character re-releases: Dial-Tone, Dodger, Law, Tunnel Rat, Lamprey, and Viper. And, for kids my age, those were our first chances at those figures.
The 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper is a straight-up repaint of the coveted 1986 Viper, but with different accessories and a large, noise-making backpack.
The figure’s color scheme is pleasant– brown, gold, black, and red all work together and give the figure a warm, muted tone. It’s also not a color scheme any other figure in the vintage line had, and it’s a particularly unusual color scheme for a Cobra trooper.
The 1990 Viper’s red face shield looks excellent against the gold helmet, and that’s what really caught my eye as a kid. To this day, I still think the red is striking and makes the figure much more interesting than it would be without it.
The red tampographed Cobra symbol on the figure’s vest does blend in a bit too well with the brown, but that’s the worst thing you can say about the color scheme. As a kid, I thought it was a cool looking toy. As an adult, I’m impressed with all the paint details– there are even gold stripes painted on the inside of the legs!
If you compare the 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper to his 1986 ancestor, you can see some differences in paint applications. Each figure probably has the same number of paint apps, but they both go different ways as far as where they allocate their paint. I really like that, as it keeps the 1990 Viper from just being a carbon copy in different colors.
I particularly enjoy the figure’s black gloves, which look way cooler than the 86’s all-red hands. The gold knee pads and vest pockets are also fantastic.
Other than a Collectors Club remake in the modern style, no other Viper really looks like the 1990 version. I certainly don’t have every Viper ever made, but even in my little collection, the Sonic Fighters Viper stands out among his peers. In a good way! He works well with other Vipers, but doesn’t just fade into the background like so many other repaints do.
Now it’s time to look at the figure’s accessories, which is where its “inflated” price point stemmed from back in 1990. Let’s be honest, we’d all kill to pay even the 2021 equivalent of five 1990 dollars for this figure right now.
The 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper comes with Hit & Run’s Colt SMG, Shockwave’s pistol, Annihilator’s scoped SMG, and Downtown’s 3 piece mortar, all cast in gold plastic. The figure also includes a large golden backpack with four different grey buttons, each of which make a different unconvincing weapon sound. You can listen to the sounds over at 3DJoes.
In 1990, Hasbro was not including battle stands with every figure. That wasn’t an innovation we got until further into the 90s. Coincidentally, the Viper can’t really stand up while he’s wearing his backpack unless you’re some kind of figure-posing magician.
Luckily, GI Joe figures were aimed at kids and not collectors back then, and that didn’t really trouble me or any other kid I knew at the time. If you needed the figure to stand, you took his backpack off. It was no big deal.
As a kid, I didn’t have strong opinions on any of the SF Viper’s accessories other than my distaste for Downtown’s mortar. I like the accessory now, but back then I didn’t even know what a mortar was, and it being a weird 3-piece thing didn’t help my opinions. I do still have my original 1990 Viper’s Colt SMG though, complete with a broken barrel and bent stock. So I must have enjoyed that accessory somewhat back then.
I like both of the figure’s submachine guns and think they work well for him. The Colt SMG is something you usually see with characters on the GI Joe side, but it makes some amount of sense for Cobra soldiers to carry any kind of mass produced firearms. We tend to think of them using only Warsaw Pact-type guns, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. I’ve always liked the Annihilator SMG, too, and find it goes well with any Enemy figure.
The pistol is where I’m a bit conflicted. As a kid, I really disliked that gun, especially as we got more of them in 1993. GI Joe never had a huge variety of handguns compared to anything else, so they were special when they came along. Unfortunately, Shockwave’s pistol has a big grip and figures hold it at an awkward angle. It’s not a big deal for photos or displays, but when you’re playing with a figure and he can’t aim his gun straight it bums you out. I hated that everyone held it at an odd angle.
I don’t hate the piece now, but I do think it’s awkward and not as well designed as many GI Joe accessories.
The 1990 Viper’s accessories do one have one fatal flaw– they’re made of gold plastic. The color matches the figure just fine and they look good enough. It’s just that we all know gold plastic from the 80s, 90s, and early 00s tends to break easily. So you need to be a bit careful with them.
And although all the Sonic Fighters only came with reused accessories from other figures, they were a good way to re-arm your Joes in the days before weapons trees came around. My 1992 Duke used the Viper’s Hit & Run SMG for many years.
I don’t need to talk about how I see the Viper in the world of GI Joe or what kind of uses he has in a collection. I think most people see this figure as a desert-themed Viper and he works well enough in that regard. But I think he also works well in almost any other scenario– forest, jungle, savannah, or urban. Plus, a Viper is just a Viper. This is a Cobra infantryman, and he doesn’t need to be anything more than that. This one can function as a squad leader, a desert trooper, or just a regular old Viper. It’s a great figure and I don’t think anyone has ever had a hard time coming up with a role for it.
Before we wrap up, though, I do want to talk about the backpack a little bit more. The Sonic Fighters and Super Sonic Fighters backpacks are unfairly derided by collectors because they are “too big” and “useless.” But these were toys made for children. The backpacks added another fun element to some great action figures.
Check out this commercial:
There’s no way Dial-Tone didn’t break his hand by punching that Viper in the face. Just saying.
But, more importantly, look at how the kids are playing with these toys. They’re actually moving them around by the backpacks and using the sound feature to represent weapons fire. It’s fun and it makes sense. They’re not setting up intricate displays or dioramas. They’re playing with their toys. And, in that sense, the Sonic Backpacks are great accessories.
We used them all the time as kids. Sometimes it was more fun to use the backpack sounds than to make our own machine gun or laser noises. We didn’t always have the backpacks attached to the figures, but we always had them close at hand when we needed some extra sound effects. Plus, most of the backpacks had some fun details. You could use Dial-Tone’s as a computer station or use the Viper’s as mountain climbing equipment.
They were great.
Now, as a collector, you don’t have to use the backpacks. You can sell them on eBay or throw them in a bin or drawer. They’ll only bother you if you let them. You can use the figures without the backpacks and forget they even exist.
But, for me, the Sonic backpacks will always represent a fun action feature from one of my favorite toy lines. They’ll always remind me of good times playing GI Joe with my friends and losing a $5 action figure to a hungry canal.
For me, the 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper would not be complete without his backpack.
Overall: This is a great version of the most iconic Cobra army builder of all time, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You can see it for yourself. You already know what a Viper is and how the figure works. The SF Viper adds some visual variety to the Cobra ranks and can serve a variety of functions. It’s just a classic action figure in a beautiful and unique color scheme. It might not eclipse the 86 original, but it comes damn close. Highly Recommended.
- Sonic Fighters Viper at 3DJoes
- Sonic Fighters Viper at Forgotten Figures
- Sonic Fighters Viper at YoJoe
Closing Thoughts on 1990 GI Joe Sonic Fighters Viper
Thanks again to Mike T. for inspiring me to write this post! This is a great figure I might not have covered otherwise.
What do you think of Sonic Fighters? How does this Viper rank in the pantheon of Cobra infantrymen? What’s your favorite version of the Viper? Let me know in the comments!