Star Wars Flashback: Early Star Wars Remote Control Toys and Model Rocket Kits
This weekend marks the release of the Wii U, the new Nintendo gaming console. The big selling point for the Wii U is the touch screen control pad, which offers new ways of interacting with video games. With me being a sci-fi fan, hearing about a new kind of video game control scheme immediately leads me to wonder how the new scheme will allow me to better interact with and control the iconic vehicles from my favorite sci-fi franchises when they are ported into a video game environment.
Take Star Wars, for example. The earliest video games that put fans in the seats of Rebel and Imperial star fighters first appeared during the 90s, with titles such as X-Wing and TIE Fighter. (There were also the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back arcade games in the 80s, but those were more like rail shooters than flight simulators.) Yet even before video games had enough sophistication to create a vehicle simulation fit for a galaxy far, far away, Lucasfilm tried to give fans the experience of controlling a Star Wars vehicle through remote control toys and model rocket kits (with varying degrees of success, of course). Click below to look back at these early attempts to put fans in the seat of their favorite Star Wars vehicles.
Lucasfilm has been consistently licensing remote control Star Wars toys and model rocket kits for almost two decades, ever since the mid-90s. Even now, you can purchase remote control Star Wars vehicles that can also seat action figures. Yet the very first Star Wars vehicle toys with remote controls and jet packs date way back to the 1970s, which is what I'm looking at in this post.
In the area of remote control toys, there was Kenner's "Sonic Controlled" Land Speeder, which was available as an exclusive from J.C. Penney between 1978 and 1980.
The good news about the Sonic Controlled Land Speeder was that you could put Star Wars action figures in it. The bad news is that the sonic control system rarely worked. Such shoddy controls made the toy prone to frequent malfunctions, which would explain why it wasn't widely distributed outside of J.C. Penney Christmas catalogs. So if you wanted a toy that would allow you to portray a young Luke Skywalker going on a drunken bender after chugging too much blue bantha milk and running over a few Stormtroopers, jawas, droids and Mos Eisley aliens with his Land Speeder, you were out of luck.
Then there was Kenner's Radio Controlled Jawa Sandcrawler, another J.C. Penney exclusive that appeared in the 1979 and 1980 Christmas catalogs.
From what I've read, the Sandcrawler worked better than the Land Speeder, but not by much. The price tag didn't help either--it was one of the most expensive Star Wars vehicle toys of its time at $30, a rather sizable cost for one of the movie's less popular vehicles. Regardless of its technical issues and price, it was still better than Kenner's other Sandcrawler, the Sandcrawler that was included in the Land of the Jawas playset. While the Remote Control Sandcrawler was made of plastic and could contain action figures, the Land of the Jawas Sandcrawler was a cheap cardboard backdrop that couldn't contain anything.
Kenner may have fumbled in the area of remote control toys, but Estes was able to deliver a few functional Star Wars model rocket kits. Basically, they were just regular model rocket kits in Star Wars drag and you couldn't make them duel each other in a dogfight, but at least they could fly. The two vehicles that Estes released as model rocket kits were the X-Wing Fighter and the TIE Fighter.
Curiously, Estes' TIE Fighter model rocket kit was the only model kit version of the standard TIE Fighter that could be found in the U.S. for the longest time. A TIE Fighter model kit didn't appear on American hobby store shelves until 1995, even though Darth Vader TIE Fighter model kits were sold after the release of Star Wars in 1977 and TIE Interceptor model kits were sold after the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983. Come to think of it, I'm sure that a few hobby enthusiasts bought the kit in the late 70s and early 80s with no intent of launching it just so they could have a TIE Fighter among their Star Wars model collection.
The other vehicles in Star Wars didn't lend themselves well to rocket model kit designs: the Millennium Falcon and Blockade Runner weren't aerodynamic enough, and kits based on the Y-Wing Fighter and the Star Destroyer wouldn't appear until 1995. So what else did Estes release in the 70s? An R2-D2 model rocket kit.
Attack of the Clones would later reveal that astromech droids could have rockets installed in them, but back in the 70s it seemed very odd to have a rocket kit based on a droid and not a vehicle. It was like something an exceptionally cruel droid owner would do to one of his hapless droids: strap a rocket to it and blast it into space. Just looking at the kit's packaging made me think of R2 loudly emitting one of his shrill electronic screams as he's launched into the air.
The R2-D2 rocket kit may have seemed like a stretch, but at least that looked like something from the Star Wars movie. The same could not be said for the Star Wars Photon Torpedo rocket kit.
Even though the Photon Torpedo kit was the most rocket-like and probably flew better than all of the other Star Wars kits, it really felt like Estes was scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one just to get another piece of Star Wars merchandise on the shelves. As you can see from the ad above, the Photon Torpedo kit was marketed as "the missile that destroyed the Imperial Death Star", even though the X-Wings in the movie never launched anything that looked like a missile. (The ad copy sounds like something a huckster would say on the streets of Coruscant to score some money from some unsuspecting dupe: "Why, of course this is the exact same missile that Luke Skywalker used to destroy the Death Star! Why would I lie to you about such an priceless piece of Rebel Alliance history?")
Star Wars wasn't the only sci-fi franchise that sold remote control toys and model rocket kits in the 70s. Battlestar Galactica produced a Colonial Viper model rocket kit and a remote control Cylon Raider (although it didn't fly--it just rolled around like a Roomba--and you couldn't put action figures in it), while Star Trek sold model rocket kits based on the USS Enterprise and a Klingon Battle Cruiser and a battery-powered "Star Trek CSF Controlled Space Flight" toy. Yet Lucasfilm was willing to go the extra mile to put Star Wars fans at the controls of their favorite futuristic vehicles, even if there were a few defects and malfunctions among its earliest attempts. Since that trend continues to this day among many sci-fi franchises, it's clear that such an effort really paid off in the long run for all sci-fi fans.