Honey, I Shrunk the Blockbuster Space Opera Franchise

With the summer blockbuster movie season officially at hand, I suppose I should get around to saying something about Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, since this year marks the 30th anniversary of its release. I could go on and on about what it was like to be there to witness the arrival of the first Star Wars sequel (the giddy anticipation of waiting in a long, long line just to get into the lobby of the movie theater, the thrill of buying new sets of Star Wars merchandise, the tireless effort of annoying my parents for hours on end when I didn't get the Star Wars stuff I wanted, etc.), but I don't think I could say anything that hasn't already been said before by other Star Wars geeks of my generation. So, this post is dedicated to a brief post-Empire moment of Star Wars toy history that has sadly gone unappreciated by many: Kenner's Star Wars Micro Collection series. Read on . . .

By the time Empire came and went, Kenner had established their 3 and 3/4 inch action figure series to be the cornerstone of their Star Wars merchandising campaign. (Kenner also released a brief line of 12 inch figures shortly after the first movie, but that line came to an end shortly before Empire.) The action figure line had been growing by leaps and bounds, including both main characters and characters who only appeared for a minute (or less) on screen. The action figures also had vehicles and playsets, each made so that avid Star Wars toy buyers could re-create their favorite scenes from the movies.

However, one thing that the action figures and their accessories couldn't capture was the vast scale of the battles in Star Wars. Sure, Star Wars and Empire featured scenes which were crowded with Stormtroopers and Rebel soldiers (particularly the Hoth battle in Empire) but unless you had parents who were super-rich pushovers who catered to your every whim, you probably only had one action figure for each kind of Stormtrooper and Rebel soldier. So, re-creating scenes featuring individual characters such as Luke, Han, Leia and company were easy with the toys provided, but re-creating scenes of huge battles required LOTS more imagination. Indeed, it felt counter-intuitive to have Star Wars toys that could not be used to recreate said "wars".

(Kenner was particularly cruel about this: The pictures on boxes of vehicle toys such as the Millennium Falcon and the AT-AT were almost always crowded with Stormtrooper action figures. Great way to taunt your consumer base, Kenner.)

To compensate of the lack of scope which dogged the action figure line, Kenner briefly tried something similar to the classic army men toys, dozens of tiny plastic green soldiers--and maybe a military vehicle or two--which were sold in one bag. Thus, 1982 saw the launch of the Star Wars Micro Collection series. (Pictures and links below provided by the Star Wars Collectors Archive site and 12back.com.)

The Micro Collection series featured three "worlds": Death Star World, Hoth World, and Bespin World. The worlds themselves consisted of multiple playsets which could be linked together to form a single world. The playsets were sold both individually and (with the exception of Hoth) as complete world sets. The figures which came with the playsets were tiny, painted figurines made of die-cast metal. The figurines included the main Star Wars characters in various poses and outfits, as well as multiple Stormtroopers and Rebel soldiers (depending on the playset).

The Micro Collection line also released four vehicles: the X-Wing Fighter, the Snowspeeder, the TIE Fighter, and the Millennium Falcon. Each of the three smaller vehicles came with pilot figures and "battle-damage" stickers, and could be made to "crash" by pressing a button; releasing the button would cause the vehicle to reassemble, ready for its next mission of damage-inflicting star warring.

The best thing about these Micro Collection toys was their scale. Even at an early age, I could tell that Kenner had to adjust the sizes of the vehicle and playset toys to fit the action figures, thus making them less movie-accurate (yes, I was THAT anal-retentive). Thus, the TIE Fighter toy had smaller solar panels (gasp!), the X-Wing Fighter toy had a stubbier nose and stubbier wing-mounted laser cannons (sacrilege!), and the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon toy could only fit two figures, not four (have they no shame!!!). The playsets were likewise stunted. With the exception of the Death Star playset, most other Star Wars playsets were simple, molded plastic bases with cardboard backgrounds. Three playsets--Land of the Jawas, Hoth Ice Panet, and Rebel Command Center--featured bases made from the same plastic mold, while the Creature Cantina playset was even re-painted for Kenner's short-lived Real West toy line.

(It should be noted that the modern Star Wars toys by Hasbro had been overcoming the scale problem by releasing scale-accurate-yet-much-more-expensive vehicle toys for their action figures. The re-scaled vehicles so far include the X-Wing Fighter, the TIE Fighter, the AT-ST, the Millennium Falcon, and the AT-AT.)

The Micro Collection sets didn't have the scale problem; in fact, Kenner used the smaller size to the greatest extent possible. The Micro Death Star playsets were much more movie-accurate: Not only did they feature the detention cell block where Princess Leia was held, but it was also placed right over the trash compactor (just like in the movie!). The Micro Hoth playsets were much more ambitious than the Hoth playsets for the action figures: They came with dozens of Stormtrooper and Rebel soldiers in Hoth gear (to re-create the epic Empire battle), and they also featured other Hoth-specific elements such as the ion cannon, secret Rebel base with opening and closing blast doors, and the base's generator. As for the Micro Bespin playsets, what made them special was that the bigger action figures didn't even have a Bespin playset (unless you count a small set made entirely out of thin cardboard with Bespin images printed on it an actual playset). The Bespin playsets featured a working carbon freezing chamber and a circular control room window through which Luke could be spring-launched. The Micro Millennium Falcon had more features than its larger counterpart for the action figures, including a cockpit that could fit more than two figurines.

Unfortunately, the Micro Collection series never found success and it disappeared from toy stores shortly before Return of the Jedi hit the theaters in summer 1983. Maybe it was that the action figure line had already cemented its role as the toy of choice for Star Wars collectors, or maybe it was launched too late after the release of Empire to really make much of an impact on the fans.

Nevertheless, the possibilities would have been amazing had the Micro Collection been popular. There could've been more Micro Collection sets, with interlocking playsets for Tatooine World and Endor World. Additional scale-accurate vehicles would've also been a blast, such as a Micro AT-AT, a Micro Imperial Shuttle, a Micro TIE Bomber and TIE Interceptor, and Micro A-Wing, B-Wing, and Y-Wing Fighters. (Even the remote-controlled Sandcrawler, which was originally released for the action figures, would've been a perfect fit for the Mirco Collection series because the scale would've been more accurate.) Given such a small size, even non-scale-accurate-but-still-awesome vehicle/playset toys such as a Micro Star Destroyer (complete with a hangar bay for two Micro TIE Fighters), a Micro Jabba's Sail Barge, and a Micro Blockade Runner (complete with an exploding airlock door for invading Stormtroopers and ejectable escape pods) would have been possible. Furthermore, they all would have been cheaper than the Lego Star Wars sets, the closest modern analogs to the Micro Collection series.

The Star Wars Collectors Archive site has the most extensive information about the Star Wars Micro Collection series, including pictures and details about the following prototypes which were designed but never released for sale to the public:


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