An action figure needs a place to act. And while pretending an empty shoebox is a secret HQ, or that dangerous caves lie under your bed, very few imaginations beat an awesome playset. While its heyday is mostly over, it’s worth celebrating the best playsets — new and old — that gave our toys a place to belong.
1) Death Star, Star Wars
Kenner revolutionized the action figure industry by bringing out the Star Wars toyline in 3-3/4-inch scale, allowing them to build vehicles and playsets that were (mostly) in-scale and not prohibitively expesive. The Death Star Playset was the first of these, and it was a doozy — it had four levels: the fourth floor included the laser cannon, the third featured the bridge Luke and Leia swung across, the second had the control room C-3PO and R2-D2 hide in, and the bottom was the trash compactor, complete with a Dianogoa trash monster figure and foam “garbage” which kids could crush with the moving walls. The set also had great looking cardboard walls with illustrations to make it really look like the inside of the Death Star. Of course, Kenner soon learned that cardboard was no match for a kid playing with toys, and playsets become fully plastic shortly thereafter.
2) Secret Sewer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toylines have had a history of great sewer HQ-themed playsets, and man, Playmates' most recent version does not disappoint. This massive Secret Sewer set stands an insane three and a half feet tall, which includes three large levels of the sewer, the street above it, and then the building above that! It’s loaded with features, including a zipline, missile-shooting guns, a hidden dumpster camera, trap doors, an elevator, and best of all, a Shredder training dummy for the Turtles to practice on. This amazing Secret Sewer was released only last year, meaning the age of the playset isn’t over… necessarily.
3) Defiant, G.I. Joe
When the Joes need to go into space — possibly because Cobra has shot a fast food chain up there — where to they go? To the Defiant, the space ship housed in this 1987 playset. The base contains the requisite cockpits and laser cannons, computer stations to monitor the launch, and two elevators. But the spaceship inside was insane — it had two parts, a booster/space station with a revolving entry hatch/airlock, crew quarters, a cockpit, hidden lasers and more. The second was a smaller shuttle, which featured its own cockpit and a space vehicle bay with a crane. This shuttle could latch on to the booster,to be carried by it, or actually dock with it, in case the “station” was already out there in space. In full disclosure, the base that houses the shuttle is, technically, some kind of massive, space shuttle-launching truck. However, it’s not as much a vehicle as it is a location that happens to be mobile, so I’m allowing it. This will come up again.
4) Boulder Hill, M.A.S.K
The Transformers never really had any playsets to speak of, but M.A.S.K. was there for kids who wanted locations that transformed into… other things? This innocent-seeming gas station was in fact the cover for the M.A.S.K. HQ, which means when the forces of VENOM approached, the gas stations sign would reveal its hidden guns, one armored wall would swing around the station itself while another protective barrier would deploy. If that didn’t stop them, they still had the freeze rays, the turrets, and, oh, yeah, the giant fucking boulder that could pop off the nearby mountain to crush their foes. And then there was a trap-door on the gas station’s ceiling that opened directly into a jail cell, because every good HQ (and playset) needs a trap door.
5) Eternia, Masters of the Universe
Did you own this most massive of Mattel’s Masters of the Universe playsets? Then you’re either incredibly lucky or a liar, because Eternia was rare and it was also insanely expensive for the ‘80s. It justified its price to kids, though — the massive, lion-headed central tower had a moat and a drawbridge and lion paws that crushed intruders trying to enter (and in case bad guys escaped that, the lion’s jaws dropped down, too. Eternians took their security seriously). Inside, an elevator spanned four levels, including a parapet with a laser blaster, a command center, and a computer console level. But that’s only one of Eternia’s three towers — it also had the Castle Grayskull Tower, which featured a cell with another trap door, while the Viper Tower had a massive snake head that could periscope up. Oh, and then there was an electronic monorail that connected them all. And then there were three bonus vehicles, the Battle Tram, the Sky Cage, and the Jet Pack Fighter, all of which could run on the monorail. If you had this as a kid, I hate you.
6) Batcave, Imaginext DC Super Friends
Sorry, all you other Batcave playsets, but this set designed for 3-year-olds has you all beat. It has a drawbridge to launch the Batmobile or Robin’s motorcycle, a elevator to reach the set’s three levels, a safe room for dangerous enemies like Clayface or Mr. Freeze, an awesome iris-opening door, the Bat-console, a grappling hook/winch to climb up, a hidden missile launcher, hidden entrances and exits — and most importantly, it’s the most expansive Batcave set ever built, showing not only Batman’s command center but all the places that surround it. Honestly, I’ve thought about fathering a child just to justify buying one of these things.
7) Backstage Playset, The Muppets
Look at this thing. Look at it. It’s easy to see why Palisades Toys went out of business; how could any toy company afford to make playsets so enormous, so detailed, and so wonderful, without going out of business? And Palisades made a bunch of these types of playsets (the Swedish Chef's kitchen is almost as crazy), although the Backstage playset was absolutely the king. I’ve talked about levels in these write-ups, but this thing is basically a two-story building, with “wood” floors and paneling, “brick” walls,” the callbox that Scooter used to call Muppets to the set, stairs to the upstairs dressing rooms — hell, the floor is actually two-inches off the ground because someone noticed The Muppet Show’s exit doors were lower than the stage floor, so they added an extra two inches of plastic for accuracy that most Muppets fans would have miss and virtually all of them forgiven. It — like Palisades Toys itself — was too good to exist in this world.
8) U.S.S. Flagg, G.I. Joe
Is an aircraft carrier a vehicle? Not when once that aircraft carrier is assembled it’s never going to move. G.I. Joe’s largest playset was the legendary U.S.S. Flagg, which was a ridiculous 7.5-feet long — once you built it, you weren’t picking it up and carrying it around, and you sure as hell weren't bringing it in the tub. What it lacked in special features it more than made up in being fucking enormous — although that’s not to say the Flagg was without its non-size-oriented charms. It had a microphone/speaer system so kids could make announcements to the entire crew, radar, missile launchers, a command tower with an elevator, a crane for pulling vehicles, whatever those things are that help stop planes when they land on aircraft carriers, an escape boat, a giant maintenance elevator, and a few vehicles for towing and fueling. But to be fair, the most special feature was how many actual G.I. Joe vehicles you could set on the thing and make it look like it was ready for some serious combat (it was a lot).
9) Technodrome, TMNT
When Shredder and Krang tired of getting their asses handed to them by pizza-obsessed amphibians, they retired to the stately Technodrome, a big ball of a playset full of evil fun. It had a ton of rooms: Krang’s laboratory, a mutation room, the requisite jail cell, Shredder’s command center, and more. It was also filled with a delightful array of Turtle torture devices, like a “brain scrambler,” manacles, a trapped secret entrance, an “ooze scanner” (?), among them. But the best part of the Technodrome with the “Eye-Spy Radar," which was literally a giant bloodshot eyeball on the top of the dome that could be launched onto unsuspecting guests of the teenaged mutant variety. Again, the Technodrome was capable of movement, but like the Defiant set, it was much more a location on wheels than a regular vehicle. The toy’s packaging bills itself as a “mobile fortress,” so the fortress aspect makes it count. So there.
10) Enterprise Bridge Playset, Star Trek: The Next Generation
This playset may not be as large as some of the other playsets on this list, and it may not have as many action features, but let me tell you what it does have — a lot of accuracy. It’s a shockingly authentic layout of the Enterbridge bridge, with room (and seats!) for all the bridge crew that should be there. And hey, maybe it didn’t have a trap door or missiles, but it did have a light-up viewscreen and play eight different sounds right from the TV series, including red alerts, launching photo torpedoes, a hailing frequency, and more. If you were a TNG fan, this playset provided every thing you could possibly need to explore the galaxy with — something almost no other playset could truly say.
11) Ewok Village, Star Wars
Regardless of how you felt about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, you have to admit that Kenner’s Ewok Village playset was awesome. It seemed like it had countless hidden nooks and features, although it turns out you can count them: 1) a net trap for catching game/Rebels, 2) a rope/wood elevator, 3) a tree with an escape chute, 4) a tree with a hidey-hole, 5) various huts, 6) a swinging boulder trap, 7) a campire with a spit to roast game/Rebels, 8) C-3PO’s litter, and 9) an Ewok drum, which ain’t bad at all. This thing was awesome enough that Kenner re-released it as the Sherwood Forest playset for their Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves toyline, meaning Robin and his Merry Men really had to duck when they entered their homes in the trees.
12) Fortress of Fangs, Dungeons & Dragons
The only playset in the Dungeons & Dragons line is an unsung masterpiece of toy design; if more people had cared about the D&D cartoon back in the early ‘80s, it would be talked about as much He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers and the like. Seemingly made by actual nerds who wanted an old-school D&D dungeon for their toys, the dragon-head-shaped fortress included so much to explore, with stairwells and sliding tunnels, traps like a hidden floorboard catapult, a moving spike wall and a trap-door, and, of course, a treasure chest for those figures who survived the Fortress’ dangers... and defeated the included demon figure. Everytime I see this thing, I get sad that we never had a real Dungeons & Dragons toyline with awesome sets like these.
13) Cobra Terrordrome, G.I. Joe
The best playset in the G.I. Joe line wasn’t the Defiant, and it’s wasn’t the U.S.S. Flagg. It didn’t even belong to the good guys. It was Cobra’s Terrordrome playset, a massive Cobra fortress that packed more rooms and features into its circular base than the Defiant and Flagg had combined. It had seven separate rooms just on its lower level — three vehicle bays (with fueling stations!), two laser cannon installments, one closed-off “storage” room, and two rooms for whatever you wanted, although one of them contained the switch that launched the awesome Firebat jet out of the Terrordrome’s central tunnel. The sides and top bristled with lasers and missile launchers, and top also had four command stations so that Cobra could see the Joe forces coming (usually minutes before they kicked their asses). While all these other playsets are fun, the Cobra Terrordrome just felt badass — like a true representation of how a snake-themed terrorist organization might design its fortresses.
14) Castle Grayskull, Masters of the Universe
What can be said? When you say the word “playset” to people, more of them will immediately think of Castle Grayskull over any other playset ever. Its iconic design is still powerful today (can you believe they were selling castle toys with giant skulls on the front in 1982?), and if it didn’t create concepts like the trap-door feature, the prisons, the drawbridge, the towers, an elevator, the missiles, the “command centers,” and so forth, it codified them so that virtually every other playset made from that point forward would look to Castle Grayskull as its guide. Hell, the dungeon, covered with hands and claws and tentacles desperately trying to get out, had more creativity that most other toylines did in their entirety — and that was a sticker. Mattel is releasing a new Castle Grayskull for their Masters of the Universe Classic line, which they say will trump the original, but they might be surprised at how much magic the original playset still holds.