When asked to name a popular toyline from the ’80s, most people will plump for He-Man, Transformers or Cabbage Patch Kids. Very few would mention M.U.S.C.L.E (AKA ‘Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere’). It’s the toy fad that time forgot.
Originally from Japan, these bubblegum pink, lycra-clad action figures enjoyed a brief popularity boom in the mid 1980s. They combined everything kids from that era loved – monsters, robots, superheroes and wrestlers – distilled into the size of a pinkie finger.
The M.U.S.C.L.E toyline sprang from the Japanese manga Kinnikuman by the artist/writer duo Yudetamago. It follows the adventures of the titular superhero-cum-wrestler and his colourful friends and foes.
In 1985, Mattel brought the toys to Western supermarkets in a bid to capitalise on the rising popularity of WWF wrestling. (In addition to the intergalactic wrestling plot, many of the figures were loosely based on real-life wrestlers.)
Manufactured from a hard flesh-toned rubber, the figures were reminiscent of handcrafted coral and had a similarly high level of detail. Many of the character designs were downright bizarre, with giant hands, sentient pyramids and humanoid toilets standing out amongst the lycra.
The toys proved to be an instant hit with pint-sized wrastlin’ fans. With four-figure blister packs costing around a dollar, they also appealed to cash-strapped parents. Strategically placed at supermarket checkouts, they frequently made their way into the trolley during a weekly grocery run.
Kids (and adult collectors who really should have known better) quickly set out to find the rarest figures. Interestingly, M.U.S.C.L.E’s marketing did the whole ‘catch ’em all!’ thing around a decade before Pokemon existed. With well over 200 figures created, amassing a complete collection took some dedication.
At the height of its popularity, M.U.S.C.L.E spawned everything from fashion accessories to a Nintendo video game. But its time at the top was short lived. Within a few years, kids had moved on to the likes of G.I Joe. The introduction of fluro coloured figures failed to win kids back and by 1988 it was all over.
In 30 years time, we imagine Coles’ Little Shop Miniatures will be half-remembered in much the same way. With that said, a tiny subset of humanity continues to covet M.U.S.C.L.E, with the rarest figures going for thousands of dollars on eBay. Better hold onto that mini Vegemite, just in case.
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