In 1998, Hasbro released their second wave of Toys R Us exclusive figure sets. The sets from 1997 had sold well to a starved collector base, even though their quality left much to be desired. The '98 assortment was also geared towards collectors but featured much better quality than that of the previous year's figures. It still featured a plethora of newly released molds, collector favorites and more army builders. The crown jewel of the '98 3 figure packs was the Cobra Infantry Team. It featured two Vipers in Cobra blue and the subject of this profile, a grey Viper mold named the Cobra Officer. It was widely loved by collectors and the Infantry Team figures became a staple of collections. In the years that followed, the Viper mold was made largely irrelevant by a multitude of releases of other army builders and a new influx of collectors who had missed this Cobra Officer at retail focused their attentions instead on a new crop of retail army builders. Looking back, though, Hasbro got the Viper mold so right back in '98 that no subsequent retail release has lived up to these high quality gems.
For my money, the greatest army builder set that Hasbro has released since 1994 was the 1998 Cobra Infantry Team. It featured only army builders in classic colors, great accessories and all for a bargain price. Since then, Hasbro has tried many other army builder ideas but all have fallen just short of the brilliance that was their first attempt. This isn't to say they are bad, but, from a pure army building perspective, they failed to live up to the standard set by the original. The Python Patrol featured colors that were too offbeat. The Cobra Infantry 6 pack came close but just loses out to these figures due to the horrid accessories in the Toys R Us exclusive set. The Urban, Ninja and Crimson Guard set all featured too many characters to be in contention. The Night Watch was also close, but lost on mold choice and, again, lesser accessories. The Viper Pit got the accessories right, but the lack or originality coupled with the poor quality of the figures still gives this original Cobra Infantry Team the edge.
This figure holds a special place in my collection for a couple of different reasons. First off, back in late 1998 when I first acquired it, he was among a very small group of Joe figures that comprised my collection. This lead to the figure getting lots of use as he was, basically, the entire sum of my Cobra collection at that time. The other reason why I'm fond of this figure is because of the circumstances surrounding the first time I found it at retail. I distinctly remember the Saturday in December of 1998. I was moving apartments at the time and took a break when it started raining. My roommate and I went to get lunch and I stopped in a local Toys R Us. There, I found most of the packs and then proceeded to stand in a very long line to buy them. The other reason I remember this day so vividly, though, is because it was that night that I first met my wife. So, I associate this figure with great memories all around.
The 1998 Joe figure sets actually shipped on at least 3 distinct occasions. The first shipments appeared in very late 1998. These were readily available for about 6 weeks before 1999 began. By '99, though, Hasbro had shifted their production facilities away from Joe and were fully focused on producing massive amounts of Episode I product. In the summer of '99, though, Hasbro was able to squeeze in another full production run of the '98 Joe figure sets. Again, these weren't terribly difficult to find, but the Infantry set and the Cobra Polar Assault did sell out again in another 6 or 8 weeks. But, if collectors had missed both of these opportunities, Hasbro came through again in late 1999 and produced one last allotment of these figures for the Christmas holidays. Again, if you were hitting retail during this 6 to 8 week period the Cobra Infantry was not hard to find. But, if you missed these sets all three times, you were then out of luck.
The '98 Cobras actually feature the most intricate paint masks of any Viper molds released in modern times. In fact, they are actually more intricate than even the 2002 Convention Vipers. Their one fatal flaw is the lack of a Cobra sigil. As I've said before, though, I don't consider that a terrible thing. Cobra would not, necessarily, want to advertise their soldiers when they invade foreign lands. While it would be nice to have a sigil, it's not something that ruins the figure for me. What is interesting to me, though, is that Hasbro moved to such bland paint masks for its later retail release Vipers. The '98 paint masks had already been created (which is the most expensive part of the process) and had proven to work. As such, it didn't make much sense for the later Vipers to feature such reduced paint applications. I have a feeling that was done to make the Convention figures more special and Hasbro also realized that collectors would buy any Viper mold: regardless of how little effort Hasbro put into the figure. (Though it is odd that the Viper Pit with the solid accessories, colors and paint masks are warming the pegs at a greater rate than any other modern Viper.)
If you look at this figure, you can really start to appreciate the detail that went into it. The figure only really features 5 colors: grey, silver, gold, black and flesh, but the small details that had paint applications make the figure much more visually interesting. If you look closely, you can see that the figure's wrist gauntlets actually feature not one color, but two. They are thinly lined with gold. The figure's sidearm also features a differently colored pistol than holster. The figure even features a thin band of silver ringing his collar: separating the head from the torso. It is these small details that that set the '98 figures apart from the multitude of later Viper mold releases. It makes this figure look like more a leader since his uniform isn't as bland. It is also one of the reasons why this figure has remained popular despite the fact that Hasbro has subsequently released a large number of Viper molds.
The other area where the '98 figures succeeded was with their accessories. All of the '98 Cobra Infantry figures featured the standard rifle with removable stock, full field backpack, combat pistol and a black battle stand. While not the traditional Viper accessories (the entire accessory complement was a repaint of that originally included with the 1991 Dusty figure) they perfectly fit the figure's purpose. These were truly the accessories of a field infantry soldier. There was no need to look beyond what was included with the figure to give him fitting accessories. It was perfect right out of the package.
In my collection, this figure serves a few distinct purposes. He may simply act as an officer to the younger blue Vipers. He may also act as a night attack squad that supports Night Vipers. Or, he may join in urban assault squads as his grey meshes well with the black Urban Alley Viper. Many collectors used the figure as a Stinger Driver or night assault figure. But, mostly, I use the figure as the officer for which he was intended. However, my Cobra Officers are not officers in the traditional military sense. Sure, they do lead lesser skilled or experienced troops into battle and can be the hard task masters. But, they are chosen more for these qualities than anything else. Cobra Officers are often men who rose from the ranks out of the run of the mill Viper corps. They don't, necessarily, have any special education, though that may be their gateway to bigger and better things. (If you want to be a Crimson Guard in my Joeverse, you have to have a college degree at least.) They act more as enlisted commanders rather than full fledged, decision making officers. To give the Officer recruits the hard edge they need to discipline an unruly cast that makes up the Viper Corps, the final initiation rite into officerhood is for the new officer to kill a Viper from the officer's own unit. It creates the detachment necessary for an officer to do his job, but also showcases the ruthlessness that Cobra espouses in their lowest ranks. It also gives the lower Vipers more respect for the Officers since they know what the officer had to do to achieve his position.
Due to this requirement, the Cobra Officer rank is often as high as most recruits can get in Cobra. There are alternate career paths that avoid this pratfall and allow for Cobras to be better accepted in western society. As such, I see the Cobra Officers as more of the sergeants of the Cobra ranks. They keep the rank and file in line, carry out their duty with ruthless precision, but lack the real critical thinking skills to move on to battlefield planning or any position beyond leading a group of less than two dozen men. This makes them especially dangerous foes, as they have little regard for any life...even that of the men in their command. In fact, it is well known that a good officer will sacrifice his men if it means the success of the mission. As such, these aren't enemies who are welcome sights on the battlefield.
It's hard to believe that back in '98/'99 I bought 5 Cobra Infantry sets and not only had one of the larger armies around but also could not fathom how I could ever need any more of them than that. Back then, armies were smaller and more diverse. As such, I didn't even think about buying more than I had and ended up leaving dozens of these sets on the shelves. I did, though, pick up a couple of extra sets at Christmas in '99. I was planning to sell them in the first half of 2000. I fully expected the sets to appreciate to about $20/set and figured I might as well make a little money. For whatever reason, though, I never got around to selling my extra sets. This proved rather fortuitous. In 2001 and 2002, I simply had no money to buy Joes. (I made a bad life choice and have just now, finally, recovered from it.) As such, I had no means to acquire any new foreign Joes that were becoming available and fascinating me at the time. However, it turned out that both Brazilian and European collectors were very willing to part with high quality native figures in exchange for Cobra Infantry Teams. You see, by that time, these sets were easily fetching $50 on Ebay with some going as high as $70 on a routine basis. As I only had $10 in each set, I was able to trade very well for the vast majority of my foreign Joe collection.
The Viper mold was used only by Hasbro in 1986, 1989 and 1990. The legs, though, were separated from the figure in 1993 when they were used with the '93 Dr. Mindbender. This would not be of significance except for the fact that the '93 Dr. Mindbender mold was sent to Brazil sometime around 1994 and did not come back. This left the Viper's original legs lost. Hasbro, though, came up with a solid solution when they wanted to resurrect the figure in 1997. The combined two of the most popular army builders of all time and combined the Viper torso, head and arms with the V1 BAT legs. These legs are substantially skinnier than the original Viper legs, but have never really bothered me all that much. (Though, Funskool removed the copyright information from the BAT legs so the backside of all modern Vipers is a bit odd.) This newly amalgamated Viper was released in 1997, in 2 colors in 1998, in 2 retail colors in 2002 as well as 2 convention colors. (The Crimson and Fuscia Vipers do rival these '98's in terms of accessories, quality and design. Shame they are so expensive these days.) The mold was then released 3 times in 2003. None of these various color schemes were spectacular though many were solid. But, fans were a bit sick of the mold in late 2003 and Hasbro did not dust it off again until late 2006 when they remolded the original Viper thighs and created a third Viper construction type in the highly anticipated but poorly received Viper Pit set. This is a mold that Hasbro will dust off at any time they want to get collector attention and it is likely that if we ever see the return of ARAH-style Joes to retail, the Viper mold will be among the first molds to appear.
Production wise, this figure is definitely rarer than all the post '99 Joes that were released at retail. (With the exception of Wave V of the ARAHC figures.) But, it isn't nearly as rare as many people might want you to think. These were readily available at retail during three distinct periods of time and many collectors had a chance to acquire many of them. Plus, as the army building craze started to crescendo, many savvy collectors bought up the surplus Infantry Teams when they still sold in the $15-$20 range. Nowadays, this figure will set you back approximately $20 for a nice mint, complete with filecard specimen. MOC, you can get them for about the same price per figure and sometimes even less. Every now and then, this figure does see a drop in popularity and if you take advantage of that, you can get some good deals. Personally, I would not pay that for this figure any more, but I also have many which I purchased at retail so that certainly shapes my view of the figure quite a bit. Overall, this is still one of the most distinctive colorings of the Viper mold and is a great way to accentuate your Cobra armies.