Wednesday, March 12, 2014

2004 Cobra Black Dragon Ninja

From 2003 through 2005, Toys R Us released 14 exclusive Joe and Cobra figure packs. (Most were 6 figures, with the Tiger Force only being 5.) These releases ranged from spectacular to worse than terrible. There were times when they got everything right on a figure. There were times when the failed so badly that Hasbro lied to the face of collectors and pulled the sets from the convention displays. But, most of the time, the sets were a mixture of one or two good figures, two or three unimpressive figures and 1, maybe two, real stinkers. With the early sets, it seems like Hasbro really tried to make something impressive. But, their level of care and commitment to quality diminished with every set that was released. The beginning of the end really was signalled at the end of 2004 with the release of the Desert Assault Joe set and the Ninja Strike Cobra set. Both sets suffered from bad weapon choices, less than stellar quality and general laziness. But, sometimes lazy can an extent. As such, the Ninja Strike featured the derivative Black Dragon Ninja figure.

In 2004, pretty much every active collector was familiar with Satan and Ninja-Ku from Argentina. Online sellers had been overflowing with carded versions of these two Plastirama exclusive ninjas for a few years. By '04, the supply was starting to dry up and both of the figures were priced in the $50 range for a carded version. They were still very easy to get, but somewhat pricey when you considered how common they were. Rather than come up with an original idea, Hasbro decided to mimic these South American exclusives for release in the Ninja Strike set. Only, rather than name them Satan and Ninja-Ku, the decided to make the red ninja and black ninjas army builders to appease the army building craze that was finally starting to die down. The resulting set is not terrible, but feels like something that had been done before.

As a figure, the Black Dragon Ninja is vastly inferior to Ninja-Ku in some regards. But, in other aspects, he is vastly superior. Ninja-Ku is spectacular because of his simplicity. The black skin color combined with the simple black and gold color scheme makes for a mysterious and dangerous enemy. The Black Dragon Ninja loses the distinct skin color, but excels with additional paint applications on the belt, sash, wrist gauntlets and boots. The result is a more vibrant figure that looks more at place in a collection heavy on modern interpretations of classic figures. Ninja-Ku works well with vintage Joes. But, the Black Dragon Ninja works better with their modern repaints. With his white accents, though, the Black Dragon Ninja is a nice complement to a vintage Stormshadow.

The Ninja Strike Set was released as a Toys R Us Exclusive in late 2004. It was the Cobra companion piece to the Desert Patrol set. The set included one Black Dragon Ninja, two Red Ninja Vipers, two Vypra army builders (repaints of the Jinx mold) and a green and brown repaint of the 1988 Stormshadow mold. Despite production numbers of around 20,000 sets, these sold through very quickly during the holidays of 2004. Joe was still popular at the end of 2004. Toys R Us carried three exclusive sets that holiday season (they also had a VAMP/Whirlwind set.) and all sold very well. It was not until 2005 that the general interest in Joe declined.

My biggest issue with this figure is not that he's a poor man's Ninja-Ku rip off. (Though, if that's what they were going for, Hasbro should have given him the black skin and called it a day.) The real tragedy of the Ninja Strike set is that collectors were deprived of the chance to finally get a V1 Stormshadow figure in Cobra blue. Perhaps one of the most common customs out there is a blue Stormshadow. It's such an obvious repaint that every collector with a jar of blue paint and a yellowed Stormshadow has attempted it. I get the inclusion of the Red Ninja Vipers. They appeared in the comic and are also an obvious repaint. But, to include this black version of Stormshadow while not including a Cobra blue version seems like a great opportunity lost. To this day, collectors have no way to acquiring a factory produced Cobra blue Stormshadow. This set was their chance to get it. But, instead, we got this figure.

The Black Dragon Ninja is a new character. They were designed as ninja guardians for Cobra Commander who were brainwashed by Dr. Mindbender. However, Stormshadow was able to take control of their minds and make them loyal to him. As a comic plot, that's not a terrible characterization...especially for such a late addition to the line. As a long term character, it's not something you can build a great deal of plot around. Once their double loyalty is exposed, their use fullness is diminished. But, having other factions out there to battle Stormshadow or be nameless assassins under Cobra's employ is always a good way to expand a collection.

The accessory complement for the Ninja Strike was OK. It featured a wide variety of swords, knives, nunchuks, bows and arrows and even a rifle and a duffel bag. What it did not include in any way, shape or form, though, was any accessory from the V1 Stormshadow figure. In 1997, Hasbro released the full range of V1 Stormshadow accessories with that year's figure. Seven years later, the entire array of pack, knife, sword, bow and nunchuks were no where to be seen. Had this set included 4 copies of the V1 Stormshadow accessories, collectors would have been much more excited about it. Instead, the panoply of gear seemed overly random and none of these figures really had anything that made him stand out since his weapons were, basically, generic.

The Stormshadow mold was used around the world. He was released in the U.S. in 1984 and 1985. The mold was also used for the 1993 Ninja Viper. Between those times, the mold was released as the Cobra Do Gelo (Ice Cobra) in Brazil and as Satan, Ninja-Ku and Cobra De Heilo (Ice Cobra) in Argentina. Hasbro resumed use of the mold in 1997, but it then sat fallow until this set in 2004. In 2005, Hasbro used most of the mold for a comic pack Stormshadow and parts of the mold for other figures. Sadly, despite all these uses, collectors are still left with gaping holes such as the blue repaint and many other color schemes. It should be noted that Hasbro did produce the figure for China in 1994. However, in the late 2000's, someone bootlegged that mold. The market was quickly flooded with bootleg carded Chinese Stormshadows. When collectors got wise to this and the prices plummeted, the tactic was changed and bronzed and chromed versions of Stormshadow were made available. These are very interesting conversation pieces and show that there are unauthorized copies of the mold out there that could be used to fill the gaps that Hasbro has avoided.

In the near decade since this figure was released, they have gotten a bit harder to find. As such, pricing is difficult. If you have great patience, you can get this figure for under $10. But, most of them sell between $15 and $20. Due to the lower supply, these impatient sales make up the bulk of Black Dragon Ninjas that are available. At $10, this figure might be worth it. At $20, it's probably overpriced and is hard pressed to provide that kind of value to a collection. I was fortunate to get my fill of this figure when he was available at retail. Had I not, I doubt I would have spent the time to track this figure down. But, it is nice to have some Stormshadow variants in my collection. This figure does mesh well with the collecting years which are most meaningful to me. In the end, my feelings on this figure are mixed. I like having him, but really don't use him. If I want a black ninja, I use Ninja-Ku. But, at least this figure is a cheaper alternative that's available.

2004 Black Dragon Ninja, Stormshadow, 2005 Snake Eyes, Ninja Ku, TRU Exclusive, 2002 Tomahawk

2004 Black Dragon Ninja, Stormshadow, 2005 Snake Eyes, Ninja Ku, TRU Exclusive, 2002 Tomahawk

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