In a way, Joe really returned to retail in 1997 with the 15th Anniversary sets. But, the triumphant return began in 2000 with the launch of the A Real American Hero Collection. This series was released to mass retail and was supplemented with vehicles to bring it in line with a vintage type release year. The death of that line in 2001 and the subsequent new sculpts era that began in 2002 somewhat ushered the vintage Joe sculpts out the door and into history. At least, that was the intent. Collector backlash, though, kept Hasbro in the vintage Joe game: even when it was the clear desire of the Hasbro employees at the time to move onto something new that could benefit their resumes. While there were some vintage style Joes released in general retail waves in 2003, 2004 saw vintage style Joes become the sole domain of retailer exclusives. The emphasis was on re-imaginings of classic subsets and army builders. As 2004 progressed, though, the sets got a little more distant from established Joe themes and began to stand on their own as original concepts. Some were good. Others were not. But, the toys were fairly solid.
Hasbro and Toys R Us had a quid pro quo relationship at the time, too. TRU was happy to take collector dollars by offering items that were aimed at them. They especially liked vintage style Joes and were about the only outlet willing to take on vintage style Joe vehicles. Hasbro had a need to appease their collector base without sacrificing the integrity of their fledgling retail line. While the partnership started off with a bang with the excellent Night Rhino and Hiss III, TRU exclusive vehicles stumbled into poor repaints of the Snow Cat, AWE Striker and Conquest. They took a bath on a poorly conceived MCC re-release that was so close to the vintage version that many collectors passed it by. As such, their 2004 focus was more on figures than vehicles. They did release the underappreciated BAT Transport. But, it was their final vehicle set of 2004 that, to me, has best stood the test of time: the VAMP and Whirlwind set.
Hasbro struck a cord with the idea of a small vehicle, towable playset and 3 figures for a $20 retail price. In short order at the tail end of 2004, they created this VAMP set and the Operation Crimson Sabotage set with a Hiss Tank, ASP and three Crimson Guard figures. Retailers felt the "battle in a box" idea would attract parents to the items as gifts. Hasbro also felt that collectors would really like getting a small army for a decent price. It turns out, they were both right. Collectors went nuts over the Operation Crimson Sabotage and built impressive armies. While this was happening, though, parents found the TRU VAMP set a decent value and pretty much cleared out TRU stores of the sets, even as collectors were banking on them being clearance fodder in 2005. Despite the apparent success of the sets, though, Hasbro never revisited the idea. It's likely that 2005 brought the death of the line too quickly and retailers lost faith in the brand. (Surprisingly, the Operation Crimson Sabotage sets actually hit KB clearance centers and collected dust for a while.) So, we were left with just the two sets.
The VAMP/Whirlwind set was the lesser of the two. While I would argue that the VAMP is generally as popular as the Hiss Tank, the version released in this Toys R Us set was only based on the vintage design and was a full on repaint of the 2001 Desert Striker jeep. It included a new, larger roll bar, opening hood and mounted machine gun on the dashboard. The upside of the machine gun is offset by the hood detracting from the sleekness that defined the original VAMP. But, the colors were good. While the military green of the early 2000's had been far too overused on figures, it hadn't really been used on vintage Joe vehicles. Getting a darker green VAMP was nice, even if the design wasn't as strong as the originals. The Whirlwind was a surprising throw in. It hadn't been seen in many years and was a toy that many appreciated.
As a kid, my mother didn't let my brothers or I have toy guns. This rule really wasn't much of a rule. We had at least three Han Solo blasters between 1977 and 1983. We played with Star Wars figures: most of whom included a weapon: usually a blaster. And, of course, we had mountains of G.I. Joe toys which were all built around military conflict. My friends brought their toy guns over and we played with them all the time. (I carried a very real looking pistol in a holster inside my jacket as my "character" in these adventures. I'd go to the local drug store and buy candy with it and my friends and I would run around the neighborhood, in and out of people's yards brandishing toy guns that looked very legitimate. I shudder to think of the response if kids today tried that with the toy weapons we had in the '80's.) When my friends weren't around, though, and I wanted to play guns, I had to get inventive. One of the more creative ways to get a gun was to co-opt a G.I. Joe toy. The FLAK was the first victim. By removing the base, you had a decent enough toy gun to shoot with your brothers. The next year, the Whirlwind also proved useful. Taking the gun bracket off left you with something small enough to fit in your hand. The double barrels kind of reminded me of the guns from The Black Hole. We had two or three Whirlwinds at the time, so it was easy to have two of the weapons available. That really is my main childhood memory of the Whirlwind, though.
This version of the Whirlwind is pretty good. It's a dark green, but so was the original Whirlwind toy. So, it' doesn't bring much new to the table. But, this was a great way to re-appreciate the Whirlwind mold. It's incredibly detailed and has a few play features that are kind of fun. (I once took a Whirlwind seat and affixed it to the back of the VAMP to have a gunner's chair. The VAMP cannon doesn't really have enough clearance between it and the base, though. So, it looked better with the chair empty than with it filled.) The opening ammo panels are still there and the entire toy is already covered with factory applied decals. You have the excellent 1983 design with the folding wheels to form a base, 360 degree swivel, front blast shield, and control display for the operator to sight his targets. There's just a lot going on in a very small package. But, that the joy of using 20 year old molds at the time. You got the benefits of '80's budgets without having to reinvent the wheel.
The overall boxed set was nice, but not spectacular. The VAMP and Whirlwind complement each other nicely and look decent in the packaging. The set included three figures. Pathfinder, the first, was pretty much the exact same figure that was released with the AWE Striker in 2001. The only differences is that the VAMP figure's belt buckles aren't painted and the VAMP version included a full set of his vintage accessories in black. The figure is worth getting for these alone. Big Brawler was the second figure. All Brawler figures are lame and this is no exception. Had it been Salvo or Outback who saw release, collectors would have been more interested. Brawler was just a figure to ignore. The final figure, Chief Torpedo, was a nicely done amalgamation of Muskrat and Wet Suit. It's the highlight of the set for sure. For a collector, the boxed set displays nicely. Generally, it's just a good value for three figures, a jeep and a playset. Had this idea been tried a year earlier, we might have been able to see a couple more concepts put into production. There were so many small vehicles that never saw re-release in the 2000's that we know Hasbro had access to. It would have been worth it to see a couple of these, even if meant reprises of the ASP or Whirlwind.
In the fall of 2004, this VAMP set sold slowly. Collectors were mostly interested in both the Operation Crimson Sabotage set that was being offered by KB as well as the Cobra Ninja 6 figure set from Toys R Us. Many collectors, figuring this set would linger forever, passed it by in order to acquire more of the popular army building sets. When the dust settled from the 2004 Christmas season, though, these sets had pretty much sold out throughout the country. Many collectors were then left to turn to the sparse secondary market to get a set. As such, this set has actually appreciated on the market and will cost quite a bit more, today. MIB sets sell in the $55 to $65 range with loose sets with the figures selling for a little less. If you can find a loose set with no figures, it will be cheaper. But, those are few and far between these days.
But, there really is no reason to have this version of the Whirlwind in lieu of the vintage version unless you are a completist. The colors are close enough and the vintage one meshes with more vehicles than does the modern interpretation. This version is also more expensive and harder to find than the original. It would have been cool to have gotten a grey or all black version rather than something that is so close to the easily found vintage version. But, it was also nice to see a vehicle that hadn't seen a retail release in the U.S. since 1988. These two vehicle/three figure combos were a great concept. At the time, collectors really didn't appreciate this VAMP and Whirlwind as army builders were their focus. 13 years later, though, the value we were given was tremendous and seeing a vehicle or two in this format, with three figures, is not something we'll likely ever see again at a price point close to $20.