At the 2003 G.I. Joe convention, Hasbro showed a six figure set that set the collecting world on fire. It was a pack of 4 Cobra Troopers and 2 Cobra Officers with new heads, colored in vintage colors who would be offered as a Toys R Us exclusive set. Never before and not since then has a single product shown at a convention grabbed the attention of the collecting world like this Infantry set did. When the set was released nearly 6 months later, the excitement and anticipation had yet to die down. Upon its release, stories abounded of people buying dozens and even hundreds of sets in their zeal to amass a quick, cheap and easy Cobra army. It lead to some ugly discussions in regards to scalping, hoarding and speculating but those who were able to acquire the sets found that the hype was not wrong. This set lived up to its billing in almost every way. It was not without a few minor flaws, but the figures were what collectors had been waiting for since the '80s.
The overall quality on the figures in the Infantry pack was near convention figure quality. Hasbro really created a showcase piece. The set featured tight, complex paint masks and a combination of parts that meshed perfectly into a new figure. The mold was highlighted in bright, vibrant colors that really showcased the detail on both the Trooper and Officer mold. Of the figures, the red Squad Leader is the most unique. While the troopers are only differentiated by hair and eye color, the squad leader features two unique color schemes. One has a brown mask and web gear while the one I am really profiling has red trappings. The red figure also features a facial scar. This was said to be an homage to the comic character Scarface. However, as the scars don't match up, it seems this was more of an off-hand attempt to tie a design decision into the Joe mythos. But, the scar does offer the figure some originality. (Of course, that is lost when you have 10 of the same figure with the same scar, but that's a less important issue.)
The mold itself if very well done. While the head is new and very different from the vintage head: I like it. If you poll collectors, though, you will find a pretty much even split among them in regards to which head they prefer. The chest is a near perfect reproduction of the vintage chest. The arms (originally used for Thunder) are bulky and detailed enough that that give the figure some depth. They are still thin enough, though, that they fit in with the overall look of the figure. The one thing the arms lack, though, is the piano wire from the vintage trooper. This is a rather ruthless little detail that does make these figures seem more like true soldiers and less like blood thirsty assassins and terrorists. One detail that is missing from the vintage mold, though, is the differentiation on the head from the Trooper to the Officer. The vintage Officer had a crest on his helmet that denoted him as being of a higher rank. As the Infantry figures all feature the same head, that differentiation is lost. The nice thing, though, is that if you want to mix up the ethnicity of your Officers, you can do it without sacrificing the head insignia.
The Infantry set had one fatal flaw: the accessories. Rather than equip the figures with logical choices like the Red Star AK-47, Hasbro chose to give them cheap, hollowed out versions of the SAW Viper backpack and a HUGE rifle from the Rock Viper. This meant that all the figures were pretty much weaponless as the included accessories were just horrid. The fortunate thing was that, in early '04, you could still purchase a few figures packs on clearance prices that had decent weapons for the Infantry figures. So, these sets helped clear out a lot of the $2 pegwarming Sure Fire/Slice and Tomahawk/Headman packs that were collecting dust at Family Dollar stores all around the country. The accessory choices made no sense, especially when the immediately previous Toys R Us exclusive pack had been the excellent Python Patrol which featured almost exclusively vintage accessories for each of its members. Had even a little thought been given to the weapon assortment, this set would be the greatest army builder set ever released. As the guns were so poor, though, that distinction must still lie with the 1998 Cobra Infantry Team as each of its members were fully equipped.
In my collection, I use the Squad Leader in the same manner that everyone else: as the backbone of my Cobra legions. One area where I differ slightly, though, is in how I view these figures in relation to Vipers. Many collectors consider the Cobra Soldier/Officer to be different from the Vipers. I view them as one and the same. The Viper outfit is heavy and bulky. It is layers of composite body armour and features a tightly closed helmet. As such, it would be uncomfortable to wear if a soldier were on light duty inside a base. So, I use the Viper uniform as the basic combat uniform of the Cobra legions while I use these uniforms as the preferred wardrobe of those same soldiers when they are not in the field. The wear the "basic blues" when they are manning computer terminals, sweeping floors, cleaning weapons, washing vehicles and any other manner of menial duties. From time to time, though, units may be called to action when they were not, technically, on duty. That's why you will see some of the masked troops in field combat situations. I also use the masked figures as urban saboteurs as they can more easily hide these uniforms under mufti than they can the full blown Viper uniform.
The Cobra Infantry set remains a collector favorite. The reasons for it are many and Hasbro has been unsuccessful at recapturing the magic that ensued when the Infantry set was released. While they've tried with items like the Ninja Set, the Crimson Guard pack, the Shadow Guard and the Night Watch, none of those sets have featured such basic infantry troops as the Infantry Set. None of those sets have also been the recipients of such attention to detail in design as the Infantry set. Each Infantry figure has rank insignias on their arm. Most have at least 4 and even 5 different colors featured on the figures. It is hard to believe that the same company that produced the Infantry set could degenerate so quickly into the banality that was the Night Watch and Shadow Guard sets. As such, the Infantry set remains the star of the Toys R Us exclusive releases. It is the one set that collectors look to almost unanimously as being the best 6 pack that Hasbro produced.
Supposedly, the mold for this figure was lost. Hasbro claims that the Night Watch set was "supposed" to use the new head and the arms from this Squad Leader. That did not happen, though, and the Hasbro designers claim they were "surprised" by this development. However, they also claimed that the sound attack weapons in the Night Watch set were because the non sound attack mold of that weapon was not available. Yet, the non sound attack version of the weapon appeared in the H.A.S. set that was produced near the same time. As such, I think this story was just a cover and these Infantry molds are probably out there. Hasbro was just too lazy to put the effort into finding them since they had comic pack figure molds with the old heads and crappy arms ready to go with no prep work. This lackadaisical approach is probably part of the reason that interest in the line really petered out in recent months: especially when you consider that the Infantry set was released less than 2 years ago.
This set apparently went through a few different versions before it was released. While the head mold is all new: it does not seem to have been the first choice. Some prototypes appeared that actually featured an all new Infantry head with a removable helmet. It seems that, at first, this set was going to include the released body mold with the removable helmet. At least 2 versions of this head were found: one with a long neck post and another with a shorter neck post. Why these heads were not used remains a mystery. But, as the prototypes that featured the removable helmet were nearly production level, it seems that Hasbro got pretty far along in the design process before the change was made. Were Hasbro to re-release this set at some point in the future, I would like to see it include at least a few figures with the removable helmet. It would add diversity and give those who got their fill of these figures the first time around an incentive to purchase additional sets.
The Cobra Infantry is a set that Hasbro could almost always reproduce at normal production levels and still have a hit. While collectors would probably react lukewarmly to a straight re-release of things like the Python Patrol or Urban set, I think they would still gobble up a re-released Infantry set with fervor near that of the original run. Even if it were rehashed every 18 to 24 months, I think there would always be demand for more of these sets. This is the type of set that collectors can always find more uses for. I have 10 of these sets and if I walked into a Toys R Us store today and found a set for full retail price: I'd buy it, take it home, open it and add those 6 new figures to my army. The reason is that this isn't a figure that gets old. Crimson Guards were supposed to be elite. Having more of them in your collection than you have of any other Cobra army builder is counter to the entire concept of the CG. Vipers are good, but the multitude of colors in which they've been released has left the mold stale. Plus, I don't see Vipers as the everyman type of figure. They are combat figures. These basic blue troopers can be used in combat, as technicians, as station operators, vehicle support crews and just about any other purpose you can find.
Is this figure rare? Really, that's hard to say. Hasbro produced ~20,000 Cobra Infantry sets for Toys R Us. If you lived in an area that was not heavily populated by army builders or scalpers, this set wasn't too hard find from about the middle of January until the middle of April of 2004. Amazon.com received more than one shipment of the figures and many collectors were able to get their fill online. However, this was a set that has nearly insatiable demand. As such, even with the availability, these sets were quickly devoured by collectors and immediate secondary market demand set in. Considering how popular this set was, initially, it seemed like a good bet that these figures would get rather pricey. However, if you buy them loose now, you can usually get a Squad Leader for under $10. Even boxed Infantry Sets can still be purchased for under $40 if you are patient. I'm not sure why this is as these sets are well done and were hoarded by collectors. However, Hasbro's insistence on repainting molds over and over coupled with the ludicrous amount of army building figures they have released since this set first hit retail has kept collectors from solely focusing on these sets. They have enough other diversions to keep these figures more affordable than they probably would be had they been released in 1998 or even 2000. Long term, I don't know how this will go. If the line dies in the near future and this is the last time we see this infantry mold, then these figures might see a surge in popularity. But, it is more likely that this is a mold that will be dusted off from time to time (even if the new release features the vintage head) I would say that this figure and the set has probably peaked value wise. That doesn't much help you if you were not fortunate enough to acquire these figures at retail. But, it does give some solace while you save up and try to acquire one. I think these figures were great for what they were. I would welcome an update or even a straight re-release but can be content even if that never happens.