Monday, June 3, 2013

2006 Cobra Viper Leader (Viper Pit)

Army builders are largely the staple of the modern collecting experience. While there are niches of collectors who only want one of every figure, it seems to be that the majority of Joe collectors feel the need to amass as many versions of the various Cobra Troops that they can. This is, of course, not a trait that is exclusive to Joe collectors. But, it seems that Joe collectors are very particular in their wants and desires from army building figures. Unlike Star Wars collectors who will gobble up every Clone and Stormtrooper they can find, Joe collectors seem to have greater fondness for items that are similar to the vintage versions. In fact, the more similar something is to a pre-existing figure, the more likely it will be a hit in the collecting community. This characteristic of Joe collectors is likely a function of their incredible frugality and has created a lot of frustration with the line as we see the same thing over and over. But, when these homages to vintage figures are done right, the results can be stunning. In the case of the Viper Pit set, though, the result was a little bit of both.

If Hasbro had released this set in 2003 or 2004, they simply would not have been able to make enough of them. This set would have outsold the Cobra Infantry without even trying. Collectors were STARVED for classic Vipers at the time and many people were actively building armies of the vintage figure...even at $30 a piece. But, by 2006, the army building bug had largely passed. Collectors were a bit older and were no longer as inclined to buy up hundreds of the same figure. At the same time, three years worth of army builder overkill had left many collectors with large collections of army building figures...many of whom weren't all that great. So, when faced with the prospect of buying hundreds more of one mold, collectors balked. (Especially when you considered that many of the 2003-2005 army builders were no longer even worth their original retail price.) That isn't to say that collectors didn't buy the set. Far from it. But, instead of buying 6 or 8 Viper Pits, they bought one or two. This tamer purchasing pattern lead to wider availability and there was no panic to acquire these figures like there was with the Cobra Infantry of 2004.

While this Viper mold is based on the original, it is actually the first Viper to use this parts combination. The original Viper legs were lost in 1997 and all subsequent Vipers were released using BAT legs. Over the years, collector complaints about those legs finally reached Hasbro and they did something about it. Unfortunately, they did the wrong thing about it. For these figures, Hasbro recast the upper legs of the original Viper. The result is that the fat upper legs easily snap the BAT waist piece that is still part of the figure. So, in their zeal to fix a minor problems, collectors actually created a worse problem and largely rendered the Viper Pit figure irrelevant.

When I first heard of this release, I thought there were some strong possibilities that would have made this a set for the ages. While this Viper mold was released in rainbows of colors in the modern line, there are still glaring gaps. I would have enjoyed seeing repaints like a desert Viper, arctic Viper or even the mold in a simple black and silver. These would have been welcome additions to the panoply of Vipers and not kept this mold stale. Had this set been 2 Vipers in the vintage homage colors, this leader figure and one of each of those themed Vipers, I think collector interest might have been higher since the set offered a bit more than army building figures in colors similar to those that most collectors had already amassed. Unfortunately, Hasbro did not go this route and Viper mold, actually, still has potential for more releases. The upside is that Hasbro has realized the errors of their ways in the Anniversary line and we have seen several molds repainted into some environmental themes. Had these types of sets been tried during the days of ARAH repaints, I think they would have been similarly received by the collectors of the time.  

While this set sold rather strongly at its release, sales quickly petered out and the Viper Pit was readily available at brick and mortar stores for nearly a year. To this day, online dealers still have the sets in stock for original retail price. This is due to a few factors. First off, the widespread complaints about figure quality quickly saturated Joe message boards. It quickly became apparent that if you were going to stand these figures in a row to collect dust on a shelf, they were OK. But, if you wanted to pose them in any manner, the construction constraints really hindered any use of the figures. This largely disenfranchised the remaining collector base since any figures they bought would have to be heavily modified in order for them to be even close to usable. Secondly, the collector market had largely quieted down by late 2006. Collector interest was at an all time low and those who were still around were fatigued by the pace of release from the prior 4 years. Finally, this set didn't offer anything that most collectors didn't already have. As such, there was no compelling reason to buy up dozens of sets since most collectors already had large armies of Vipers in colors close enough to these figures that the Viper Pit became redundant.  

Technically, this figure isn't the Viper Leader or anything like that. According the file cards, this is just another Viper who happens to have a golden faceplate. However, in 2009, Hasbro released Vipers with coloring similar to the Viper Pit as part of the anniversary line. In that set, the golden Viper is alluded to as a leader figure. It is a logical leap, but that lends some official credibility to a trend that collectors intuitively knew already. The golden faceshield, though, really only works as a mark of prominence. Given a choice between silver masked Vipers from the set and the golden version, I'd take the silver versions every time. The silver seems to go better with the blue, black and red that comprises the rest of the figure. Of note, though, is that this leader figure does also feature golden latches on his flak jacket. The remaining Viper Pit members all feature silver buckles to match their faceplates.

In my collection, this figure is just a squad leader. He doesn't command legions. (That is left to the Golden Viper from 1990.) He is just out on patrol with some other green recruits. I see these Vipers as Cobra's entry level. Most are uneducated, but love a small paycheck and the freedom to use military weaponry. Anyone worth a salt will quickly distinguish themselves in the Viper ranks and move up into one of the more specialized Cobra units. The Vipers remain cannon fodder and their most dangerous trait tends to be their sheer numbers.

The accessories in the Viper Pit were fairly decent. The figures included backpacks taken from the 1992 Gung Ho. The vintage Viper backpack that was used in 2002 for the convention Crimson and Fuschia Vipers remains MIA. But, the Gung Ho pack is an acceptable alternative as it is about the same size and features the basic trappings you would expect from a field trooper. The Vipers also included a choice of 2 rifles: a grey repaint of Ambush's gun or a heavy machine gun that was first used in the new sculpt line. The grey rifles are a decent homage to the original Viper gun. The coloring is consistent and the Ambush gun does have some similarities (from a toy designer's perspective) to the original rifle. These work well enough. The heavy machine guns, though, are very well done. The are scaled for use with ARAH style Joes and give these Vipers a bit more punch. Gone are the grenade launchers from the original Viper rifle and in is a heavier weapon that will allow a Viper to yield more firepower in the field. There are also two pistols in the set: which are most often attributed to this leader figure by collectors. Even while these weapons are decent, I still have found myself outfitting my Viper Pit figures with different weapons. In the photo below, you will see the leader with a sniper from the Python Patrol Officer. It is just a weapon that gives the leader a little more authority. (And also ties him back to the standard Cobra Troopers from which he was inspired.)

Quality wise, this figure is both excellent and terrible. The paint details on all the Viper Pit figures are convention level quality. The figures feature two toned gloves and goggles, painted buckles, intricate Cobra logos and paint masks over paint masks on the legs. The result is a figure that is probably superior in terms of paint to even the vintage Viper. The construction, though, is where the figure suffers. All of the Viper Pit figures used tight O-rings that hinder the figure's movements. Sure, you can easily replace these. But, that's still a knock against the figures overall. The waist piece is too small for the legs and more than one collector has snapped a crotch just by posing a Viper Pit figure in a kneeling position. This can be abated by sanding down the waist piece, if you are so inclined. Finally, the figure's heads all droop down. This has been an issue since 1997, but has become more pronounced. Again, there is a fix where you can sand down a tab in the figure's torso to make the head more natural. But, this just adds to the amount of work a collector has to do to make this figure normal.

If you are patient, you can buy carded sets on the aftermarket for below retail. Loose figures from the Viper Pit set are readily available in the $7 range, but often go unsold. If you find a lot with two or three of the figures, you can often get them for $3 or $4 each. Historically, that's a low price for a Viper mold with decent accessories. But, the market for ARAH style army builders is largely dead. As such, I don't think we're ever going to see the heyday of army builder pricing like we did in 2002 and 2003. That's not a bad thing as collectors can now still build armies without spending tons of money. And, since figures like this pretty much devastated the pricing of vintage figures, you don't even have to relegate yourself to the modern interpretations of classic molds. Overall, I'm torn on this. I like seeing cheap Joes. But, at the cheaper prices, less people are inclined to part with their collections...especially those collectors who invested $25-$30 each on some of the vintage army builders back at the height of the market. So, the available stock is largely incomplete or off condition cast offs. Still, sets like the Viper Pit did fill a niche in the collecting world and have a place. But, this set could have been so much more. Alas, that's pretty much the story of the entire run of ARAH style Joes from 2000-2006....

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

2006, DTC, Viper Pit, Cobra Viper, Crimson Shadow Guard, Toys R Us Exclusive 2005, Viper Leader

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