I have never profiled an entire set of toys at once. I've touched on individual figures or separate parts of vehicles. But, I have never looked at a set as a whole. The reason for Operation Crimson Sabotage being the first is the remarkable presentation and price that set offers. Three army building figures, a classic Cobra vehicle repaint and a towed vehicle that had not been seen at retail in 15 years for $20 was beyond comprehension at the time. Of course, collectors anticipated the set with a fervor that had been originally reserved for the Cobra Infantry from January of the same year. And, the set did not disappoint.
The Crimson Sabotage set included three army building Crimson Guards, a red Hiss Tank and a Crimson ASP gun emplacement. All of this was thrown into a nice window box and sold at KB Toy stores for a whopping price of $20. In 1998, three figures sold for $10 at Toys R Us. In 2001, a repainted Hiss Tank with driver also sold for $10 at Toys R us. So, 3 years later, collectors got the tank, three figures and an ASP for the same total price. (You basically substituted the Hiss Driver for an ASP. While army builders may have wanted a 4th figure, not too many complained about what amounted to, basically, a free ASP.) Naturally, collector interest was high. But, delays in release and the confirmation of a Toys R Us set with more Crimson Guards somewhat tempered the set's release. But, that doesn't diminish the set's quality at all.
The Crimson Guard figures in the set were based on the body mold first used for Agent Faces and planned for the cancelled Infiltrate Cobra Island set that was supposed to to include Snake Eyes, Duke and Gung Ho disguised as Crimson Guards. This time around, though, the figure was given a new head. The upside to the Sabotage set was that each of the three figures were slightly different. One had red hair. One had black hair. The final figure featured an African American skin tone. So, for army builders, the set offered the diversity that made the figures less homogeneous. Of course, though, these figures were often displayed with helmets affixed which rendered the differences moot.
In 2005, Hasbro released the red haired figure again in the Toys R Us exclusive Crimson Guard set. This set just included 4 of these figures. The Sabotage figures, though, were slightly different. Below is a comparison photo:
The first figure is the mail away Agent Faces. Aside from the unique head, Faces has a yellow Cobra sigil, dark cords and silver medallions. The next three figures are from the Crimson Sabotage set. These figures also feature yellow sigils and dark cords. The medallions, though, are also a dark, metallic copper color. The biggest difference is that the Crimson Sabotage figures all feature a Crimson Sabotage insignia on their right arms. The final figure is the Toys R Us exclusive figure. You see the red hair is the same as the Sabotage figure. But, the Toys R Us figure features a golden Cobra sigil. The shoulder cords are significantly lighter as are the medallions. With helmets on, the 5 unique figures are very similar. But, they are different enough to build an army with different ranks or just different units. These subtle differences are nice.
The three figures included the standard CG helmet and a newly sculpted shotgun. The shotgun didn't make much sense and isn't a weapon that's all that useful. Really, the figures suffer for it. While there were a lot of complaints about the infantry themed gear in the TRU set, it at least looked good with the figure. The shotgun does not and is a disappointment. But, army building accessories in the 2000's were notoriously awful. As such, third party weapons makers were able to fill a massive demand by offering weapons for the awe inspiring army builders of the day that were better suited for the figures.
The Hiss and ASP were the centerpiece of the set. The vehicles were a throwback to the 1985 SMS set. (KB also got a Crimson MOBAT based on the CAT Tank for release the same year. It had a similarly sordid release tale, too, that I'll someday get around to.) The Hiss and ASP combo, though, were a bit better. First, they were both classic Cobra vehicles. Secondly, they were colored in line with the Crimson theme. Thirdly, they featured some intricate paint applications that made them more than just red and black. Finally, they featured a strong sticker application that tied the set to it's origins, but also set them apart from some of the other Crimson sets that had been tried in the past.
The result is a vehicle complement for the Crimson Guards that made them the best equipped Cobra faction of the modern era. The 2001 Hiss III tank was done in a purple hue. As such, it's generally the forgotten member of the Hiss family: especially since original Hiss Tanks remain so cheap on the second hand market. This set was great, though, and showed that Hasbro had the means to produce cheap vehicle sets and pairing them with a nice cadre of figures ensured their retail success. Yet, for whatever reason, Hasbro rarely took advantage of this market. We know that Hasbro had access to the Hiss II mold, the Warthog, the Stun and many other vehicle molds. Yet, Hasbro mostly relegated those molds to limited Convention releases. While I wouldn't trade this set for many others, it would have been nice for Hasbro to have given collectors a few more vehicle choices.
The Hiss and ASP are about as iconic Cobra as you can get. They don't require much exposition since pretty much every collector has at least one version of each in their collection. The bi colored vehicles, though, are an excellent way to bring some life to the molds. The black seat of the ASP and the black parts of the Hiss Tank set the molds off nicely and are good updates to the vintage pieces. Paired with the SMS and vintage Crimson Hiss makes for a great Crimson convoy. It's an impressive array of hardware for an elite unit. But, in absence of anything else, it was nice to get such an amazing set of vehicles and figures for such a cheap price.
When the Sabotage set was released, collectors were extremely excited. Online forums were full of boasts of buying out every set that was found. KB Toys' online set offered pre-orders for the set. But, in the weeks leading to the set's release, these orders were cancelled. The story was that the entire stock had been moved to the brick and mortar stores. While many collectors were worried about finding the sets before, these cancellations set off wholesale panic. Toy collector magazines began naming the set a good "investment" and likely to quickly appreciate on the second hand market. Forums were full of pleas from collectors who lived no where near a KB for someone to help them acquire sets at cost plus shipping. The collecting world braced for a storm. When reports of the first sets found at retail hit, the collecting community went into overdrive. Initial sets sold on Ebay for close to $60 each, even as they were actively shipping. It looked like all the irrational fears of shortages were about to come true.
But, a few things then happened. First, many collectors were not fully attuned to the army building fatigue that was finally settling. While collectors still wanted army builders over all other figures, the reality was that from the latter half of 2003 through the end of 2004, Hasbro had been very good at getting army builders into collector hands. The Python Patrol, Cobra Infantry, Urban Strike, Army Builder Wave and the Comic Packs had all combined to suck up collector's money and slowly siphon off some of the pent up demand for Cobras. The second thing that happened, actually happened in late 2003. Hasbro released Agent Faces as a mail away. For $2.99 and 12 flag or battle points, collectors could get two Faces figures. With the helmets on, those figures were almost the same as the Crimson Guards from this set. Most collectors of the time had several, if not several dozen, Agent Faces figures by the time the Crimson Sabotage Set was released. The third, and most important thing that happened was that news of a Toys R Us exclusive Crimson Guard 6 figure pack surfaced and were confirmed during the initial waves of the Sabotage set shipping. Collectors now knew they could fill up on Crimson Guard figures without having to store tons of extra vehicles.
All of this left the Sabotage sets lingering at retail. While some stores had sold through initial shipments in minutes, these later shipments sat for a while. To add insult, stacks upon stacks of unsold Crimson Sabotage sets started to appear at KB Toy Liquidators stores. While they still carried the original $20 price tag, it was evidence that the sets had either been over ordered, or had simply not been all that popular. While all this was going on, Toys R Us released a set with 3 Joe figures, a VAMP and a Whirlwind. If you had asked anyone which set would be more popular, you would have gotten zero votes for the VAMP. Yet, by early 2005, the VAMP sets were gone from Toys R Us while KB was struggling to give away the last of the Crimson Sabotage sets. It is known the Toys R Us ordered around 16,000 VAMP sets. But, the KB numbers for Crimson Sabotage were not generally available. It might have been a much higher number. Or, it might have been the same and the difference was just the lower traffic that KB stores received. Regardless, the set was widely available for a long time and anyone who had access to a KB during the release window had ample opportunities to acquire a set, in some cases, even on clearance.
The result of all this was that Operation Crimson Sabotage sets were very cheap for a long time. Even into 2009 and 2010, you could get them for under retail. (Shipping would kill you, though.) Now, though, the sets have become harder to find. Boxed sets sell in the $40 range. Loose, complete with filecard sets sell between $25 and $30. If you sacrifice the filecard, you can get a set cheaper. But, oddly, buying the individual parts of the set is substantially more expensive. Being almost 12 years removed from the set's release, the pricing is probably a bit high. But, the set is nothing short of excellent and no Crimson army is complete without at least one. But, there are a lot of Crimson Hiss tanks out there vying for collector attention. But, this is the only way to get an ASP and the coloring is well worth the acquisition of the entire set: especially since all the component pieces were so well done.