There are good ideas and bad ideas that permeate any product that has a wide base. If you look at any given year of the vintage Joe line, you'll see ideas that probably looked good on paper but didn't translate well to an actual toy. Conversely, you'll see a figure that's actually really good, but has a fundamentally dumb gimmick. But, in 2001, Hasbro was so desperate to avoid what was seen as a "mistake" from 7 years prior that they turned in a doozy of a horrible idea. The filecard team at Hasbro working on the 2000/2001 Joe brand was laughably bad. But, in the case of the Shadow Viper, they outdid themselves in ludicrousness. It was almost enough to obscure the fact that they actually produced a pretty solid repaint of the more classic Astro Viper figure.
In 2001, collectors were still almost exclusively adult versions of kids who came of age in Joe's heyday of the early to mid 1980's. There was an extreme disdain for anything neon. And, subsets like Star Brigade were hated and ridiculed. So, Hasbro overcompensated for this when they brought Joe back by avoiding bright colors and bringing a blandness to the line that was probably worse than the neon nineties. Their zeal for "realism" lead to a sea of green that pretty much looked the same on retail shelves. On the Cobra side, they didn't really try anything all that daring and most of the Cobras released were barely repaints of the already decent original releases. But, Hasbro did offer a pretty decent selection of molds that hadn't been seen in a long time. And, in many cases, would not be seen again. Among these was the Shadow Viper. This figure used the body of the 1988 Astro Viper and all his gear. But, avoiding the Star Brigade stigma, he was not an Astro Viper. Hasbro came up with a new specialty for the mold.
So, this gets us to the absurdity of the figure. The Shadow Viper filecard is just terrible. Ostensibly, the Shadow Vipers are infiltration specialists who are experts in concealment, martial arts and computer hacking. They sneak into installations using, "a dark, powder like substance that makes them invisible to ground radar and infrared sensors". Yes, that is their special ability. They cover themselves in pixie dust. Despite their stealth and martial arts prowess, the figure includes a space jet pack with protruding laser cannons. There's no mention of that on the filecard. Really, the whole exercise of building the character was to make no reference to the mold's origins as a astronaut. So, they came up with a ludicrously lame gimmick and just made no mention of why the figure includes all his gear.
Collectors of the time rightly ridiculed the filecards of all the figures that came out. They were horrible. So, with them discarded, many collectors were fine with adding a new version of the Astro Viper to their collection. In a time when collectors were demanding Vipers, Cobra Troopers and Officers, Crimson Guards and BATs, Hasbro ignored those pleas and offered a repainted Astro Viper instead. With so much Hasbro focus on specialty army builders that was counter to the demand for basic troops, figures like the Shadow Viper were pretty easy to find. It was rare for someone to buy up dozens of figures like this. Though, there were many collectors who picked up between 6 and 10.
At the time, you'd see a few dios and such where a collector tried to fit the new figures into their version of Joe. It was often awkward. And, pics of massive amounts of Shadow Vipers were no where near as popular as those of the more traditional Cobra army builders.
As 2002 turned into 2003, collectors began to be more satisfied with Hasbro's army building releases. By 2004, collectors had seen several retail releases of the Viper and Alley Viper, a mail way BAT pack and both Crimson Guards and Cobra Troopers/Officers as retailer exclusive releases. This pretty much buried the Shadow Viper onto the scrap heap of the Cobra army. You almost never see them in any capacity today. And, while most collectors have at least one Shadow Viper (if not a few) it's not a figure that they like to display, use or photograph. It's a harsh fate for a figure that's actually a pretty decent repaint.
In looking at the figure, he has the basis of Cobra royalty in the design. The Shadow Viper uses blue, a smattering of dark red and silver to create the base for the figure. The entire body is awash in "paint wipes" which were a method of making a figure look worn. On one or two offerings, this technique would have been unique and somewhat interesting. But, Hasbro used it on most of the 2000/2001 era figures and the look got repetitive very quickly. The wipes dull the figure even more than the dark blue and red and take away the vibrancy that was the hallmark of vintage Joes. Really, though, this is the best release of the Astro Viper mold and it's really not even close. The only real issue with the figure is that the hoses that connect on the backpack are probably a bit too short and either won't connect or will easily pop off. Otherwise, this is just about a perfect repaint of a mold that no one really wanted to see again.
Hasbro royally screwed up the A Real American Hero Collection (ARAHC) in 2001. The first wave of figures started shipping in October of 2000. These quickly found an audience and disappeared from the shelves after Christmas. As 2001 started, Hasbro started shipping their second wave of figures. This case featured three new sets of figures and two carry overs. But, there was a flaw. The cases featured 4 sets of Big Ben and Whiteout. In fairly short order, that set began to back up. Simultaneously, the discontinued 2000 sets started to rise in value. Within a first months of 2001, you could get any Wave II figure you wanted, but the Dial Tone/Tomahawk and Firefly/Undertow sets that had been discontinued were $25 packs on the secondary market. Yet, Hasbro kept shipping the same, unaltered Wave II case assortment for nearly 6 months. This backed up the line at all but the busiest toy retailers and made Wave III relatively hard to find. With the pipeline stopped by all the pegwarmers the line died. Wave IV, of which the Shadow Viper was a part, found itself heavily shipped to closeout and discount stores. Here, it sat for quite a while. You could find Shadow Vipers still hanging around at KB Toy Works stores well into 2003.
The failure of the ARAHC was two fold. The one bad case assortment really did the line in. But, in general, the subsequent waves of figures weren't all that exciting. Collectors were clamoring for army builders and remakes of classic molds. Collectors who wouldn't have bought an Astro Viper for a penny were gobbling up Shadow Vipers because they were so desperate for anything army builder. Yet, Hasbro stubbornly stuck to their guns for several years. Rather than spending their resources on the figures collectors wanted, they produced pathetic repaints, tribute figures and overly specialized army builders who were packed with insipid character repaints. In retrospect, it seems they were trying to kill the line. And, considering how quickly the 2002 new sculpts showed up, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they were. Yet, collectors still look fondly on that time because the figures at least, mostly, included their original gear and the coloring was decent, if repetitive and uninspired.
The Astro Viper was used for the 1988 release of the figure. From there, it went to Brazil. Estrela released the Astro Viper in the early 1990's. The most interesting part of that figure is that he was part of the Iron Grenadiers subset. But, the figure is pretty similar to the American Astro Viper and hasn't really taken on any sort of collector life. Oddly, Hasbro got the mold back in 1993 when they released the figure in the Star Brigade subset. Astro Viper didn't make the cut for the 1994 Star Brigade assortment, though, and disappeared until 2001. The mold was never used again after that. It's kind of a shame as the Astro Viper head could have been used for any number of amalgamated Cobras in the repaint era of the 2000's. But, Hasbro lacked the vision to do anything like that. So, collectors are left with just the few uses of the mold.
Shadow Vipers have somewhat dried up. They aren't hard to find. But, you won't find them with the ubiquity of some of his contemporary army builders. Left to his own devices, mint and complete with filecard versions sell in the $4 range. But, on good days, you can get a carded set with the Zartan for about the same price. Most dealers sell him in the $8 range, though, and they do sell quite well at that price. So, depending on the size of the army you want and the expediency with which you wish to build said army, you may pay a range of prices. Considering the figure was likely to have cost you $8 at retail in 2001, either price isn't terrible.
For me, the Shadow Viper is a way to get a better set of Astro Vipers. You get all the gear and better coloring. The packs even work on the surprisingly solid 1993 Astro Viper, too. You can get Shadow Vipers much more cheaply than V1 Astro Vipers so they make sense as an alternative. But, Cobra lacks any real space vehicle. And, as the figures don't have stands to give them the appearance of flight, it's tough to incorporate Shadow Vipers into an attack on the Defiant type display. But, I still like the figure. Had this figure been released in late 2000 instead of late 2001, I'd probably have more than half a dozen of them. But, timing played a role. Still, I've got a couple. I just don't think about them often. They are there, ready for duty should the need arise. But, that need hasn't arisen in over 15 years. And, after this profile, it might be another 15 before they come out again. But, the Shadow Viper remains one of those forgotten niceties of the A Real American Hero Collection and probably deserves a better fate.