Hasbro never released a perfect army building set for collectors. They came within a hair of it in 1998 with the Cobra Infantry Team. A three pack of classically colored Cobra Vipers complete with a full complement of gear for $10 at retail was as close to nirvana as army builders could get. While I still hold this set as the best Cobra army building set of all time, the figures were missing Cobra logos and lost that little something from their absence. It would be 5 years before Hasbro went down the army building rabbit hole again. The 2003 BAT Pack had three good figures, two mediocre figures and one terrible figure. For $15 or so, it was a deal. But, it wasn't perfect. The next big chance came in early 2004. Hasbro released a 6 figure set of classically colored Cobra Troopers and Officers through Toys R Us. For $20, you got an army in a box. The figures used enough of the classic molds to be relevant and were perfectly colored. There was, though, a fatal flaw. The figures included terrible gear and the set loses some validity for that mistake. In retrospect, that bad choice of weapons has shaped the figures from the set. But, at the end of the day, the classic Cobra Troopers in the release remain an excellent example of Hasbro getting a simple idea just about right.
There are two main types of Joe collectors: those who view Vipers as the backbone of the Cobra army and those who view Cobra Troopers as the pillar of Cobra's strength. Neither are wrong. And, most collectors who were kids in the early to mid 1980's were fortunate in that their collecting years overlapped both iconic figures. The Cobra Trooper was the bad guy who started it all. The nazi-esque imagery, covered face and Soviet weapons encompassed every 1980's villain cliche into one package. But, while Vipers had seen several repaints in the Joe resurrection, the Cobra Trooper was ignored. Ostensibly, this was due to a missing mold. (Though, that later proved problematic.) But, Hasbro had enough molds to keep collectors at bay for a few years. Eventually, though, the weight of the army building contingent of collectors forced Hasbro's hand and the Cobra Trooper returned to the line.
This Cobra Trooper is a kitbash of new and existing parts. While the new head is the most famous new part for the figure, Hasbro actually resculpted the torso, too. Hasbro could not find the vintage molds for the Trooper and Officer (oddly, they would find them later in the year for the Comic Pack figures....) and recast a new torso based on the vintage design. The arms were from the 1984 Thunder figure. While they do work with the mold and give it far more depth that was noticeably absent on the later uses of this mold, they also cost the Trooper some of his most iconic details like the garrote and bullets that are sculpted on to the arms of the vintage figure. Personally, I'm OK with both this variation of the character and his original incarnation. They're both something nice to have. Though, I am loathe to mix them. I prefer my troops to be uniform and having two figures of the same character but with radically different heads is something I tend to avoid.
In looking back at this set, it seems Hasbro didn't like money. While the Infantry set was relatively available at brick and mortar stores from January through April of 2004 (and online several times during that span, too!) it was easily the best selling set of the Toys R Us era. You would think that Hasbro would have returned to the classic enemy well a few more times. Crimson or Stinger repaints of the figures would have sold just as well. Even desert or Arctic examples would have moved well. But, Hasbro never saw fit to release this version of the classic enemies again. They did find the original head molds and released one comic pack version of the Trooper and Officer in 2004 and then released them again in the 2005 Night Watch set. The club never even entertained the idea of classic enemy repaints and collectors were left wanting for just basic repaints of the molds.
Fortunately, in the past decade, factory custom figure makers have filled Hasbro's void on Cobra Troopers. You can now get all the colors of that mold that Hasbro should have made. But, that doesn't take away from the fact that Hasbro could never really figure out army building. They kind of got it. But, they simply couldn't get the products that collectors really wanted into their hands in an efficient manner. While I didn't want to see an army builder only line at the time, many of the releases we did get, especially in 2005, really seem like wasted slots. And, with Hasbro going through the expense of almost entirely resculpting this figure, just the one retail appearance of the molds seems like resources weren't fully utilized.
Originally, this 6 figure set of Cobra Troopers and Officers was going to be the second offering in the "Internet Exclusive" figure line. The first set was the 2003 BAT Pack. Despite strong, initial, collector interest, that set died on the vine and had to be clearanced out to Amazon and places like Tuesday Morning stores. With that concept dead, Hasbro had the decency to move the set into the first Toys R Us slot in 2004. This ensured that collectors got the figures they so wanted and gave Toys R Us a hit in their slowest sales time of the year. From a collector standpoint, the avenue of release didn't make much difference. It's likely that online dealers would have had stock available for longer than the brick and mortar stores did. But, it's also likely that they would have charged a premium for this due to the pent up demand. So, in that case, it was good that the set was given to Toys R Us.
The new head molds that were created for this set went through some changes prior to release, too. The original design for the heads included a removable helmet. There are samples of these heads out there. They are kind of tall and skinny...even moreso than the single piece head that was released. In this case, I think collectors got the better deal with the second iteration of the heads. While the tall and skinny new heads are different, they work well enough. They are better than the original, removable helmet design and have saved a generation of army builders from having to track down and corral dozens if not hundreds of tiny little helmets that were not likely to have fit onto their heads all that well.
It's also worth noting that there are four variants to this figure. There is a red haired, blonde haired, brown haired and dark skinned variant for the mold. The idea was to make a "diverse" army while also maintaining uniformity. I like the slight differences since it does help make the Cobras seem less like clones. But, at the same time, if these different paint colors cost us useful accessories, then they were probably better spent elsewhere. The figures also feature various unit and rank insignia. Many collectors who bought dozens of sets have swapped out arms to denote Troopers of different ranks. If you run into these, they are a result of kitbashes rather than variants.
We'll talk about the accessories since they are this figure's worst feature. For some reason, Hasbro chose to release the entire set with 6 large Rock Viper rifles and 6 hollowed out SAW Viper backpacks. The gear is oversized, out of scale, cheap and terrible. The gear is not useful in any way, shape or form. So, this leaves you to outfit your troopers through different means. One upside of Hasbro's terrible weapons choices of that time was that it created a market for enterprises like Marauder's Gun Runners. They could made accurate, detailed weapons that were perfect figs for figure sets like the Cobra Infantry. And, Marauder sold quite a few weapon sets with AK-47's and Dragunov snipers that were specifically aimed at army builders of this Cobra Infantry set. Within a couple of years, though, Asian sellers started offering overstock 2000's era accessories. Through them, you could acquire large quantities of weapons like Red Star's AK-47 that were perfect fits for these figures and also used classic Joe molds. Modern factory custom makers have put large quantities of remade 1982 AK-47's and Dragunov Snipers into the collecting world, too. So, we now have a huge range of weapons available to solve the accessory issue with this set. It's still a hassle, though, that we had to go to the aftermarket to get reasonable gear for otherwise exceptional figures.
These days, Cobra Infantry Troops are kind of middle ground. You'll see mint, loose figures with no gear sell in the $7 range. If you can find a lot of several of the figures, you can get them for less. Dealers sell mint and complete with filecard figures in the $12 range: and do move a fair amount of them. You can find deals on complete sets. But, even left to the open market, loose sets tend to fetch over $10 per figure. That's a far cry from buying the figures for $3.33 each at retail. But, it's also been nearly 15 years since the set was first available. Since the Trooper's real gear sucks, you're better off buying cheap figures and then outfitting them with weapons from other sources. It's far more fulfilling and you avoid the cheapness of the real gear.
For me, these figures were awesome...at first. In time, though, I found an army of them wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The figures can have stiff joints, especially in the legs. This made them difficult to pose and use in various combat situations. Trying to find weapons for an army was a hassle, too. It was easy to get a few decent weapons from the JvC sculpt figures of the era. But, that was frustrating and seemed unnecessary. As the factory custom Cobra Troopers came online, I found myself using these 2004 versions less and less. Today, though, I do like them as more specialized units. The softer hands allow the figures to use more weapons and I like a unit of Cobra Troopers with a SAW, bazooka, mortar, sniper type weapons and heavier assault rifles. It makes Cobra more dangerous.
In the end, it was fantastic that Hasbro released these figures. Their entry into collector helped finally quell the built up army building demand. By the end of 2004, army builders were getting tired out and figures like those in this set started to sell for below retail for a bit. I would have loved for Hasbro to either have offered a Stinger repaint or two in this set or done a release of repaints that would have given us some new colors. But, in this case, these figures were perfect for what they were intended to be. The gear sucked. But, the figures don't. Looking back on 2004, that was probably better than could be expected from Hasbro when it came to vintage style Joe releases.