Bernard Loomis, president of Kenner, decided to make the Star Wars action figures 3 ¾” tall. That decision caused a revolution in the toy industry, as action figures were usually made 12” or 8” tall. The new size meant that the figures could be offered for a reasonable price and that the line could also include spaceships, vehicles, and playsets. Playsets have always been an important part of the toy industry, from those in the Louis Marx Toy line to the Mego sets in the ’70s. With Star Wars, Kenner produced some of the most memorable playsets ever, rivaling classics like Castle Grayskull from Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe’s USS Flagg.
I grew up with the Kenner toys, but unfortunately in Belgium there were only a few playsets available (we did have all the figures, including Yak Face). To compensate the lack of playsets I decided to build several from scratch, such as Haven Base on Arbra (from the Marvel comics), Echo Base, Jabba’s Palace, the forest of Endor and even Cloud City. In the ’90s I became familiar with all the cool playsets I never saw during my childhood (thanks to Steve Sansweet’s amazing book From Concept to Screen to Collectible), except for the Cardboard Death Star, which I remembered seeing on the back of a Meccano (French) Stormtrooper I received. The carton deteriorated a long time ago, but I was able to replace my “creations” with Kenner’s real playsets, which I’ll discuss in part two of this series.
Death Star Space Station (1978): One of the coolest Kenner playsets was one of the first to be released. The Death Star Space Station was packaged in a rectangular box showing two kids enjoying the wonders of the Imperial technological terror. Kenner’s vintage boxes are excellent sources if you’re interested in the hairstyle and clothing from the ’70s. This towering Death Star is 20 inches tall and features four floors of action! An elevator goes all the way up, where Ben Kenobi can shut down one of the Tractor Beams. The top floor also has a large, clicking and exploding SB-920 Laser Cannon under its roof. The cannon features a seat for one character, but unfortunately, the Imperial Gunner figure would only be released in 1985. Until then, it was up to the Stormtroopers or Death Squad Commanders to take the vacant seat. The third floor resembles one of the many Death Star hallways and has a retractable bridge for allowing Luke and Leia to make another swing across the chasm. The set even comes with a small black plastic cable that Luke can hang on to (this item is often missing). The second floor looks like Detention Block AA-23 with two consoles and an escape hatch that leads into the coolest feature of the playset: the trash compactor. The compactor is a small orange box with transparent plastic windows. It’s filled with colored pieces of foam and it also has an exclusive Dianoga creature. The green Dianoga looks a bit weird compared to latter depictions of the tentacled creature, but you just couldn’t get it anywhere else. The trash compactor actually “works” and you can push one of the walls towards the door. The hatch opens just in time and the heroes have once again been rescued.
This playset was so large (it was one of the biggest in the Star Wars line) that many countries didn’t import or produce it. Instead they choose to release a cheaper (but fantastic) cardboard Death Star. Only Canada released both the Space Station and the Cardboard Death Star.
Cantina Adventure Set (1978): This cardboard set was sold through Sears in the Christmas catalogs of 1978 and 1979. The set is infamous for including the blue Snaggletooth figure (which was soon replaced by the smaller, regular Snaggletooth). It didn’t just include the tall Snivvian, but the other cantina aliens as well (Walrus Man, Hammerhead, and Greedo). The Cantina Adventure Set is nothing more than a cardboard backdrop and base of Mos Eisley. It comes with several plastic pegs to pose your action figures. The backdrop shows a Sandtrooper, a weird droid, an alien resembling Garindan, and possibly, the entrance to the Cantina. The Cantina Adventure Set was produced to sell new Cantina figures and while it offers a very cool environment for Tatooine, it’s not that spectacular. Today it’s one of the most difficult playsets to find in unused condition.
Land of the Jawas (1979): This surely is the Star Wars playset with the most exciting name. The set consists of a plastic base, a cardboard backdrop of the Jawa Sandcrawler, and an exclusive Class-6 Escape Pod, jettisoned by R2-D2 from the Tantive IV. The base features an action spot where you can launch figures, simulating combat (or Datcha ambushing Artoo). There are tracks of the Sandcrawler and there is also a small cave that can be used to hide smaller figures, like R2-D2 or the Jawas. The Sandcrawler fits into the base and though it is made from cardboard, it has a crude elevator and some kind of shelf where a couple of figures can be stored. The Escape Pod is unique to this set and has an opening hatch so you can make sure that Threepio regrets his mission time and time again. The base of this playset would later be reused for two other Star Wars playsets.
Important to know is that Palitoy (UK) released its own Land of the Jawas with a few differences. It doesn’t feature the Escape Pod, the plastic base has a brighter color, and it is made from a thinner plastic, which is supported by a sturdy cardboard. It also comes with two circular stands and one weird looking action feature, replacing the missing action feature on the plastic base. Though the Palitoy set comes with less accessories, it succeeds in capturing the desolate landscape of Tatooine.
Creature Cantina Action Playset (1979): This was Kenner’s second cantina playset, but this time it actually looked like a cantina. The playset consists of a plastic base and a cardboard backdrop. The base has a bar, a table, two action levers, and many pegs for the figures. A figure can pretend to be the bartender and the levers simulate the classic “He doesn’t like you” moment. The playset also has doors that spring open when you press a button. The backdrop shows part of the drink dispenser and several cantina residents. Few actually resemble the clientele from A New Hope. We can see a few aliens resembling Duros, a couple of Jawas, and six members of the Modal Nodes who are beautifully drawn. In 1980 this set was also used in Kenner’s Real West line as the Western Café playset.
Palitoy also released its own version of the cantina in the UK. Basically it’s the same playset, but it does have several differences. The bar is lower, the action levers are missing, the right side of the playset is a bit different, and it stands a bit taller. A sticker on the bar shows several bar stools and the doors are also different. Just like Palitoy’s Land of the Jawas, it comes with a strange loose action feature.
Droid Factory (1979): This playset looked like nothing at all from the movies and it was a combination between a playset and a construction set. For a change, there was no child featured on the main photo art of the box (instead, he was seen on the smaller photos on the side). The base consists of a ramp and a large movable crane. The Droid Factory comes with 33 interchangeable parts, used to create myriad different droids. The most important one is Artoo Detoo with three legs. This playset was the only way to get Artoo with his central, smaller leg. A booklet was included with blueprints for building all the Jawa Monster Droids. The Droid Factory is very difficult to find complete in loose condition, because there are many different and small parts, including orange tubes, thin metal rods, and plastic pegs. The base and crane would be used later for Jabba’s Dungeon playset.
Fans in the UK had their own Droid Factory Playset thanks to Palitoy. This Droid Factory looked completely different from Kenner’s. It doesn’t feature a crane or a ramp, but instead has a conveyor belt. The plastic base comes in dark blue or in orange/yellow. The different parts are nearly the same as the parts that came with the Kenner set.
Cardboard Death Star Playset (1979): As previously mentioned, only the US and Canada released the big Death Star Space Station playset. Other countries choose to create another Death Star. This cardboard playset was published by Palitoy (UK), Meccano (France), Irwin Toys (Kenner Canada through Sears), and Toltoys (Australia and New Zealand). The cardboard Death Star was packaged in a rather flat box, resembling a boardgame. The box showed the rare vinyl caped Jawa. The backside had several features of the playset, including the trash compactor, escape chute and laser cannon. The Palitoy set was made of cardboard, while the one from Toltoys was made from a sturdier chipboard.
The cardboard Death Star is a large semi-sphere. It nearly has ten different rooms, a ladder, a bridge and a long chasm, build in the center of two levels of play value. On top is a seat with two (X-wing) laser cannons and a transparent canopy to seat a figure. The only other true action feature is an escape chute that leads into the trash compactor that can be opened and closed, simulating the moving walls and the heroes who are escaping. The cardboard walls are beautifully illustrated and you can easily recognize what rooms are represented. There is a large docking bay, the control room, and even Princess Leia’s cell. Although it looks like a rather simple playset, it certainly is one of the best Star Wars playsets ever. The Death Star Space Station had more specific features from the movie, but it offered more room for imagination.
Of course the Cardboard Death Star isn’t an easy playset to find and certainly not in good condition. It’s got many plastic pegs that hold the cardboard walls into place, parts of the laser cannon are often missing and the cardboard itself needs to be in good condition as well. A similar looking playset was also developed for Action Force, a range of European action figures initially based on Action Man and later used to introduce G.I. Joe toys to European markets.
Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Set (1980): Crossing over to The Empire Strikes Back, the Hoth Ice Planet Adventure Set is one of four (!) playsets from ice planet Hoth. The first thing to notice, is that the kid on the box is gone. We can now only see an arm and a hand operating the action lever on the set. This playset is the same as the Land of the Jawas. It features the same plastic base (now painted white) with the action lever and the small cave. Instead of the cardboard Sandcrawler, this set has a weird looking cardboard AT-AT walker with the same crude elevator. The Escape Pod is replaced by a 1.4 FD P-Tower Laser Cannon, often nicknamed “Radar Laser Cannon.” Beware of the fact that this cannon is different from the Radar Laser Cannon Kenner released separately as an accessory. The cannon in this set is much smaller and doesn’t explode. An experienced Toydarian dealer might try to trick you by including the regular laser cannon in this set.
Cloud City (1980): This playset can be compared to the Cantina Adventure Set. It was packaged in a small box and it was sold by Sears in the US and Canada. The set came with four figures (Han Bespin, Lobot, Dengar and Ugnaught), though in Canada, some other figures were offered with this playset. Cloud City is a small, but very cool representation of the city in the clouds. The cardboard represents a hallway and the torture chamber with the metallurgic scan grid, used to torture Han in The Empire Strikes Back. It also shows a part of the carbon freezing chamber and has an opening on top of it. This opening most likely represents the carbon freezing pit. The backdrop shows several tall spires and buildings of Cloud City and a Storm IV Cloud Car passing by. Despite being nothing more than a cardboard backdrop with a base, the Cloud City playset looks awesome and it is unique as being the only Bespin playset Kenner released for the 3 ¾” series. There were plenty of opportunities to create cool playsets of Cloud City, but Kenner probably had begun to develop plans for its upcoming Micro Collection series that included an entire Bespin World. Unfortunately that magnificent line failed and already ceased to exist in 1983.
In the second installment of this series, we’ll look at more playsets from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
Tim Veekhoven (Sompeetalay) from Belgium does research for and takes care of the Rogues Gallery feature in Star Wars Insider under the supervision of Leland Chee. He’s president and co founder of TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub, he’s an administrator for Yodapedia, and has written the back stories for Swilla Corey, Tzizvvt, Wam Lufba, and Maxiron Agolerga.