It’s very hard to believe that it has already been 15 years since we witnessed the release of The Phantom Menace. The movie was released on May 19 in the US, but other countries faced a horrible ordeal and had to wait for months until the movie was released in theaters. Not only did Episode I propel us into the prequel-era, it also opened the doors to a new realm of Star Wars toys and merchandising. Maybe some of you were part of the Midnight Madness events, which were organized at Toys ‘R’ Us stores in the US. These stores opened their doors at midnight, as soon as they were officially allowed to sell merchandising of The Phantom Menace. In this blog we’ll have a look at the very first wave of Hasbro’s Episode I action figures and how they have withstood the test of time.
But before we’ll discuss the first wave, let’s talk about two Episode I sneak preview toys that were already released in 1998: Mace Windu and STAP with Battle Droid. Mace Windu was available in the US when you had six proofs-of-purchase of other Star Wars toys. Hasbro created this offer so the older figures would be sold out in time for the promotion of Episode I. In 1998 not much was known about Mace Windu, except that he was a Senior Jedi Council member, that he was played by Samuel L. Jackson and that the name originated from one of the earliest notes of George Lucas for Star Wars. The figure was offered in a cool window box and Mace featured the standard articulation of Hasbro’s ‘Power of the Force II’ series. The figure would later be reused for a variation in the Hasbro Episode I line. The second preview toy was the STAP with Battle Droid. This repulsorlift vehicle was also sold in a beautiful window box that featured art by Doug Chiang. It included the STAP (Single Trooper Aerial Platform) and a B1 Battle Droid. The droid had bendable knees and elbows which meant he was almost “super” articulated in 1998. The STAP was reissued later into the line as a regular release in a different box.
The basic Episode I figures of Hasbro were divided into three different categories (not that anybody truly cared about that): Collection 1, 2 and 3. Collection 1 were core characters, Collection 2 secondary characters (such as Yoda), and Collection 3 other characters, like Ody Mandrell and Adi Gallia. All figures came with a Commtech (Commtalk in Europe) chip. If you placed this chip on your Commtech Reader, it would produce several “robotic” sounding quotes or sounds from the movie. These electronics were one of the reasons that the figures of Episode I were quite expensive back in 1999. The very first wave contained eight figures of Collection 1. The figures were sold on the well known red/black card with Darth Maul’s visage. The back of the card had a tiny biography and general info about the Commtech and showed other figures in the wave.
Anakin Skywalker (Tatooine): Was of course a more than logical choice to be present in wave 1. Anakin is a pretty solid figure with a basic amount of articulation (legs, arms, head and body). He comes with his removable backpack and with a grease gun, used to work on his Podracer or perhaps on the machinery in Watto’s shop. Even by today’s standards this isn’t a bad figure. The likeness is decent, but the abundance of other Anakin figures diminished the importance of this figure. Anakin from the ‘Mos Espa Encounter Cinema Scene’ is the same figure, but with his arms posed differently.
- “I’m a person and my name is Anakin.”
- “I know we’re in trouble, just hang on!”
Battle Droid: This was one of the most interesting figures in the first wave. Like the Battle Droid that was included with the STAP, these figures were super articulated in 1999. They have added articulation in their knees, elbows, neck, a removable backpack and their head stands on a ball joint. The droid includes its E-5 Blaster Rifle, which can be placed on its backpack, just like in the movie. These Battle Droids don’t have the best balance ever in a Star Wars action figure, but you can get some decent poses out of them. You could always use the Commtech chip as a stand to help the droids keeping their balance.
Probably the best aspect of the Battle Droid was that it deliberately came in four variations: sliced, dirty, clean and shot. All variations were considered equally common and it was a great idea of Hasbro to augment the sales of the single troopbuilder in the wave.
- “Clear them away!”
- “Where are you taking them?”
- “Halt! You’re under arrest!”
Darth Maul: Due to the (imminent) arrival of the Zabrak Sith Lord in Episode I, this figure was in high demand. People paid a lot of money for Maul in the first weeks, because he was often sold out. On top of that, the first Maul-figures were released with incorrect tattoos and a pink chin. To keep up with the demand, Hasbro soon released cases with nothing but corrected Maul-figures.
The figure was pretty decent. He features additional articulation in the elbows and in his forearms so he was able to use his double-bladed lightsaber in both hands. Unfortunately his skirt was made from a very solid plastic which really didn’t allow for much articulation in the legs. Fans liked Maul, but future Maul-figures (and there would be plenty over the years) would greatly improve his likeness, the paint job and articulation. Therefor, this figure has become outdated.
- “If the trace was correct, I will find them quickly, Master.”
- “At last we will have revenge.”
Jar Jar Binks: The clumsy Gungan outcast was expected to be present in wave 1 and he’s not the best action figure in the wave. Binks, with a plastic skirt, has the regular articulation and comes with a large Electropole. One of his hands is posed in a peculiar fashion like he’s supposed to pick something up. Despite the slightly awkward bended pose of the figure, the face of the Gungan is done adequately and the same goes for his mottled skin. Hasbro’s Episode I series contained a lot of mediocre Binks-figures. Hasbro’s recent Vintage series offered a much improved figure of the Gungan.
- “Mesa called Jar Jar Binks.”
- “Gungans no liken outsiders.”
- “Woah, yousa guys bombad!”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: Is one of the best figures in the wave. Although his likeness and articulation was going to be improved in the future in other figures, the additional swivel articulation in the elbows and wrists allowed Obi-Wan to recreate the memorable battle against Darth Maul. The figure’s got a very good balance and in 1999 this was an excellent action figure. His accessory is his blue lightsaber which can be held in two hands, though the handle seems a bit large.
- “The council have granted me permission to train you.”
- “You will be a Jedi, I promise.”
- “Do not defy the council Master, not again.”
- “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Padmé Naberrie: One of two Padmé figures in the first wave. That’s always been a bit surprising since it wasn’t widely known that Padmé and Queen Amidala were one and the same before the movie was released. This is Padmé in her Tatooine handmaiden outfit and she comes with a podrace viewscreen. Padmé only has one open hand, so she can’t hold any accessory with her left hand. Her clothing is nicely recreated, but the figure has a poor balance and her face sculpt doesn’t really look like Natalie Portman. Since Hasbro didn’t use ball joints and a separate head, the rather tick neck of the figure isn’t doing Padmé any justice.
- “I’ve been trained in defense, I can take care of myself.”
- “You’re a funny little boy, how do you know so much?”
- “These junk dealers must have a weakness of some kind.”
Queen Amidala (Naboo): Not only did this figure look like the Padmé figure, one of her quotes mentioned the use of a decoy. This might have spoiled the Padmé / Amidala disguise (also used in Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) for a lot of fans. Technically, this figure shouldn’t have been labeled as Queen Amidala, since most of the time she was acting as Padmé in her battle dress and Sabé was acting as Queen Amidala.
Amidala isn’t a perfect figure. Her arms are positioned in a somewhat bended fashion, but she comes with two blasters: her ELG-3a Diplomat’s Blaster and the smaller Q2 hold-out Blaster. The figure’s balance is decent, but her neck is still rather broad. This figure certainly was a logical addition to the first wave. Only in 2012 did Hasbro offer an improved (but still not perfect) version of this figure in the ‘Movie Heroes’ assortment.
- “Now viceroy, this is the end of your occupation here.”
- “I am Queen Amidala.”
- “This is my decoy, my loyal bodyguard.”
- “If we do not act quickly, all will be lost forever.”
Qui-Gon Jinn: Just like his Padawan, Qui-Gon Jinn features swiveling elbows and rotating wrists that allow him to hold his lightsaber with both hands. Still, the forearms of Qui-Gon are positioned in a bended fashion, so he does look a bit weird without his weapon. Because of this you won’t be able to pose Qui-Gon as well as Obi-Wan. He still remains better articulated than most figures of his era and it was a good figure to relive the battle against Darth Maul. Hasbro would eventually offer us several better figures of Qui-Gon.
- “Feel, don’t think, use your instincts.”
- “Anakin will become a Jedi, I promise you.”
- “Be wary, I sense a disturbance in the Force.”
- “May the Force be with you.”
The first wave of The Phantom Menace would be accompanied by wave 2 and wave 3, consisting of characters from Collection 2 and 3. Today, nearly all of the figures from wave 1 have been greatly improved by Hasbro (except for Padmé handmaiden Tatooine). Nevertheless, they remain part of the long history of Star Wars toys and will always be the first figures released in a new era of Star Wars (merchandising).
Tim Veekhoven (Sompeetalay) from Belgium is president and co founder of TeeKay-421, the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub. He has contributed to Star Wars Insider Magazine (Rogues Gallery), is an administrator for Yodapedia and has written four character back stories in ‘What’s the Story?’.