The toys and action figures of the 80s were amazing. TV hadn’t totally rotted our brain yet, so we had some ability to be imaginative and creative with our toys. You would take those action figures outside and create your own little worlds for them.
Inside, you would also use whatever objects and items to create the ideal toy playsets to further your action figure world-building. But with the actual toy playsets put out by the companies, nothing could touch them. They took everything you wanted to make these action figures as playable as possible and put it into the sweetest playset your little mind could imagine.
Not only that, but we would also see the full potential of how these toy playsets could be utilized through the commercials selling them. They would show all the features, and how you could best use the whole thing. We also got to watch these lucky kids living out our toy playset dreams on screen.
So, this will be a look back on the 9 greatest 1980s toy playsets:
9. 1987 Kenner The Real Ghostbusters Firehouse Headquarters Playset
I wasn’t a massive fan of the Ghostbusters toys, mainly as it was a movie I was never allowed to see so I made it a point to boycott them. The truth is, this Real Ghostbusters firehouse headquarters from 1987 was awesome. Even if you actually didn’t like the movie, this toy playset was just fun.
The thing was, it wasn’t actually based on the movie, but the cartoon “The Real Ghostbuster.” I think every kid wants to be a fireman, so this was the perfect way to experience that at home. It had a “ghost pursuit” fire pole to slide down, a “ghost containment” unit that you could store ghosts in, and – coolest of all – the “goop grate.”
We’ll see the concept of a goop grate again, but this 1980s toy playset actually came with a 5 oz can of Ecto-plazm play gel which was amazing as usually these money-hungry toy companies would make you buy these things separately.
All in all, this was a great toy playset, that didn’t take up a lot of room, and had the bonus that you could swap out any other figures to create your own stories and world.
8. 1983 Hasbro GI Joe Headquarters Command Center
You’ll see GI Joe a few times on this list, as they mastered what a toy playset could be. This is one of the earlier entries from 1983. This thing was really badass and looked like a genuine fortress. The tagine let us know that it was “fully equipped to fight Destro, Major Bludd, and the evil Cobra Command!”
If you go on yojoe.com, you can see a great breakdown of all the images of this awesome toy playset. I remember trying to recreate this one (i didn’t own it, which will be a running theme through this blog) using pieces of wood and popsicle sticks. Needless to say, it sucked.
This toy playset had a ton of features including machine guns, cameras, searchlights, and cost $24.99 when it first came out in ‘83. Converted for today, that’s around $65, which I guess is not bad for a playset of this magnitude?
But it really did have it all. With its garage, turrets, turbines, and repair bay, it could also be used with any other brand of action figures as it was such a great command center.
7. 1983 Kenner Ewok Village
Kenner, the plucky upstart who took a chance on a random robots and aliens movie in 1977 ended up being a juggernaut in the toy business. Their original plan was to make a modest line of space toys – which they had already been interested in doing – but have them connected to this new “Star Wars” movie.
You probably know the rest of the story, but when Star Wars became a monster hit, Kenner was completely caught with its pants down. They had no idea of the cultural impact of this movie and had nothing ready to go. They didn’t even have anything ready for the next Christmas and it led to the infamous “empty box campaign” where you would buy an empty box with a cardboard display and send a voucher in to receive the action figures when they were ready. They dubbed it the “Early bird certificate package,” but it actually worked.
Fast forward to 1983 and Return of the Jedi and the adorable little Ewoks (which were supposed to be Wookies in the original script). This was a great toy playset and a good departure from the regular space-based toys. It took the playset to a more natural setting and the amazing Ewok village depicted in the third movie and last movie. Little did we know what this franchise would develop into…
It had a working net trap, a string rope elevator, huts, campfire, and a boulder attached to a tree limb to use as a weapon. It was a really solid playset. So solid in fact that it was completely ripped off for the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves toyline.
6. 1987 Hasbro GI Joe Defiant Space Shuttle
This was a combination of toy and toy playset all rolled into one. It’s a playset that I have never actually seen with my own eyes and was quite a mythological toy. I don’t know anyone that owned one, and it only existed in our commercial fantasy.
This toy is so epic it has its own Wikipedia page! It’s technically made up of three different vehicles. The first is the Crawler unit, which are those enormous rolling machines that transport a Space Shuttle to its launch site. The second vehicle is the Booster Unit, which is also like a space vehicle with a crew compartment, computers, and airlock. Its job is to carry the Space Shuttle into orbit.
Then there is the Space Shuttle itself. It had different sections including a cockpit control center, a hatch, and then some other features for use in space like an umbilical cord.
So, this thing was NOT cheap. It rang in at a sweet $129.99 in 1987 or nearly three hundred smackaroos when converted for today. I was smart not to include it on any wishlists. It was a popular toy though and Hasbro had the foresight to release just the Space Shuttle a few years later making it more affordable and renamed it the “Crusader.”
This was a truly epic toy/toy playset that captured everything amazing about GI Joe but combined it with the excitement of the Space Shuttle program.
5. Death Star 1978
“That’s no moon. It’s a space station…”
So this isn’t technically an 80s toy, but it lasted well into the 80s and was pretty much adopted by the decade. As mentioned before about Kenner, even though they were caught off guard at first with the success of Star Wars, they eventually got their act together. This led them to release a pretty iconic toy playset of one of the most famous movie creations ever: The Death Star.
It was the first playset that Kenner released for the Star Wars line and would blow the mind of every kid in existence. It was over 22 inches tall and is vertically designed to act as a cross-section of the Death Star. It had three floors and a bottom level with an elevator shaft that goes from top to bottom.
The top floor even featured two different scenes from the movie (which WAS called Star Wars when it first came out. A New Hope was added in subsequent re-releases). This was a truly remarkable playset and had amazing detail and room for your action figures. The most amazing feature might have been at the bottom where it featured an actual working trash compactor.
This is pretty nuts, but as reported on starwars.com; when the Death Star was released in 1978, it only cost $18.00. Even with inflation, that’s only around $70 for one of the best toy playsets of all time. Kids were running through doors for this thing.
4. 1986 Hasbro GI Joe Terror Drome Playset
This was kind of like Hasbro’s answer to the Death Star? This toy playset is interesting because it’s playset specifically made for the bad guys aka Cobra. That can be a risk when putting out a toy, but in the case of GI Joe, and Hasbro: it works. To properly “play GI Joe,” it helps to have all parties involved. You can only play with them out on a mud hill in your backyard for so long.
The Terror Drome was not just a Public Enemy song but a fortress where Cobra could set up shop. It featured:
- Refueling bays
- A prison cell
- Vehicle bays
- Tower-mounted cannons
- A launch silo
This was a pretty interactive playset and one of the few ones that actually came with an action figure; you received an AVAC pilot to fly the Firebat aircraft (Firebat aircraft sold separately).
When it came out in 1986, it would run you $59.95 or around $140 today. If you happen to have one of these lying around, it will make you some sweet moolah as boxed versions go for upwards of a thousand dollars.
3. 1989 Playmates TMNT Sewer Playset
I consider the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a 90 franchise, but they do have their roots in the 80s—specifically this classic toy playset.
This is one of the greatest playsets ever released as it completely encompasses everything about the Ninja Turtles. It was super interactive and didn’t seem like a cheap release to get something out there. To a kid, it looked like actual thought, and design went into it.
The TMNT figures were a huge hit obviously, but they always felt like a better value because of their substantial size while still being in the smaller 3.5-inch action figure range. The Sewer Playset needed to be big enough to accommodate them, but not so big that it would put it out of reach financially.
The cool part about this playset was that it was like a cutaway of an actual city street. You had the sewer down below, but then an actual street above it with telephone poles and fences. This is part of the uniqueness and interactiveness of this playset. It had the periscope through the fire hydrant and elevator to take you from street level to subterranean. There was also the sewer grate to pour ooze on the unsuspecting victim below.
2. Hasbro GI Joe USS Flagg
One of the most mythological toys ever created, and technically the largest “toy” ever created. The GI Joe USS Flagg is the stuff of legend. I never saw one in person, and there’s a good chance you haven’t either. I didn’t know anyone who owned one, and the closest connection you would get to it was hearing about someone’s friend who’s neighbor knew someone who owned it.
That was probably still a lie, but it didn’t matter – this was a toy company creating something to make a kid’s head explode. I did a whole blog on the USS Flagg that you should check out, but here is a quick rundown of this massive playset.
It’s hard to call it a toy as you could not move it, which makes it more of a playset. It measured in at a whopping 7 feet 6 inches long and came out in 1985. It came with its own public address p.a system, missile launchers, elevator decks, and even came with a fuel delivery vehicle. Hasbro was even nice enough to throw in ONE action figure: Vice Admiral Keel-Haul.
This thing is so big and solid it’s made up of the same plastic they use for playground equipment. Some of the individual pieces are 2.5 feet long and there are actual support beams to keep the whole thing supported. It had 9 different trusses and 5 separate deck plates, making it big enough to pretty much display every GI Joe action figure and vehicle ever made.
Some of the stickers for it were so long that there wasn’t enough glue on them to keep them stuck to the ship. This thing is huge, is what I’m trying to say. I’m not sure why Hasbro put it out as they knew it wouldn’t be accessible by the average family because it wouldn’t even fit in most rooms.
Here’s the thing, though: it wasn’t even that crazy expensive. It wasn’t cheap, but when it came out in 1985, it cost $109.99. Converted for today, that’s only around $260. Which is not bad value actually when you consider the size and scope of this monumental playset.
I still put the GI Joe USS Flag is still on my Christmas wishlist every year as a joke because as dumb as I was as a kid, I knew better than to ask for it. And If I had ever got this playset, I might have turned out to be a totally different person.
1. 1982 Mattel Masters of the Universe Castle Grayskull
The greatest playset ever made and the epitome of what a 1980s toy playset is all about. Castle Grayskull wasn’t just a functioning interactive playset—it was a character unto itself.
Another one of the playsets I never owned, but my friend did. Guess who’s house I spent more time at…
What made this playset stand out from all the rest is that it was like bringing the cartoon home with you. It looked completely lifted from the show and not a cheap facsimile. With Castle Grayskull, Mattel perfectly captured the essence and iconic image of one of the most significant things from an 80s cartoon.
This was amazing because it was a playset, but was also its own character. You could see the skull in the castle’s front with a drawbridge entrance that also served as a mouth—they beautifully dubbed this “the Jawbridge.” This was a true piece of creative work. From there, it was the perfect playset with two separate parts joined with a hinge. Not only could you open it up to play with it, but you could also close it to store everything in it too. It also just worked well as a display unit.
You also had some amazing features in it, including the throne room, elevator, and the iconic trap door. When it came out way back in 1982, it sold for $26.99, converted for today that’s around $70.
In the cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Castle Grayskull is a mythical location and Hasbro was able to capture the spirit of all this and perfectly put it into the best toy playset of the 80s, and possibly of all time.