Recently I’ve had an issue with big black carpenter ants around the exterior of my house with a wanderer here and there breaching the perimeter. For weeks I’ve been trying to eradicate them, locate their nest, and seal their point of entry. I’ve put down baits, sprayed the exterior and interior walls with insecticides, spread repellent powders and dusts, and although their activity has slowed their foraging and excursions continue. All of the fixation and research in the area of ant removal got me thinking about a short lived and somewhat obscure toy line from my childhood: Army Ants.
Back in the 1980’s small collectible rubber figurines were all the rage. People were plunking down their pennies to purchase Smurfs, California Raisins, M.U.S.C.L.E. men, Monster in My Pocket, and other assorted inarticulate figurines to collect. Personally I never succumbed to the charm. It’s clear that the allure of these types of figures was not as much in their playability as in their collectible nature. Figurines were small and cheap to produce and in many cases they were numbered which urged the purchaser to “collect all 192” or however many figures were in the line. Inventively there would be rare “chase” figures that were difficult to come by encouraging the collector to keep buying. Maybe its because I collected sports cards already that I didn’t feel the need to diversify into the small plastic arena. Whatever the reason most of these pocket sized phenomenon’s passed me by in my childhood but that isn’t to say that I was completely immune to the marketing.
One day my friend across the street called me on the phone to let me know he had some Army Ants and that I should come over. Back in those days any time a kid got a new toy it was a major deal. Heck it was practically a neighborhood event. Protocol was to immediately notify all of your closest friends that a new addition to the toy chest had been procured and that they should immediately make their way over to bask in the glory. Although Army Ants were not held in particularly high regard on the totem pole of children’s play things, a new toy was still a new toy nevertheless and I rushed over to celebrate in his victory.
Up until that point I had never owned any of the figurines nor seen any loose Army Ants in person. My only experience with them at all stemmed from the TV commercials and seeing a few carded specimens as I passed them by to head for the bluish purple cards of the Real Ghostbusters toys. Getting my hands on the figures for the first time did not change my preconceived opinions of the toy line in any notable way. I was always more interested in fully articulated action figures from licensed toy lines based on cartoons, movies, or TV shows.
For those not familiar with Army Ants I will offer a brief description of what they were. The entire toy line was basically a modification of the plastic toy soldier figurines which had been around for decades pitting two opposing armies against each other (typically green vs grey or sometimes tan). Army Ants were a hair more ornate and complex than those most basic of toys. Made of solid rubber the main body of the figure was colored either in orange or blue which would indicate which army they fought for. The abdomen of the ant was a separate piece which was removable and came in different colors. Not only were they squishy but they would glow in the dark which was kind of cool. Every figure included a unique removable accessory while some had weapons or items sculpted into their hands as well. Aside from that, paint application was pretty sparse. Each figure may have a dab of paint on the belt or on glasses or helmets but nowhere else. Although different details were sculpted onto the figure they typically were without paint of any kind.
Army Ants were available in squadrons of three which had a theme, or in the big packs of 8 which included a General figure. The orange army was led by General Patant while the blue forces were under the command of General McAnther. The large 8 packs consisted of said General’s along with 7 infantry units to build an instant army. These would then be supplemented by the three packs which were intended to be special forces such as the Assault Team, Sniper Team, Bazooka Team, Mortar Team, Artillery Team, Flamethrower Team, etc. Forty figures were released in total, 20 for each army and every figure was given a name. It’s clear that Hasbro expected these toys to be a success given the attention to detail, but slow sales forced them out of the market place rather quickly and nothing was produced after the first assortment. I would assume that if the line had succeeded a second wave of figures would have been accompanied by playsets and vehicles but we will never know.
My friend’s acquisition was a three pack of the orange ants focusing on the bazooka team. There’s only so much even a child’s imagination can do with a squadron of three ant figurines and no opposition. After playing with the figures for maybe 10 to 15 minutes we quickly moved on to other things and I never played with them again. In fact, I’ve never even seen any of the figures since that brief session back in approximately 1988. Somehow life continued to move on.
I really can’t explain why Army Ants failed and other similar toy lines became a big success. What did Army Ants lack that M.U.S.C.L.E. had? Anyone who has such answers would make a fortune as a consultant in the toy industry. Maybe it’s because Army Ants were trying to enter an already saturated market of mini collectible figurines. Perhaps the concept of warring insects simply did not appeal to the imagination of children at large. Whatever the reason Army Ants are still an interesting footnote in the golden age of toys.