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A Head Above the Rest – Pulsar

Late in 1977, Mattel launched Pulsar – the Ultimate Man of Adventure; it was odd timing. The 1/6th (10.5”) scale original GI Joe stopped in 1976 but was reintroduced as Super Joe (8.5”) sized a little smaller than Big Jim (9.0”).  In 1978, Big Jim was stopped in the US, but Mattel tried to rekindle some of Jim’s flame by launching TV licensed characters on Big Jim’s body: Tarzan, Grizzly Adams and How the West Was Won. I loved watching the old Tarzan cartoon and occasionally still do, Grizzly Adams was always fun to watch, but I do not even remember that there was a TV show named “How the West Was Won.”  I only remember the motion picture with Debbie Reynolds and Jimmy Stuart.  Sadly, none of those figures sold well enough to be sold a second year.

The Marx 1/6th scale Best of the West line with Johnny West ended in 1975, when the oil crisis happened and caused the price of plastic to skyrocket. With 90% of all Marx toys being plastic, it hit the company hard.  At that time, Louis Marx was long gone, and it was run by investors who did not understand the cyclic nature of the toy industry and they allowed the biggest toy company in the world to shrivel up and die.

The only large action figure selling well at that time was Kenner’s Steve Austin the Six Million Dollar Man who was about thirteen inches tall.  Kenner started selling the figure to great success in 197, but 1978 was the last year it sold. Most likely, Mattel did not know that the Six Million Dollar Man had slumping sales and would end that year.

To completely tip the odds against Pulsar, there is that little unknown film released in 1977, and all the new toys hit the shelves in 1978 – we could only buy a large Early Bird gift card promising figures would be shipped to us.

Regardless of his short life, the Pulsar line had some fun features worth discussing.  They were also part of my backyard battles.

Pulsar -the Ultimate Man of Adventure

Pulsar (13.5”) is just barely taller than the Six Million Dollar Man (13.0”). I am sure Pulsar’s size was deliberate to make him just a little taller than Steve AustinPulsar has very limited articulation at only shoulder joints, elbow joints, and knee joints. But his had cool features that kept us playing with him. First, his head opens to reveal a clear brain and two lenticular programer disks which you can pretend to interchange so he would be equipped for various missions.   The front of his chest is molded clear showing many of his internal organs, including lungs, a heart, and veins. When you pumped the trigger on his center back, the lungs would expand and contract while you could see blood pumping through little veins. There was also another toy that Mattel sold which used that same blood pumping feature on. It was a life-sized bat named Greegory, but this was a much better use of the feature.

We know Pulsar must have been from space since his pants were always falling down and showing the moon – or maybe he was just a plumber before he became a superhero.  He shirt has a diagonal slit that opens using Velcro so you can open his shirt and see his organs work.  Since his feet cannot pivot, his shoes have a living hinge and snap on.

The catalog copy states, “No mission is impossible for him! Lift his face, insert a mission disk. You’ve programmed his computer “brain”! Press his back, his heart “beats.” Lungs “breath.”  Blood “flows.” He “comes alive” for another pretend adventure!”

Since there was an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man with a character who could control all the physiology of his body to do super things, I always wondered if that was the inspiration for this toy. (Yes, I am a true geek if I still remember the plot lines of a sci-fi show from 1975.)

Pulsar Hypnos – the Ultimate Enemy

How do you combat a hero who has total control of his body? Why with hypnotic mind control of course. Mattel used the same arms, legs and front torso as Pulsar, but changed out the head, back panels, and inner chest features.  It is very efficient to design this way and reuse as much of the same costly tooling as possible.  Since this figure came with no clothing, it was neat that they molded the figure in semi-clear dark purple plastic to look more alien. Hypnos launched in 1978 for Pulsar’s second year.

His feature activates by pushing a thumb wheel switch on his left side.  That spins an inner flywheel with a colored disk that keeps changing colors as you pump the button more.  It does give a hypnotic effect. For added fun, there is also a trigger on its back that allows you to turn the inner flint on or off so the wheel can have awesome sparking around the spinning hypnotic disk.  As is spins, there is also a high-pitched ratcheting sound that goes higher pitched as you pump it faster. 

The catalog notes, “All foes fear his “powers”! Activate his pretend “hypnotic powers by pressing his side and his back. His chest showers sparks! You hear his cosmic sound. Sinks any attacker into a deep “trance”!”

Wearing a half-mask to give a more sinister look was an interesting idea, but it never stayed on in the right spot so you could see eyes through the holes.  I had to lay it horizontal just to get a picture to show how it fits.

My favorite part of Hypnos is actually his head. It is extremely well designed with his oversized brain, odd skin tone, creepy alien tattoos, pointy ears and stars in his eyes.   While I will admit that Pulsar was not in too many of my backyard battles, Hypnos was one of the usual suspects of villains.

Pulsar Life Systems Center

The catalog copy describes the play for this set as “Reenergizing” & “reprogramming” machine for Pulsar! Work the dial. Prepare for another incredible mission! Pretend to check his X-rays & light-scan his “brain” Activate his “vital organs”!”

It was very typical in that period for toy companies to print packages in one color on corrugated stock and then apply a full-color label to the front for added effect. 

This was a really fun set.  If you own one and have not taken it out of its box -take it out and play with it.  You attach Pulsar in the middle, strap him down which then makes it look like hoses are attached to him. There is a scanner wand that you move up and down over him. Note that CAT scans were only invented in 1972 and were not common when this toy was made, so it was forward thinking.  As you move the arm up and down, it shines a light behind a dark printed film to light up the part of the body the scanner is over (SO cool, I recently “borrowed” that idea for a toy medical set I was asked to design.)

Somewhere along the way, that item disappeared from my collection.  But I am pretty sure there was also a way where it lit up his clear brain through those funny holes on the back of his head – dispelling the myth that Pulsar was also a high tech salt shaker.  There is also a button to make his organs pump while he is in the system. Incidentally, I am pretty sure GI Joe spent more time in that device being intergated by villainous masterminds than my Pulsar ever did – at least at my house.  But don’t panic – Joe never divulged more than his name, rank, and serial number.

Was this the end? “No, there is another.”

While digging around the Mattel Archives before it was emptied and shut down, I found this figure.  It had to have been a concept model for a year-3 villain.  The normal development time of a toy is eighteen months to twelve months if it requires any tooling.  Stuffed animals and fashion/uniform packs can happen in six months if there is no new tooling.  So it is normal for the year-two or year-three product to be in development before a line is canceled.  Sadly, many of the best toy designs are in those years as the designers now know the product well and have to dig deeper into their creativity. (someday I will post pictures of an unproduced Big Jim sized Tarzan toy that will knock your socks off!)

This prototype was made using the Hypnos body, which proves it to be a year-two concept instead of year-one. The body is the same, but all the gears have been removed, and electronics were added.  If you look carefully at the pictures,  you can see holes in his chest, a large speaker, a nine-volt battery in his belly and dial on his back.  He also had an on/off switch, but the solder joint failed, and it fell off.  When it still worked, (and it might if I were to resolder the switch and replace the battery,) it made a high pitched screechy noise.  Then you turn the dial on its back; you could change the pitch from low to high.  Clearly, this villain would have sonic powers.  It was a cool idea, and it fit the line well.  I have never seen any sketches of it, and most of those designers had left by the time I started at Mattel in 1984, so I have no other reference other than what is inferred by this fun one-of-a-kind model.

Did Pulsar or Hypnos play a roll in your backyard Adventures?

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  1. Love Pulsar! I have a Mexican variant that has a clear red plastic brain. The color change mechanism in Hypnos was used previously by Mattel in one of their WIZ-Z-ZER spinning top toys called the “Color Changer.” Thanks for sharing that prototype, I wondered what would happen if Mattel expanded the line, I assumed they would have made an updated version of Pulsar as well.

    • That sounds cool. Can you post of picture of the red brain? I forgot Mattel used that color spin change on the Wizzers. If Mattel followed their normal pattern, they would have made some change to Pulsar in year 2 even if it was small.

      I just wish they had better articulation to be more playable. At one time, I constructed a short jumpsuit for Hypnos in purple with a wide open “V” neck line since he seemed lacking.

  2. Never haf a Pulsar. But look for a good one when Im at toy shows or Joelanta. Another great article Greg. And as far as that Tarzan pic, make it sooner than later that you post it. I have a Grizzly Adams and had a couple of the How The West Was Won figures but have never even seen or heard of the Big Jim size Tarzan before.

    • Jack I will try to post that sooner than later. Especially since many of my readers are loving the Big Jim product. There was a pre-production figure for Tarzan that I had on my eBay site but it sold a while ago – PurpleExpressTrain

    • Thanks – I based the timing on what is shown (and not shown) in the Mattel Catalogs, but since they had him in the 1977 Christmas cross-sell booklet for kids, I updated the post.