Debuting in 1987, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was a multi-media brand which included a TV series, a toy line, and various tie-in products. So why am I writing about it on my retro gaming blog? Because at its core, Captain Power was a game.
A syndicated, weekly, live-action television show told the story of Captain Power and a dystopian future after the Metal Wars, where the evil Lord Dread and his Bio-Dread Army of robots had conquered the human race, but Captain Power and his teammates were leading the resistance to make the world safe for humanity once again. The show was written by J. Michael Straczynski, who would go on to create Babylon 5, and while it was aimed mostly at kids, it featured a fairly mature storyline and didn’t shy away from the realities of war, and wasn’t even afraid to kill off a main character. Featuring cutting-edge (at the time) computer graphics and special effects, viewers of the TV show not familiar with the other elements of the multi-pronged CP franchise might wonder why it often showed strange, flickering orange and yellow lights on certain characters, mecha, and laser blasts. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The first wave of Mattel’s Captain Power toy line included ten products, evenly split between the Soldiers of the Future and the Bio Dread Army: six action figures (three good guys and three baddies), two spaceships (Captain Power’s XT-7 PowerJet and Lord Dread’s Phantom Striker), and two accessories (the Power On Energizer and the Interlocker Throne). More toys and figures were released in another wave, but these first ten pieces are the essentials.
Labeled with the term TVI, or “Televideo Interactive,” the ships and accessories were battery-operated, and the ships had handles underneath with triggers. They were equipped with photo diodes, which detected the aforementioned orange and yellow lights on the TV show. The intersection of the show and the toys is where Captain Power becomes a game. The player/user/watcher points their ship at the TV screen during battle sequences. The player starts with five points. Orange lights, often found on the chests of enemy robots or the afterburners of spaceships, can be “shot” by the player’s ship, registering more points. Yellow lights, usually laserblasts, “shoot” back at the player, deleting points if you get “hit.” If your score reaches zero, the cockpit of your ship explodes, flinging your action figure across the room.
This was the coolest. Shit. EVER.
But wait, there’s more!
Also available were three pre-recorded VHS videocassettes, containing missions to take your ship on, each a different level of difficulty. To me, these tapes were the best part of Captain Power. Although each mission had a live-action intro and outro featuring the characters from the show, the missions themselves were shown from a first-person cockpit view, and they were animated. And it wasn’t just any animation — it was high-quality anime, produced in Japan by ARTMIC.
Mid-1980s anime by ARTMIC. It has that same look and feel as the early episodes of Bubblegum Crisis. It’s that totally classic style which, to me, represents what anime is all about and got me hooked on anime to begin with. It also reminded me an awful lot of Data East’s laserdisc arcade game Cobra Command, a first-person helicopter shooter also done in anime (though that game’s animation was handled by Toei, I believe). Captain Power toys were also released in Japan, so I’m sure the style was appealing to users there, although I haven’t found any Japanese copies of these VHS adventures, so I’m not positive they were available there (although there were some of the live-action episodes, edited together into a movie, available on VHS and laserdisc in Japan).
Anyway, whereas the TV show treated the toy ships more like light guns to shoot the robot enemies, these first-person missions made you feel more like you were actually flying the ship, which made much more sense. That’s why the videos were my favorite way to play Captain Power. You could chase and shoot enemy ships and dodge their return fire and explosions.
I was on top of Captain Power when it was still yet to be released. I had heard the news of it coming out, and already being a gamer and a fan of technology and sci-fi and all that nerdyness, I couldn’t wait to check it out. At age 13, I did feel I was little too old for toy ships and action figures, but I kinda didn’t care — it was too cool. Besides, I kept telling myself, it’s a game, not a toy. Anyway, that Christmas was all about Captain Power for me, as I got the XT-7 and a few of the action figures. Not long after that, I acquired all three tapes, the Phantom Striker, the rest of the figures, and eventually the Power On Energizer. I did play the game quite regularly, too. I never did get the Interlocker Throne, however — it’s one of those childhood toys that eluded me, although I know I can jump on ebay and nab one for about 50 bucks in the box. Someday.
The rest of the toys (a large playset, some additional vehicles, and more action figures) didn’t really appeal to me. There were also comic books and other licensed products. Unfortunately, the TV show only lasted one season — the second season was in preparation, but never produced. Captain Power’s reign as the hottest toy in the land lasted maybe a year.
I’m surprised that they never took a shot at making an actual console videogame. I would think (but I don’t know for sure because I’m not a programmer) that the flashing orange and yellow colors of the TV show and VHS tapes could have been replicated by an NES game, which could have somehow combined true interactive control with the toy line. I would think such a crossover also would have extended the toys’ lifespan.
There was one Captain Power videogame, and it was for the Commodore 64. It too was a first-person cockpit shooty affair, but having seen footage of it on YouTube, the graphics and play look absolutely godawful. Cap deserved better.
“I’m in!”, you say? You want to track down some vintage Captain Power toys and give it a shot? Well, this may or may not be possible. The good news is that the entire TV show was released on DVD back in 2011. The bad news is that you probably need an actual CRT television for the interactives to work; the patterns of the flashing lights relied on the redraw rate of a CRT, and modern HDTVs with progressive-scan displays won’t replicate that correctly. As for the three VHS tapes, you would likewise need to find the original cassettes in playable condition. They’ve never been officially released on DVD (I wish they would have come out on laserdisc), and although you can find them on YouTube, that’s not going to work properly either. So if you can find all the original equipment — which actually isn’t too difficult, thanks to the interwebs — you can still enjoy this unique relic of interactive gaming.
As for me — I still have ALL OF IT. My ships, figures, and tapes, and of course a CRT TV and a VCR. And it all works! So luckily, I can still power on, fire up the XT-7 (actually the Phantom Striker is way more badass), and take out some Bio-Dreads whenever I want.
There was a similar product on the market at the same time as Captain Power: a VHS/game console hybrid called Action Max. This was a console which attached to your VCR, and used a light gun. There were several tapes available for it, all live-action adventures with geometric targets superimposed over the characters/enemies you were supposed to shoot. There was a haunted house adventure, a jet fighter mission that looked an awful lot like the laserdisc game MACH 3, and others. The floating shapes slapped over the targets really took any element of immersion out of the Action Max games though, as the interactive elements in Captain Power were much more smoothly integrated into the graphics. Action Max just wasn’t anywhere near as cool.
One final note: The original creators of Captain Power have, for the past several years, been working on reviving the franchise. As recently as July of 2016, they released a teaser trailer for a new Captain Power series called Phoenix Rising, a reference to the phoenix symbol on the armor and uniforms worn by the Soldiers of the Future, which itself represented their mission to give rise to humans over their mechanical oppressors. With many of the original people behind the original involved with the reboot, it should be an exciting revival, should it actually appear; however, the real question is, will it be just a sci-fi show, or will it be “playable” with the old equipment? (I’m really pulling for the latter.)
We shall see, but in the meantime, pick up the DVD of the original show and check out the super rad anime missions on YouTube. Captain Power may have been just too cool for its time.