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By Thomas Wheeler

The vehicular lineup for the toys based around the live action movie, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", has proven to be an interesting one. It is a combination of brand new vehicles such as the Cobra Gunship and the Steel Hammer, mixed with new takes on established vehicles, in some cases with new names. The Sky Sweeper Jet became the Crimson Hydra, for example.

And then we have the ARMORED PANTHER. Assigned to the G.I. Joe team, this vehicle, in the smaller range of vehicles and generally found alongside items like the Cobra Mole Pod and the G.I. Joe Rockslide, is a very interesting reissue -- and enhancement -- of the G.I. Joe Armadillo Tank.

The Armadillo was first released in 1985, and was described as a "Mini-Tank". A fair description, since it certainly looked like a tank, but was distinctly smaller. Operated by one person in an open turret/cockpit, if a tank could ever get away with being described as "cute", the Armadillo likely came closest to that description.

The Armadillo returned with a different color scheme and a rack of missiles added to it several years later, as part of the Slaughter's Marauders team, and then it pretty well vanished. This sincerely surprised me, since the Armadillo was a good basic vehicle, with a decently military appearance to it, even if the idea of a one-man open-cockpit tank might have been a tad implausible -- but no more or less than some of the stuff that was rolling onto the average G.I. Joe battlefield -- and it's not at all hard to see the Armadillo decked out in Tiger Force colors, or turned over to the bad guys and given a Cobra Blue paint job, or even a Python Patrol pattern. But this never happened. One sort of started to wonder if the Armadillo's molds had been outright lost.

Fortunately, they have not been. The vehicle turned up a couple of years ago as a Convention special from the G.I. Joe Collectors' Club, and then Hasbro incorporated it into the line just preceding the movie-based toys, in its original color scheme.

And now, with some very interesting enhancements, and with an all-new color scheme, this tank has made its way into the movie-based line. However, it's no longer called the Armadillo. For reasons unknown, it has been given the name "Armored Panther".

Okay, in fairness, a panther is a more threatening animal than an armadillo. An armadillo isn't an especially ferocious animal. It is a pretty well armored creature, so it's not entirely an inappropriate appellation for a tank, but it uses its capabilities for defense. And it's a rather small animal, so one can understand why it would be used for naming a small tank.

A panther, on the other hand, can be a very dangerous and ferocious animal. It may not be armored, and it's not particularly small, but then it doesn't really need to be armored. It has other useful characteristics -- most of them sharp and pointy. And the name "Panther" does have previous usage within the G.I. Joe line, if somewhat obscure usage. It was the name of an enemy tank in the very short-lived "Sgt. Savage" concept. Honestly, the tank was excellent, and works better with 3-3/4" figures than it did with the larger Savage figures. Decoration-wise, it's nothing a few Cobra labels can't rectify.

Obviously, there's no great resemblance between that Panther Tank and the former Armadillo, now Armored Panther. On the other hand, it's hardly the first time in the history of G.I. Joe that an established vehicle has been renamed with a name that has also seen previous usage. Just ask the Dragonfly after it got renamed the Locust during the 2000-2002 run.

So what have we really got here with the Armored Panther? We have a vehicle that looks very much like a tank -- just a lot smaller. It has a heavily armored, somewhat slope-shaped main body, a raised turret that is in fact the cockpit of the vehicle, forward-facing guns on the front of this turret-cockpit, which does rotate, and very tank-like apparent treads on the sides. These are, as has been the case with any number of tanks in a wide range of sizes over the history of G.I. Joe, "false" treads, concealing small wheels underneath the vehicle. Sort of have to use your imagination here, but it's not a slap against the Armored Panther. Far larger tank-like vehicles, including the various HISS Tanks and even the huge Equalizer, have had simulated treads. Not every vehicle is lucky enough to be a MOBAT, Mauler, or Patriot Grizzly.

The Armored Panther really does qualify as a mini-tank. I've discussed the tank-like attributes. Let's discuss the "mini". It's slightly over seven inches in length. That makes it slightly less than twice the length of a standard G.I. Joe figure. If it existed in real life, that would make it somewhere between eleven and twelve feet in length. Most cars exceed that size. Granted, most cars don't have armor plating and four forward-facing guns, so I'm not implying that it would be a fair fight to put a real-life Armored Panther up against a typical Toyota and expect the car to come out on top.

The Armored Panther is about three inches in height, which means that the driver of the vehicle had better learn how to crouch inside the cockpit, or be extremely lucky on the battlefield. The Armored Panther is a desert tan in color, which is a distinct variation from the original Armadillo, which was Army olive green.

There's an odd sort of color effect to the Armored Panther, which I'm sure was unintentional on Hasbro's part. I'm not sure whether to call it amusing, peculiar, or largely irrelevant, but I'll mention it anyway. The tank has some broad stripes of a second color of tan painted across it. Here's the odd part, though. In certain types of lighting, you can't really see the stripes. I was studying the Armored Panther for this review here in my workroom, under ordinary incandescent light (60 w light bulb over the computer table), and I thought, "Hey, wait a second. I thought this tank had camouflage on it!" At least it looked like it had when I bought it in the store, which of course used fluorescent tubes for lights.

So I took the tank outside, to see what it looked like under natural sunlight. Sure enough, there was the camouflage! I think what we have here is a case where the camouflage paint is so close to the color of the tank's plastic itself, that in certain lighting, it pretty much disappears.

The Armored Panther does not quite have a traditional one big gun emanating from its turret. Rather, the turret has four smaller guns, which all look like over-sized machine gun barrels. This can doubtless not only produce a rather impressive and ongoing level of firepower, but also likely creates less of a recoil which the vehicle itself can better absorb. On the toy, the four gun barrels can raise and lower as a group.

There are a few distinctly non-tank-like features to the Armored Panther. Most notably is the handlebar and platform in the back, complete with foot pegs. This allows a couple of "hitch-hiking" troopers to hang on for transport to (or perhaps also from) the battlefield.

The Armored Panther also has received one very significant upgrade from its Armadillo predecessor. That upgrade consists of the huge missile launchers mounted to the sides of the vehicle. These are grey in color, somewhat more futuristic in appearance than the tank itself, and fire a couple of spring-loaded missiles. They do add a certain added threat appearance to the overall tank itself, and of course, when the Armadillo was first released in 1985, G.I. Joe vehicles were still quite a few years away from having this sort of capability. The missile launchers and the devices that attach them to the sides of the tank are cleverly designed in a sort of modular fashion so that really, only one missile launcher and one clamp had to be devised, and assembled appropriately.

Any complaints? Just one -- the turret is pretty loose in turning. I checked my original Armadillo, and it's nowhere near as loose. Now, I won't make a big issue out of this because (a) it's a wonder that the molds for this tank are still around after all these years, (b) it might just be the tank I bought that was affected, and (c) I can probably fix it.

The vehicles comes fully assembled in its box, although you do have to put most of its labels in place. A couple are already in place, including a vehicle number, a star, and a small screwdriver indicating the location of a tool kit. Interesting choice, pre-placing that one. Another sticker that was supposed to be pre-placed, indicating an aid kit, was missing. Not a big deal to me. The others went in place very well, and do add a little something extra to the look of the vehicle. I've always been impressed with the military-style labels and markings that have come with G.I. Joe vehicles.

The labels do enhance the overall look of the Armored Panther, which is a very cool and impressive little tank, and more than sufficiently different from its predecessors to stand on its own as a worthwhile addition to any G.I. Joe collection.

Now, let's consider the driver figure, who goes by the name of Sgt. Thunderblast. Any longtime G.I. Joe collector will recognize this figure immediately as a 25th-style figure of Thunder.

The original Thunder figure was released in 1984, and was the driver of a rather interesting vehicle called the Slugger. Not quite a tank, it was a sturdy, armored, wheeled vehicle with an immense, tank-like cannon up front. Thunder was a red-headed individual, with an innovative helmet, and outfitted in a brown shirt with a green chestplate, black trousers, and brown boots. While perhaps not a traditionally-military design, the overall color scheme was well within the color palette being used at the time for G.I. Joe, which was starting to experiment a bit away from fairly specifically military, but wasn't yet even close to the colors of later years that would give us the Eco-Warriors and the Mega-Marines.

Thunder wasn't the most prominent of G.I. Joe team members. Arguably his high point came in the animated series, as his family was one of seven discovered and subsequently kidnapped by Cobra. Thunder never turned up in the line again. During 1997-1998, his molds were used as one of two figures that came with the reinstated MOBAT tank, although this time around, the character's name was Thunderwing.

And now, he's Thunderblast. Something about that original name "Thunder" just isn't working out anymore for whatever reason. However, the character choice is a good one. Between the Slugger and the MOBAT, he's certainly got proven experience on tank-like vehicles with heavy firepower, although the Armored Panther is certainly the smallest vehicle he's ever been assigned to.

The color scheme is pretty much a dead-on match for the original Thunder. I found this especially interesting, seeing as how most of the characters that have been brought into the movie-based line have had their color schemes reworked to one degree or another to make them more of a match for the movie-based figures. Apparently someone figured that wasn't necessary for Sgt. Thunderblast, since his color scheme was already close enough to begin with. Sgt. Thunderblast has reddish hair, a brown shirt, a removable green chestplate, black trousers, and brown boots. There's some green trim around the boots that the original Thunder didn't have, but it's a nice complement to the green chestplate, and is still well within the color palette.

Facially, Sgt. Thunderblast doesn't look terribly much like Thunder, and I suspect the headsculpt has probably seen use elsewhere in the line, and I suspect he same is true for most of the body, but ultimately, looking at the end result, on the whole it's a very decent 25th/movie-style tribute to the original Thunder character, and given that we're not talking about a major player on the Joe Team, likely the only such tribute we'll see.

And, there's no questioning who it is supposed to be. If the look of the figure isn't enough, the name on the file card is "Matthew Breckinridge". That's not an easy name to forget, and it is indeed Thunder's real name.

Although the movie-based file cards don't go into a lot of background detail on the characters, the back of the package for the Armored Panther does go into a fair bit of detail on the tank. It reads as follows: G.I. Joe Armored Panther Tanks support the convoy that is protecting highly classified nanomite weapon prototypes. These light tanks are equipped with Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) and are built for speed and maneuverability, when brawn and power are less important than flexible, fast-strike capability. Capable of top speeds of 80.4 mph, the Armored Panther tank's armament includes a 140mm cannon.

Thunderblast's file card states that he chose artillery as his field because it's both complex and simple. Complex, because mastering the intricacies of advanced technology is essential to the job. Simple, because you aim, fire - and get instantaneously explosive results.

As memory serves from the animated episode, Thunder's entire family was pretty much obsessed with noise -- heavy metal music, drumming, motorcycles, loud cars, you name it -- sort of people that, regardless of distinguished military service, I wouldn't care to have living within five miles of me, thanks much. Fortunately, the action figure is quiet enough.

So, what's my final word? I've always liked the Armadillo, and its Armored Panther successor is just as cool and just as impressive. And I have to say that I'm always pleased when an obscure character in as large and diverse a line as G.I. Joe gets another chance to shine, as Thunder -- now Sgt. Thunderblast -- has as the driver of the Armored Panther. I believe that any G.I. Joe collector will be pleased to add these to their collection.

The G.I.JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA ARMORED PANTHER TANK with SGT. THUNDERBLAST definitely has my highest recommendation!