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By Thomas Wheeler

As I study the Cobra Deviant Mech -- I find myself wondering, where this particular genre of armored combat got started?

In theory, I suppose it could be traced all the way back to the armored knights of medieval ages, but I think that might be stretching the point except insofar as the concept of providing basic armored protection for the combatant.

Toywise, it's not an easy thing to determine, either. I think the closest that I can recall to any sort of "exo-suit" from early times might have belonged to Major Matt Mason, a reasonably plausible (most of the time) astronaut action figure produced by Mattel in the 1960's, at the height of the space race. One of the items you could purchase for the figure was a "Moon Suit", which was a hard plastic shell that snapped over the torso, head, and arms of Major Matt Mason, and had these hollow rubber arms on its front that you could "manipulate" with a small air bellows. Frankly, the thing looked top-heavy as heck, and made Major Matt Mason look like an overgrown salt shaker with legs.

In my opinion, the first modern instance of an effective combat exo-suit came in 1986, in the movie "Aliens", when Sigourney Weaver used the ship's "Power Loader", a more than plausible device used to enhance physical strength to allow the wearer to load particularly heavy cargo, to put her on as much of a level playing field with the colossal and vicious Alien Queen as possible. And, she did a pretty decent job putting up a good fight, eventually throwing the Queen out of the airlock, along with the Power Loader and, very nearly, herself. Small wonder that the subsequent Aliens toy line made a Power Loader toy. It was certainly memorable.

But I would have to say that the most extensive and impressive use of exo-suits in a combat situation came along in the early 1990's, with an absolutely phenomenal animated series called "Exo-Squad". Taking place several centuries in the future, this amazing series from MCA/Universal featured writing and characters as intelligent (if not moreso) than a lot of live-action dramas then and now. It followed the adventures of J. T. Marsh and his team of soldiers, all part of the Exo Fleet, as they battled the NeoSapiens, genetically engineered beings who were determined to control the solar system under the leadership of Phaeton, their ruler. The Neos had exo-suits, or "E-Frames", as they were called, of their own, of course, as well as a host of other vehicles.

The series was a major hit, and so was the remarkable action figure line produced by Playmates. The figures were extremely well designed, painted, and articulated, if distinctly shorter than G.I. Joes, which still had a major presence on the toy shelves at the time. The two lines were categorically incompatible. The small size of the Exo-Squad figures was necessary in order to accommodate their highly detailed, amazing E-Frames, and other vehicles that came along over the next several years.

Nevertheless, for a while there, action figures with exo-suits were a popular concept. Not one to miss out on any well-sailing boat, Hasbro decided to try to work the concept into G.I. Joe, which ultimately brings us around to the Cobra Deviant.

Technically. G.I. Joe did have one previous sort-of exo-suit on record -- the Cobra SNAKE armor, which had been released in the first couple of years of the line, in two color schemes, first an off-white, second in a Cobra blue. The SNAKE was a hard plastic shell, or series of shells, which fit over the head, torso, and arms of a given figure, as well as separate pieces which fit over the legs. There were separate arms for the SNAKE armor, which consisted of four different interchangeable weapons.

The SNAKE armor was cool, if a little quirky. It didn't see extensive use in the comic book, except for one memorable confrontation when Dr. Venom slapped both Snake-Eyes and Kwinn into a couple of prototypes, and used a mind control device contained within the suits on the two men. In the animated series, the SNAKE armor was treated as if they were robots, with no human occupants. This may have led to a little confusion in the toy aisles.

However, the SNAKE armor was decidedly primitive compared to what Exo-Squad came up with years later, which is understandable. Little more than the basic concept of a human warrior in semi-humanoid combat armor can be applied here.

In 1994, G.I. Joe tried to jump on the Exo-Squad train. The end results were, unfortunately, less than impressive. It was the final year of the Real American Hero, the figures were larger than Exo-Squad, so arguably a really effective battle suit would have to be larger as well -- and hence more expensive. The Exo-Squad suits featured extensive detail and articulation as good as the figures operating them. The G.I. Joe product -- well...

What G.I. Joe and Cobra received, as an adjunct to the Star Brigade special team, were called Power Fighters. These were basic battle frames with a somewhat humanoid design to them, limited articulation, and some spring-loaded weapon in the arms. Each came with a figure -- the G.I. Joe unit came with Gears, a new character recolored from a figure named Barricade. In fairness, his well-armored, futuristic uniform was a good match. The Cobra unit came with a recolored Techno-Viper, an appropriate choice.

Nevertheless, one couldn't quite escape the notion that the Power Fighters had been designed and turned out in some haste, in an effort to try to take advantage of the distinct popularity of Exo-Squad, a sort of last gasp for the Real American Hero at the time. The toys barely reached distribution, and when seen next to the Exo-Squad toys, just didn't measure up. Arguably, this sort of thing should've been left well enough alone with the previous year's Armor-Bot, a decently impressive construct in its own right, if not quite on the same track as Exo-Squad given its massive size relative to its pilot.

Fast forward to the newsculpt era of G.I. Joe, which commenced in 2002. Exo-Squad has been gone for years. So have the Power Fighters. It was decided to try the mechanized battle suit ides again, this time with a couple of items that were released under the designation "Defense Mechs". This time, Hasbro came a whole lot closer to hitting the mark. The detail was a lot better, the articulation was superb, and the overall designs were certainly a lot more impressive than the Power Fighters -- not that this was terribly difficult. Two suits were produced, with a couple more in the works that, for whatever reason, were not released. I'm honestly not entirely certain what the popularity of the Defense Mechs was, but I've tended to be under the impression that it was moderate at best, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it was too little, too late? Maybe it just wasn't a popular genre anymore? One of the suits was later recolored and assigned to the Iron Grenadiers as part of a Convention Set from the Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Club, but that was about it. A shame, really, because the Defense Mechs were, in my opinion, what the Power Fighters should've been in the first place.

So now we come to the present day collection, and Mechs are back once again. G.I. Joe has one, and so does Cobra. And I'll admit, one of the reasons I picked up the Cobra one was because I liked the trooper that comes with it, the CYBER-VIPER. Nothing against the G.I. Joe unit or its pilot. And we'll discuss the Cyber-Viper a little later. For now, let's consider the Mech itself, the COBRA DEVIANT.

First of all, there's one question that I really think needs to be asked -- who named this thing? Because the name had caused some eyebrows to be raised in the collecting community. Many, but admittedly not all, Cobra vehicle names over the years have had reptilian themes to them. HISS Tank, FANG Copter, Rattler Jet, Mamba, A.S.P., and so forth, are some of the more obvious ones. Those that haven't been specifically reptilian sounding have at least sounded menacing and generally villainous: Invader, Parasite, STUN, Maggot, for example.

But -- Deviant!? I know enough about toymaking procedures to know that any given toy product -- figure, vehicle, whatever -- generally gets assigned several potential names over the course of its development, and usually the best one (which clears legal checks) wins out. This is the name that won out on this one?

As to the Mech itself. First of all, there's its size. It's distinctly larger than either the Power Fighters or the Defense Mechs. It's not really designed to conform to an actual human body the way the Power Fighter sort of was, and the way the Defense Mechs certainly were, or, for that matter, the way the basic E-Frames from Exo-Squad did.

Let's draw a comparison there. There were, in basic principle, three stages of "vehicles" for the Exo-Squad characters. There were the basic E-Frames, which more or less conformed to the human form. They were larger than a human being, of course, but a pilot would stand inside of one, and be strapped into its body and legs, and use control levers to work the arms. The next stage up were not so much frames, but vehicles, generally ground based, but with some limited flight capability. These could hold one or two passengers, and sometimes had more of a resemblance to a humanoid form, such as having legs rather than wheels or treads, than to a traditional vehicle. Finally, some Exo-Squad characters had flying craft, the "fighter jets" of the Exo-Squad universe.

We can drop that last category from comparison to the Cobra Deviant, and probably say with a good bit of fairness that the Deviant would fit between the first and second categories of Exo-Squad vehicles. It's larger than an E-Frame, and the pilot sits in an actual cockpit. His legs do not fit into the actual legs of the vehicle itself. However, the Deviant is not large enough to accommodate more than one individual, and it has a distinctly more humanoid form than those mid-range vehicles from Exo-Squad, with two legs below its "torso", and two arms out to the sides of the torso.

The Deviant stands about eight inches in height, about twice the height of a modern-day G.I. Joe figure. The torso, which is the cockpit of the craft, has a curved, yet somewhat angular look to it. I'm honestly reminded a great deal of the cockpit canopy to a G.I. Joe Sky Hawk, with maybe just a little bit of the old Armor-Bot thrown in for good measure.

The cockpit canopy raises up, revealing a single seat within the craft, and two long, joystick-like levers with trigger-like handles on them. Interestingly, these control levers are separate pieces, attached to the "dashboard" by a ball-and-socket design that allows them a considerable range of motion. It's really a very impressive amount of detail. One would assume that these control the arms of the Deviant, and that the triggers activate the functions of the two arms. I'm not really sure what might control the legs, although the way the dashboard is designed, the feet of the figure disappear under it. I suppose we are to imagine some sort of car-like pedals or some such that operate the legs.

The cockpit is attached to the lower torso by a ball-and-socket design, which allows it a vast range of motion. Looks like it would make a great flight simulator, or amusement park ride, perhaps.

Out to either side of the lower torso are the legs. They are fairly bulky, and rather angular looking. The detail work is superb. Since nothing like this really exists in the real-world military (that I know of, anyway...!), a certain amount of "suspension of disbelief" has to take place here. Does the Deviant look plausible? Well, as far as it goes, for maybe something that could be created at some point in the future, and allowing for a certain amount of style thrown in beyond basic functionality, yes, I'd say it does.

The legs have large, visible cables running from the front of the top to the side of the knees. The legs have a backward knee design, and -- mildly disappointing -- the knees are not actually articulated. However, the feet are substantially articulated, and since both the hips and the feet have ball-and-socket design, which seems to have been used extensively over the entirety of the vehicle, you can still get a good range of motion and interesting poses out of this thing despite the lack of actual knee articulation.

The feet are certainly interesting. Each has five splayed toes, two at the front, two to the sides that are sort of double-toes, and one in the back. There's an angular sort of "handle" attached to each foot, that does swivel up and down. I'm not sure what, if any, practical purpose this is supposed to represent. One thing about the feet, though-- they do a superb job keeping the Deviant up and on its feet. This thing is well-balanced. Not bad given that it does look a bit top-heavy.

The arms are distinct, each serving a different function. The right arm is fairly short, almost stumpy, and has a spring-loaded feature in it that enables it to launch a grappling hook on a long string of cable. The string is retractable, but you have to wind it back by hand. I'm trying to imagine using the hook and cable to drag this thing up an incline. Wouldn't that be fun for the pilot...

The left arm, somewhat larger and certainly longer than the right, also has a spring-action device in it, that fires an immense battering ram missile with a mace-like tip to it that no one in their right mind would want to be in the path of. This thing looks like if it was launched on a battlefield in the direction of a VAMP, it'd turn the jeep into many small recyclable pieces in short order. Anything smaller would just get knocked into next week.

Both arms, like the legs, are on ball-and-socket attachments, and have a considerable range of motion as a result.

The overall sculpted detail work on the Deviant is superb. As I said, it has a certain inevitable futuristic look to it, but the sculpted detail is nevertheless excellent and intricate. I especially like the intricate detail on the back half of the lengthy left arm. Very nicely done.

Colorwise, the Deviant is almost equal parts very dark burgundy red, black, and a medium gray. The canopy is black with a transparent red window, the main body and most of the legs are burgundy with some black at the knee joint, and the feet, arms, and cables on the upper legs are gray.

Of course, as a vehicle, technically speaking, the Deviant comes with a generous supply of labels. It seems in recent times that Hasbro has substantially increased in the number of labels that come with G.I. Joe vehicles. The Cobra Fury and G.I. Joe VAMP were certainly examples of this. Although not quite as extensive as those vehicles, there is still a substantial supply of labels for the Deviant.

Most of these labels fit well into their assigned places. Quite a few of them are designed for the cockpit. One of them, which features a Cobra emblem, even has a bit of graffiti on it, that reads, "BACK OFF!" and in smaller printing, "HAIL COBRA!" Several of the labels even feature the seldom-seen "sideways" Cobra emblem.

I have just one complaint -- several of the Cobra emblem labels were missing portions of their overall design, like they'd been scuffed off. At first I thought this was some sort of misprint, until I noticed that they looked the same in the instructions for placement. I detest battle damage. I don't like it when figures are molded with it, I don't like it when figures are painted with it, I don't like it when vehicles are painted with it, and to that list, we can now add -- and I don't like it when labels are printed with it. It's just not necessary, and I don't care for something that's made to look "pre-used".

Apart from this, however, the Cobra Deviant is an effective machine. I will have to say that it's not quite as fancy as what Exo-Squad came up with, but it is far and away, along with its G.I. Joe counterpart, I'm sure, the best Mech-type vehicle yet devised for the G.I. Joe line, and in its own right, extremely impressive.

Now let's consider the driver of the Deviant, the CYBER-VIPER. This is a name with some measure of history in the world of G.I. Joe.

The original Cyber-Viper came along fairly late on in the original Real American Hero line, in 1993, as part of the new Mega-Marines special team. This group consisted of four G.I. Joes -- veterans Gung-Ho and Clutch, joined by newcomers Mirage and Blast-Off, who were assigned the task of dealing with some of Cobra's early forays into full-scale genetic engineering. This included the so-called "Mega Monsters", the Bio-Viper and Monstro-Viper, accompanied by somewhat more traditional troopers, which included the Cyber-Viper, an otherwise standard human who had received some cybernetic technological upgrades, and the Mega-Viper who -- well, if nothing else, got stuck with the single most brightly-colored uniform in the entire history of the line.

The original Cyber-Viper wasn't much better off, color-wise, even if he couldn't hold a candle -- or a black-light -- to the Mega-Viper's neon-yellow-and-pink-purple uniform. Nevertheless, the Cyber-Viper's uniform colors of dark gray, red, bright green, and neon yellow didn't exactly scream "Terminator". The long-term general consensus among fans is that the Mega-Viper and original Cyber-Viper were two interesting and certainly distinctive figure designs, that were unfortunately saddled with horrible colors.

The Mega-Viper caught a break about a decade later, and was recolored into the first Swamp-Viper, as part of the 2003 G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention Set. Most people have thought that the original Cyber-Viper would certainly have benefited from a similar recoloration, but alas, it never happened.

The new Cyber-Viper, while perhaps not consisting of the entirely unique design of the original, does at least have a far more agreeable color scheme, and is nevertheless an extremely cool figure.

Similar to his own vehicle, the Cyber-Viper is mostly dark red, with black trim, and some silver instead of the gray. The bulk of his uniform is burgundy red. The gloves are black with silver cuffs. He has black padding on his upper legs, outlined in silver. The boots are black with a bit of silver in them. His chestplate has three black plates, linked by silver, that taper into a silver gray belt around his waist. There is a red Cobra emblem on one of the plates. He has a couple of pieces of black shoulder armor on each arm, and his helmet is black, with two red stripes over the top. The visor is clear, with a little red targeting site painted on the right side, and the Cyber-Viper's eyes can be seen behind the visor.

The figure is definitely a "frankenstein", cobbled together from existing figure parts. I'm not enough of an expert on the current figure line to recognize everything used, but some of it is fairly easy to determine. The chestplate is that of the Night Creeper, ninjas contracted to Cobra. Interesting choice, but it works, since it looks like futuristic armor. The legs are those of Zartan, which were later used to an equally effective degree for the Cobra AVAC, and similarly designed figures, the Air Viper Commando and the Swamp-Viper. Another good choice. I'm really not sure about the torso or the arms. The helmet actually looks like it may belong to Wild Weasel, the Cobra Rattler pilot! An unusual choice, taking a headsculpt from an individual and using it for a trooper, but there's no reason to assume that Wild Weasel was the only one to ever use that helmet design.

The end result is an impressive figure, that doesn't really look that much like the original Cyber-Viper. He doesn't really look much like any individual aspect of the sum of his parts, either, which is a good thing, giving the Cyber-Viper a decently distinctive identity of his own in this new figure form. The parts work well together, although sometimes bringing parts together doesn't work as well as one might hope. Despite the relative commonality of figure parts within the world of G.I. Joe, sometimes "mix-and-match" doesn't work as well as one might hope. Ask any customizer. In this case, the legs aren't quite as good a fit for the lower torso as one might hope, and they have a tendency to be difficult to align into a straight stance. The left leg on my Cyber-Viper keeps wanting to move to the side a bit.

The Cyber-Viper doesn't come with any accessories, not even a display base, which is a little surprising, but hey, when you're piloting something like the Cobra Deviant, who needs accessories? The knife in his right boot is removable, though -- just in case.

Although the file cards for modern G.I. Joe figures aren't as informative as those from past years, the one for the Cyber-Viper isn't bad. It reads as follows:

Cyber-Vipers have biocybernetic implants, which allow them to organically interface with computerized systems like the highly advanced Cobra Deviant Mobile Mech suits. Using these interconnections, they operate the suits as extensions of their own bodies, giving them a powerful advantage over the G.I. Joe team when they encounter them in the night-shrouded streets of the city.

If that sounds unpleasant, it's also nothing new. Exo-Squad characters had plug-in jacks in the backs of their skulls. And the original Cyber-Viper was supposed to be something of a cyborg, as well. I'll admit that the idea of "organically interfacing" with computerized systems sounds a little bizarre, and it's nothing I'd want to do myself, but it's also well within the realm of possibility. It's being worked on in the world of medicine, for patients who need to have artificial limbs.

So, what's my final word here? Mech Suits like this have always been a tricky fit in the world of G.I. Joe. Some would argue that they're just a little too far afield to work well within an at least semi-realistic world. I say, if they're cool enough, make room for them. And I happen to think that these are cool enough. The Power Fighters were a rough start, the Defense Mechs definitely were on the right track, and these newest Mechs are certainly very cool. Allow a little imagination into the world of G.I. Joe, and give it some consideration. You won't be disappointed.

The G.I. JOE COBRA DEVIANT MECH with CYBER-VIPER definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!