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By Thomas Wheeler

It used to be that a frequent outlet for toy merchandise was K*B Toys. Unfortunately, they no longer exist. But as a result of this, certain clearance department stores, such as Ross, TJMaxx, and Marshalls, have developed often interesting toy sections. They're generally not as consistently (or neatly) stocked as a Walmart or a Target, and you never really know what you're going to find there, and I have learned the hard way that if you see something you want, you'd better grab it the second you see it, or you more than likely will never see it again -- but more often than not, the prices are very agreeable, and there are often some interesting surprises.

Among a few examples from my own experience: I found a Power Ranger figure at Ross that I never saw at Walmart, Target, or Toys "R" Us, where one might think I should've. I've found Star Wars sets that I had never even heard of. I've gotten DC Universe figures that never turned up anywhere else. And then there is the very interesting matter of a certain assortment of G.I. Joe toys...

During the run of toys based on the live-action movie, Target carried a series of store exclusive items. These consisted of small vehicles, with an exclusive figure. The SNAKE Armor was reissued in black. The Cobra CLAW returned, with an Air-Viper Commando. Grand Slam showed up with an Air Assault Glider. And so forth...

But, just as an additional assortment was starting to be rumored and reported on the Internet as being in the works, but not yet in the stores, the line came to an end. With the movie having run its course, Target, which tends to be rather merciless with its toy merchandise anyway, clearanced what they had, and this final assortment never turned up -- which was a shame since it looked to be the coolest of the lot.

It seemed largely forgotten. Then, right around Christmas of 2010, word got out that this assortment had in fact turned up, Target exclusive stickers and all -- at Ross. G.I. Joe collectors, myself included, quickly headed to their local Ross, if they had one accessible to them. For myself, after two days of totally striking out at my nearest Ross, I finally scored the toys, which by two days later -- you'd have never known had ever been there. And this was from a fairly decent supply.

Among this highly impressive assortment is the vehicle and figure I will review here, the COBRA FLIGHT POD, and its pilot, a COBRA ELITE-VIPER.

Before I get to the vehicle, I'd like to mention the packaging. Unlike the previous assortments of these Target exclusives, which were packaged in window boxes with the vehicle and figure on ready display, this particular assortment was packaged in a solid box, with a small window displaying the figure only, much like the G.I. Joe vehicles of the 1980's. Although, of course, these boxes bore the movie logo.

Additionally, the illustration on the front of the box was amazing. Now, I may not be the world's biggest fan of either the live-action G.I. Joe movie or the current figure format of G.I. Joe. But I like to think I know good artwork when I see it, and the artwork that has accompanied the modern G.I. Joe line starting with the movie and ever since has been nothing short of staggering. The illustration on the front of this box shows the Flight Pod in a close-up, with a cityscape in the background. Somewhat cut off by the hole needed to showcase the actual figure, you can see some neon lettering on one building that looks Japanese, or perhaps Chinese. The Flight Pod is pointed towards a second building, where we can see several small figures scaling to the roof.

The text on the back of the box provides as good an explanation as any, reading: An Elite-Viper in a Cobra Flight Pod flies above the city, guarding the secret facility that's developing attack drones. He spots a group of figures scaling the building and alerts Cobra troopers on the ground. Swooping down, he recognizes the intruders as G.I. Joe ninjas, and fires up his cannon to blast them!

One other thing that surprised me with these items was how Hasbro managed to pack them in such relatively small boxes. Each item was encased within a smaller box inside the outer box, while the figure sort of had his own space. And each time, I thought, "They managed to squeeze a -- whatever it was, in this case, the Flight Pod -- into it!?" Some assembly required to a degree, but I didn't have a problem with that. It didn't even scuff the big dome-like canopy.

Now, let's consider the Flight Pod. The Cobra Flight Pod, known more colloquially as the "Trubble Bubble", has a long and considerable history within the world of G.I. Joe. It was first introduced to the line in 1985, which meant that it was just in time to be featured very prominently in the first season of the daily animated series, which it was. The Flight Pod seemed to be the preferred means of a quick escape for Cobra operatives when their latest scheme blew up in their faces thanks to the efforts of the G.I. Joe team.

Granted, the thing probably isn't especially plausible. Granted also, that seldom slowed down Cobra very much from a design standpoint. The Flight Pod is a single-seat -- something or other -- with a control handle, a dome-like canopy over the top, and two jets with ailerons at their base. Weapons include a cannon at the base of the control stick, and two missiles on the side. For all intents and purposes, the Flight Pod amounts to a combination of a stripped-down fighter jet or helicopter cockpit with a jet pack strapped onto the back. One might assume that the canopy is bulletproof, but it's probably not going to be of much help if you crash the thing, and given a rather thorough lack of wings, it's a wonder it flies, and I can only guess how it handles.

I suspect if one were to take a Flight Pod to an actual aeronautical engineer for a feasibility study, you'd be halfway home by the time he stopped laughing. However, the rules of physics must be slightly different in the G.I. Joe universe, because the Flight Pod was routinely seen as not only reliable and fly-able, but also highly maneuverable. Even so, that open seat and no real floor to speak of -- one must still assume that the Cobra troopers assigned to the "Trubble Bubble" had proven themselves pretty much immune to any sort of acrophobia.

The original Flight Pod, released in 1985, was molded in an off-white color, with a clear canopy, and dark gray details. It never saw the light of day in the original line again, but since the 25th Anniversary, has turned up a couple of times before this latest incarnation. One of these was a color match for the original, sold with the RAM Motorcycle. The other one was sold as part of a large vehicle and figure set that was exclusive to Target. This particular Flight Pod was colored in a steel blue, with a clear canopy and black details. Honestly, I thought it was an improvement.

But even the steel blue Flight Pod doesn't compare to the new one from this particular assortment. The newest Flight Pod is easily the most menacing-looking of them all. It is molded in black, with a light gray seat, control console, and cannon, with silver details at the top of the two jets in the rear, and a translucent RED canopy. There's something about that red canopy and the black body that really makes you want to take this Flight Pod a little more seriously. You're not going to call this thing a "Trubble Bubble". It's a Flight Pod. It may look a little implausible, but you're not going to be considering that if it's coming your way and the pilot has just flipped the safety off the cannon trigger.

Some assembly is required, but it's not too difficult. You have to secure the seat and the canopy. It's a little tricky to press the seat into the back of the framework of the vehicle, because you have to align these large pegs with their sockets, and it's a little hard to see whether or not their aimed properly, just because of the design of the vehicle. The canopy snaps into place effectively, and snapping the jets onto the rear is no trouble whatsoever.

The seat has a circular clip attached to it, sort of a seat belt as much as anything, to hold the pilot in place. These were popular with G.I. Joe vehicles for a number of years in the mid to late 80's. One assumes it was intended as some sort of safety example for kids to buckle their seat belts or some such, I really don't know. However, I do think that it's appropriate for the Flight Pod. If I were going to try to fly something like this -- which I can pretty well verify I wouldn't be crazy enough to do -- I'd want to know that I wasn't going to slide out of it mid-flight.

The Flight Pod comes with a series of labels, of course, most of which fit where the instructions indicate. Arguably the most "iconic" of the Flight Pod labels are these little trapezoid shaped ones that go on either side of the control stick and make it look like there's some sort of additional panel there. Those labels are present for this incarnation of the vehicle.

The most troublesome label is the Cobra emblem that's supposed to fit on the front of the dome. It's ALWAYS been troublesome, because a flat label is not going to apply properly to a circular curved surface all that well. In this instance, it's even a little ridiculous, because the Cobra emblem is red, and so is the canopy. The Cobra logo almost vanishes against it. One thing I completely forgot to do, and which I highly recommend, is trimming the label down with a really good pair of scissors to JUST the emblem. Lose the circular area around it. It still won't go down entirely smoothly, but it will go down somewhat better.

The Flight Pod has a number of moving parts. Of course, the canopy opens. The ailerons at the base of the two jets in the back move back and forth, connected to each other. The control stick moves back and forth, and the front cannon, connected to the control stick but also with two cables that wind over to the base of the vehicle, moves from side to side. The two missiles attached to the sides of the vehicle are removable.

Now, let's consider the pilot. His name is ELITE-VIPER. This is a relatively new designation of Cobra troopers, that made their debut with the movie-based line of toys. The first Elite Viper was sold as a carded, individual figure. This figure was slightly altered, given a Cobra emblem on his chest armor, and packaged in a five-pack of movie-based figures that was a Toys "R" Us exclusive. The Elite-Viper, with no real changes, was subsequently renamed the Street-Viper -- not a bad name, really -- and packaged with the Tiger Snake, a vehicle that was part of the "Rip Attack" assortment of movie-based toys.

I have to admit, I like the Elite-Viper. He has a good design to him, and manages to present a Cobra trooper with an armored helmet and armored chestplate that doesn't look anywhere near as strange as the movie-based Neo-Vipers, with their techno helmets and multi-layered chest armor with a turtleneck.

The Elite-Vipers are a lot cooler and a lot more plausible, in my opinion. The first Elite-Vipers have all-black helmets, given a glossy finish, although one can readily see the sculpted visor, and a certain amount of detailing around the face, but it doesn't have that robo-skull look of the Neo-Vipers by any means. The chest and back armor, a separately molded piece, has a sort of carapace look to it, and yet it also has a way of matching human anatomy to a degree. The original Elite-Vipers had pewter-colored chestplates and backplates with a black overwash. The Elite-Viper that came with the five-pack added a black Cobra emblem, which I thought was a nice touch.

The Elite-Vipers wore very dark gray uniforms, with armored shoulder pieces, elbow pieces, and gauntlets, in the same pewter color with black overwash as the chest and back plates. They had black belts, with a holster, and black boots. The figure could hardly be described as colorful, but he certainly looked effective, and as I said, nowhere near as weird as the movie's Neo-Vipers.

The Elite-Viper that comes with the Cobra Flight Pod -- well, now! Admittedly, uniform colors have been a point of some contention within the world of G.I. Joe for years. There are those who believe that the line should always stick to dark, military colors -- allowing for the dark blue of Cobra along the way. Others don't mind brighter colors here and there. I never did, within reason. But then, I tend to view G.I. Joe as a concept that, within the 3-3/4" world, evolved from a concept and storyline that was initially strictly military, to a more character-driven conflict of good vs. evil, with strong real-world and military overtones, but one which allowed a greater latitude than, let's say the average soldier movie that's trying to be as authentic as possible.

I had no problem with the crimson-uniformed Crimson Guards, or the purple-uniformed Techno-Vipers. Now, I have my limits. I do think that the neon yellow and pink-purple Mega-Viper was pushing it. Cool design, but -- my eyes! If you were trapped on an uncharted island you could strap a dozen Mega-Vipers to a long pole and flag down a passing ship from miles away.

I think most would agree that towards the end of the original run of the Real American Hero, the color schemes got a little carried away. The Eco-Warriors were probably the most egregious offenders as a group. Still, the degree to which the colors got to be a little too far off the mark has long been a matter of opinion and some contention among collectors. I, for one, never had that much of a problem with it, as long as it was a cool character and it wasn't too ridiculous.

It's equally fair to say that in recent years, Hasbro has vastly scaled back the color palette to darker, more military colors across the board, with occasional exceptions in the 25th Anniversary line if producing a 25th-style version of a certain classic character warranted it. And the movie line and the successive line since then have gone even darker and more limited, and pretty much stayed there. So be it. That's their choice, and there's still some interesting new characters to be had out of it here and there.

So then we come to the Flight Pod's Elite-Viper. The helmet is still black, now with a silver visor, which is actually a help, since the visor is pretty much flush with the rest of the helmet, and it does bring out some feature without straining to see the sculpt lines. The shirt is black, as is the belt, with holster, and the boots. As for the rest of the uniform...

The chestplate and backplate are bright red and does not have any sort of black overwash on it (or any other color). Honestly, it could have really used a Cobra emblem on the large center plate, but there isn't one there.

The armor on the shoulders, elbows, and gauntlets is a somewhat darker shade of red. Obviously the intent here was for the Elite-Viper to have a color scheme similar to that of the Flight Pod itself. Really, not a bad idea.

But, then there's the pants. Credit to Hasbro, they saw fit to create a camouflage pattern for a figure whose previous incarnations didn't have one. Paint stencils and imprintings do cost more for production, so I'm sincerely impressed that they went the extra mile for this Elite-Viper, who would've been a store exclusive had he come out at the store he was intended to.

That being said, the Elite-Viper's trousers are bright red, with white and slightly darker red camouflage imprinted on the legs. The knee pads are off-white. The last time there was a camouflage color scheme akin to this in the G.I. Joe line, it was among some of the Dreadnoks and Dreadheads in the 2004 Collectors' Convention Set!

I'm not saying I dislike the figure. In fact, I do like him. And I am impressed by the fact that Hasbro was willing to create this camouflage pattern for him. But it definitely makes him a distinct standout in the collection, no question about that!

The camouflage pattern is very neatly painted, or imprinted, or however they did it. The overall paint details on the Elite-Viper are very well done, and of course the figure is well assembled and well-articulated. Among the accessories available for his use in the set is a pistol, which should fit into the holster attached to his belt, and a rifle.

The movie-based file cards don't go into a lot of detail, but it does have this to say about the Elite-Viper: Elite-Vipers are the personal guards of Destro and strict enforcers of their commander's orders. These top-notch mercenaries have extensive military training and are skilled in the use of the advanced weaponry developed by M.A.R.S. Industries.

So, what's my final word here? I'm hugely impressed. This is easily the most impressive version of the Cobra Flight Pod ever. The black body and red canopy give it an air of menace like it's never had before. And the Elite-Viper is a cool figure, peculiar trousers and all. If nothing else, he makes a nice bridge between the current rather dark wardrobe seen throughout the world of G.I. Joe, and, shall we say, somewhat brighter days.

Admittedly, this set is NOT going to be easily found. The assortment to which it belongs came and went at a clearance-type store that is notorious for having certain toys ONCE, and then they're gone. I have no idea what the total inventory of this assortment might have been, but word scarcely got out about these, and they vanished into the night faster than you could say, "This I command!"

However, as I often tend to say with such hard-to-find toys -- they exist. In other words, they're out there, they've been released to the public, if on a likely limited and certainly unexpected basis, and that means, that they can be found. Doubtless through the "secondary market" at this point, but it shouldn't be impossible. And any G.I. Joe Collector would certainly welcome this very impressive figure and vehicle combination.

The G.I. JOE COBRA FLIGHT POD and ELITE-VIPER definitely have my highest recommendation!