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By Thomas Wheeler

One of the distinct advantages to come out of the toy line based on the live-action movie, "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", has been some very interesting and very cool new vehicles. Even if one isn't all that interested in the movie or the figures per se, the vehicles will, logically, work with any established G.I. Joe 3-3/4" line, and will certainly make impressive additions to any G.I. Joe or Cobra arsenal.

While a fair percentage of the vehicles are repaints from previous editions, although many of them are interesting repaints, a number of them somewhat reworked with additional details, a good percentage of the vehicles for the G.I. Joe movie line are entirely new, as well.

The largest of these new vehicles, with the lone exception of the massive "Pit" Headquarters playset, is the all-new COBRA NIGHT RAVEN aircraft. This is a name with no shortage of history within the G.I. Joe line.

Planes have always been popular in the world of G.I. Joe, and really, Hasbro has done an exemplary job throughout the history of the line in all of its various incarnations in turning out some very impressive aircraft. The first plane was, of course, the SkyStriker XP-14F Combat Jet, based very closely on a real-world F-14, and it remains the best-known plane in the entire line to this day.

Cobra's most popular plane is arguably the Cobra Rattler, which came along in 1984, and was based strongly on the real-life A-10 -- although real-life A-10's don't have pivoting wings or VTOL capability.

Just about as popular, though, and certainly as impressive, was the original COBRA NIGHT RAVEN. Released in 1986, this massive black jet would remain Cobra's largest single aircraft to this day. Measuring over two feet in length and with a wingspan in excess of 16", the Cobra Night Raven was strongly based on the real-world SR-71 Blackbird, a very well known stealth and spy plane that was a vital part of the United States armed forces, and remains well thought of to this day, even though there are more advanced stealth aircraft around.

Cobra, not surprisingly, took a few liberties with the original Night Raven, the most obvious of which was the small, one-man scout craft mounted near the rear of the plane. The SR-71 never had any such accessory.

The Night Raven would see a second use several years later, as part of the popular G.I. Joe special team, Sky Patrol. Renamed the Sky Raven, and absent its scout craft (which was pulling duty as a scout craft in the reworked Crusader Space Shuttle), the Sky Raven, like the other Sky Patrol vehicles, was mostly chrome silver, making the Sky Raven the largest chromed vehicle in the history of the G.I. Joe toy line -- and probably just about any other toy line you'd care to name.

The original Night Raven, unfortunately, never appeared again. But, with the movie line, we have an all-new Cobra Night Raven to enjoy, and it's an extremely cool plane in its own right.

Now, granted, it's not as large as its ancestor. But then, there's no reason that it has to be. It does not have a detachable scout craft, and the cockpit is a single seater (as opposed to the original's double-seater. The new Night Raven measures over twenty inches in length, and has a wingspan of roughly thirteen inches. Granted, when placed next to the original Night Raven, it looks a little small. But it doesn't look THAT small, and relative to just about any other vehicle in the current G.I. Joe movie-based toy line, it's huge.

The box, in my opinion, is a little deceptive. I suspect that the box had to be designed to accommodate a certain size portion, or retailers would not have been willing to carry the plane. Suffice to say that the fully-assembled Night Raven is a good bit bigger than the box it comes in.

Some assembly is required. The main body of the Night Raven is separated into two sections, that are packaged diagonally in the box on a cardboard mount. There is the cockpit section and rather long "neck" of the plane, and there is the wide rear section. The front section snaps into the rear, and then a group of six additional wings are snapped into place.

Of course, there are labels for the Night Raven that are printed on vinyl. There is the unusual feature that, rather than a clear background, the labels have been given a colored background. This is not at all customary. However, the background color on the labels is an excellent match for the plane itself, so it all works out well in the end.

The labels are extensive, but for the most part, easily placed, with the exception of the display screen for the console in the cockpit. That one was a little trickier than the rest, but it was nothing that couldn't be tended to with a pair of tweezers and a few minor contortions. The tail fins receive labels that are an update of the original Night Raven insignia, which is of a raven flying in front of a crescent moon.

What the new Night Raven might lack in size relative to its predecessor, it more than makes up for with regard to special features. While I'm not usually one to concern myself with special play features -- if it looks cool, I'm good with that -- the Night Raven is so packed with them that it's impossible NOT to discuss them.

Granted, special features and electronics were not considered a priority in 1986, when the original Night Raven came out. And the new Night Raven does share two capabilities with its predecessor -- lowering landing gear and an interesting lowering cockpit.

The landing gear can be lowered manually. As one would expect, there are three landing gear areas, one near the front of the plane and two near the rear. The one disappointment to this vehicle is that the wheels on the landing gear do not turn. The plane will not roll of its own accord. This is where someone playing with it will simply have to imagine it doing so, and not drag it across an abrasive surface that would give the Night Raven a set of flat tires in the process...

Then there's the lowering cockpit. This was an interesting feature of the original Night Raven, and it's been carried over to the new one -- but with a twist. Rather than lowering the cockpit by pulling on the cockpit floor itself, there's a raising switch on the top of the new Night Raven, that lowers the cockpit. Frankly, it works a lot better than the original, and even looks cooler.

Now we come to the electronic features of the Cobra Night Raven. For this, you will need two things -- 3 "AAA" batteries and a small Phillips screwdriver.

The battery case is located under the extending trigger on the underside of the plane near the back. And if you think that sounds tricky, wait'll you find out what you have to do to get this plane to launch missiles.

The On-Off switch is also back there. Now, there are three silver buttons on the top of the plane, near the back. Button "A", which is the button closest to the front of the plane, is described in the instructions as "Weapon Sounds and Vehicle Lights". Press this button once and you hear a beeping noise that sounds like Morse code. Press it again quickly and the side missile launchers light up and make a launching noise. They will continue to do so as many times as you press this button fairly quickly. Give it a brief rest and it will recommence with the beeping noise the next time around.

Button "B" is described as "Pilot Communication Sounds". These are all broadcasts back to headquarters, and they're all pretty much unintelligible, I suspect intentionally. There are three different phrases, and the only word I caught in any of them was "25". Whether this was a brief aside to the 25th Anniversary of G.I.Joe, now a couple of years behind us, I'm not certain.

The third button, the rearmost, listed as button "C", is described as "Engine Sounds and Lights". Press this, and the rear lights light up and flash with a loud "whoosh" noise, followed by a fairly steady sound of an airplane engine, that slowly dissipates, as the light itself dims. I was impressed by how long this particular sound effect actually lasted.

Now we come to the missile-firing sequence. The Night Raven comes with twelve small missiles, and there are two launchers build into the side engines of the Night Raven, each of which can accommodate six missiles. First off, you have to make sure that the landing gear is up. Apparently the plane will not launch the missiles otherwise. The trigger handle also has to be down.

It is NOT necessary for the electronics switch to be "On" in order to fire the missiles. This is strictly an activation of the trigger. Pull the trigger, and one missile from each side fires. To rotate the next missile into position, you pull back the front section of the plane and release it, described in the instructions as "Lock & Load".

If you DO have the electronics switch in the "On" position, however, you get some additional effects, as the area around the missile launcher lights up, and a launching sound effect goes off. It makes for a little more authenticity.

And, if you pull the trigger with the electronics "On", but have not "Lock and Loaded" the next missile into position, you get the light and sound effects, but no missiles will launch. There's also a second sound effect that will go off, that sounds like a machine gun burst, with a nice little echo-reverb at the end of it.

The missiles, although fairly small, or at least slender, stay VERY securely in place in their launcher. I don't see any great concern over losing missiles (unless you fire them under the refrigerator or something, and that's your own fault) or accidental launchings. When the trigger is up against the plane, it doesn't operate anyway.

The Cobra Night Raven, of course, comes with a pilot figure. His name is Air-Viper. And there's a name with a quirky history to it within the world of G.I. Joe.

The pilot of the original Cobra Night Raven was a trooper figure known as Strato-Viper. In my opinion, that figure was perhaps the best Cobra pilot trooper figure they ever did. Looked like a pilot, looked like a Cobra, looked appropriately menacing.

But there was the curious matter of the details on the Strato-Viper's file card. It indicated that Strato-Vipers were brought in from the ranks of Air-Vipers, indicating that to qualify as a Strato-Viper, a candidate first had to be an Air-Viper with 1500 hours of logged flight time, as well as various other requirements, security clearances, and even a willingness to undergo a surgical procedure to be more resistant to hypoxia and hyperventilation.

The Official G.I. Joe Collectors' Club made an Air-Viper, in 2003, as that year's "Parachute Drop" figure, by recoloring a Vapor, a Cobra pilot from 1990 that came with a plane called the Hurricane. It was a rather strange-looking figure (although the Club's color scheme was an improvement), but that was the first official Air-Viper figure, and the ONLY one -- until now.

The Air-Viper that comes with the new Night Raven is very clearly a 25th-style Strato-Viper with the more muted color scheme common to the movie-based figures. What's interesting though is -- that sort of works. If Strato-Vipers are the "creme de la creme" -- to quote the original file card -- of the Air-Vipers, might they not use similar uniforms, just a little flashier-looking?

The Air-Viper is wearing a mostly black uniform. The helmet is dark grey, with a silver visor and ridged silver plating on the top and back of the helmet. There is a second visor with red lenses perched above the main visor.

The Air-Viper's gloves, belt, and leg padding are dark grey. The boots are dark grey, with silver trim and silver knee pads. The chestplate it also silver, and is a separately-molded piece that has the advantage of concealing the mid-torso articulation point very effectively. There is also a dark grey holster with straps over the shoulders.

Overall, it's a decent-looking figure, with a clear connection to the Strato-Viper, but the more muted color scheme makes sense for an Air-Viper, as well as being in keeping with the color scheme of the movie-based line.

As to how an Air-Viper manages to get assigned as the pilot to the new Night Raven, I figure either the plane is easier to fly, or Cobra is recruiting better Air-Vipers that can just go right ahead with it.

There's not much of a file card for the Air-Viper -- the movie-based toys haven't been big on extensive character or trooper profiles since the line began -- but there is a bit of text on the back of the box for the Night Raven itself. It reads:

M.A.R.S. Industries has developed an advanced hypersonic high-altitude attack and reconnaissance aircraft to rule the skies. Supremely fast and powerful, the suborbital Night Raven cruises at a top speed of Mach 6 and deploys stealth technology, making it undetectable to even the most sophisticated tracking systems. Equipped with rotary-launchers, the Night Raven strikes its targets with infra-red guided IRG-42X missiles.

So, what's my final word here? This plane may not be as large as the original Night Raven, but so what? Few planes in the history of the G.I. Joe line are. The overall design of the new Night Raven is impressive. It's actually somewhat more complex in some respects than the original. It manages to pay homage to the original Night Raven while having a distinctive look of its own, which, to me, anyway, borrows a few hints from the "Firefox" plane in that Clint Eastwood movie. I always liked that plane, and it was a pretty good movie, too. So that's hardly a complaint.

Ultimately, the new Cobra Night Raven is an impressive piece of work, an excellent design for a plane, the second-largest item presently in the G.I. Joe movie line, and it certainly has tons of interesting special features. I like it, and I'm glad I have it. It would be an interesting and impressive addition to any G.I. Joe collection.

The COBRA NIGHT RAVEN from the G.I. JOE - THE RISE OF COBRA line definitely has my highest recommendation!