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By Thomas Wheeler

The new G.I.JOE COBRA NINJA STRIKE TEAM turned up at Toys "R" Us, where it is the latest in the growing line of exclusive multi-packs (Tiger Force, Python Patrol, Cobra Infantry, Night Force, etc) of traditional-style G.I.Joe figures.

I'll get my one major complaint out of the way right off the bat -- Hasbro: Will you PLEASE stop with the black watered-down paint-wiped to make them look battle-worn or whatever? I think you dang near ruined this set with that deco! It DOESN'T make the figures look cooler. It makes them look like they don't have the slightest concept of how to use a washing machine! PLEASE RECONSIDER PAINT WIPES ON FIGURES!

Okay, that rather MAJOR complaint out in the open, this is otherwise a very impressive and very cool set of figures. The COBRA NINJA STRIKE TEAM not only gives us an excellent version of the popular Storm Shadow, who I'll admit I always thought made a better Joe than a Cobra, but it doesn't look like he's returning to the good guys anytime soon, it also makes excellent use of the original Storm Shadow molds, as well as offers us two new female figures, as well as a fair amount of connection to G.I.Joe story history, and a nod to a couple of foreign figures. Not bad for a set of six ninjas.

The set is based on the Arashikage Ninja Clan, which is Storm Shadow's family. The set includes a Storm Shadow, two Red Ninjas, a Black Dragon Ninja, and two reworked Jinx figures called the Vypra twins, sisters who guard the clan's sword forge.

The STORM SHADOW figure is actually the very well-done 1988 Storm Shadow, finally recovered from overseas use. I am sincerely delighted to see this version of Storm Shadow return. If I absolutely NEVER see that too-tall, ill-balanced, glued-not-screwed together so you can't fix it if the O-Ring breaks, NINJA FORCE version of Storm Shadow (last seen in the Cobra Urban Strike Team set), it'll be too soon. That's one set of molds that you can drop in the Atlantic for all I care. The 1988 Storm Shadow looks good, can be disassembled if necessary, and is overall the second best version of Storm Shadow of all time. The original 1984 is hard to beat, but it had to be used for other purposes here.

Arguably the colors used are a little strange. It's sort of a very pale green, paint-smeared with a VERY dry brush of dark brown. If you look at the package illustration, I think it's supposed to be camouflage, not dirt as one might figure the paint-wipes on the others to be, so it's not quite as repugnant as those uses. Still looks a bit strange, but the return of this particular Storm Shadow is so welcome that I'm prepared to let it slide. One thing I'm a little less inclined to let slide is the absence of the Arahikage clan tattoo on Storm Shadow's right arm, though. Hasbro's tended to be pretty diligent about maintaining this since it was first shown in the comic book, not only on Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow, but more recently, Kamakura, and it really needed to be here.

The only figure not really stunk up with paint-wipes is one that it would've been pretty hard to do it to, anyway. It's a black version of the original 1984 Storm Shadow, called BLACK DRAGON NINJA. The name "Black Dragon" first entered the world of G.I.Joe in 2003, as part of that year's Convention Set. Black Dragon was the name of the leader of a same-named underworld organization that Cobra Commander chose to ally himself with. Interestingly, Black Dragon's file card makes a point of stating that he is NOT a ninja, and neither are his troopers. I guess for some reason, he went out and hired some. They're allegedly assigned as Cobra Commander's personal bodyguards, although when I transcribe the file cards in this review, you'll see that there's reason to be suspicious of that.

Then we have the RED NINJA-VIPERS. These are red versions of the original Storm Shadow, and two of them are included in the set. The Red Ninjas have been a part of G.I.Joe as long as Storm Shadow. When he debuted in the famous "Silent Issue", G.I.Joe #21, he had three red-garbed ninjas working for him, who were not quite up to taking on Snake-Eyes. Ever since, you never know when some Red Ninjas might pop up, and sometimes you're not even sure who's side they're on, although they've been bad guys more often than not. It's interesting that they're called "Red Ninja-Vipers" here, given that the first remake of the original Storm Shadow was a mail-in figure from the original line, a turquoise-uniformed figure called NINJA-VIPER, who remains one of the most popular mail-in figures ever, even to this day.

And there's a little nod to a couple of South American G.I.Joe figures here. When the Storm Shadow molds were sent to that continent back in the 80's, three different characters were turned out. There was a standard white Storm Shadow, of course. But there was also one outfitted in black, and interestingly, he WAS black. There was also a red-uniformed figure, given the rather disturbing name of "Satan". This was later reinterpreted as "Sei-Tin" for a story in the modern comic book. There was a name that NEEDED to lose something in the translation -- sheesh!

But those two unusual versions of Storm Shadow have been highly prized among collectors for years, and I am certain that the black and red Storm Shadow-based characters in this set are a nod to that.

Finally there are the VYPRA sisters, guardians of the ninja forge. These are two Jinx figures, outfitted in red, with an extra broad sash or some such wrapped around their waists (frankly, the figures look better without them). Certainly the decoration work on both figures is extremely impressive. Both figures have areas of white on their uniforms with amazingly intricate patterning in it. It has a decided ornate and Oriental look to it, and is really amazingly well done.

About my only complaint here is one other more recent practice that Hasbro needs to discontinue -- hand-painting certain figure parts. Now, I'm not going to put down the people in the factory that do this. I'm sure they do their best. But if you have to paint the same basic part hundreds if not thousands of times -- there's going to be a few mishaps that would not be as likely to happen with spray paint and a proper stencil or mask or whatever the technical term is. And in the case of one of these Vypra figures, a slip of the brush can be costly. One of the Vypras has very ornate sleeve cuffs. Unfortunately, one of them is almost totally blotted out by excess paint, in my set. I'll cut the painter a break, because they also had to paint the fingernails on this figure, but I will complain about the PRACTICE of hand-painting parts on these figures.

There is one odd aspect to these two figures. One of them is very distinctly pigeon-toed, and the other one isn't. And I've purchased more than one set of these figures, and in both cases, the same Vypra was pigeon-toed. One can only assume that these figures did not come from the same set of molds, despite being essentially identical figures, and one of those mold sets has a bit of a problem. Weird.

I'll admit to a certain gratification of the use of the VYPRA name. That name was first used in 1998, as part of the Toys "R" Us line for that year, and was assigned to a recolored Jinx figure that was sold with a Cobra Rattler Jeep. I wrote the file card for that character, and came up with the character name. I was told to submit four names, since they had to be run through Hasbro's legal department to make sure they weren't copying someone else. And folks, trust me -- be glad Vypra won. Even I didn't like some of the other names I came up with.

Speaking of file cards, let's have a look at the ones for this set. The overall set has this description on its package: The mysterious Arashikage clan has produced some of the most powerful ninjas in the world. A terrible internal conflict split the clan. Some joined the GI Joe Team to fight for the side of good - and others aligned themselves with the evil Cobra organization. Now blood brothers and blood sisters of the sword use their martial arts skills against each other. But once, long ago, they were one united clan. Will that day ever come again?

The individual file cards read as follows:

STORM SHADOW NINJA LEADER Storm Shadow grew up in the Arashikage clan of ninjas and wears the clan's mark. During his training, his sword-brother was Snake-Eyes, the commando and martial arts master of the GI Joe Team. The evil Cobra organization recruited Arashikage members. This corruption split the clan in two. After his uncle was killed by a Cobra agent, Storm Shadow went undercover within Cobra to find the assassin. When the killer was revealed, Storm Shadow joined the GI Joe team to get revenge. But now Storm Shadow is back with Cobra. Are all Arashikage ninjas evil? Or does Cobra Commander hold some special power over Storm Shadow? Whatever the reason, his anget is clear when he meets Snake-Eyes. The battle between the ninja masters will be legendary. "A ninja moves silently and is more powerful than all your weapons combined."

BLACK DRAGON NINJA COBRA NINJA WARRIOR The elusive and shadowy Black Dragon Ninja forces have been secretly brainwashed by Dr. Mndbender to giard Cobra Commander in case the Arashikage Clan ninhas ever decide to take control of Cobra for themselves. But it's not that east to fool the suspicious Storm Shadow. He discovered the brainwash command and used the Arashikage "Atsui Nami" deep mind control technique to overwrite the evil doctor's subliminal commands. Now the Black Dragon Ninja forces outwardly act as if their allegiance is to Cobra Commander, but in reality, they are loyal only to Storm Shadow. "We are swift and silent, shadows in the darkest hour of the night, unless by you until we strike."

(You know, if there's any evidence that Larry Hama might still be writing these file cards, it's gotta be "Atsui Nami". No one else would try to sound or be that authentic.)

RED NINJA VIPER COBRA NINJA WARRIOR Red Ninja Viper warriors, wearing the symbol of the Arashikage clan, are ruthless mercenaries who work mainly for Cobra Commander. They earn top dollar in battle because they are one of the most formidable clans of ninja warriors existing today. When Red Ninja Viper troopers enter a fight, they're in it until the bitter end (or until they get paid more money to fight someone else). The GI Joe Team is the only force that has ever defeated them. Red Ninja Viper warriors possess advanced ninjutsu skills that are hard to find, and they fight with razor sharp moves that are almost faster than the eye can see. "We spin and slice with the skill of the great masters, but only for the best price."

VYPRA NINJA GUARDIAN The Arashikage ninjas carry the most finely crafted swords ever created. Just as beautiful as they are lethal, these swords are created by the legendary swordsmith Onihashi at an ancient forge hidden in a sacred mountain. The sword is much more than a weapon for Arashikage ninjas; it is part of their being, an extension of their very selves. The forge from which these swords are crafted is in a place of myth and mystery, and must never be breached by those unworthy to enter it. To keep their sacred place safe, the Vypra ninjas - twin daughters of the swordsmith and martial arts warriors of exquisite skill - guard the forge with their lives. "The sword is the ninja. Respect and honor the place from which your heart and soul were born."

Here's another connection to established G.I.Joe lore -- the name Onihashi. Nice touch.

I know I've made a number of complaints about this set, but really, it's one of the most impressive to come along in a while. The basic paint work, except for the hand-painted areas (and I'll even give that credit for the fingernail polish on one of the Vypras), is excellent and very well done. The Cobra insignias are carefully placed and imprinted very well. The ornate detailing on the two Vypra figures is amazing. And since none of these figures have any "mid-and-match" parts, there's no weird articulation problems as can sometimes develop under those circumstances.

But I'll never understand the rationale behind the dirty paint-wipes. It just makes no sense to me, and is a MAJOR ding in this set which could've been downright perfect. I know sometimes it seems I am especially critical of G.I.Joe. Well, I am. Because it set so many high standards for the action figure toy world, I feel it needs to be held to those same standards, and something as ridiculous and borderline tragic as this really knocks points off.

However, that's not to say I don't recommend the set. I most certainly do. The Arashikage Ninja Clan is a long-established and important part of the G.I.Joe storyline, and you get plenty of them in this set. I'm just saying it could've been better. But there's nothing to be done for that now (unless someone knows of something that'll clean this mess off without affecting the paint that needs to stay put, or the plastic itself -- and if you do, PLEASE e-mail me), and I certainly won't drop my overall recommendation of the set. They're six cool traditional-style G.I.Joe figures, they're ninjas, and they'll be a welcome addition to any G.I.JOE Collection. YO JOE!