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By Thomas Wheeler

I used to think that it wasn't possible -- or at least terribly likely -- to be surprised by the toy world anymore, at least insofar as the release of toys is concerned. Between various magazines and countless Web Sites, information on the probable release of almost any action figure line you'd care to collect is readily available if you know where to look.

The "surprise" factor of G.I. Joe seems to be largely a thing of the past, except in the earliest stages of some new product being announced by Hasbro as being part of such-and-such a wave, which will then hopefully turn up in sufficient quantity at an assortment of the usual retailers. This can often be followed by a measure of frustration when the expected product doesn't turn up in the time expected, or the quantity expected, or worse, shows up in some parts of the country well before others, and you have to put up with people bragging about finding something that you're looking for, as well, and might not see for a couple of months.

This is far different than the days before cyberspace. I recall in 1983 picking up G.I. Joe #11, the comic book, and being introduced to a wide range of new characters, most of them assigned to the G.I. Joe team, such as Doc, Snow Job, Wild Bill, Gung-Ho, as well as getting out first look at Destro, and wondering if these characters were going to be made as figures, or if they were just brought into the comic to expand the cast. I had no way of finding out any toy details. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw them in a toy department of a local department store a few months later. Whether anyone had found them before me anywhere else across the country I neither knew nor cared.

Now, it's time for a little G.I. Joe -- or to be more precise, Cobra -- aircraft history. Airplanes have always been a big part of the G.I. Joe line, both literally and figuratively. They've been immensely popular, and they generally haven't been terribly small vehicles. You just don't do that to a fighter jet and get away with it, regardless of how much of a stretch some of the vehicular hardware within the world of G.I. Joe may be. Off the top of my head, I think the smallest jets in the G.I. Joe arsenal are the Storm Eagle and the Cobra Liquidator, two planes which had the rather peculiar gimmick of also being fully operational squirt guns. And even they weren't THAT small.

So aircraft in the world of G.I. Joe tend to be a big deal. And needless to say, many of the planes from the earliest years tend to be the most popular. This would certainly include the SkyStriker XP-14F Combat Jet, the Cobra Rattler, and -- the Cobra Night Raven.

Introduced in 1986, and distinctly larger than the Rattler, Cobra's only other airplane to date, the Night Raven was based significantly on the SR-71 Blackbird, a well-known and well-regarded stealth plane in service to the United States Air Force. The Night Raven was clearly intended to be somewhat smaller overall than the actual SR-71, but the basic lines and design were definitely there, and its black color certainly added to the resemblance. It quickly became one of the most popular aircraft in the G.I. Joe toy line, even being reproduced several years later as part of the G.I. Joe Sky Patrol team, this time in chrome silver.

Fast forward quite a few years to the time of the live-action movie, "The Rise of Cobra". Among the extensive vehicle line for the movie, some of which were actually in the film, and some of which weren't, some of which were entirely new designs, and some of which were generally effective repaints of previous releases, there was an all-new Cobra Night Raven, arguably one of the largest vehicles released in conjunction with the movie, other than the Pit Headquarters itself.

The new Night Raven was an entirely new plane, and although large among its movie-related fellow vehicles, it was also definitely smaller than the original Night Raven. However, it still had a good size to it, and plenty of features and capabilities. The Night Raven was roughly 20" in length with a 13" wingspan. It had a descending cockpit much like its predecessor, and it also had various electronic capabilities, something that the original Night Raven did not have. It also possessed a very interesting missile launching feature. About the only downside to the plane was the fact that the landing gear wheels didn't actually roll, but for the most part, this new Night Raven, molded in a very dark blue with a few medium silver-gray details, was largely well-received by fans and collectors.

Some time after, there was word that a second version of this Night Raven was in the works. It would have a desert color scheme. It was initally shown at the 2010 G.I. Joe Collectors' Club Convention by Hasbro, and was greeted with quite a bit of anticipation.

And then -- nothing. The movie-based line faded, to be replaced by the current G.I. Joe Pursuit Of Cobra line. There was no desert-based Night Raven. And, much like the smaller intended-for-Target exclusive figure-vehicle sets, this second version of the Night Raven seemed to be expelled from most people's minds, as they turned their attention towards new and upcoming G.I. Joe product, which was being widely touted and promoted in the collecting community.

Then, we heard that the SAND SERPENT, the name of the desert-colored Night Raven had been found at Ross stores!

I was amazed. This, to me, exceeded the intended-for-Target exclusives. Now, admittedly, my knowledge of toy production and distribution is somewhat limited. I don't really have that kind of behind-the-scenes information. But in the first case, I could readily see how Hasbro would produce a supply of figures and vehicles, all of which were based on well-established molds, only to have Target say "No thanks" at some point, and then Hasbro, not wanting them to go to waste and wanting to get some money for them, sold them to the clearance retailer -- still with their "Only at Target" stickers still on them, even. That, to me, is a far cry from a distinctly larger vehicle that was intended for general release, that was supposedly never produced because the movie-based toy line came to a halt before it could come out! And yet -- here it was!

And, thankfully, it didn't take too long before I acquired one of these fine planes. So now, let's have a look at the COBRA SAND SERPENT.

Obviously, the plane is based entirely on the molds of the most recent Night Raven. The only changes are the colors. While the original Night Raven was based clearly on the real-life SR-71 Blackbird, the new Night Raven is not quite as specific. There's a little bit of SR-71 in it, but not all that much, and honestly, if the plane is based on any known real-life aircraft, I don't recognize it. As much as anything, I'm reminded a fair bit of the advanced Soviet fighter plane that Clint Eastwood flew in the movie "Firefox" (great film - I highly recommend it). The decidedly angular front to the plane is especially evocative of that fictional aircraft.

As with the Night Raven, of course, the Sand Serpent measures about 20" in length, with a 13" wingspan. Seen from the top, it has a relatively narrow front, including the cockpit, with a fairly long "neck", for lack of a better term, and a rather broad body towards the rear, were both the wings and engines are located. In this, it more closely resembles the basic design parameters of an SR-71, even if it's not especially close in overall shape.

The top of the Sand Serpent has been given a very impressive desert camouflage paint job. This doubtless required some additional effort on the toy company's part, as the Night Raven had no camouflage whatsoever. So the camouflage pattern had to be designed and either painted or imprinted onto the upper body of the plane, by whatever method was used to do so. It's an effective pattern. While a desert pattern for an aircraft may seem a little silly to some, if that plane is designed to be flying -- and more to the point -- landing, in desert environments, its camouflage color scheme is going to keep it from being readily spotted by enemy aircraft while it sits vulnerable on the ground.

The top half of the plane has been molded in a dark, non-metallic gold color, and given somewhat jagged-looking camouflage in two darker shades of brown. It's really an impressive pattern.

The underside of the plane has been molded in a very pale gray. This, too, sets it apart from the Night Raven, which was molded in a solid color. Combine the Sand Serpent's color scheme, along with two Python Patrol-esque "eye" stickers that go on either side of the plane near the front, and the descending cockpit which now takes on a rather creepy mouth-like appearance, and you've got a vehicle that is arguably the most snake-like in appearance that Cobra has ever had.

Six small wings need to be attached to the Sand Serpent, two near the front, two out to the sides near the back, and two near-vertical wings near the back. These, interestingly enough, are molded in black, and while as such they throw off the camouflage pattern a little bit, they nevertheless add a little extra color and "personality" to the plane.

I mentioned the labels to the Sand Serpent, at least a couple of them, and I'd like to address that, and one other aspect to the presentation of this plane, that honestly has me wondering just a little bit when it was really produced -- at the risk of sounding like some sort of conspiracy theorist.

The labels for the Sand Serpent are considerable -- vastly more than what came with the Night Raven. Some of the labels are similar, especially the handful that use the quirky, squared-off lettering that was common to many Cobra movie vehicles. There's a few of these for the Sand Serpent, most of which read "No Step" or "Unlatch".

However, there are far, far more labels than that, and most of them have a much more recent design. It's been my experience that the number of labels, and certain design particulars, skyrocketed with the introduction of the post-movie G.I. Joe line that we're presently enjoying. I could scarcely believe it when I deboxed the G.I. Joe VAMP and was presented with a label sheet where the numbered labels were numbered well into the 80s! I hadn't seen anything like that since the Aircraft Carrier, and that's saying something. Then I picked up the Cobra Fury, and it was almost as extensive.

Don't get me wrong -- I think a good supply of authentic-looking labels really helps make a G.I. Joe vehicle look a good bit cooler! And it's a recent development. So here I pull the labels out for the Sand Serpent -- and they're numbered well into the 80s. Add to that the fact that the Sand Serpent was strapped into its inner box with twine -- not with plastic-coated wire twist-ties! This is ALSO a recent development on the part of Hasbro. They're strapping G.I. Joe and Transformers toys into their packages with thick string, rather than those blasted wires. Hasbro claims that the twine is more environmentally friendly. Personally, I couldn't care less about their reasons. I only know that the twine is a lot easier to deal with as far as cutting the toy loose is concerned.

So here we have the Sand Serpent -- packaged in a box that references the movie, but with two details that are more attributable to the post-movie toys. Now, honestly, I suspect all that's happened here is that had the Sand Serpent come out when it was originally planned to, it would've been at the tail end of the movie line, and simply would have shown off these characteristics of labels and packaging that would then have become common in the post-movie line. But it was still a bit of an eyebrow-raiser for me.

As to the Sand Serpent's labels: the vast majority of them fit right where the instructions direct, but I suggest you reserve about an hour and a half to get them into place, and have some tools with you that will help you get them into some rather tight spaces. Some of them need to be squeezed into the lowered cockpit. The rear engines also have some labels that need to fit in some rather tight places. But overall, everything fits well, and there aren't too many accessibility nightmares.

Many of the labels have very fine print on them, which is nevertheless readable if you don't mind a bit of eyestrain. Interestingly, a lot of these are very specific safety warnings, some of which even use the word "Please". That's unusual for Cobra, but I also encountered similar labels on the Cobra Fury. While it's probably reading too much into it, one could reach the conclusion that Cobra has finally figured out that it's not really in their best interests to treat the rank-and-file as expendable cannon fodder to the degree that they used to. If you want to build an army -- even a terrorist army -- you'd better maintain your personnel decently.

The Sand Serpent has a number of interesting action features. The three landing gears lower and raise, even if the wheels don't actually roll. The cockpit lowers very effectively with the use of a small lever on the top of the plane. Then there's the missile-firing capability. You load six missiles each into these circular barrels on either side of the plane. Then you lower the handgrip on the underside of the plane, and ratchet the front of the plane in and out relative to the rest of the plane. This rotates the missile barrels and then pulling the trigger on the handgrip fires the missiles. You get a decent distance on the missiles, which fortunately for the sake of visibility have been molded in a fairly bright red, but I still recommend firing this plane in a fairly open space, for purposes of complete missile retrieval.

The Sand Serpent has a number of features which require 3 AA batteries. I'm not in the habit of keeping batteries in my toys, since they don't really see enough use for that. But, for the sake of the review, I decided to try it out. Once batteries are installed, and the switch on the underside of the Sand Serpent near the battery case is set to "On", you get flashing yellow lights near the missile barrels, and launch sound effect, when you fire them. (Note: The missile launch mechanism itself is NOT battery-dependent).

There are also three buttons on the top of the Sand Serpent. The first one, relative to the front of the plane, makes a sound that could be some sort of machine gun fire, but almost sounds like a slow-motion rattlesnake to me. The second button activates sound effects that sound like a pilot talking through a helmet mike to the control tower or whatever. These are largely unintelligible -- intentionally so, I'm sure, but they sound authentic enough. The third button lights up a series of red lights near the back of the plane, accompanied by a futuristic engine sound.

Of course, the Sand Serpent comes with a pilot, who goes by the designation of STAR-VIPER. There is a name that has some history within the world of G.I. Joe, as well.

The original Star-Viper was released in 1988, and was the pilot assigned to a new vehicle called the Cobra Stellar Stiletto. A relatively small rocket-like plane, the Stellar Stiletto was Cobra's first real venture into space vehicles, even if the Stiletto wasn't quite as plausible (and certainly nowhere near as large) as the previous year's G.I. Joe Defiant Shuttle Launch Complex.

The original Star-Viper is a personal favorite of mine. The figure is dressed almost entirely in black, with gold piping on his chest, like a harness, leading to a central circular area with some circuit-like sculpting in it. The Star-Viper wears a black helmet, sort of angular in appearance, with a red oval-like visor.

The new Star-Viper is moderately evocative of the original, but much like the new Night Raven, is limited in common points with his predecessor. The figure uses the same body molds that have been used for several figures that have gone by the designation "Air-Viper", although what they really are, as far as design appearance is concerned, are 25th-style versions of the Strato-Viper, who was the original pilot of the Night Raven. One of these Air-Vipers came with the new Night Raven, so it's a logical carryover to the Sand Serpent.

There are some differences, however. The new Star-Viper lacks the chest harness that was a distinctive part of the Strato-Viper's design, and which for the modern Air-Vipers was a removable piece. However, the remaining design of the uniform unmistakably uses the same molds. The color scheme is similar to the original Star-Viper, in that the uniform is almost entirely black, or at the very least an exceptionally dark gray, with gold knee pads and gold wrist bands to bring that second color from the original Star-Viper into the mix, if slightly differently, but in about the same percentage range.

The helmet is assuredly the most unusual aspect to the new Star-Viper. It resembles neither the Air/Strato-Viper, nor the original Star-Viper. It's a fairly boxy, angular helmet up front, with a rather astounding amount of mechanized detail in the back. Some have called the helmet, which even more curiously in some respects is not removable, "overworked". I'd be inclined to more charitably say, "highly complex".

The visor is not red. I think it's been painted a slightly blackish-red color, but it's barely different from the color of the helmet itself. Frankly, red would be an improvement, and I'd try it myself if I didn't know how difficult it can be to paint any color over black.

Acknowledging the original Star-Viper best of all is a little chestpiece, that is really attached to two hoses that are attached to the helmet. These curved hoses are curved in color, and meet at this squarish center piece, which has a large circular part in the center of it, which is a dead-on match for the center piece of the original Star-Viper.

Overall, it's not a bad figure. It's a little overly complex in the headgear, but apart from that, it looks decent, and is fairly plausibly a modern take on the Star-Viper, at least as far as the new Night Raven, and by extension the Sand Serpent, is an extension of the original Night Raven.

The file card is, as one would expect, rather limited in its information, as they have tended to be starting with the movie line, but for the Star-Viper, it reads, "Star-Viper pilots command the skies in advanced fighter jets designed by M.A.R.S. Industries. These test pilots are precision-oriented experts in aeronautical engineering; they are also calculating, cold-blooded warriors of the air."

Interestingly enough, the illustration of the Star-Viper shows a distinct reddish tinge to his helmet visor.

So, what's my final word here? I'm delighted that this plane has actually been produced. The Night Raven is a cool plane. I think the Sand Serpent, by virtue of its desert color scheme, may be just a bit cooler. It's certainly more distinctive. I don't think either side in the Joe/Cobra conflict has had a desert-patterned plane before now. By the time you read this review, it's probably long gone. In any case, there's always the secondary market, and at least we know as a result of this interesting arrival that supplies of this fine aircraft do in fact exist -- which is certainly more than we knew before. And as I tend to say with such likely scarce items -- if it exists, it can be found. Somehow. And certainly, any G.I. Joe fan will be very pleased with this item!

The G.I. JOE COBRA SAND SERPENT plane with STAR-VIPER pilot definitely has my highest recommendation!