When a toy company has an extremely successful line of girls’ toys, what is the most logical thing to do? Why, trade in the pastel colours and cute animals for blood-red tones and gruesome monsters galore, that’s what! This is exactly the route taken by British company Bluebird Toys when they debuted their boys’ toy line, Mighty Max.
In 1989 Bluebird released Polly Pocket, a range of toys for girls that were basically small dollhouses. Created back in 1983 by Chris Wiggs for his daughter, the original design was based upon a make-up powder compact, into which Wiggs built a small house for the miniature Polly to reside in. Wiggs then took the idea to Bluebird, who licensed the product and went on to have huge success. In fact, the line saved the company. Bluebird’s shares had dropped from 500p each in 1987 to 29p in 1991. Thanks to Polly, Bluebird shares were back up to 57p by 1993.
Bluebird figured they could reproduce the success of Polly with a similar toy line for boys, and so Mighty Max was born. Unlike Polly Pocket, whose self-contained playsets were based on real-world items such as books and clocks or were in the shapes of stars or hearts, Mighty Max’s playsets were much more detailed depictions of all manner of horrid beasties, such as Cyber-Skulls and zombie hands. With its strong horror and science fiction themes and playsets full of blood, skulls and other unimaginable terrors, Mighty Max couldn’t be further from Polly Pocket aesthetically, but the self-contained playset with miniature figures design was once again a winning formula. When Mighty Max was unleashed upon the youth of the United Kingdom in 1992 and was an instant success.
The Mighty One
In the first release of Mighty Max toys, three sizes of playsets were on offer. Horror Heads, which were small playsets that consisted of Max and villain mini-figures with occasionally an accessory of some kind; Doom Zones, which were palm-of-the-hand size playsets that came with a Max and 1–3 villains and often movable parts such as a trap door; and the “large” sets (these didn’t have a specific line name) which would include multiple mini figures, accessories for the figures and movable parts. These really showed off what this kind of toy could do!
At the time, Max himself was portrayed as an approximately 10–12-year-old boy and, in true 90’s style, he was cooler than a cucumber. The short backstory provided on the reverse of each toy’s backing card read as follows:
A year after Max first started hitting shelves in the UK, Bluebird made a new distribution deal with Mattel and their new toy line went worldwide. In order to help promote the toy line in the US, a cartoon based upon it was created, as was commonplace in the 80’s and 90’s. The cartoon, entitled The Adventures of Mighty Max, saw changes made to Max and his backstory that would become the new status quo for the character and was reflected in future toy releases.
Max now appeared older, approximately 15. He was also more “casual,” with his shirt un-tucked and sporting a mop of long, blond hair. Another big change was that Max’s cap would now permanently be red. This new red cap with an emblazoned gold “M” would become his trademark.
Max’s mini-figure reflected this changing from the somewhat squat original to a taller, thinner sculpt. It’s not entirely known why these changes were made; presumably either Mattel or Film Roman, the producers of the cartoon, felt that a slightly older, more “dude with an attitude” take on Max would go down better with American kids rather than the younger, and (by comparison) more orderly British version.
New characters introduced in the cartoon series began appearing as mini-figures within some of the playsets, particularly the larger ones. Warrior Norman who serves as Max’s bodyguard, and the wise, Yoda-like Virgil who gives Max advice during his adventures became almost as popular as Max himself. Skull Master, Max’s arch-enemy, also received a redesign, now appearing much more muscular and barbaric than the previous “evil wizard”-like appearance fans had seen in the Skull Mountain playset.
Even More Adventure
This period saw a huge expansion in the Mighty Max toyline. As well as the playsets mentioned above, new lines started to be released. Shrunken Heads were the smallest of all the Max playsets at approximately 2 cm tall and for the most part came only with a Max mini-figure. Monster Heads were strange playsets in that they did not open like traditional Max sets, but rather came with a Max and monster mini-figure that would sit “inside” the head. Hairy Heads, also known as Dread Heads, did not have any interior “environment” but rather the mouths of the monster’s heads would open to reveal a Max mini-figure. Heroes & Villains was a line of mini-figures only — no playsets. Of these, six were released in total; the first three being re-paints of previously released figures, while the final three were new mini-figures based on characters from the cartoon series.
Perhaps the coolest of the new lines was the Battle Warriors. These took the concept of the traditional Mighty Max playset and merged it with an action figure. This resulted in an action figure of a monster whose abdomen would open to reveal Max, Normal, Virgil and/ or villain mini-figures, often with an accessory. This idea had been tried previously with the large Battle Magus playset and proved very successful, thus Bluebird used the same principal for their Battle Warriors line.
There were also many releases outside of the regular toy lines, such as the table-top electronic shooting gallery game Skull Krusher. McDonald’s released a Max playset in 1993 and 1995, and there was also a series of LCD watches whose faces would open like one of the regular Max playsets. Tiger Electronics, who produced a slew of LCD handheld games throughout the 90s, released a Mighty Max game based upon the TV show while a full-blown video game was released for the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo System in 1995. Unfortunately, developer Ocean completely wasted this opportunity, as the game was not terribly good. Also released were stickers, stationery sets, comics, and even a plaster moulding set so you could create your own statues of Max and his friends!
End of the Adventure
Sadly, Mighty Max was one of those franchises that burned white hot from the moment of release only to disappear almost without a trace. The animated series ended in 1994, lasting only two seasons. The last of the Max toys were released in 1996. Both Max and Polly Pocket — still Bluebird’s best selling toy lines — were not selling as well as they once did. Mattel refused to distribute any remaining stock until Bluebird did something to reinvigorate the franchises. However, it was too late and in early 1998 Mattel bought out Bluebird and shut down their headquarters in Swindon, England. Thus, Max’s adventures were over.
While the Mighty Max franchise may have only lasted four years and the animated series only two seasons, it still to this day has a large cult following. Hugely popular during its lifetime, the franchise is well remembered by many who were in their early to mid-teens in the 90s.
The Mighty Max collecting scene may be small compared to other popular toy franchises, but it is no less passionate and it is not uncommon to see Max playsets, especially those still on their card or in their boxes, go for very respectable prices on eBay. Most interestingly, there was never a definitive list of Mighty Max merchandise released via Bluebird or Mattel, and even now in 2020 fans are discovering Max merchandise that they previously had no idea existed!
Recently, Polly Pocket returned to store shelves. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, this will pave the road for new adventures for Max and once again fans will be able to hold horror in the palms of their hands.
This article was originally written in 2017 for Gemr.com (no longer online). Here it has been updated and edited for clarity.