When I was a young Jab, there was only ONE cartoon and toyline that I could have called my favourite, and that one is Dino-Riders.
Dino-Riders is another Merch-Based 1980s cartoon, this one from TYCO Toys. What sets it apart from the pack is that if features ALIENS FIGHTING IN LASER WARS WHILE RIDING GIANT ARMOURED DINOSAURS. It’s like the grab-bag of every single sweet thing in the history of sweetness, and was so awesome an idea that it almost couldn’t fail.
And yet… it disappeared. Difficulties in selling the toys and producing a TV series apparently weighed it down against the overwhelming nature of the other ’80s toy franchises (Transformers, G.I. Joe, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesmake a hard act to follow for boys’ stuff), and it soon went away. Part of the issue, too, was that the TV series wasn’t really that great. While it had the single greatest core concept of any of the shows (combining lasers with dinosaurs), it suffered from using WAY too many of the Standard 1980s Cartoon Tropes and Stereotypes.
You had your Brave Noble Hero Who Was The Best At Everything, The Cruel Abusive Villain, The Ambitious Underling Villain, The Science Guy, The Wise Old Guy, The Chick, The Impetuous Young Hero, The Kid, and more. Using the same old voice actors as most shows didn’t help (though watching Jem‘s Eric Raymond as Questar the “Optimus Prime” of the good guys was a hoot), especially with Peter Cullen basically playing Ironhide again, and Krulos being voiced by Frank Welker in his “Doctor Claw/Darkseid” voice.
The best thing about the whole franchise was the excellent toy line. I mean, these things were BEAUTIFUL. The humanoid figures were pretty small for scale purposes, but detailed enough to be decent, but the dinosaurs were so accurate they were later used for a Smithsonian Museum toy line for educational purposes- and they were REALLY detailed with the colors, the skins, and even the armatures on them! Some were better than others, from the super-detailed T-Rex to the cheap-ass Ankylosaurus, but as a whole, the toyline is one of the best ones ever made. Even some of the Dinos that most toylines half-ass or ignore got done well (there’s a GREAT Struthiomimus model).
Since it was an ’80s toyline, you had your different “tiers” for different characters (nowadays they tend to release multiple sizes so that even the poor kids can have an “Optimus Prime”)- the toyline was dominated at first by the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Diplodocus, then had the Triceratops/Stegosaurus Tier, then some smaller bipeds, smaller Ceratopsians, then the Deinonychus/Struthiomimus Tier, the Flyers, and a few other random smaller ones. What’s amazing is that they actually went REALLY far outside the box for “Traditional Dinosaur Species”- this was pre-Jurassic Park, so it was still “Deinonychus”, not “Velociraptor”, but the whole Big Six (T-Rex, Sauropod, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Raptor) is showcased in its entirety.
But then they throw in Stegosaurus’ relative Kentrosaurus, use a Saurolophus instead of the more recognizable Parasaurolophus as the line’s only hadrosaur, add FIVE MORE CERATOPSIANS to the mix, then throw in friggin’ Dimetrodon, PLACERIAS, and more! This is one of the few times you’ll ever see Quetzalcoatlus in any form of fiction, and DEFINITELY the only time you’ll see an Edmontonia!
The only “Big Names” left out of the mix are at-best mid-tier, with Parasaurolophus, Iguanadon, and the lower-tier Theropods taking a backseat, as well as any aquatic reptiles getting left out. The latter makes quite a bit of sense, as despite the toys likely being awesome (Ichthyosaurs would be iffy “Riding Steeds”, but Elasmosaurus or Tylosaurus would have been AWESOME), writers ALWAYS hate adding “Aquatic Anything” to a campaign story- watch how many times the girls used their animal forms in Visionaries for proof of THAT, never mind how often writers complained about having to adjust the story so that AQUAMAN could do something back in the day. I WOULD have liked to have seen the mid-tiers like Allosaurus or Carnotaurus in there, though- a smaller theropod would be cheaper for poorer kids, and still probably look awesome, without being obscure.
Other Dinos “left out” include ones that would later become famous or recognized, such as Spinosaurus (known, but pre-Jurassic Park III), Utahraptor (not discovered yet) and Therizinosaurus (then known only for its claws, and then they found out it was a mere plant-eater and rather goofy-looking). Though it should be noted that the series was INTENSELY anachronistic, like most works involving Dinosaurs- they tend to throw every single famous species out there at once because it’s easier than taking a “snapshot” of one specific era, but it’s always amusing for Paleontologists (professional and amateur alike) to watch T-Rex interacting with Stegosaurus, since we know that more time separates THEM than separates T-Rex from HUMAN FREAKING BEINGS. Never mind the frickin’ DIMETRODONS, which are hundreds of millions of years before us on the scale of time! And then of course they find Ice Age mammals.
The toys typically feature one Dinosaur, one humanoid figure (Valorian or Rulon), a removable chunk of Armour/weaponry for the dino, and a horde of tiny, easily-losable plastic pieces (lasers, red caps for the lasers, ladders to allow the guys to climb into the dinos… which was actually a pretty neat touch if you think about it- most toys would just leave you thinking “how the hell is he supposed to GET ON?”). Larger sets (Triceratops and up) would include both a “walking” function (a battery-devouring ability to swing the legs in a clumsy, rolling “walk”) and usually an extra figure. They also released a series of 2-packs of humanoids to fill seats, usually recolours of other figures that were given different names.
Valorians were generally boring humans with blue outfits and silver necklaces, while the Rulons were animal-headed people of various “obviously evil” animals like Ants, Snakes and Hammerhead Sharks, lest we mistake them for good guys. Only a few of the latter would be of different species, like the rare Croc, Skate and Locus.
The sizes of the dinosaurs could be a bit… random, as some were ITTY-BITTY compared to the real thing (Ankylosaurus was barely bigger than a riding pony, while the real-life version is upwards of thirty feet long). And never mind how the characters actually RODE some of them- T-Rex could easily carry a rider (not that anyone would be crazy enough to try that…), but Dimetrodon is in NO WAY strong enough to carry a human around on a saddle attached to its back-sail, and never mind how a pterosaur can fly with a human rider that easily equals its own weight. Thankfully since it’s a cartoon we don’t have to care- it’s just funny to point these things out.
The Show’s Roster:
The Valorians (a telepathic race who are super-nice and victimized by meanies):
Questar– Generic Hero Leader Guy
Serena- The Chick (a healer, and the only named female in the show. Only a few background women are seen)
Mind-Zei- Wise Old Guy with blindsight mental powers
Yungstar– Brash Imeptuous Young Man
Llahd– Naiive Kid Character
Gunnur- a gruff sergeant type (basically Ironhide)
Turret– a Science-nerd genius (with a visor instead of glasses)
Ikon- an unemotional Spock-like dude
The Mooks– Basically like G.I. Joe Greenshirts.
The Rulons (evil animal people):
Krulos- Generic Evil Emperor Villain
Rasp- The Starscream
Antor & Hammerhead– Other Starscreams
Krok- The only loyal minion in the entire empire
The Others- basically generic headswapped Mooks named Skate & Lokus.
The Mooks- A veritable army of guys who basically look identical to the Generals (right down to colour scheme, making group scenes annoying)
Series One Toys:
Diplodocus (Questar, Mind-Zei & Aries)
Torosaurus (Gunnur & Magnus)
Pterodactyl-ish thing (Llahd)
Tyrannosaurus Rex (Krulos, Bitor & Cobrus)
Triceratops (Hammerhead & Sidewinder)
So as you can see, each “side” has an opposing Dinosaur of the same general price-range and style to counter the other. Diplodocus & T-Rex were the line’s centrepieces and big, moving models (with THREE FIGURES EACH), followed by the two big Ceratopsians (one of Triceratops’ few roles on the “villain” side of things in fiction), who could also “walk” and came with two figures. Both had Deinonychi for some reason (they were swiftly becoming an iconic carnivorous dino of choice because of the legendary claws), two smaller Ceratopsians (headswaps), two flying reptiles (remember, those ain’t actual Dinosaurs) and then finally two small-ish things (basically a tiny dino with a simple weapon and a guy).
For the mounts, most are actually original, focused-upon characters, though Mako & Sting (and any “additional” riders after the first, main character in multi-character sets) are just recolours.
Series Two Toys:
Brontosaurus (Serena, Ayce & Ikon, with 3 Rhamphorhynchus)
Stegosaurus (Tark & Vega)
Series II was the last one I was actually familiar with, as the series kind of vanished around this time where I lived. As far as I knew, they never even released the Brontosaurus- the largest figure in the line. It would be a decade later when I got the internet that I would discover it was a REAL THING (much like “Android Suit Krang”).
The second line also gave the Rulons the shaft, releasing only three counter-figures (Kentro to Stega, Saurolophus to Pachycephalosaurus, and Placerias to Protoceratops)- their lower number of characters in the show started to shine through. In this Series, every Valorian but Serena & Ikon are basically nameless loser recolours, though the Rulons actually get three unique heads this time around.
Series Three Toys:
Woolly Mammoth (Grom)
Giant Ground Sloth (Ulk)
Killer Wart Hog (Zar)
Sabre Tooth Tiger (Kub)
Series III added basically some forgettable creatures- two Ceratopsian Head Swaps and a recoloured evil version of the Series I Quetzalcoatlus. They also threw in four weaker-looking models of mammalian Ice Age creatures (ridden by CAVEMEN) to go along with the cartoon’s fourteenth and final episode, one which I never saw (blowing my mind, since I could have SWORN I had watched every episode of this on YTV- they didn’t make that many!).
Now we have the “Two-Pack” Figures- packs of two humanoid figures that were recolours of the main guys. Some were actually just the main guy in a new suit, too. It’s actually shocking how many were based off of Krok and Skate- two figures I could NEVER find.
Quark (camo-coloured Turret)
Bouldar (camo Gunnur)
Mercury (a pastel Llahd)
Nova & Proto (Yungstar recolours)
Questar, Mind-Zei, Yungstar (silver recolours)
Questar (red shirt)
Mind-Zei (blue suit)
Serena (black-haired recolour)
Orion, Neutrino, Graff, Hondo, Wizz, Ecco (generic without a distinct “Main Character” basis)
Ursus (Serena recolour)
Urg (light brown)
Agga (red top, light brown legs)
Six-Gill (gold pants)
Mako (in gold suit)
Dedeye (purple suit)
Gill (dark blue suit)
Fang (gold suit)
Rattlar (yellow/green and pink suit)
Skwirm (pink suit)
Termite, Drone, Fire (brown in different quantities. All pretty generic)
Kraw (purple suit)
Snarrl (black suit)
Gorr (puple & black suit)
Gutz (light purple suit)
Krulos (a gold recolour)
Krulos (ugly green recolour)
Rayy (purple with green/purple suit that actually looked rather nifty)
Poxx (pink suit)
Buzz (brown suit)
Squish (red suit)
Plus we had the unique-figure Commandos, who were sold in individual packs and came with G.I. Joe-inspired tech gear and stuff. This was REALLY rip-offy, and I never even saw them as a kid (I guess I missed TWO episodes). It should be noted that Glyde & Bomba are the only two black people in the entire Valorian army.
Faze (Artillery with Missile Launcher)
Kameelian (Camouflage Gear)
Rok (Mountain Climber)
Bomba (Munitions Expert)
Astra (Commander with numerous weapons- surprisingly not a girl, given the name)