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Night Raven w/ Air-Viper

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
by Artemis

Superior technology doesn't necessarily win wars - just ask the North Vietnamese - but it does tend to win the hearts and minds of battle-eager young boys looking for some plastic hardware to whine their parents into buying. So Cobra, always ready to pander to the supervillainy handbook, aren't just on the cutting edge, they're way out beyond it with crazy junk like armoured pogo sticks and weaponized Furbies. It's probably just as well - considering the amount of financial backing they must have to be able to throw it away on space-age white elephant R&D projects, if they ever just spent it on anthrax letters and dirty suitcase bombs they'd probably take out half the world before GI Joe knew what had hit it.

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 twin rotary launchers, the Night Raven strikes its targets with infrared-guided IRG-42X missiles.

The first Night Raven was released back in 1986, when someone at Hasbro realized that the SR-71 Blackbird looked utterly badass and decided Cobra needed one, or at least a more angular, evil-looking knockoff (probably the same thought process that Cobra Commander had). It had some eccentricities introduced by the toy designers, like a detachable mini-jet riding on top (probably mucking up the thing's fuel economy, further depleting Cobra's much-abused coffers), but it still managed to strike a winning balance, largely due to its Blackbird pedigree - it had the sci-fi coolness to catch the imagination, but also the real-world plausibility to seem like a genuinely formidable machine. It was also sodding enormous.

Fast forward 23 years and the Night Raven is back, and if it's not as colossal as the original, it's still 20" from nose to tail, and that's a damn big toy any way you look at it. Despite the slightly erratic write-up the packaging gives it (who cruises at their top speed?) and some questionable aerodynamics, it retains that strong air of plausibility - granted there's about one-eighth the amount of aerofoil surface it'd need to keep from dropping out of the sky like a brick, but it's no pogo stick. The heritage of the SR-71 is still there, although the modern redesign develops more from the original Night Raven than its real-world ancestor, with its blocky engines and fuselage.

The Raven comes out of its box in pieces - intentionally, not due to poor shipping and handling - but assembly is a piece of cake: plug the nose and "neck" into the rear fuselage, stick the tails and wings on in the appropriate places, and fire her up. The forward wings and tails are unique, but the main wings (barely larger than the nose winglets, but whatever) can be fitted to either side; the instructions don't specify which is correct, but based on where the stickers need to go, attaching the wings with the textured surfaces downward would seem to be the right way. If you wanted to you could leave it at that, with the plane sleek and black, but for the detail-inclined there are a total of 42 stickers to add, including M.A.R.S. and/or Cobra markings (there's room for both, or you could just use one or the other) and a kill tally, as well as more prosaic stuff like "no step" and "inlet" warnings and various danger markings around the relevant areas. There's also a tiny screen for the cockpit interior, which is pretty tricky to get into position - I wound up balancing it on the tip of a knife to ease it into its proper spot, not something you'd want a child doing solo.

The Raven's main play feature are the twin missile launchers, each of which carries six of the usual long, slim missiles you get in spring launchers. A handle stowed beneath the aircraft's body swings downward allowing it to be held much like a gun, and pulling the trigger then fires both launchers simultaneously. To rotate the next missiles into firing position, you pump the front of the plane back - it's like a shotgun with wings. As a play feature it has a certain appeal (there are few things quite as satisfying to a gun-happy boy than the meaty "ker-chunk!" of a shotgun, and the Raven makes a good substitute), but there's still something fundamentally ungainly about pumping a hypersonic aircraft to make its guns work. Still, if you're buying this for its display value you probably won't need to fire it anyway, and the design of the fuselage does a pretty good job of camouflaging the retracting neck.

Aside from the ability to hurt younger brothers, the Raven's party piece is its lights and sounds, powered by three AA batteries (not included, naturally). The on/off switch is beneath the tail end of the fuselage - when it's on, the trigger and three silver buttons built into the dorsal hull between the tails trigger the effects. The rearmost button fires up the engines - a nice big roar as they come to life, accompanied by glowing red lights from the outlets at the rear, followed by several seconds of "cruising", with the lights pulsing and a steady low drone from the engines. The middle button cycles through three snippets of speech from the pilot - the voice is distorted to the point of being nigh-incomprehensible, but aside from that it sounds like what you typically hear over pilot radio.

The front button initially causes a beeping "missile locking on" noise, and if you press it again switches to the whoosh of a missile firing - pumping the fuselage resets it back to locking on. The trigger goes straight to the missile firing noise, and if you push it again without waiting a couple of seconds, it'll switch from missiles to the chatter of a machine gun, for as long as you hold the trigger down. All of the sounds can overlap each other, so you can have pilot chatter and weapons firing while the engines are still going. The areas surrounding the launchers light up with any weapons fire, but the engine inlets closer to the neck never light up - not that inlets tend to, but they're covered with the same translucent red plastic as the other light-up zones, so it's a bit odd. Speaking of odd, the instructions advise you not to fire the missiles while the landing gear is down - I can't figure out why, since there's no mechanical connection between them and firing works just fine no matter where they are; maybe whoever wrote it just thought it wasn't a good idea to start shooting off explosives when the plane's on the runway. The landing gear, unfortunately, doesn't roll - they're single molded pieces, wheels and all.

Speaking of the pilot, let's meet him:

Air-Viper pilots fly next-generation aircraft designed by M.A.R.S. Industries. Like all top test pilots, these ruthless hunters of the sky are meticulous, detail-oriented problem solvers with an extensive knowledge of aeronautical engineering.
Preferred weapon: BVR AAM-32J (Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile)

The M.A.R.S. Air-Viper - modern counterpart to the Strato-Viper included with the original Night Raven - is a "prepaint" of the G3 Strato-Viper from soon-to-be-released Defense of Cobra Island seven-pack. He - or she, you can't tell; that's the argument yo inadvertently suckered me into buying this thing with - is decked out in a heavy flight suit, with a silver chestplate over the top, and armoured boots and thighs. Unlike the earlier figure, which made a lot of use of bright red, this one's suitably sombre, with a palette consisting of just black, silver, and dark grey. She (maybe) has the standard GI Joe articulation of balljoint neck, swivel/pin shoulders and elbows, swivel wrists, swivel/pin sternum, swivel/peg hips, double pin knees, and swivel/pin ankles.

The helmet is bulky but futuristic, with a segmented carapace kind of design incorporating a silver-faced set of goggles, and a red visor higher up, which presumably flips down when necessary. It's pretty eccentric, like something M.A.S.K. would come up with, but the colour scheme of the figure reins it in enough to fit with the kinda-sorta-real mood of the Raven. There's a holstered pistol on the chestplate, but it's not removable.

The cockpit lowers out of the plane's nose, controlled by a lever set into the top behind the canopy - it's gently spring-loaded, so if you let it open free it can do so with a bit of a jolt. The Air-Viper (or any other similarly scaled figure) fits inside, reclined but not totally horizontal, but there's a distinct lack of controls around her - there are two rods close enough to the hands to serve as joysticks, but the only other detail in the cockpit is the sticker screen and a small keypad next to it, and those are all the way down between the pilot's feet. As is almost always the case the pilot and plane aren't to scale - especially with the Raven's real-world parent being such a monster of a vehicle - but the dark red canopy plastic obscures the interior, so it's not that obvious when the cockpit's all sealed up.

It may not be as big as the original Night Raven, back from the '80s when no one knew we'd start running out of plastic-making oil, but the "M.A.R.S. Raven" is still a damned impressive piece of hardware. Against its minor flaws - the static wheels, the rudimentary cockpit controls - it's got seriously menacing looks and a fun selection of features (none of which impair the toy's display value), and the Air-Viper, while basic, is still a perfectly good-looking and serviceable action figure. All that adds up to a strong big-box product for this first assortment of Rise of Cobra merchandise, whether you want to display it as the centerpiece of a collection, or shoot your siblings with it.

-- 07/17/09

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