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June 29, 2011 / jwaxo

Army Men (Bargain Bins)

Green vs. Tan: veiled racism, or easily important distinction? You decide.

I’m afraid that I’m a little out of touch with what kids are into these days. I imagine certain things never die: sports, backyard baseball, playing tag or hide-and-seek, LEGO, couch forts. But something inside me screams that one ancient mainstay of our past, like the huge dominoes sets and collections of Pogs, is probably dying a very slow death: plastic army men. Maybe they aren’t dying, maybe I’m just in the wrong place for them. After all, Toy Story has them all over the place throughout the trilogy. They’re a rather ubiquitous example of a cheap toy that every young boy loves. There’s a point at which an example turns into a pure symbol, I suppose, so it’s entirely possible that Army Men, as the old mainstay of sandboxes or rainy days, have completely died out.

This is a story about before that.

We never had the largest collection of the little plastic guys. One of those bins of toys that we kept in our room was always full of them, however, and a few plastic Jeeps, maybe a tank or two, definitely some tiny plastic land formations. It was one of those amorphous collections that would shrink naturally with time, attrition taking our unit members from us, then get refurbished with a dollar store trip or a donation by an aunt or something. We had SCUBA divers, binocular-men, pointing guys, running guys, prone guys, kneelers… all of the usuals you expect. No flamethrowers: those would have to be borrowed from the friend down the street if we wanted to pretend our Men would be burnt to a crisp.

On the aforementioned rainy days a friend or two would be invited over, possibly with their own minor collection, and we would construct elaborate scenes in our basement. Terrain would be crafted out of boxes and tables and chairs, formations figured out with our eagle-eye view of the action. If we had a large enough mass of men grouped, it wouldn’t be a small battle, but a full-out war taking up the entire floor. Once they were all set up, with positions and attacks and defenses argued about, we would sit back and view the imaginary carnage that was about to erupt, sometimes even taking pictures or taping it with the camera in what was probably some of the lamest action photos ever concieved.

Yes, soon these imaginary beaches will be bathed in imaginary blood.

Then, after the hours spent setting up this scene, some rules would be debated over (with possible applications of noogies or biting) and some form of the action would be played out. Sometimes we would throw marbles to simulate shots, sometimes would just pick out targets for each man. It was always quick action, and would be fun to flick the Men around to simulate death, obviously with loud gurgles and cries.

So my eyes were opened wide with excitement when, one day, while bored at the Outlet Mall that seemed to be days away from town, I found a box of a game called Army Men. I was in fifth grade, old enough to start getting bored of the imagination games we often played in the basement, and old enough to be interested in a squad-based tactical game. But this game looked awesome. And from a bargain bin! I seldom looked through them: they were always overflowing with My Little Pony  games or something of similar merit, and not worth looking through. Yet here was this great game!

And it truly was a great game. It was exactly how you wanted Army Men to be when you played with them: it took place in a faux real world where everyone was a plastic soldier, with the Greens locked in an eternal battle with the Tans (with Grey and Blue sometimes playing roles on one side or the other). You could shoot up the other guys all you want and they would burst into chunks of plastic. If you ran over them (in a flimsy plastic Jeep) they would crush into flattened, badly broken plastic pieces. The buildings were all built out of Styrofoam. Heck, even some of the powerups let me have some wish fulfillment: lighting other Army Men on fire with magnifying glasses or a lighter/hairspray combination, something ridiculous we were never allowed to do in real life.

Nor this. Come on, it wouldn’t be hard to clean, we swear!

After this I realized that the bargain bin was a veritable goldmine of awesome games. It wasn’t just at the Outlet Mall, although that was a great spot to look: it was where we got Perfect Dark a few years later, and I picked up this little-known game called Write, Camera, Action which seemed like a totally sweet movie-making game before it turned out to just be Mad Libs: Sam Spade version. I learned that sometimes, to find the real gems, you have to look through the piles of horrible things before, underneath yet another copy of Spyro: the Dragon you at last find that last copy of Ocarina of Time.

In fact, in yet another bargain bin was where I found Army Men 2, which brought the fight to “real world” locations, like across a counter or in a doll house.

Of course, bargain bins have their own dangers. It’s also where I found Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes for N64, which turned out to be–well, not that great, and we’ll leave it at that. That was really my own fault, though, and not the bargain bin’s: it’s hard to tell quality just from a series that a game belongs to. This failed to kill off my love for my Army Men, though. We possibly sold the rest of ours off in garage sales, but I can’t really see one of those little green figures without hearing the crack of an imaginary gun, the snap of a finger hitting plastic, and the feigned death cries of an eleven-year-old.

We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!


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