Playsets

Slime Pit – Evil pit of gruesome ooze (1986)

The Slime Pit was the second and final small playset released in the original Masters of the Universe toyline (the first was Point Dread, in 1983). Of all the playsets MOTU had to offer, the Slime Pit perhaps packed the most punch for its size. It was all centered around one play feature, but it what a feature!

Design & Development

The Slime Pit was designed by Ted Mayer, from an idea that came out of the boy’s design group’s many brain storming sessions.

In the above illustration, you can see many of the hallmarks of the final playset are in place, including the grabbing hand in the front, the hand around the side and the scroll design near the top. The slime-spewing head is wolf-like in this concept (a frequent theme in Ted’s designs, it seems), whereas the final version seems to have more of a dinosaur skull look.

Mattel more or less invented slime as a commercial product, and it has been a popular seller since the late 1970s. The Slime Pit was a clever way for Mattel to integrate its popular slime products into the world of Masters of the Universe.

Pixel Dan has done some extensive research on the history of slime. Take a moment to check it out in this video:

There is also some great information about slime in this article at Plaid Stallions and again in this piece by Dinosaur Dracula.

Production Playset

The final play set has a deeper pit area than the concept version. The paint applications are fairly simple, but it does have some well executed red and gray overspray on the gray stone areas and some brown overspray on the skull. These seem more well thought-out than the often haphazard looking paint applications given to the exterior of Castle Grayskull (particular later releases of the playset). Like the Fright Zone, the Slime Pit is adorned with Hordak’s visage (Hordak seems really into branding his image on all things Horde). There is also a sculpted skull near the back wall.

The playset came with a can of Mattel’s Horde Slime. This particular slime mix was much runnier than the kind of slime typically found on toy store shelves today. It was also available for free, separate from the playset, with the purchase of two action figures.

That runniness made it work great for the purposes of sliming action figures, but it also made it hazardous to rugs and upholstery, not to mention any furry MOTU figures like Moss Man, Panthor and Grizzlor. For that reason, there were a few warnings given about what not to do with the slime, which were of course promptly ignored by many enterprising young mad scientists.

Some kids just want to watch the world burn. Image source: He-Man.org

Packaging

The box art was painted by the late, great William George. Taking cues from the design of the playset itself, the scene is set in ancient Greco-Eternian ruins.

Minicomics

The Slime Pit came packed with Escape From the Slime Pit, which showcased the mini playset’s power to turn its victims into mindless slaves of the Horde. In the story, He-Man is slimed and is only restored to his right mind by exposure to brilliant light:

Animation

The Slime Pit appears in the She-Ra episode, “Loo-Kee’s Sweetie.” It doesn’t really look like the playset, but it does feature slime and a number of dinosaur-like bones. In the story, the Slime Pit saps its victims’ strength rather than turning them into zombie slaves. It’s easy to see why this less disturbing concept might be preferred for the purposes of an animated kids’ show.

Other Media

The Slime Pit was featured in the June 1986 edition of Masters of the Universe Magazine, as both the cover subject and as a poster by Earl Norem. The artwork features Buzz-Off as the victim and Flying Fists He-Man riding to the rescue on Battle Cat.

It also is the centerpiece in a Kid Stuff audio book called Prisoner In the Slime Pit:

Like the Slime itself, the Slime Pit was a concept that Mattel would revisit over and over again:

The Slime Pit was planned to be reissued in Mattel’s King Arthur toyline, but never came to be. Image source: Fabrizio Fernetti
200x MOTU Slime Pit. Image source: Lulu Berlu
Mattel’s Harry Potter Slime Chamber playset
Imaginext Ooze Pit, very closely modeled on the original Slime Pit.

Return to Table of Contents.

Playsets

Mark Taylor’s Castle Grayskull – Introduction (Guest Post)

Upper left: earliest concept art by Mark Taylor (before Mattel employment); lower left: black and white, and color version of the revised concept art by Mark Taylor (during Mattel employment in 1979); upper and lower right: the sculpted prototype by Mark Taylor)

Written by Dejan Dimitrovski

Envisioned and created by Mark Taylor Castle Grayskull is, both literally and metaphorically, the foundation stone of the world of the Masters of the Universe. Like an archetypal image, it has grown from a child’s toy to become an iconic symbol in both pop culture and in superhero mythology of our modern time.

Beginning, creation and original story idea

The concept of Castle Grayskull began with a fantasy drawing by Mark Taylor made even before he was employed in Mattel (sometime about 1975 – the picture on the upper left). Later, working as a toy designer in 1979., he did a revised castle illustration (the lower left picture). It went through many changes and revisions, again and again, until finally Mark sculpted the prototype castle (with a little help of Ted Mayer) based on the latest revised design (two images on the right show the prototype design). All through the design process, Mark insisted on the ancient, eldritch outlook of the Castle, invoking an atmosphere and image of a place that withholds secrets from beyond time and space, and setting it apart from yet another mythical magical castle.

“I wanted it to be organic, it has to look like it weights, like it’s heavy, has a lot of weight to it… like it’s starting to melt”, describes Mark Taylor during a panel on Grayskull Con in 2013.

The Castle was made before any of the toy figures and all through the eighties (and in some world countries the nineties), it undoubtedly became one of the most iconic, most popular and well known play-sets for children across the world. Starting from the original story concept, Castle Grayskull was the connection/conflict point of the hero He-Man and the villain Skeletor; and this concept was stretched to all the later incarnations of MOTU – the castle is always the ultimate fortress that Skeletor wants to conquer and claim its mystic powers. Another concept, started by Mark, that will remain a constant element common to all MOTU canons and story versions, is the concept that the ultimate Power is within Grayskull.

Inspiration sources and symbolism

Besides the idea of a traditional scary medieval castle, Mark mentions several other sources of inspiration for Castle Grayskull, among which are the works of Mark Twain, the 1933 “King Kong” movie (specifically the Skull Island), as well as other places that are skull-associated or shaped. Evidently, most of these inspiration sources seem to rely on the symbol of the skull. This symbol is as ancient and old as humanity itself, and it is a very complex one. Though the most common symbolic use of the skull is as a representation of death and mortality, to some ancient societies it is believed to have had the opposite association – objects like crystal skulls represent “life”, the honoring of humanity in the flesh and the embodiment of consciousness. Thus, it can be viewed as a symbol of extreme polarities of life and death.

Conclusion

Mark Taylor’s Castle Grayskull is a masterpiece that has outgrown the concept of a child’s toy; it served and still serves many purposes on many different levels.
At the time of the genesis of MOTU line, it was a big turning point for the brand. The Castle, together with wave one toys, not only set the specific mysterious feel of the MOTU setting, but was also crucial in the successful launching of the brand, as it became one of the most famous, most recognized play-sets for children across the globe.

From the perspective of Mark Taylor’s world of MOTU, it is one of the main elements that started the whole story. The Castle was where all the power lay for He-Man and Skeletor. Whoever controlled Castle Grayskull, had access to the Well of Souls and basically controlled all of the power.

Finally, in the terms of our modern mythology analysis, I believe it is a complex symbol that represents the battle for dominance of the forces of life (as well as hope and courage, represented by He-Man) and the forces of death (including fear and dread – incarnated as Skeletor) in an ever-present, ongoing struggle. This battle of life and death, survival and demise, creation and destruction, is set in our collective subconscious – a universal experience known to all of us; and it is always shrouded in mystery because it is always challenging and ever-changing, demanding our constant adaptation and creativity. This is how the myth of Castle Grayskull speaks to both the grown up and the child in us, allowing us to relate to the existential battle of the hero and the villain, a battle we have fought and will fight till the end of days.

* * *

I wish to express my gratitude to Rebecca Salari Taylor and Mark Taylor for being willing to help and to reveal and share the information on the original Castle Grayskull with us.
Also, I would like to express my thanks to my friends Jukka Issakainen and Adam McCombs in providing help and information in writing this post.

Sources:

1. Grayskull Con. (Aug 6, 2013). “Grayskull Con 2013 – Panel Rebecca and Mark Taylor”. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kERzI45uluk

2. Mark Taylor audio interview (including transcripts) conducted by conducted by Matt Jozwiak (around 2006.)

3. McCombs, A. (2015). Battle Ram: A He-Man blog. [Blog] Castle Grayskull – Fortress of mystery and power (1982); Available at: https://battleram.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/castle-grayskull-fortress-of-mystery-and-power-1982/

Return to Table of Contents.

Playsets

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull box art, by Rudy Obrero

Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull, released in December of 2013, was quite an achievement in an era when big playsets are becoming rarer and rarer. Larger, more complex and more detailed than the original, Classics Castle Grayskull was offered for a preorder price of $250 – more than three times the inflation-adjusted cost of the original, but still not bad given the size, complexity, and lower number of units produced.

Source Material

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull’s biggest single influence is the original prototype playset sculpted by Mark Taylor in 1981, although the Classics version is somewhat tamer and less decrepit looking.  Some of this influence is no doubt filtered through the cross sell artwork and minicomic depictions by Alfredo Alcala (both based on the prototype).  Other influences include some invented details from Alfredo Alcala’s artwork, the original, vintage Castle Grayskull playset, the original Rudy Obero box art, and a concept Dungeon playset designed by Ted Mayer.

MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull
The large weapons rack on the right was sold separately from the castle. The manhole cover on the floor is a custom by BadVermin.
Throne room. The purple banner on the left was invented for this castle – the one on the right based on the vintage castle’s banner.
Elevator at the third floor
Concept-inspired computer and jet pack
Custom triangular weapons rack, by Barbarossa Custom Creations, based on a cardback insert included with the vintage castle. Most of these weapons came with the Classics Castle.
Dungeon  section of the castle, with manacles and vintage toy inspired sticker
Classics Grayskull came with this orb stand (but not the marble sitting in it). It hides away in the secret orb room, inset behind the helmet of the castle
The Spirit of Grayskull haunts the throne room.
Castle Grayskullman guards the dungeon.
Secret door above the ledge
Into the throne room
Scare Glow, produced several years before MOTU Classics Castle Grayskull. came with a secret key to Castle Grayskull.
Scare Glow’s key fits into a keyhole on the secret side door, providing enough leverage to open the door.
He-Man stands on the open jaw bridge. The jaw bridge opens by inserting the power sword into the small opening to the right – a nod to the vintage minicomics.
The evil warriors sneak around the back.
Clawful climbs the scaling ladder

Here’s a more detailed breakout of the influences that went into creating the Masters of the Universe Classics Castle Grayskull:

Material taken from the vintage prototype or vintage concept art includes:

  • Ledge on the left tower
  • “Pawn” piece on top of the helmet
  • Taller helmet and battlements
  • Eye shape
  • Removable handle in the side allows for concept Castle’s side battlements
  • Throne design
  • Computer design
  • Skull motif at top of elevator
  • Hidden side door
  • Battle Tester
  • Jetpack
  • Manacles
Original 1981 prototype Castle Grayskull, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
Original 1981 prototype Castle Grayskull, by Mark Taylor. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation
Another copy of the vintage prototype. Photo courtesy of Andy Youssi.
Photo courtesy of Andy Youssi.
Mark Taylor’s concept for the “Battle Tester”. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

Material taken from the vintage playset:

  • Elevator design
  • Flag design
  • Ladder and laser blaster design
  • Banner, trap door and dungeon grate decals
  • Drawbridge design, front and back
  • Handle on the side piece (removable)
Image source: Transformerland

Vintage box art material:

  • Nose shape
  • Elongated fangs
  • Enlarged lower teeth
Vintage Castle Grayskull box art by Rudy Obrero

Minicomics material:

  • Third floor
  • Dungeon walls (window and skull designs from Ted Mayer’s dungeon playset)
  • Secret slot to gain entrance to Castle located to the side of the jaw bridge
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
From King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
Ted Mayer’s dungeon playset. Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation

There are several unique touches to the playset as well, including an additional secret door off the side of the throne room, a secret orb room in the back side of the helmet, and extended floor with plug for Wind Raider stand, and an “evil” throne room banner to match the original “good” one.

The original design for the Classics Castle Grayskull (artwork by Nate Baertsch, who is a frequent collaborator with the Four Horsemen) was to include a number of other goodies as well, including a clear “Spirit of Grayskull” display (from Alfredo Alcala’s artwork), a removable dungeon, a triangular weapons rack, a mechanism to open the secret door on the castle’s left tower, a sculpted dungeon grate, and a few other goodies. These seem to have been removed from the final product due to cost.

Image source: The Art of He-Man

Return to Table of Contents.

Playsets

Fright Zone – Trap-filled stronghold of terror (1985)

I only saw the Fright Zone once as a kid, in the late 80’s. I was immediately filled with regret for never having owned such a creepy-looking playset, a situation that was not rectified until a quarter of a century later.

Of the three major playsets depicted in the Filmation He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, the Fright Zone toy was the least like its animated counterpart. What I believe happened is that Filmation came up with its design on its own (an HR Giger-esque monstrosity), and then Mattel decided to use an older concept to represent the hideout of the Evil Horde in toy form. The animated Fright Zone would have been immense and complicated to produce, to say the least, although I suppose they could have replicated a portion of it.

The playset version of the Fright Zone begins with a December 5, 1983 piece of concept art called “Masters Villain Playset.” The concept, illustrated by Ed Watts, was no doubt intended for the Evil Warriors. It has the tree (this version has hands) down next to the jail cell, and it has some kind of man-eating plant on the right side, but otherwise it’s very close to the look of the final toy.

It’s not clear if the rock monster trap was included in this early concept, but there was a somewhat similar concept floating around Mattel:

A couple of separate patents were filed connected with the development of the Fright Zone playset. One (filed October 4, 1985) is connected with the tree and rock monster traps, and the other (filed April 5, 1985) is connected with the mold process for the rubber dragon puppet. Mattel applied for a trademark claim on the Fright Zone on January 27, 1984.

The playset has four main play features. There is the rubber dragon puppet that can be manipulated through the hole to its den on the right side of the playset. There is the haunted tree that can be made to grab hold of figures. There is the prison, which can be unlached with the flick of a switch, and there is the rock monster trap near the entrance to the dragon’s den, that can grab on to a figure’s foot:

The packaging artwork was painted by William George. In the fearsome Fright Zone, Battle Armor He-Man fights the dreadful dragon, while Hordak snares Battle Armor Skeletor with his tree trap. Buzz-Off is held captive in Hordak’s prison. Dead trees and craggy mountains surround the lair of the Evil Horde, and twin moons hang in the sky.

The Fright Zone also appears on the box art for Hordak/Grizzlor:

The 1987 Style Guide (illustrated by Errol McCarthy) described the Fright Zone this way:

Power: Ability to capture and consume enemies of The Horde.

Character profile: Located in Etheria, the Fright Zone is the dreaded domain of The Evil Horde. Exploreres are loath to enter the region, for few who travel into the Fright Zone ever return – and those who do are haunted forever after. It is the Fright Zone through which Hordak and his horde pass to enter the realm of Eternia.

As you might expect, the Fright Zone appears most frequently in the minicomics in 1985, the year it was released. It’s showcased most effectively in The Power of the Evil Horde, illustrated by Bruce Timm:

A Filmation version of the Fright Zone appeared in issue four of the US Masters of the Universe Magazine:

However, the same issue has this activity page depicting a playset-influenced version of Hordak‘s lair:

This version of the Fright Zone, in poster form appears in the same issue. It’s a much more realistic depiction, but still based on the playset:

Several other posters featured the Fright Zone as a backdrop. It was rendered at times just like the toy, and sometimes like the Filmation She-Ra cartoon version:

In the Masters Mail for the UK Masters of the Universe Magazine, issue 13, we get some clarification on why the different looks for the Filmation and toy/comic Fright Zones (you can read a bit more about this at James Eatock’s He-Man and She-Ra Blog). As retcons go, it’s pretty elegant and it works well enough for me:

Apart from miniature playsets like the Slime Pit and Point Dread, the Fright Zone was by far the smallest, but it was also the creepiest, and in my opinion, one of the most fun to actually play with.

Return to Table of Contents.