Playsets

Snake Mountain: Evil stronghold of Skeletor (1984)

Snake Mountain was a toy I only ever saw twice as a kid. I never owned one, but I certainly admired it from afar. Up close it was perhaps not as exciting to play with as it looked (and certainly not as instantly memorable as Castle Grayskull), but as Skeletor’s evil hideout, it had undeniable evil charm.

The first known mention of Snake Mountain seems to come in the December 1, 1982 Masters of the Universe Bible by Michael Halperin. (Note: there is one episode of the Filmation cartoon (“Diamond Ray of Disappearance”) that was written a bit before that (November 30, 1982), but it was revised months later, and I don’t know if Snake Mountain was included in the original script.)

Skeletor led them to his lair beneath the twin peaks of SNAKE MOUNTAIN. Around one of the crags twisted a terrible carved snake. A portal along the snake’s back until it reached the fanged mouth. Entrance here entrapped the incautious stranger for once a person stepped into the snake’s jaws they snapped shut thrusting the trespasser into almost inescapable dungeon.

A footbridge connected one mountain with the other where a blood red waterfall cascaded over crags, past blasted trees and murky swamps. Skeletor’s chamber hid behind BLOOD FALLS and only he knew its entrance, its traps and snares. The lair itself was a dark cavern dripping with venom. In one corner, its eyes blazing red, its tail twitching, sat Skeletor’s pet and charger, the giant cat PANTHOR. Its purple fur glistened as its muscles rippled when it stretched out iron claws from the mighty paws.

In other media, Skeletor’s stronghold was being called Point Dread. The 1983 Filmation Series Guide described it this way:

Point Dread is a craggy peak emerging from the Eternian Ocean. It is an extinct volcano with a tunnel leading down to a fantastic ruined, Atlantis-like city hidden beneath the ocean floor. Inside Point Dread, Skeletor keeps all the treasure he has plundered from a thousand worlds. There are also mines and construction sites waiting for the slaves Skeletor plans to take once he has seized control of Eternia.

But the heart of Point Dread is the great council chamber where Skeletor summons the sinister Masters of the Universe. Here Skeletor sits on a raised platform above the round table where are gathered the likes of…

Image via He-Man.org

This idea was echoed in the 1985 UK MOTU Annual (the UK annuals seemed to consistently draw on older source material):

In the end, Point Dread became the magical/technological moving perch of the Talon Fighter, which could relocate from the top of a mountain to the top of Castle Grayskull. Snake Mountain became the fortress of Skeletor.

In September of 1983, when the He-Man cartoon debuted, kids were introduced to Snake Mountain for the first time. It was an imposing structure – a large pointed peak punctuated with jagged “teeth” and a giant snake carving wrapped around it. Nearby was another, smaller peak, and Blood Falls flowed in between them:

The interior of the mountain featured a bone throne and a table with a magical globe for spying on enemies, a docking bay for Skeletor’s fleet of vehicles, various creepy creatures, and myriad twisting passageways. The snake carving was also hollow, and Skeletor could stand in the open mouth and overlook his dark domain:

Snake Mountain was trademarked by Mattel on August 15 of 1983. At some point in 1983 Mattel started working on the playset design. Rather than basing the toy off of Filmation’s fortress, they elected to come up with a completely different look, based off of a previous jungle playset design that had been abandoned:

Image source: The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog by way of James Eatock

Mattel wasn’t saving any tooling by reusing the idea, but perhaps it was a way to quickly re-sculpt a previous effort into a viable product.

Colin Bailey did some of the preliminary design work on the toy, as is visible in this design drawing from The Power and the Honor Foundation Catalog:

His drawing is simply called “Skeletor Playset” and shows the goblin-like face and manacles that would be built into the right half of the design.

The main attractions of of the playset are clustered on the exterior – the shackles, the “talking” goblin face, the wolf echo microphone, the bridge (a fragile piece even in the 80s, and too narrow for figures to cross any way but sideways), numerous semi-hidden sculpted faces and claw-like root structures, the stairway, the gate and trap door, and the “striking” snake. There was also a scaling ladder, reused from the original Castle Grayskull playset.

1984 Mattel France Catalog. Image Source: Super Shogun Blog.
Production Snake Mountain

The interior was pretty bare bones by comparison. There was a net to catch warriors who fell through the trap door, there was a volume control/switch for the echo microphone, and a couple of stickers on the floor. The goblin mouth could be articulated from the rear.

The box art was painted by William George. Early versions of the art, dated 1983, show Man-E-Faces in shackles, but the final artwork replaced him with Man-At-Arms. For more on that read this interview with Bob Nall, by Jukka Issakainen.

Image source: Jukka Issakainen, from interview with Bob Nall
Image via He-Man.org
Image via He-Man.org

There were a couple of variations on the packaging. In some versions, the mountain is quoted as saying “I am the spirit of Snake Mountain” and in others it says “I am the voice of Snake Mountain.” I don’t know the reason for the change, but if I had to guess it would be because some parents might have objected to the “spirit” of Snake Mountain for religious reasons.

Image source: Tokyonever

As a playset, Snake Mountain felt a bit undersized compared to Castle Grayskull. It was technically taller, but only because of the archway. The rest of the playset was about 25% shorter, and the stairs were out of scale with the chunky He-Man figures. It was still an impressive and coveted item, but it paled in comparison to Grayskull.

According to the 1987 Style Guide, Snake Mountain was the “talking mountain of evil.” The style guide gives the mountain several characteristics that were never used in any canonical materials, to my knowledge:

Power: Ultimate evil power center, which commands and controls Skeletor and his minions.

Character Profile: Snake Mountain is the home base for the Evil Warriors. Within it resides the horrible spirits of the Lords of Destruction. It is from these wicked spirits that Skeletor and his henchmen draw their evil power. A baffling series of catacombs are built beneath Snake Mountain. Exploration there has been limited; even Skeletor is fearful of what may reside there.

Errol McCarthy did the artwork for the Style Guide, and depicted Snake Mountain in several other illustrations as well:

Snake Mountain’s first several appearances in the minicomics follows the toy design. You can see that here in Siege of Avion and The Obelisk, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala:

Siege of Avion, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala
The Obelisk, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala

In The Clash of Arms, illustrated by Larry Houston, a simplified version of Filmation’s Snake Mountain makes its minicomic debut:

With the advent of the Snake Men in 1986, Snake Mountain was reimagined as having been the fortress of King Hiss and his minions thousands of years in the past, before they were locked away in a pool of energy (the “Pool of Power”) in the caverns under the mountain:

In the 1986 Kid Stuff story book/record, Battle Under Snake Mountain, the fortress seems to be under the control of King Hiss, with no mention of Skeletor at all:

When Snake Mountain appears in the Golden Books stories, it is typically modeled after the toy:

The UK Masters of the Universe comic series (issue 22, 1987) tried to harmonize the toy and Filmation designs, although the reasoning used (Skeletor needed more protection, and so rebuilt the mountain) seems to require more explanation – I don’t quite follow the logic here:

Snake Mountain, in its toy form, makes an appearance in all of the posters illustrated by William George for the toyline:

The fortress also appears in posters by Esteban Maroto and Earl Norem:

Skeletor’s stronghold was also used to sell other Masters-related merchandise, including games, puzzles, and even a themed Hot Wheels stunt set:

Snake Mountain had a lot to live up to, following Castle Grayskull. It could never quite measure up to it, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The design itself was certainly creepy, although perhaps in a more childish kind of way compared to Grayskull. It gave you a lot to look at and a lot to play with, but lacked the depth and archetypal pull of its predecessor.

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Playsets

Castle Grayskull Instructions

Here are the original assembly instructions for Castle Grayskull. I’m presenting these without much in the way of commentary. I’ll just note a couple of items of interest. First, the illustration of He-Man on the front page is an edited version of the original, which featured a boot knife (the original version appears in advertising copy). This spear-holding He-Man hearkens back to the character’s more savage origins. I’ll also note that the picture on the last page is traced from a photo that first appeared in Mattel’s 1982 Toy Fair dealer catalog, based on some early and late stage prototype figures.

I believe I was five or six when I got my original Castle Grayskull. Getting it as a Christmas present was probably the most exciting thing that had happened to little me. I remember shaking with excitement just a little as I popped the little gray weapons out of their frames. My dad helped me put it together, but he left me to put the labels on myself, and of course they ended up a bit crooked. Isn’t that always the way with stickers?

Features and accessories for the castle include:

  • Working elevator
  • Trap door activated by moving chair
  • Locking jaw bridge
  • Spinning combat trainer
  • Articulated laser turret
  • Scaling ladder
  • Flag and banner
  • Weapons rack with nine weapons
  • Dungeon grate sticker
  • Cardboard computer console, astronaut and weapons triangular weapons rack

Without further ado, here’s He-Man to guide you through assembling your Castle Grayskull:

All scans by Battle Ram Blog.

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Playsets

Castle Grayskull’s Lock

In previous articles, I gave a general overview of Castle Grayskull as well as a closer look at how an early prototype made its way into minicomics and other stories. In this article, I’d like to briefly focus Castle Grayskull’s locking mechanism.

The earliest Castle Grayskull prototype for which we have extant images is the one sculpted by Mark Taylor, with some assistance from Ted Mayer. Earlier models had been made by Mattel’s in-house team, but they kept making it too “architectural” and squared off, so Mark set out to do it himself.

If you look closely at the mouth area, you can see there is apparently no locking mechanism built in. That doesn’t mean that one wasn’t intended to be there. Mark might have wanted to leave details like that to Mattel’s engineers.

And indeed, this early minicomic (King of Castle Grayskull) shows Skeletor unlocking the castle jaw bridge using the combined halves of the Power Sword. As I understand it, the Power Sword (designed by Mark Taylor) got its distinctive shape specifically because it was supposed to be a kind of key. In this comic and in the Golden Books stories The Trap and The Sword of Skeletor, the lock is located to the right of the jaw bridge:

Artwork by Alfredo Alcala

However, Mark Taylor’s prototype was modified for mass production, and the side-mounted keyhole was never implemented as far as we know. In this image of an updated (nearly final) prototype, you can see that the door itself was fitted with a latch-type locking mechanism. However, there is no place to insert the sword. Instead, the door was locked and unlocked using a simple sliding handle:

Image Source: Grayskull Museum

This may have been a simple oversight. In the final mass-produced toy, the mechanism was changed so that the Power Sword (or, indeed, a pencil, a crayon, or a pinky finger) could be used to unlock the door. Note there is a sculpted, simulated locking mechanism where the real one used to be:

Strangely, this play feature is never mentioned on the Castle Grayskull box, and I don’t believe it’s ever mentioned in any of the television commercials. It is, at least, explained in the instruction sheet that came with the castle:

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Playsets

Castle Grayskull prototype – a closer look

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The prototype Castle Grayskull was not something that most fans had ever seen until relatively recently. Certainly as kids we were oblivious to its existence. It did, however, make its way into story books, mini comics, games, and cross sell artwork. Many of us wondered why the castle in the early mini comics looked so different from the one in our collections.

In my recent interview with Mark and Rebecca Taylor, Mark said:

“I [sculpted the castle] because Tony [Guerrero] was busy with the figures and the other sculptors kept making it too architectural.  I wanted it to the castle to be organic, coming to life to tell its story.  I made a wood armature and sculpted it in green clay. Ted [Mayer] helped with the plaster mold and vacuum forming, Rebecca did the labels…  The imaginative user applied labels themselves to offset the lack of interior walls.”

The exterior of the prototype Castle Grayskull was similar in many respects to the final toy, but there were many notable differences as well.

proto ext2 good
Prototype exterior
proto ext1 good
Prototype exterior
Front-facing view of another copy of the early prototype. Jawbridge closed. Image via Andy Youssi.
Prototype castle, facing the front of both halves. Image via Andy Youssi.
Toy exterior
Mass-produced toy exterior

There are several details on the prototype exterior that are missing or altered in the final toy that I’d like to draw your attention to:

Pawn
Pawn-like design on top of the helmet
Ledge
Ledge
Jaw bridge and teeth
Ghoulish, rounded teeth and small jaw bridge
Laser - front view
Laser turret made from Micronauts Hornetroid parts
Turret
Extended tower
Rocks
Deeper rock base
Side - no handle
No handle over the battlements
Extended turret roof
Extended tower roof
Deeper recess - hidden door
Deeper recess with hidden door
Moat PAH
Play mat (image via The Power and the Honor Foundation)
“Evil” side flag with skull face. Image via Andy Youssi.
“Good” side flag with He-Man axe. Image via Andy Youssi.

Many of these design elements found their way into the Castle as depicted in Golden Books, mini comics, DC Comics, and other sources, as well both versions of the cross sell artwork.

Alc CS CR
Cross Sell artwork by Alfredo Alcala, based very closely on the original prototype; appeared on the backs of the first four mini comics
Alc CS BW
Cross Sell artwork by Alfredo Alcala, in black and white
Castle Grayskull Cross Sell Best
Cross Sell artwork that appeared on the back of MOTU packaging. It is based closely on the prototype castle, but omits the “pawn” and adds a handle on the side

Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. In all of Alcala’s early artwork, Castle exteriors are almost 100% faithful to the prototype design. In a couple of panels, however, the ledge is omitted:

Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. Notice that Skeletor opens the jaw bridge through a lock located to the right of the entrance. I’m not sure if this was a feature Mattel intended to add – I don’t see any indication of it in the prototype. In the final toy, the lock was located on the jaw bridge itself.

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Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo:

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Featuring the “pawn” design on top of Grayskull helmet
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Teeth are similar to the prototype, but cleaner looking. Like the Alcala depictions, the “lock” is located to the right of the jaw bridge

To Tempt The Gods, pencils by George Tuska, inks by Alfredo Alcala:

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Castle features “pawn”, ghoulish teeth and extended turret.
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Castle features “pawn”, ledge, and ghoulish teeth

The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle:

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Somewhat ghoulish teeth, although cleaner looking than the prototype. Like the Alcala depictions, the lock is located to the right of the jaw bridge

Masters of the Universe Pop-Up game:

BFE Grayskull
Ghoulish teeth, “pawn” design on helmet, extended turret; colors match the prototype as well
grayskull 2
Ledge is visible from this angle

From the 1984 UK Annual:

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Features the Alfredo Alcala cross sell artwork
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From the 1983 Golden: Paint ‘N’ Marker Book. Image source: He-Man.org
RL Allen
Artwork by R.L. Allen, showing the ledge and “pawn” from the prototype castle. Unlike all other depictions I’ve seen, the ledge here looks very squared-off an architectural.
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Prototype castle, from the 1986 UK MOTU Annual. Image via He-Man.org

The interior of the prototype Castle was also different in many ways from the final toy:

Proto Grayskull interior
Prototype interior
Toy interior
Toy interior

There are various details on the prototype interior missing or altered in the final toy:

Throne
A kingly throne rather than the futuristic dentist’s chair on the final toy
Trap Door
Trap door – more rectangular with a different sticker design
Ladder
Single rail ladder that hooked into the floor of the highest turret
Dungeon
Manacles with chains and a different dungeon grate design
Combat Trainer bop bag secret door
A more three-dimensional combat trainer; a punching bag; the secret side door entrance, partially open (behind the combat trainer)
Combat trainer concept drawing by Mark Taylor; image via the Power & Honor Foundation Catalog
Computer
Computer decals
Elevator weapons sticker
Circular elevator with skull-themed back; additional weapons rack sticker
Elevator top
Red skull design at the top of the elevator
Jet Pack
Bat-winged backpack
Torture rack
Torture rack
Laser - back view
Laser turret – rear view

Elements from the interior of the prototype also found their way into mini comics and story books:

Below: He-Man and the Power Sword, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala

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Teela on the torture rack

Below: King of Castle Grayskull, illustrated by Alfredo Alcala. There are many interior shots featuring the prototype throne, trap door, ladder, computer systems and laser turret:

Below: The Sword of Skeletor, illustrated by Fred Carillo, features several scenes depicting the prototype throne:

Below: The Trap, illustrated by Dan Spiegle, also features the prototype throne:

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This is of course not exhaustive. I’m sure aspects of the prototype castle made it into other vintage Masters of the Universe media or collectibles.

While Mattel made several changes to the castle before its release in 1982, at least one bootleg manufacturer seemed to take inspiration directly from depictions of the prototype Castle Grayskull:

Galaxy Warriors bootleg 2
Image via ebay.com
Galaxy Warriors bootleg 1
Image via ebay.com

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