What’s more, 1993 was a barren year for toys as far as I was concerned. Ninja Turtles had grown really desperate, Transformers went through an awkward and recycled second generation, and old favorites like Battle Beasts and Starriors were long gone. I had given up on toys, but they had given up on me first.
Yet I noticed something on a Cap’n Crunch box one morning: a mail-away promo for a toy vehicle playset called the Reef Raider. It made a convincing pitch by being free with several box tops and a few bucks for shipping. I didn’t care that the Reef Raider looked like a Fisher-Price submarine or that playing with it would be considerably more childish than messing with Pirates of Dark Water figures or spending a Saturday morning engrossed from Toxic Crusaders to Taz-Mania. I wanted that sub.
The Reef Raider arrived soon, and I had some fun with it for an evening or two, unfolding it in my room with all the awkward secrecy I’d show a dirty magazine. Then I set it aside so that it could disappear into whatever strange vortex swallows up toys that inspire small yet persistent jabs of shame.
The Reef Raider’s unique spot in my uncomfortable years and its subsequent vanishing might explain why I remembered it so readily, though it probably doesn’t excuse my buying it again. As with anything remotely collectible, eBay sellers want more for a Cap’n Crunch promotion than anyone in their right mind would pay, but I managed to find one, still new in the bag, for only a little more than its postage cost all those years ago.
The Reef Raider seems unblemished by some twenty years in storage, aside from some dark spots on its underside. No one sticks glorified cereal-box toys in vacuum-sealed safety deposit boxes, so I shouldn't complain.
Research tells me that the Reef Raider was part of Hot Wheels’ short-lived Adventures line, and it was sold in toy stores with a more elaborate yellow-and-black paint job. The red-and-blue variant was all Crunch, and the colors make it look like a bathtub toy for children too young for PG movies or bedtimes past eight o’clock.
Outwardly, it’s a decent but not remarkable trinket. The real value is inside.
Part Micro Machines and part Mighty Max, The Reef Raider opens into an underwater landscape, with a big coral tree at the center. It includes two sea serpents who attach to the sprig of coral, plus a rubber purple octopus and two small submarines. One appears to be a clone-child of the big playset sub, and the other is a sleeker green craft that was clearly adopted, possibly after its own mommy sub was torpedoed to shreds. Perhaps the large red sub actually launched those fatal torpedoes and couldn’t bring itself to finish off its green enemy’s surviving child. Perhaps the little green sub is slowly figuring this out. See the glint of suspicion in its purple eye.
The little figures aren’t as interesting as the ocean floor itself. One side features a pelican eel, a hammerhead shark colored to suggest a robot, and a huge crustacean in its lair. Most intriguing is the diver, pinned under shipwreck timbers and skeletonized but for the helmet, with a treasure chest within arm’s reach. There’s a story in this submarine.
The other side is even better. A metal-mantled squid wraps its tentacles around a turtle—not a sea turtle, but a regular turtle—while a similarly cybernetic manta ray grazes nearby. In the wreckage of another submarine (possibly green sub’s mother) you’ll see the skeletal form of a mermaid. Not only is it larger and therefore more monstrous than the human bones on the other side, the mer-corpse also has distinctly red hair. It’s a gift from Cap’n Crunch to any kid who wanted to show younger siblings what really happened to Ariel.
The Reef Raider lacks the multiple tiers or extensive moving parts of similar playsets from the 1990s, so it’s easy to deduce why its retail-shelf relatives didn’t last as long as Mighty Max. Once you take in the scenery, there’s not much to do with the whole thing.
Yet I think I appreciate it more today, now that I’m well past caring what my toys say about me. It’s strangely relaxing to open the Reef Raider's hull and contemplate the seascape within like the plastic submarine version of a zen rock garden. So maybe I just wasn’t old enough for it all those years ago.