Action figures are simply another offshoot of our fascination with heroes and villains, whether they are the traditional caped crusader or a firefighter carrying a child from a burning building.
The first real action toys were the Hasbro GI Joe figures in 1964, the term being coined in an attempt to market them to boys who didn't want to play with "dolls". The popular military themed toy was nearly a foot tall and featured changeable clothes, such as various uniforms for different missions. Modeled after the hero on the television program "The Lieutenant," these toys were a big hit instantly and opened the door to the world of collectable toys.
In 1970s the Mego Corporation introduced a line of smaller designs with standard plastic bodies and interchangeable heads, most of which were based on superhero comics and shows. Megos are quite popular, even today, and though attempts have been made to re-create the Mego toys, there have not been any successes so far.
Smaller toys, more in tune with the ones we recognize today were introduced in the mid 1970's by the Mego company in conjunction with a Japanese company. These cyborg and robot themed designs were called Micronauts, and their smaller size made them easily accessible to many children. However, the real frenzy over smaller toys didn't occur until Kenner began producing their line of 3-3/4" Star Wars action figures that became the industry standard.
Rather than the old style toys who had different outfits, these were inexpensive enough that lots of different designs could be purchased without the trouble of changing their clothes. This was also the beginning of collectable toys being used to promote and merchandise big budget movies.
Another milestone in the collectable toys time line is the introduction of the Transformers, which featured fighting robot soldiers that could change into other objects such as cars, submarines, and even animals! They were still the smaller sized objects, but had much more playability potential, since they were like having two toys in one. Transformers have been reintroduced into the market in recent years, and they are just as popular as ever.
These days, it's hard to make an actual distinction between action figures and collectible toys, mainly because advances in technology have made it possible to make much more detailed and realistic items. A great example of these are the characters from the instantly classic movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books. Many of these toys are so realistic and well made that they seem more suited to display in a plastic case rather than take out of the package for play.
The value of these collectibles varies greatly based on the type of figure, rarity of design and popularity just as much as it does on condition and packaging. Therefore, if you are looking to put a value on your collection, it's best to get a price guide that is tailored to your favorite line. Magazines such as ToyFare, which are specifically geared to the collectible toy market, have a monthly price guide for some of the more modern toys, and is an excellent place to start looking for a price range.
Most of the popular action figures and collectable toys today are based on cartoons and movies, allowing children to act out scenes with their favorite characters at home, but there are some whose popularity has never faded, such as GI Joe, Gundam action figures and the Transformers. New lines of "real life heroes" such as firemen, police and rescue workers and characters based on video games such as Halo action figures are also gaining popularity with kids, and the reintroduction of such collectible toys as My Little Pony are expanding the action toy world at a phenomenal rate.
With so many different toys to choose from, collectors' houses can easily start to look like a toy store in just a few months...not necessarily a bad thing, as far as they're concerned!