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A new version of an old toy blasts into orbit fueled by its creators' passion

A pair of self-described "toy nerds" from Stewartville, Minnesota, have raised more than $300,000 for the launch of their re-imagining of an 1980s toy spaceship — Roboskull. The online fundraising campaign doesn't end until Nov. 16. Comments like “Yes, it’s a toy....but my God, what a toy!!!... You took a love of action figures and made something magical” indicate that Roboskull MK II created by Ben Conway and Mark O'Byrne is a hit with toy collectors raised on GI Joe and Star Wars.

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Skeletron's Ben Conway, left, and Mark O'Byrne with their Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

STEWARTVILLE, Minn. — Ben Conway vividly remembers the wonder and excitement of walking into Chatfield’s Coast-to-Coast hardware, when he was 5 and seeing his favorite GI Joe character — Storm Shadow — in a colorful box with exciting art on it.

That moment spurred a love of action figures that continues today for the president of Halcon furniture in Stewartville. A self-described “toy nerd,” Conway has amassed a huge collection of action figures, gear and vehicles.

It’s a hobby that he shares with Mark O’Byrne, the director of information systems at Halcon. Even before Byrne was aware of their shared interest, Conway surprised him at work with a delivery of an action figure.

“That’s when I knew I was at the right place,” said O'Byrne with a grin.

Over the years, Conway's interest in toys grew. He attended collectors' conventions and befriended people in the toy industry from around the world.

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Along the way, he discovered that in the 1980s, toy maker Palitoy in the UK created a short-lived line of toys in an attempt to compete with Hasbro’s GI Joe and Star Wars lines. The main spacecraft vehicle was in the shape of a giant red skull with laser guns coming out of its eyes.

“When I saw it, my jaw just dropped,” he said.

Conway became obsessed with the obscure, discontinued toy that was only sold in England. He soon added some to his collection and went as far as having one modified with shiny silver chrome paint to make it even more striking.

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Skeletron's Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

He and O'Byrne started talking, as collectors do, about what would make the cool Roboskull even cooler. Those discussions eventually became a seriously fun passion project to actually make their dream Roboskull and share it with the world of toy collectors.

“We wanted to make the coolest toy we could,” said Conway.

He purchased rights to the toy and started recruiting an "Ocean’s Eleven" team of toy experts from around the world, including Bob Brechin, the retired original designer of Roboskull in England. They brought in a former Hasbro manufacturing executive in Hong Kong and lined up an 89-year-old legendary toy artist to paint images for the campaign and Roboskull packaging. They partnered with Marauder Gun-Runners, makers of “free-wheeling, ass-kicking action figures," to help design the characters to go with the new Roboskull.

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After more than two years of tinkering, the team, led by Conway and O'Byrne and “fueled by a love for '80s nostalgia and heavy metal,” created a prototype of Roboskull MK II, a much larger, over-the-top version of the original toy. They made the wings much larger and adjustable into three different positions. A rocket launcher was added inside the mouth, along with many other enhancements.

The Stewartville duo then formed Skeletron as the company to make and sell Roboskull MK II and its related action figures.

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Skeletron's Ben Conway, right, and Mark O'Byrne with their Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

Earlier this month, they introduced their toy to the world with a 30-day Kickstarter fundraising campaign . O'Byrne, who helped design the toy and even created the Skeletron logo, directed and edited a campaign video as well as composing the background music.

The campaign was the big test to see if other collectors might be interested in seeing their dream toy made into a reality.

The enthusiasm for their passion project was quickly clear.

“The baseline funding was $78,000. And we achieved that in 95 minutes. The plan was to hit our six “Stretch “Goals” (of additional figures or weapons unlocked by hitting specific amounts) at $196,000. And we hit that in 21 hours,” said Conway. “It surpassed our expectations --big time. It took less than a day for us to blow through what we had planned as a 30-day campaign.”

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A pledge of $219 earns one Roboskull MK II and a pilot figure.

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Skeletron's Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

The campaign, which ends on Nov. 13, has topped $330,000 so far and that number is still growing. Conway and Byrne were overwhelmed as they watched the pledges and comments come in.

"What you all have done is remarkable, and as I've said before, it's a game changer... You took a love of action figures and made something magical,” wrote one supporter on Kickstarter this week. “Thank you for getting me excited again at the thought of getting all of this, seeing all those boxes and feeling that joy I felt as a 8-year-old boy.”

They attribute some of Roboskull’s success to the toy working with a variety of styles and sizes of action figures. That means a 4-inch Han Solo Star Wars figure could share the cockpit with Luke Skywalker. A 6-inch He-Man figure could sit in the pilot's seat by itself as could a Marvel Legend’s Star Lord figure.

“We like to say that Roboskull can terrorize all of your toys,” said a smiling O'Byrne as he fitted a Skeletron Blood Wolf pilot into the cockpit.

Of course, this kind of interest brought more than money. It made more work for the duo.

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Skeletron's Ben Conway, right, and Mark O'Byrne with their Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

“OK, we've got something really exciting and the community is loving this. But we just blew through our 30-day campaign in one day,” said Conway. “So Mark and I basically just didn't sleep and we worked through a bunch of ideas that we had developed over the last 2 1/2 years that didn't make the cut for the first six Stretch Goals. We had a bag of tricks to go back to and develop some things really quickly ... to keep the campaign going and keep the excitement building.”

To help promote the toy and the campaign, Conway and Byrne introduced Roboskull to the crowds at last week’s NerdinOut convention in Rochester, Minnesota. The in-person reaction was as enthusiastic as it was online. Some convention visitors had seen the Kickstarter campaign, but had not realized it was a local project. That was enough to convince some to put in their orders.

Skeletron and Roboskull MK II will also make an appearance at an upcoming GI Joe-focused toy convention — Assembly Required — in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 6.

Conway stressed that Roboskull is not for children and it is recommended for collectors 15 and older. Anyone thinking of buying one as a holiday present should probably think again.

Once the dust from the Kickstarter campaign settles, Skeletron will start working on producing Roboskulls and the related gear to fill the orders by May 2023.

After that, Conway and O’Byrne don't know what will happen with their side project, although the enthusiasm from collectors points to the possibility of more Skeletron toys in the future.

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Skeletron's Roboskull MK II action figure vehicle Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021, in Stewartville. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Joe Ahlquist

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