Even with the building safety concerns over offering children protozoan-proportioned playthings, Polly Pocket and Mighty Max quickly became some of the most popular toys around. It seemed kids just couldn't get enough of the pocket-sized playsets. A brief choking stint was more than worth it in exchange for a chance to carry around an entire action figure universe in your pocket. I mean, really.
The concept behind Mighty Max and Polly Pocket was roughly the same mold adjusted for preset gender stereotypes. Both play sets featured small plastic cases that opened into a miniature dollhouse or action figure setting. Inside the fun chamber lay a slew of tiny hard plastic figurines and movable set pieces. There were all types of different scenarios and settings, but these toys were generally appealing on the basis of their small-size gimmick.
Unfortunately, their extreme portability made Mighty Max and Polly Pocket pieces extremely prone to loss. At approximately an inch or so in height, these toys were probably too small to be entrusted in the care of small children. Once you lost the main characters, the entire playset was rendered utterly useless until your parents came through with replacements. All in all, probably not the most well thought-out children's toy venture.
Logic aside, these things were hot sellers; their tininess was a novelty on which we couldn't afford to miss out. We could take these things anywhere. It was a pretty creative idea, of course: a dollhouse that fits in your pocket. It's like the doll version of a smartphone. Something that used to be a sedentary activity with a lot of bulky hardware was reduced to a convenient pocket-sized item that works on-the-go. Not totally necessary, but once someone has one we've all got to scramble for ownership.
The premise may have been the same for the Polly Pocket and Mighty Max toys, but the nature of the miniature worlds were vastly different. I was a Polly Pocket girl myself, but after further examination of the Mighty Max product line, I'm feeling just a smidgen underwhelmed with my tiny toy selection. Let's take a quick peek at what Mattel had to offer us, shall we? I think you might get an idea of what I mean.
The girls got this:
With a jazzy theme song like that, how could you deny the allure of these pearlized plastic chambers?
Whereas the boys got this:
Yes, that's right. Your eyes do not deceive you; girls get a little pink seashell-style enclosed dollhouse with a giggly cartoon spokessprite, and boys get a Skull Dungeon. In the boys' version, our hero sends a Frankenstein-esque monster plummeting to his death from the second story of the evil doctor's lair. In the girls', to contrast, our little blond darling gleefully enjoys a ride on a playground slide. Unsurprisingly, the girl version of the toy originated from a dad setting up his daughter with a super sweet makeup compact-cum-dollhouse. The boys' incarnation, we can only speculate, originated from awesome.
It may not have been a politically correct gender divide, but it was pretty standard toy marketing for the 90s. The girls got the vapid but cute dollies and boys get the guts and gore. It was just the natural McDonald's Happy Meal-style female/male breakdown.
That's not to say there was no gender cross-over with these things, though I'd put pretty strong odds that more parents felt comfortable buying Mighty Max toy sets for their daughters than Polly Pocket for their sons. There were also many, many more points of interaction available with the Mighty Max franchise. The Polly Pocket mini playshells may have come first, but the Mighty Max toys branched out into a legitimate mini-media empire.
Mighty Max became an animated TV series in 1993, following the adventures of young "Cap-Bearer" Max. Max receives in the mail a magical hat that granted him the power to transport him all over the world to fight evil in all of its monstrous cartoon incarnations. It had plenty of charm, plus it didn't hurt that Rob Paulsen provided the voice of Max. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, we're talking about the voice of Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pinky and Yakko from Animaniacs (and later Pinky and the Brain), and Throttle from Biker Mice from Mars. I know, I know. Throttle. I'll give you a few moments to gather yourself following such exciting animation revelations.
Nintendo subsequently developed the Mighty Max character into a Super Nintendo game, leaving Polly Pocket in the toy empire dust as she languished in her makeup compact-style shell shaped mini-playhouses. Mighty Max had quickly grown into a small-scale multimedia franchise. To be fair, from a Super Nintendo perspective it's way more fun to battle evil zombies than to play quietly with friends in your upstairs nursery. Polly Pocket just didn't have the cross-marketing potential to be developed into a game like this one:
In comparison, the Polly Pocket empire was far more modest. To its credit, though, it ended up the franchise with the most staying power.
So, to review. Girls donned shiny ballerina tutus to hang with Polly, Dana, Stephanie, Billy, Becky in one of these:
And boys fought nuke rangers and neutralized zomboids in one of these:
It may not be a particularly enlightened marketing strategy, but hey, it worked. We all got what we wanted, more or less. In my case, I'm tempted to say less. I could have battled the killer T-Rex in the dino lab. Instead, I lost valuable formative hours revealing wrapped stuffed animals in Polly's Party-Time Surprise. Yes, that's right; I might have ended up with aspirations to be an adventure-seeking archeologist, but instead I learned the value of always bringing a well-wrapped birthday present with a shimmery bow. Reach for the stars.