Showing posts with label Toys. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toys. Show all posts

Friday, July 2, 2010

80s and 90s Kids’ Arts and Crafts Part 1

Upon further examination, it seems like I should have titled this feature “Craft Aids for the Talent-Impaired Child Artist.” Parents of young children in the 80s and 90s were coming around to the self-esteem movement--meaning they had to pretend everything we did was pure gold in in an effort to not damage our allegedly fragile child egos. It’s the reason we all think we’re so good at everything. Gen Xers may have been better off with their cynicism--by the time Gen Y rolled around, our every breath was an action worthy of praise.

Whatever the reason, an overwhelming number of art-themed items from our 80s and 90s childhoods required relatively little skill or talent of any kind. Whether through creativity-eliminating drawing guides or mistake-erasable drawing tablets, these crafts held very low expectations for our artistic ability. That’s either very kind or very depressing, depending on how you look at it.

There’s no chance I could sum up all of the nostalgic arts and crafts items I’ve come up with--I just spent about forty minutes oohing and aahing over memory-jogging Google images. This is destined to be a multi-part series, so feel free to reminisce about your own favorites in the comments section. If your memories are convincing enough, who knows? They might just end up in Part II. You can only hope.

Fashion Plates/Light-Up Tracing Desk

Here is the ultimate in talent-free artistic expression: simply rub over or, as technology improves, trace some mix-and-match designs onto your very own piece of paper. You could switch out the different plates to change outfits, faces, and shoes. Inspired by the plates used by actual fashion designers, these more primitive versions were marketed to children. I had the later update light-up desk, which yielded a similar result with the added bonus of some technology: a little lightbulb.


Introduced in the mid-60s, the Spirograph has long been a favorite of geometrically-minded children. Using some mysterious principle described by lengthy equations and assorted Greek letters in the Spirograph Wikipedia entry, the circular gears produce various patterns and symmetrical shapes when poked with a pen or pencil. Growing up, our local science museum had a giant Spirograph that held some half-hearted intention to teach us some math, but unsurprisingly most child patrons were only interested in taking home their personal tear-sheet drawing.

Etch-a-Sketch/Magnadoodle/Magic Memo Pad

These devices seem lumpable into a single category on the basis of their underlying theme of immediately disposable, mess-free art. It’s clear why these toys appealed to our parents--no muss, no fuss, no ugly pictures they felt obligated to display on the fridge with forced pride. Simply swipe, shake, or peel, and start again--endless renewable art fun.

Kid Pix

For the tech-savvy among us, the computer became a veritable playground of virtual painting. I was not actually lucky enough to own Kid Pix, but I did occasionally have the chance to observe its awesomeness with its stamping and sound effects at a friend’s house. On my own, I was relegated to playing with the gradient function on our ClarisWorks, but I spent most of my allotted computer time fuming about my lack of Kid Pix.

Paint by Numbers/Paint With Water

Paint-by-number sets were a popular and highly tedious exercise in futility. It took great resolve and concentration--attributes children do not generally possess--to get through one of these pictures. Once you get all the way up to matching all of the tiny little 14 spots to the number 14 color, several hours have elapsed. Bummer.

The Paint With Water Sets were far simpler, though they held a much greater novelty factor. Simply wet the colored part of the paper and it becomes drippy and messy and allegedly paintable. I actually had a several minutes-long discussion with my boyfriend regarding whether these mysterious sets actually existed or if I pulled the notion from the far expanses of my overactive imagination. Grueling Google searches conclude that they do in fact exist and thus I did not dream up a Muppet Babies-themed wonder featuring built in paper paint. Score one, me.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Liquid Timers

If there was ever a piece of compelling evidence that children are incredibly easily amused by visual stimuli, liquid timers would be it. All it takes it some oily liquid and few drops of fluorescent food coloring and we as kids were rapt with attention for hours. A paperweight with limited functionality may not seem like an attractive toy for a child, but any parent who ever brought a kid into a science museum gift shop or Discovery Channel mall store realized liquid timers held a mesmerizing appeal. Standard kitchen egg timers may not have given us palpitations, but place a colorful liquid timer in front of us and we were set to stare for a solid 20 minutes.

Liquid timers came in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and permutations, providing children with a vast spectrum of semi-scientific objects by which to be captivated. While other toys relied on highly interactive features and endless manipulable amusements, the various producers of liquid timers knew parents were far more interested in a toy that made their child sit quiet and still than one that allowed them frantic movement.

I’m not a parent, but if I had the choice of something like a pogo ball or a liquid timer, you can bet I would go for the colorful dripping paperweight. Not only is the chance of skinned knees far less likely, but your child will likely be so entranced by the dripping timer that they may unknowingly commit to vacuuming or doing the dishes.

The fact that these desktop toys were sold primarily in science-themed stores is fairly laughable; sure, there’s some science behind the dripping mechanism, but it’s unlikely a child ever actually learned anything from one of these timers. They rarely came with a detailed “How It’s Made!” guide, leaving kids to speculate on the vaguely scientific and educational nature of the equivalent of a colorful leaky faucet. It may have been on the shelf at the Discovery Channel store, but there was relatively few discoveries to be made. You turned it, it dripped, the end.

The fancier models may have incorporated some mysterious chamber changing and reverse direction technology, but it never made any effort to educate us on why or how. Granted, liquid timers were marginally more educational than the usual crap that occupied our playtime, a fact that was probably more than enough to appease the parents shelling out for these useless space occupiers.

A brief research investigation (read: Google search) of liquid timers was by far the most educational interaction I’ve had with them so far. A potentially credible site taught me that the timers are filled with liquids of varying densities that have an oil-and-water type relationship: one liquid passes through the other by means of chemically variant and non-combinable properties. That sounds accurate, right? I tried to science it up a bit with my limited relevant vocabulary, but the basic principle seems like a valid explanation. Thanks, Google.

That same Google search, however, yielded another interesting tidbit of information: manufacturers of liquid timers do NOT (capitalized, underlined, bolded, and italicized: these sites mean business) recommend these items for children. Apparently some curious children saw fit to try to break open their hypnotically soothing toys for a taste of the undoubtedly delicious colored liquid inside. Kid deductive reasoning concludes that if it looks like grape juice and drips like grape juice, it’s probably grape juice--a foolproof formula.

Despite its potential toxicity, it’s obvious why our parents gave into our demands for liquid timer ownership: these overpriced paperweights were a much-welcome distraction. Admittedly they didn’t do anything, but in an age before kids were incessantly preoccupied with technology that wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing. We could only hope to recapture the whimsy and effortless amusement of our younger years. While now it takes at least four forms of technological entertainment to hold our attention for any period of time, it could do us all some good to spend some time gazing aimlessly into the liquid timer-filled abyss. If you don’t have an abyss on hand, your desk is probably also a suitable alternative--just make sure you’re gazing aimlessly for the full liquid timer effect.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Easy Bake Ovens

You’ve got to give Easy Bake Ovens some credit where due--they managed to stay alive in the marketplace a good 40 years before Consumer Product and Safety Commission gave any consideration to the fact that children could burn their fingers while playing with the toy. They either had some really fabulous marketing campaigns or parents so loved the tasty pastry delicacies provided by their child labor bakery sweatshops that they were willing to overlook the potential risks. Then again, perhaps any kid that manages to burn herself on a dinky 100 watt light bulb probably had it coming. After all, that’s just a basic Easy Bake Oven evolutionary principle.

Regardless of their inherent safety risks, Easy Bake Ovens were a highly coveted item for young girls as early as the 1960s. The original Kenner-produced 1963 version was modeled after a conventional oven, though later incarnations were styled to resemble microwaves--which makes perfect sense, considering how often most of us bake cookies in the microwave. The sleeker design in the updated version gave it a more novel technological feel, possibly to counteract the raging stereotypes associated with continually providing young girls with toys that teach them the value of staying in the kitchen where they belong.

Feminists may not have been especially keen on little girls playing with model kitchens and learning domestic complacency, but the cultural implications did little to hamper kids’ insatiable desire to own one of these functioning appliances. Children tend not to care too much about the longstanding impact of their toy selection, though, so the head-shaking of women’s rights advocates held little bearing on their playtime choices. Kids just like what they like, and for the most part, a chance to bake cookies on their own under a little light bulb falls into that category.

As our moms (or dads, to be fair) were generally unlikely to relinquish kitchen privileges to an 8-year old, the Easy Bake Oven provided a small-scale alternative. Though parents usually aren’t especially keen on toys that are overpriced and prone to generating heavy clean-up, it was often a fair trade to keep us good and occupied for an hour or two. When weighing the options of cost, mess, and safety risk, sixty minutes of quiet tended to win out as a priority.

Like Power Wheels cars and Moon Shoes, Easy Bake Ovens were among the most status-building of 80s and 90s toys. Unsurprisingly, these toys building us the most playground credibility tended to also be the most expensive. We all had a friend whose parents were kind enough to grant them ownership of one of these enviable playthings, leading to incessant begging and pleading for our very own.

Even if you were lucky enough to have your own EBO, these devices were decidedly overrated. Baking anything took a great deal of effort for a relatively small payoff. Actually, a literally small payoff: many of the tasty treats that looked so life-sizedly delicious in the commercials were proportionately lacking in real life. Brownies and cupcakes are universally tasty, sure, but not quite as satisfying when the whole thing can be chomped down in two bites.

If nothing else, these ovens probably helped develop some patience in young children. Kids are usually driven by instant gratification, so it’s pretty incredible to think any of us had it somewhere within our antsy juvenile beings to wait the length of time it took for a lightbulb to bake a batch of cookies. I suppose the 100-watt bulbs in later models are a step up from the original 60-watt model, but I would never now consider trying to bake a mini bundt cake against the heat of my reading lamp. It’s bright, sure, but I’ve never really considered it as an oven-like source of heat.

In the mid 2000s, Hasbro issued a recall on Easy Bake Ovens due to some cases of severe burns, the most severe of which resulted in amputations. Apparently the aforementioned impatient children were greedily sticking their little hands into the ovenfront and getting their tiny fingers stuck in the heating chamber. Ouch.

Luckily the problems have since been ironed out (though hopefully not with a real iron--too much high heat.) The Easy Bake is back on the market and better than ever. Those ads are still as convincing as they were 15 years ago. Deep down, I know I can use the big girl oven like any adult, but there’s just something so magical about cooking by lightbulb. In that spirit, I think I’ll cook my next batch of cupcakes by lamplight as a tribute.. Yum.

Monday, June 21, 2010

80s and 90s Educational Toys

We’ve spent a lot of time here at Children of the 90s talking about the many, many ways the adults in our lives tricked us into learning things by slipping educational elements into seemingly recreational endeavors. What we’ve glossed over, however, are the many toys our parents and teachers provided for us with the express purpose of education. These toys didn’t dance around their true nature with all sorts of flashy distractions; instead, they made playtime suspiciously similar to school time. Kind of a bummer.

Though our initial instinct for free time was probably not to play with these teaching toys, for some reason or other many of us ended up spending countless hours with them. Whether through parental persuasion or limited classroom free play choices, we often willingly picked up a Speak & Spell or a See n’ Say and engaged in its attempts at educational endeavors. These toys may not have held their own against the mindless allure of a Skip-It or Super Soaker, but for the most part they still hold that endearing nostalgic appeal.

Speak & Spell It’s amazing how quickly technology novelty can depreciate. Once upon a time, a talking electronic seemed incredibly high-tech for a children’s toy. Granted, the novelty was probably subdued a bit by the toy’s strictly educational premise, but there was something distinctly charming about that robotic voice emanating from the Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell (and its multi-subject counterparts Speak & Read and Speak & Math) were the ultimate device for tricking kids into learning academic material during their leisure time. Cleverly disguised as games like hangman and memory, Speak & Spell bore into our heads valuable lessons about prefixes and suffixes, homophones, and word patterns. It was all just about as exciting as the machine’s monotonous voice.


The original 2-XL debuted in the late 70s--around the same time as the Speak & Spell prototype. Most children of the 90s probably better remember the 1992 reintroduction released by Tiger Electronics that replaced the original’s 8-tracks with cassette tapes. The interactive buttons we used to answer 2-XL trivia questions seem primitive in comparison to today’s highly complex children’s electronics, but we were all still easily amused enough at the time to be won over by the idea that we had our very own robot.

Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin was either very novel or very creepy, depending on your tolerance for animatronics. On one hand, his moving mouth and eyes made the stories he read via audiocassette come alive. On the other, the audiocassettes made him come alive, which for many children bordered on a traumatic experience. For all of us who harbored fears of our toys coming to life (a la Chucky, not Toy Story) Teddy Ruxpin was the stuff of nightmares.
Talk n’Play

For weeks I have been trying to remember what this devi
ce was called; a quick survey of my friends’ childhood memories led me to believe I had possibly made it up and it did not actually exist. Lo and behold, though, through the handy power of Google, its realness has been affirmed. Please tell me some of you owned this device, because I’d hate to be the only one reminiscing about its awesomeness.
The Talk n’ Play came with a variety of books, mostly featuring characters from Sesame Street and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s humorous now to realize I was once so wowed by a contraption that allowed me to electronically choose my own adventure with the press of a button--essentially the most basic function of every computer game. Nonetheless, this device once entertained me endlessly; I’m convinced if my Talk n’ Play were reunited, my delight in its reactivity to my responses would be just as exciting. I do think, though, that I would still feel guilty about defying Grover’s moratorium against pressing the red button in the book, “Don’t Push the Red Button.”


Playskool’s Alphie was about as simple as a robot toy could get. It had relatively few electronic functions; most of the learning action relied on interchangeable cardboard cards you inserted into his display window. The Alphie toy was an educationa
l staple in 80s preschools, entertaining toddlers with its low-level interactivity and hard-to-break durability. Playskool still makes the Alphie robot, but its space-age exterior and digital display bears little resemblance to the Alphie of our day.

See n’ Say

I know this came out in the 60s, but they were such a common presence in 80s and 90s homes and classrooms that I couldn’t leave the See n’ Say off the list. Without their handy pull string apparatuses, we may never have found out exactly w
hat the cow or sheep say. For the record, it’s moo and baah. Thanks, See n’ Say!

At first glance, these building blocks may not seem especially educational. However, if any of us made even the vaguest attempt to replicate the awesome full-functioning K’nex machinery from the commercials, we quickly found ourselves in the midst of a learning experience.

The ads made it look so easy: just follow the ins
tructions and you will soon be the proud owner/operator of a spinning ferris wheel or speedy go-kart. In reality, though, these designs were incredibly difficult to duplicate, particularly without the aid of constant adult intervention.

Brain Quest
Though it’s probably incorrect to classify these trivia booklets as toys, their arguably superior educational value in comparison to the other playthings on this list earns them a verified spot. While many of these other toys made some halfhearted attempt to hide their educational elements under a veneer of fun and games, Brain Quest made no efforts to depict its purpose as anything less than a useful learning tool, even including grade level classifications against which we could measure our intelligence. These classifications were useful and ego-boosting when we managed to answer a question from the 6th grade set as a mere 4th grader, but not quite as self esteem-building when you failed to deliver a basic 1st grade fact.

Note: If you’re looking for educational computer games, have no fear: I haven’t blatantly omitted them. There’s an entire post devoted to singing their praises. Check it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


What kind of a child wouldn't adore playing with stacks of bottle caps, delighting in making little wavering leaning towers of Pogsa and later bashing them with a heftier, weightier cap? It's such an attractive option, I can't imagine how it took us 60-odd years since the games conception to discover its true awesomeness. It may have had something to do with printing technology; Pogs featuring psychedelically colorful eight balls and yin yangs are far more attractive to children than plain old guava juice bottle lids. Still, though, we're just hurling a slightly bigger disc at a pile of smaller discs, so something tells me we as 90s children possessed the inherent trait of being incredibly easily amused. You just couldn't sell that to today's kid. They'd be bored out of their minds before you even got to the word "slammer."aa

Pogs quickly achieved cultural phenomenon status, hurdling onto the toy scene in the early 90s. Pog legend (and possibly some factual information I didn't have the initiative to confirm) has it that the game originated in the 1920s/30s era in Hawaii, using milk caps. Decades later, a teacher introduced the game to her students using lids from POG juice: Passion Fruit, Orange, Guava. Get it? Pog? I think you get it, I just wanted to double check.

Pog play is incredibly, almost deceptively simple. In retrospect it almost seems as if a part of the original instructions have been lost somewhere along the way; it's hard to believe this basic game not only held our rapt attention but also lay claim to great chunks of our allowance money and precious limited recess time. The players would build a stack of caps at least four high with all pogs facing down. There are variations, of course; in some games each player built their own stack, but generally it required some buy-in of one's own valued pogs into the high-stakes mix of potential pog loss to superior slammer wielder. Each player takes a turn hurdling the slammer at the stack, claiming the pogs that land upturned and returning the downturned pogs to the original stack.

In some cases, we would play simply for fun, allowing each player to reclaim his or her beloved pogs at the end of the game. In others, though, we were out for keeps. We had to be careful which of our most beloved pog designs we decided to throw into the mix; in many cases, other players would leave the game with their pockets or patented pog stack cases lined with our once-treasured designs. It was sort of gambling 101 for children, and most of us were about three slammer throws away from needing a 12-step program. Each throw felt like this would be our chance to claim our neighbor's rarest and most valuable pog holding, but in most cases the house won and we were SOL. It's hard to look cool when all that remains in your pog case are the reject kitten and education-themed designs. Who's going to want to slam that?

If your memory fails to summon the high-stakes intensity of the game, just watch the following commercial. It will tell you all you need to know about just how hardcore 90s kids were about their pog play. Filled with semi-subliminal messages like "Wanna Play Gotta Play Above All," it's a frightening insight into the level of serious we invested in our pog collecting and gaming.

Pogs and their heavier, more potentially injury-inflicting counterparts Slammers established a ubiquitous presence on playgrounds and in classrooms everywhere. Schools called foul on the game, declaring it a soft form of gambling. Many school districts issued bans on the seemingly innocuous toys, declaring their "playing for keeps" nature to promote unhealthy and immoral gambling habits. Pogs soon went the way of the slap bracelet, reduced to underground, rule-defying secret game play.

The majority of parents pooh-poohed the schools' claims; the pogs weren't inherently dangerous and to many it seemed a reasonable alternative to TV and video games. Kids, after all, do have some inherent right to be kids, no matter how firmly schools push to eliminate it. In the schools' defense, though, they did have some grounds for banning on the same level of the later Tamagotchi craze: these things were distracting. It was tough to convince our teachers the slamming of a large disc into a pile of smaller discs was educational in its own right. Displacement? Physics? I'm still working on a viable explanation. I'm still meaning to get back to my second grade teacher on that one.

The game became so popular that manufacturers were scrambling to get their images plastered onto cardboard discs, releasing a horde of licensed designs and highly coveted collectible pogs onto the skyrocketing game scene. Soon fast food joints were offering pogs alongside children's meals, sports teams issued baseball card-esque designs, and even religious organizations sought to promote their moral messages on these ever more visible youth-accessible miniature billboard space. All types of licensed images found their way onto the fronts of pogs, giving a wide variety of kid-friendly enterprises an entirely new vehicle through which to promote their franchises.

Granted, some of the cross-promotional morally conscious pog marketing got a bit out of hand. While it might be cool to have a pog or two with some deeper meaning, many of the pog producing organizations sought to use the fad as a platform for their mission statement. Groups like anti-drug education program DARE and the US Environmental Protection Agency were soon printing pogs by the stackful, their well-meaning capitalization on a trend sucking a reasonable amount of the fun out of the game.

Like any good childhood fad, as soon as adults get too involved in utilizing the phenomenon to their benefit, it sends a message to kids that its trendiness is on the way out. Once adults have embraced a trend with the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, kids' internal coolness radar alerts them it's probably time to find a new favorite pastime. Beanie Babies, anyone?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nintendo Game Boy

These days we have hundreds of games on our phones constantly at our immediate disposal, but once upon a time a portable video game was a real novelty. Back in the 90s, we were far more easily impressed with what may now be classified as basic technology. While today we might discount a video game system entirely if it fails to achieve HD picture quality and super realistic audio, at the time of the Game Boy's inception we were more than satiated by a few loosely connected moving pixels and a hearty round of irritatingly repetitive tones masquerading as background music. In case you can't quite hearken back to this simpler gaming time, allow this video to serve as a handy reminder:

Yes, that's right: the outrageous new game tetris! Spoken in a booming, can't-contain-his-raging-excitement voiceover, no less. This used to be the kind of stuff that truly impressed us. The revolutionary new video link wasn't too shabby, either. It may look primitive now, but this head-to-head portable gaming technology unleashed a wave of uncontrollable child excitement. Not only could we sneak this bulky, boxy gray battery-operated wonder into class with us, we could also connect to our friends' Game Boys under the desks.

Today, we might be irritated if we have to wait five seconds for a game to load, so it can be tough to recall a more patient, more easily entertained time. Upon the release of the Game Boy, many of us were pretty psyched just to learn it lasted a then-impressive 10 to 30 hours without a battery change. It might sound shoddy to us now, but contemporary handhelds could blow through batteries in as little as two hours. That endless battery life-sucking cycle is so expensive it makes crack addiction seem like a real bargain. No, Game Boy delivered on its promises to give us a better handheld video game device, and we reaped the benefits for hours. Well, 10 to 30 hours worth of benefits. We still had to keep a lot of batteries on hand.

At about ninety bucks a pop, Nintendo Game Boys were relatively cheap in comparison to their competitors' models. It may not have been in the reasonable reach of every family, but it made video games far more accessible. Our parents may have felt some guilt at allowing us hours of brainpower-zapping Game Boy time, but these things were incredibly effective at shutting us up for extended stretches of time. Ninety dollars is a relatively small price to pay for some peace and quiet. Well, sort of. If they failed to enable the mute button, our families had the pleasure of listening to endless hours of this:

Brings back the memories, doesn't it? I can almost feel the Tetris tetronimoes gradually gaining speed and eventually outwitting even the savviest of my shape-turning strategies. I've already waxed poetic at length here about the virtues of Tetris, but its profound impact on my childhood warrants extended examination. Tetris has all the makings of a true addiction. Have you ever noticed if you play Tetris frequently enough, you begin thinking in shape-fitting combinations? It even haunts your dreams. True story.

Tetris may have initially been the default favorite game because it came bundled with the purchase of an original Game Boy, but other games quickly achieved massive popularity as well. The Super Mario Land series was very well-received by Game Boy users, giving us new worlds and characters for our old buddy Mario. Super Mario Land was actually the first choice for bundling with the original Game Boy release, but Nintendo replaced it with Tetris on the assumption that Tetris held a more gender neutral appeal. As a girl who loved Mario games, I'm not totally buying the gender stereotype-enforcing reasoning, but there's probably some truth to it.

Yeah, that ad totally tells us to "give Mario a happy ending." Like I said, these were simpler times. Or maybe just times in which we were less aware of potentially hilarious double entrendres. Maybe.

Many of us also sought to "catch 'em all" in the persistently popular Pokemon games, the several versions of which sold millions of Game Boy cartridges worldwide. Considering the creator's idea for the Pokemon series was sparked by his experiences with childhood insect collecting, it turned out much cooler than you might expect. Of course, you couldn't actually kill the Pokemon, they'd just pass out for a brief nap. You could, however, link to your friends' Game Boys and trade Pokemons. That part was pretty cool. It didn't quite make up for the no-kill environment, but to be fair, the Pokemon fainting was kind of adorable.

The Legend of Zelda series was also a major seller, proving kids everywhere love solving puzzles and defeat dungeons. The plot's main storyline centered around the task of rescuing the princess Zelda, which seems to have been a major Nintendo archetype of the time. This commercial is for the NES version of the game, not the Game Boy one, but it's so hilarious I just have to share it with you. From the "WHOA! NICE GRAPHICS!" to the rad rap and the disclaimer about your parents helping you set it up, this is pure, unfiltered early-era Nintendo goodness:

Following the release of the original came the more compact Game Boy Pocket and my personal favorite, the Game Boy Camera. I never actually had the privilege of owning one of these beauties, but it remains a long-standing dream of mine even after the technology has gone defunct. I'm still not totally sure what the appeal is, but it may have had something to do with the fact that digital cameras were still a novel concept at the time. We can take photos on just about anything these days, but there was something sort of endearing about taking them with a Game Boy, don't you think?

Nearly ten years after the release of the original Game Boy came the new edition in the form of the Game Boy color. It's a little humorous now how minimally colorized the screen actually looks in the first commercial, but at the time it was a pretty impressive innovation. By this point, we were well on our way to achieving the clear and colorized graphics of today's small gaming devices.

The Game Boy wasn't the first handheld video gaming system on the market, but Nintendo's product was both accessible and successful. For those of us who lost countless hours to Tetris and Pokemon, we may not be any wiser for it, but maybe we exhibit quicker finger flicking reflexes. That's got to come in handy someday, right? I'm sure of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go listen to that Tetris music on repeat. It's just that good.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Children of the 90s is Still on Vacation...In the Meantime, Please Enjoy this Classic Post on Super Soakers

Children of the 90s is on vacation...please excuse this interruption from your regularly scheduled nostalgia programming. In the meantime, please enjoy this classic Children of the 90s post from way back when in the blog's early days. Not many people were reading, so you might be seeing it for the first time. How exciting is that? It's like a new post all over again. Almost.

Without further ado, I present this classic post: Super Soakers

Kids today have it too easy. Forget the value of dedication and hard work that so defined our generation. Their need for instant gratification continuously pushes aside their pioneering spirit of industry and diligence.

That's right, I'm talking about water guns. In our day, we knew the meaning of painstaking commitment to getting the job done. There was none of this "press the trigger and water sprays" nonsense. We would pump those Super Soaker air-pressure chambers until our fingers blistered, but it would all be worth it to spray our friends standing fifty yards away.

Originally christened the "PowerDrencher", Super Soakers burst onto the scene at the tail end of the 1980s. Approaching the 90s, toy water gun producers had fallen upon hard times, garnering flack from all sides on their regrettably realistic renderings of actual weaponry:

(image of Larami Uzi via

With parents and lawmakers increasingly conscious of how violent toys and media impacted the impressionable youth of America, these troublingly accurate imposters were on the way out. Water guns needed a new, updated image to distance themselves from their connotations of violence and war. What they needed was a light-hearted, neon-colored remastered water gun prototype with a distinctly non-military name.

At the prime meeting of timing and technology, inventor Lonnie Johnson and toy-maker Larami teamed up to produce a new water gun that fully diverted from the warlike water weapons of the past:

Super Soakers had a distinctly different tone from preceding water guns, and the ad conveys the odd sense of whimsy associated with their product. Though the commercial prominently features the theme of revenge, we can only assume that stereotypical 90's rich girl Buffy really had it coming. Also, who could resist the throwback to the Blues Brothers in their execution of their masterminded pool party-ruining scheme? This is 90s advertising as its finest.

Revolutionary in design, Super Soakers required their wielders to pump pressurized air into a separate chamber on the water gun that would build up the power to shoot water at great distances. While updated models abandoned this arm-exhausting mechanism, a great deal of the fun was contingent on that re-arming period. You felt that you had really earned that shot. You worked hard for it, and the results were spetacular. Plus, there was that awesome water bottle chamber with super-accesible fillability.

Unfortunately, while Super Soakers of today may possess greater power and precision, their R&D department's insistence on churning out novel products have led them to...well, new lows. In an effort to keep this blog in the PG range, I am not going to comment on the following video. Rather, I leave it to you to deduce from it what you will. Let's just say it stirred up quite a bit of controversy among children's advocate groups for its...provacative implications. I'm going to leave it at that.

Check it out:
Super Soaker Evolutionary Family Tree
AV Club Spoof of Hasboro Oozinator Marketing Meeting

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sock'em Boppers

Here's an idea: why not round up the kids for some good old fashioned fistfight practice? Don't worry, we'll give them a pair of comically giant inflatable boxing gloves, first. These youngsters won't have a mark on them after a few rounds in the imaginary ring, but they will get a taste for brutal violence. Sounds like a wise parenting purchase, no?

It's no wonder parent watchdog groups weren't crazy about these blow-up fighting gloves; they may have prevented us from getting too banged up, but they did, after all, promote violent fighting. What message, they asked, were we sending our kids in buying them a product whose sole purpose was to inflict simulated bodily harm on their friends and family? Because they didn't fully understand the lingering impact of a rhetorical question, they answered with, "A pretty terrible one." Not the subtlest of approaches, but hey, they got their point across.

These naysayers, like always, were hell-bent on sucking all of the fun (and in most cases, the inflatability-dependent air) out of a toy we legitimately enjoyed. At a time when parents' choices for toys for their children were increasingly dependent on the presence of some underlying educational value, Sock'em Boppers were not exactly a beacon of enlightenment emanating from the Toys 'R Us shelves.

To be fair to those protesting the toy's violent aim, the pro-Sock'em Boppers arguments were pretty flimsy. Some argued they promoted physical fitness, which might be true but doesn't build their case particularly well. That's like saying, "Well, they might have some aerobic benefit to ordinarily sedentary kids...but only if they really go at it." Others claimed that kids would probably resort to roughousing anyway, so why not give them the luxury of a little padding. It was a small price to pay to save a trip or two to the Emergency Room, right?

Foremost, though, these things were fun. What other reason do you really need to endorse a toy? There was something uniquely exhilarating about beating the crap out of our friends and siblings with no foreseeable consequence. It's no secret that kids have an excess of expendable energy; what better way to release it than in a violent show of fistfighting glory?

The Sock'em Boppers advertisements kept it light, calling them "more fun than a pillow fight." This was, of course, a totally unfounded claim. They never backed it up with empirical research illustrating the perceived fun quotient of Sock'em Bopping to pillow fighting. Technically, this was just their theory, and a convenient one at that. After all, our houses were bursting at the drywall seams with pillows. We could fight with those for free. For these babies, though, our parents would have to shell out ten or fifteen bucks to ensure our hours-enduring amusement.

The marketing strategy behind these was pretty solid. You couldn't buy just one pair of Boppers. Well, yes, technically the store would let you out its doors without sending the Sock'em Bopper-directed legal enforcers after you, but a single pair wouldn't do you much good. Unless you intended for your kid to punch himself in the face for an indeterminate period of play time, you'd have to invest in at least one more set.

What they didn't warn us about, though, was the fact that these oversized air-laden hand guard were susceptible to pop at any moment. It's all fun and games until some kid busts through his Bopper and is left punching his little brother in the face unprotected. I'm not sure away, but fist to face contact is a pretty painful experience. In theory, we were all just one leaky Bopper away from an assault charge.

Danger aside, these gloves had the power to amuse and engage us for hours at a time. We could beat up parents, siblings, friends. The possibilities were endless and the potential was great. Their contribution to the future aggressiveness of impressionable young children was a small price to pay for a toy that could both entertain and wear out an overly energetic and generally exhausting specimen of child. It may not have been parenting at its finest, but it a tradeoff many of our parents were willing to concede in the name of their sanity.

Sock'em Boppers were so much more than just their original boxing glove line; their product catalog include all sorts of other watered-down versions of generally dangerous weapons. No need to worry if fists aren't your weapon of choice: Sock'em Boppers has got you covered with a full array of bop-worthy products. Boxing not your thing? Why not enjoy a round of fencing with our inflatable Sock'em Swords? How about a punching bag? Novelty fist with punchball attached? Our pals at Sock'e thought of everything. Well, everything to amuse violently inclined youth, that is.

Formerly known as Socker Boppers, these rebranded inflatables had been around for dozens of years ebfore their resurgence in the 90s. Socker Boppers were released in the early 70s, meaning these things had been polluting (and possibly rattling from impact) young brains for years by the time we got to them. Boppers are time tested, and apparently they passed. In your face, naysayers. With a Sock'em Bopper, though. So, you know, it won't hurt. That's the whole idea.

These toys are still around, so you still have time to invest in a pair or two if your parents deprived you some much-needed aggression release in your youth. Much like the Slip n' Slide, the potential risk of bodily harm fell a distant second place to the far more compelling fun factor. After all, what fun are toys without a slight injury risk factor? There's a reason they make kids so durable: so they can be punched in the face repeatedly with inflatable boxing gloves and still be asking for more.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Polly Pocket and Mighty Max

What better toy to give curious young oral fixators than a little compact full of tiny, swallowable, and potentially delicious component pieces? These things were a choking hazard waiting to happen. In some cases, it didn't wait; it just hacked and coughed and received the child-size version of the Heimlich Maneuver. Yech.

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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Awesome 80s and 90s Happy Meal Toys

You've got to feel at least a bit nostalgic for a time when a trip to McDonald's was an incredibly exciting and highly anticipated lunchtime event. As an adult, McDonald's is usually more of a convenience affair exclusive to travel and times when we're in such a rush we can't be bothered to consume anything with marginal nutritional value. As a kid, though, McDonald's was the be-all end-all of fine dining. Give us some nugs, some sweet n' sour sauce for dunking, and throw in a cheap plastic toy, and we'd be satiated for at least an afternoon. Our parents may have been the tiniest bit uneasy about feeding us such junk, but our immediate food coma-related nap was probably more than enough to justify their decision.

While the junk food was an essential element of the McDonalds+Children=Pure Ecstasy equation, the Happy Meal toy was a critical ingredient of our satisfaction. The french fries were oily and delicious, yes, but they paled in comparison to the notion of receiving a brand new toy. While usually we'd have to pull the old "throw yourself on the floor screaming in the toy store aisle" routine sure to humiliate our parents, in this case we got the toy no questions asked. It was just that easy.

Teenie Beanies

Following suit with the TY Beanie Babies craze of the 90s, McDonald's unleashed these "Teenie Beanies" in 1997. While Happy Meal toys are traditionally marketed exclusively at children, the Teenie Beanie promotion caught on in a big way with collectors. The toys quickly became best-selling Happy Meal giveaways, with adults and children alike lined up for cheeseburgers and nuggets. The chain actually ran into a serious issue with food wasting, as many adults were purchasing the Happy Meals solely for Teenie Beanie purposes and discarding their food in the trash. McDonald's had to actually sell them seperately with adult-sized food to satisfy the insatiable public.

McDonald's released two Beanies each week across a month-long span in April/May 1997, creating a self-perpetuating sea of hype. Every week, the hysteria would begin anew. I'm sure all of the very well-paid and never-harassed counter help was so pleased.


After the success of the Teenie Beanies, McDonald's learned a thing or two about appealing to collectors. Why exactly someone feels that a toy that comes free with a burger and fries is an invaluable collectible is beyond my grasp of logic, but I guess that's why I'm not a collector. These weren't fully functional electronics like the original, but each variety had some special gimmick, be it a growl or an ear wiggle. McDonald's produced 80 variations of 8 main varieties for the launch in 1999, meaning eager collectors had to return time and time again to complete their stash. McDonald's 1, Childhood obesity prevention 0.

Barbie/Hot Wheels

You just don't mess with the classics. You know, even if they reinforce all types of unsavory gender stereotypes. In the eye of McDonald's toy producers, girls liked dolls, boys liked cars, and that was that. It was generally non-negotiable, though I'm sure there were occasional requests for a trans-gender toy. I don't mean a Barbie with a shaved head dressed in baggy JNCOs, of course, just the girl/boy toy switcharoo. That other way would have been interesting, though.

And that commercial? Wow. Just wow. I especially like the way the tone of the voice-over and background music change when describing the fast car versus the tiny doll with styleable (!) hair. If you've got to squeeze a wealth of gender stereotypes into a single 30 second spot, you might as well give it all you've got.

Halloween Pails

I think the reasoning behind these trick-or-treat pails was something like, "If they're not going to get anything nutritious from us, we might as well limit their eventual candy consumption by offering way-too-small Halloween candy portals." You couldn't make much of a haul with these; you'd have been far better off with a pillow case. For some reason, though, we had these stacked around our house storing toys and holiday decorations for years. I can't imagine we ever ate that many Happy Meals. Perhaps my mom force-fed them to us on the condition that she could use the pails for her home storage needs. It seems vaguely possible.

McNugget Buddies

Ah, McNugget Buddies. You just don't see good fried food children's character action figures like you used to. These days, they're all Veggie Tales and their religious-tinted health-conscious ilk, but in our day we were more than happy to play with some anthropomorphized Chicken McNuggets. This was clearly a simpler time, or at least a time before parents had any access to relevant nutritional information.

When we were kids, apparently no one thought it was creepy for a commercial to feature a clown chatting conversationally with some juvenile chicken nuggets, reminiscing about their younger days and their first dipping sauce experiences. That sounds like a red flag to me, but obviously someone green lighted it. They are sort of cute, in a "I'm going to eat you and not feel remorse" type of way.

McDonald's Food Changeables

These were like the poor man's Transformers. There's something sort of innocent and benign about a cheeseburger that morphs into a killer robot. It's kind of...cute. In its own way. Even the voiceover guy can't take it seriously. "French fries become....FRY-BOT!" It sounds like he's trying to hold him some major guffaws. And who can blame him? That sentence is completely ridiculous.

Disney Movie Tie-Ins: Bambi, 101 Dalmations, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Hercules, Mulan....the list of cheap licensed merchandise goes on and on

I'm pretty sure I had the 1988 Bambi Happy Meal toys on display on my dresser for ten years, minimum. What? They were adorable. If I could find them today,I'd probably become that annoying person in the office whose desk is overtaken by tchotchkes and knicknacks (see Scott, Michael).

McDonald's acquired the licensing rights to all sorts of Disney paraphernalia, meaning whenever a new Disney movie premiered they were ready with a million tiny molds of all of its characters. I distinctly remember the 101 Dalmations toys because they haphazardly stuck Cruella in there. Who, I ask you, wants to play with a Cruella toy? We were all holding out for adorable puppies. I must've gotten three Cruellas before I finally got my hands on a pup.

Cabbage Patch Kids and Tonka Trucks

This was our other major boy/girl specific promotion. Obviously they never got too far thinking outside the box. Dolls and Cars, Dolls and Trucks. Big leap on that one.

McDino Changeables

We've got a similar Changeable concept here, only with...dinosaurs? Don't ask, I don't know what kind of weirdos they had in their development department, but McNuggetasaurus? Really? Is that an actual thing? To be fair, it is sort of cute, but you've got wonder the route to getting that into production.

Super Mario Bros 3

This ad is awesome. I love it. It just encompasses so much nostalgia in every beep. It manages to combine two things we loved as children (Super Mario Brothers and fast food) and combine them into a neat little package, complete with take-home toy. Well done, McDonald's.

As the promotions cycled in and out monthly, there are dozens of others I simply couldn't contain within the confines of a single post. Feel free to wax poetic about your favorites in the comments section. Just don't get too carried away; we don't want any of you inadvertently morphing into FRY-BOTS or a MCNUGGETASAURUS! Okay, okay, I admit it. That wasn't really related. I just desperately wanted to use those words again. They're adorable. Now knock yourselves out reminiscing about fast food freebies, kids. It's been fun.

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