80s toy stories
The 1980s were the golden years of toys.
Forget what your baby boomer parents told you about the good old days of toys being sometime in the 50s and 60s. Baby boomers have always exaggerated the magic appeal of their childhood. Let’s face it, how exciting can yo-yo’s, hula-hoops and sparking tin robots be? I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you have the choice between playing Donkey Kong, or Snoopy Tennis on your new Game & Watch, or dragging along a tin can on a string.
No, the real halcyon days of toydom were undoubtedly the 80s. Which is why so many of the toys of that fabulous era are being relaunched for a new generation of kids to enjoy today: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, My Little Pony, Star Wars figures, even GI Joe…all back on the shelves of a Kmart store nearby.
And this week it was announced that the very groovy Voltron: Defender of the Universe will be returning this year as a new toy line from Mattel.
What’s the reason for this 80s toy renaissance? Firstly, there’s the obvious commercial tie-ins with the blockbuster 80s films. Movie franchises make more money from the action figures than the actual cinema release. Secondly, the folks at the creative helm making these films and designing the toys are drawn largely from Generation X, no doubt nostalgic for their misspent 80’s youth. They got the power, and they’re wielding it, baby.
My biggest regret in life is that I was born a decade too early. For me the 1980s were the nightclub years, hanging out in Baker Street Gosford, dancing to Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears. I was much too old to be interested in Ninja Turtles or Transformers. And being a suburban new romantic male with a penchant for Adam and the Ants, My Little Pony just wasn’t on the radar.
But I do remember my parents buying me a Rubik’s Cube in the Christmas of 1980. I promised myself I would solve it by Boxing Day. After that deadline past, I gave myself until New Year’s Eve. Not a chance. I could have given myself until New Year’s Eve 2050 and been no closer.
Part of the problem was the fact that I attacked the cube with no real mathematical system in mind, just a series of completely random twists and turns. And seeing as there are exactly 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 permutations, my chances of solving the puzzle strictly by chance and a whole lot of hope, would have taken me the best part of the age of the universe, or at least until the National Party were relevant again.
To make matters worse, my smart-arse cousin who studied 3-unit mathematics at high school and wore burgundy fair isle sweaters even in the summer, arrived on Christmas afternoon and made a bee line straight for my Rubik’s Cube.
“Can I have a go?” he asked.
I shrugged and handed it to him. “It’s impossible.”
Two minutes later he handed it back, completed. “That was easy.”
I was seething. My parents were completely embarrassed. They thought they’d nurtured a genius. Now they knew the truth, that I had the brain of a pantry moth.
I grew to hate the cube. The cube was the enemy, a multi-coloured mocker, chiding me for my lack of functioning grey matter. So, to save face I did what every other idiot schoolboy did. I bloody-well cheated. With the aid of screwdriver, the cube was surprisingly easy to prise apart and reassemble, with all the coloured faces lined up as that Hungarian sadist – Mr Erno Rubik – intended.
To solve the cube in this manner might not have been in the spirit of the challenge, but it demonstrated some lateral thinking, so maybe I wasn’t so dumb after all? My parents were certainly happy when I presented them with the finished cube.
“I don’t know where he gets his brains,” Dad said to Mum, swelling with pride.
Why Erno Rubik would create such a demonic puzzle in the first place is anybody’s guess. Maybe he’d had a bad argument with his missus? Or maybe, just maybe he just liked to make people feel more dim witted than a line dancer? Whatever the reason, he was onto a winner. By January 2009, some 350 million cubes have sold worldwide, making it one of the world’s best selling toys and accounting for a hell of a lot of psychotherapy.
This year the cube celebrates its 30th anniversary. You can buy special glitzy editions at your local toy store. And if you still need convincing that the 80s are back, consider that the world record average solve for the puzzle – 9.21 seconds – was set this year at the Melbourne Open (maybe the tennis was boring that day?). And only this March, 134 schoolboys from an English grammar school broke the Guinness World record for the most people solving a Rubik’s cube at once in 12 minutes.
But enough about the damn cube. Let it go people.
Generation X will have fonder memories of toys that don’t do your head in, such as the aforementioned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1988) and Transformers (1984). Walk into any toy shop in 2010 and it’s like stepping into a time warp with entire aisles given over to the Turtles and Transformers. Heck, if Bananarama were playing over the PA, and the checkout girls were wearing bubble skirts, the illusion would be complete.
Transformers are still hugely popular, following the release of Transformers the movie in 2007, followed by a sequel (Revenge of the Fallen) in 2009 and the third of the trilogy slated for July 2011. The Transformers feature a constant struggle between good and evil, in the form of the heroic Autobots versus the rather nasty Decepticons. Generation 1 (1984 to 1994) were the original Transformers, seeded from a 1980 Japanese toy-line and re-branded by Hasbro with astounding success. The main character of the Transformers is Optimus Prime from the planet Cybertron. After his ship crash lands on Earth he stays unconscious for millions of years before woken by an earthquake in 1984 with the ability to turn into a bloody big truck. (And to think, Tom Cruise, believes this kind of stuff).
“I still remember going into the toy shop in Gosford to buy Transformers with my pocket money,” says Damo, 37, a personal trainer from Umina. “I still have most of them. It was always my dream to be able to morph into a motorcycle.”
“I saved for weeks for an Optimus Prime,” says Scott, a 36-year old accountant from Hornsby. “When I got him home I was afraid to play with him in case he broke. He’s still in the original box. I suppose he might be worth some money.”
While original, Generation 1 Transformers do sell regularly on the internet (a mint condition, but not boxed, Optimus Prime is currently on Ebay for $100), the real money is being asked for a lesser known mid-80s toy called Omnibot, manufactured by Japanese toymaker, Tomy.
The Omnibot was, for its time, a pretty sophisticated little robot, that could be programmed to move around the house and bring you a drink (hopefully a martini). The more advanced version, the Omnibot 2000, had a tray on which to carry things.
Omnibots are selling on Ebay for up to $3,000, with 80s collectors eager to have one in their living room to impress their gullible guests. Jason, a web producer, 44, from Darlinghurst is the proud owner of three Omnibots. He purchased them on Ebay 8 years ago for around $100 each.
“I don’t remember them as a kid,” Jason says. “I happened to see one used as a prop in a designer store several years ago and fell in love with it.” Nowadays Jason’s Omnibots are displayed in his apartment, gathering dust, except for the one that he loaned to the Powerhouse Museum, for ‘The 80s Are Back’ exhibition. “I’m rather attached to them as objects,” he says. “I did set one up once for my wife’s grandmother when she visited us one Christmas. I programmed him so it would come into the room and say hello to her. She thought it was amazing. She believed she’s stepped into the future.”
Because the 80s are back, Tomy (now Takara-Tomy) in 2008 released a new version of the Omnibot, called the i-SOBOT. Sure it’s clever and can probably fill out your tax returns and light your cigars, but it doesn’t look near as funky as the original.
Also on the shelves this year is My Little Pony, first introduced in 1983 and relaunched globally in 2003. The Ponys’ boast colourful bodies and manes and are identified by the symbols found on their haunches, with names like Minty, and Cheerilee. Amy, 31, a psychology student from the Central Coast had a My Little Pony named Bowtie.
“She had a pink mane and turquoise body with pink bow ties on the rump,” Amy recalls. “I’d sit in my room for hours, just combing her mane with her little plastic brush, or pretending to gallop her around on the carpet. I became horse obsessed and got a real one.”
Another famous pony – well, more a flying horse actually – was Starlite, the equine friend of Rainbow Brite, a billion dollar character franchise created in 1983 by (believe it or not) Hallmark Cards.
“Rainbow Brite was totally 80s,” says Kate, 33, a graphic designer from Brisbane. “She had these crazy stripey leg warmers and a shiny metallic dress and big orange hair. She was a space cadet like Cindi Lauper. She was obviously on drugs.”
Kate, like most of her friends, also owned one of the decade’s most popular toys; a Cabbage Patch Kid.
Many years ago, a young boy named Xavier happened upon an enchanted Cabbage Patch, where he found very special Little People who called themselves Cabbage Patch Kids. To help fulfill the Cabbage Patch Kids’ dream of having families with whom to share their love, Xavier set about building a special place known as BabyLand General, where the Kids remain until each is chosen for adoption. Won’t you adopt a Cabbage Patch Kid and fill a little heart with love? So reads the blurb on the back of the box in which your Cabbage Patch Kid arrived.
Unless you were a kid in the 80s you could never understand the extent of the hype around these simple little dolls with their pudding-shaped vinyl heads. Yes they were cute. And yes, they came with their own adoption papers (featuring the doll’s name, birth date and adoption oath) but it hardly justified the sheer frenzy surrounding them.
Produced by Coleco from 1982-1989, their appearance in department stores sparked riots, as parents scrambled over the top of each other, calling each other bitches and bastards, to grab one for their children. Or indeed for themselves, as my mother did in 1984. My mother sadly has gone, but the doll remains, watching me from the shelf in my writing studio every day.
Many urban legends grew up around Cabbage Patch Kids, the most insidious being that if you sent your doll back for repairs, it was issued with a death certificate.
The real appeal of Cabbage Patch Kids was that each one was an individual, with it’s own distinctive combination of hair-colour and style, clothing, face and name.
“My Kid’s name was Carrie-Anne Leonora. I loved her, to me she was real,” Kate says. “You could write in and change your Kid’s name, but it wasn’t considered a very thing to do.”
“I took Carrie-Anne everywhere. We’d go out to dinner with my parents to this crap Chinese restaurant in an old service station and I’d always ask for a high chair for her, so she could sit beside me and eat. She’s still at Mum and Dad’s house. I promised her I’d never stop looking after her, but I was onto the next thing in a couple of months.”
That next thing was most likely Strawberry Shortcake, another character born on an American greeting card, back in the late 70s. Strawberry Shortcake herself was a knee high ‘ranga’, with her ginger hair smelling permantly of strawberries. Her friends were similarly fruity, with names like Orange Blossom and Lemon Meringue. They had sickly scents to match. The Strawberry Shortcake empire was relaunched just last year, with the release of a new Strawberry Shortcake movie, The Skies the Limit.
Which brings us to Star Wars. While not the definitive 80s toy – seeing as the original movie was released in 1977 – it sure did sell a lot of action figures (around 300 million) for Kenner with The Empire Strikes Back (May 1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
Now under the Hasbro label, Star Wars continues to sell, as a new generation of kids are discovering the pleasure to be had from pretending to be Jedi Knights and wielding plastic light-sabres.
May the force be with you.