The 1980s were the best decade for kids toys, and I'm not just saying that because I grew up during them. For the first time, toy companies weren't content to just sell kids toys with ads in magazines. It wasn't enough for kids to be playing with toys outside or in the living room. Kids had to live and breathe the toys they were buying. They had to dream about them, draw them, write stories about them, and, most importantly, talk to their friends about them. Companies like Hasbro, Kenner, and Playmates spent crazy amounts of money on a new strategy for selling toys to kids: brand synergy.
Now toys were being sold to kids not just in between the shows on tv, but the shows themselves were designed to sell toys. So was the cereal the kids were eating while they watched, the pajamas they wore while they watched, and even the vitamins they ate to counteract the damage they did to their bodies while they did those things.
Thing is: we ate it all up! We loved that the same characters we saw in movies were now on our tv screens and in our hands. I had a ton of Ninja Turtle and Ghostbusters stuff and I was all about it.
Sadly, not everything can be a cultural juggernaut lasting decades. Here are 20 of the lamest attempts to pry your hard-earned paper route money that, if not created, reached the height of their power in the 80s.
And just for fun, we tossed some genuinely great toys in there, too.
29 LAME: Poor Man's Transformers
I'm not blowing any minds by saying that Transformers was a big deal in the 1980s. Hasbro's Robots in Disguise toy-and-cartoon juggernaut was making all the money. Former kings of toys for boys Tonka, seeing their oversized dump trucks weren't flying off the shelves anymore, did the sensible thing and made those trucks into robots.
Gobots were what you got for your birthday from well-meaning family members who knew you wanted "One of those transforming robot toys." Ironically, Hasbro bought the line out in 1991 and worked the Gobots lore into an alternate Transformers timeline.
28 LAME: So Many Bad He-Man Figures
We've already done a whole article about bad He-Man toys. There are so many! Like Ram Man, who, to his credit, is pretty clear about what he's into.
You can't even move his arms and legs so as not to mess up his aerodynamics.
There are also classics like Sssqueeze, who leaves no doubt in your mind that he is a Snakeman, and Snout Spout who looks like someone tried to cosplay as Flame Mammoth from Mega Man X and gave up after the head.
27 BEST: OG Transformers
The merchandising juggernaut of the 80s and 90s needs no introduction, having been a part of pop culture since its creation 30+ years ago. While originally marketed as The Transformers across toys, cartoons, and comic books, fans started calling the original "roll out" (sorry) of Transformers by the now-familiar "Generation 1" moniker once the franchise started to get more and more complicated, leading Hasbro to adopt the term officially.
The original idea came from, of course, Japan, where giant robot or "mecha" had been a staple of entertainment for decades. Hasbro bought a number of different mecha toy lines and resold them all un the West under the Transformers label.
26 LAME: Indentured Animal Babies
Another toy phenomena that is inexplicable today, Cabbage Patch Kids straddled the line between dolls and toys and it seemed like every kid I knew had one. What I don't remember are these spin-off dolls, called "Koosas" for whatever reason.
Koosas were supposed to be pets for the Cabbage Patch Kids, though they clearly just used the same bodies and head sculpts but added cat ears. They are also, in the rich lore of Cabbage Patch Kids, fully sentient, which is pretty dark, and even Google tags them as "animal babies."
25 LAME: Irresponsible Pet Owner Simulator
"Puppy Surprise:" Every kid's dream, every parent's nightmare. While the idea that your cute dog could just randomly get fat and then one day spawn half a dozen cuter, tinier versions of itself is incredibly exciting for a kid. As an adult, all I see is bills and torn-up couches.
Where did you all come from?!
Part of the pregnancy craze of the 90s, scroll down to #6 on this list to learn about Pregnant Barbie, Puppy Surprise is a stuffed toy featuring a random number of tiny babies in it, because the best thing about having babies is not knowing how many there are in there.
24 BEST: Your First Car
A common sight on lawns both urban and sub, the Little Tykes Cozy Coupe is immediately recognizable for its bulbous shape and yellow-on-red color scheme. The Coupe grew up with you, from a comfy way to roam around your yard as a kid, to a roll-cage equipped stunt machine perfect for launching over ramps.
While modern versions have given the thing eyes for some reason, the design has stayed mostly consistent for decades. The coupe is so beloved that it has even been made into actual, road-safe cars for adults who just can't let go of that sense of independence and adventure.
23 LAME: Fun For Five Minutes
I know what you're thinking: Etch-A-Sketch is one of the quintessential 80s toys, even being immortalized in Toy Story. Everyone had one or knew a kid who did, and they are staples of Kindergarten classrooms to this day.
But has anyone stopped to consider that they're terrible?
Trying to draw something with an Etch-A-Sketch is like trying to draw with one hand tied behind your back and the other hand severed at the elbow. These things are fun for the five seconds it takes to get over the initial joy of "When I turn the knob the line happens." Even if you do manage to make something worth looking at, the thing has such contempt for you that it self-destructs as soon as you put it down.
22 LAME: It's So Bad
What needs to be said about the Nintendo Power Glove that isn't covered in this legendary clip from the 1989 Fred Savage movie/commercial The Wizard?
The Power Glove is basically an NES controller strapped to a vinyl dishwashing glove that, while admittedly awesome in its 80s-ness, is a terrible video game controller. We can barely control games with hand gestures now, image how janky this was in 1989! A licensed Nintendo product, the Power Glove was actually manufactured by Mattel, who is going to show up on this list a lot.
21 BEST: Sandbox Warriors
Created in 1964 and credited for creating the term "action figure," since conventional wisdom believed that boys wouldn't play with dolls. The brand really came into its own in 1982, when Hasbro re-branded to Joes, not as a semi-accurate representation of real branches of the US Armed Forces, but as an elite fighting force battling the evil organization Cobra. The 3 ¾" scale figures are what most of us probably think of when we think of "GI Joe."
That or Channing Tatum.
Much like Transformers, GI Joe was an absolute smash hit for Hasbro, as popular on television screens as on store shelves.
20 LAME: Creepy Android Bear
Teddy Ruxpin is one of the ultimate 80s toys for one big reason: it promised you the future. A teddy bear that not only talked, but it's mouth and eyes moved too! Did it read your stories out loud? You bet it did! Underneath the magic, however, Ruxpin held a diabolical secret.
Like a cuddly Wizard of Oz.
You see, the magic of Ruxpin was all an illusion: the bear was powered by cassette tapes that you'd plug into its back. The thing was a huckster, pushing real friends onto kids who were none the wiser. Can you tell I'm still hurt by this betrayal?
19 LAME: Dog Toys With Arms And Legs
Surprisingly not made by the same guys who created Barnyard Commandos up there, Food Fighters definitely comes from the same dollar-signs-in-their-eyes mania of 80s toy executives. The Food Fighters are pretty much what you'd expect: fast food items with buff, GI Joe arms & legs sticking out of them, rigged up in military gear and given puntastic names like "Taco Terror" and "Private Pizza."
My favorite is, obviously, "Major Munch."
Constructed of the same squeaky-toy soft plastic as Barnyard Commandos and featuring no articulation or movement at all, there is something kitschily appealing of the concept of Food Fighters. I especially like that they all have a tiny helmet on. Safety first!
18 BEST: The Real-er Ghostbusters
While the Ghostbusters film was a massive, and surprising, success in 1982, it took two years for licensing and trademark disputes to allow an animated series to hit the airwaves. No sooner than it did, though, that Kenner produced a series of toys based on The Real Ghostbusters.
Want to know why they had to call it "The Real Ghostbusters"? Watch this.
Since they're based on a cartoon, the figures have a warped, putty-like quality and bizarre differences from the actors who played them in the film, like Egon having a blonde pompadour.
17 LAME: Literally Just A Piece Of Metal
I know Slinky was invented way before the 80s. The toy was created in the 1940s when kids had to donate their imagination to the war effort. The reason this toy is so connected with the eighties is due to one thing: this commercial.
Have fun getting that out of your head.
I'll be fair to whoever wrote that earworm: it certainly takes the (maybe four) things a Slinky is capable of and turns them into a catchy tune.
16 LAME: A Dentist's Dream
This lawsuit waiting to happen is called a "PogoBall" and was another of those toys that seemingly everyone I knew had, but I never actually played with one. Probably because there are two kinds of kids: quiet, imaginative, intellectual kids, and those who launch themselves off of things and break stuff. I was definitely the former.
Just looking at this thing makes my two front teeth hurt.
Anyway, this thing is apparently Dutch and for years was exactly what it looked like: a ball with a platform built around it, like a deadly, tiny Saturn. Then in 2017, some evil genius at Little Tykes combined it with Bop It.
15 BEST: Strap Your Favourite Movies To Your Face
View-Master seems to be part of the same bizarre line of thinking as Lite Brite, Etch-A-Sketch, and the Tiger LCD games, all of which anticipated smartphones, tablets, and video games. While I think those preceding items are failures, however, I think the View-Master is, to borrow a term from the 80s, freaking rad.
Remember, the era of the home video was brand new, and VHS was just starting to assert itself. The idea that you could take still images from your favorite movies and TV shows and, uh, view them was completely magical.
14 LAME: I Thought It Would Be Fun And Exciting Like That Movie
Homer Simpson's favourite movie was turned into an animated series in the 80s, back when kids TV executives were desperately trying to turn all the movies your parents didn't allow you to watch into cartoons to sell you toys.
I totally forgot I watched this show until this exact moment.
Kenner's Police Academy action figure line features all your favorite characters from the movie in grotesque cartoon form. Let me tell you, the ability of the guy who can make sound effects with his mouth is a lot less impressive in a cartoon.
13 LAME: Someone Get This Kid A Helmet
This self-propelled trap on wheels is a close competitor with the PogoBall for the most dangerous-looking toy ever made, outside of when kids used to play with actual guns.
Created by a former Boeing engineer for his grandson, who I guess he hated, the Roller Racer is powered by moving your arms back and forth, which is convenient because that's what they'll be doing as you pinwheel them in a blind panic hurtling down that one wicked hill near your cousin's place.
12 BEST: I Played With These And I'm Not Ashamed
Surprise, it's another long-running Hasbro property with genius cross-synergy. My Little Pony started out as a My Pretty Pony, which was larger and less colorful. When My Pretty Pony didn't take off, Hasbro tried a few other options and hit the jackpot with My Little Pony in 1982. This version of Pony was made up of toys and, yes, tv shows and straight-to-video movies and ran until the mid-90s.
My Little Pony would be rebooted several ties, most famously as Friendship Is Magic in 2010, and if you haven't heard about that, get ready to go down a rabbit hole of modern masculinity.
11 LAME: Karate Kommandos
See above RE: things you weren't allowed to watch being turned into cartoons. No, not RoboCop, Rambo, The Toxic Avenger, or Conan The Barbarian. (All real.) It's the butt of everyone's favorite circa-2009 internet joke:
No, not Rick Astley.
Yes, it's Chuck Norris, who sits above Steven Segal but below Jean-Claude Van Damme in the action movie star hierarchy. Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos are a mix between the Ninja Turtles and GI Joe, though in this reality Chuck and the Kommandos are the only things standing between us and The Claw, led by the nefarious Super Ninja. Kenner was really phoning it in by this point.
10 LAME: Hologram For The Kids
Shout out to one of my favorite YouTube Channels, Toy Galaxy, for doing a video on Visionaries just a few weeks ago. Marvel and Hasbro, looking to complete their grand slam of 80s pop culture dominance after the success of Transformers, GI Joe, and Jem And The Holograms, created... this.
The narrator's name is, I swear, Malachi Throne.
Despite the usual assault on our childhood senses, with toys, comic books, and a half-hour animated series, Visionaries never took off and has languished in licensing limbo for decades, although the Visionaries were brought into the Transformers comics continuity by IDW in 2017.
9 BEST: Honestly, I Would Wear These Right Now
Just look at those colours! For a lot of kids, Fisher Price was their first introduction to a lot of "big kid" toys and the iconic Fisher Price roller skates are no exception: featuring a "safety" lock that only allows forward movement and an adjustable bearing that allows the skate to get bigger as you do.
Noe, real talk, someone has to turn the visual design of these skates into a shoe I can wear as an adult. I would pay a lot of money to don some blue, orange, and yellow kicks.
8 LAME: These Don't Rock
Speaking of things that tried to emulate the success of Transformers, here's Rock Lords, easily the laziest, stupidest idea for a toy line I've ever heard.
Yes, worse than Food Fighters. (If you don't know what that is, keep reading)
Spun-off from Gobots, which as we've said were already terrible attempts to grab that sweet "robots in disguise" money, the Rock Lords are exactly what you're thinking: robots who transform into rocks. Just like Transformers, they had the base requirements for conflict, like good guys led by "Boulder" and bad guys led by "Magmar." The Wikipedia page proudly boasts "The Rock Lords have had some effect on popular culture…"
7 LAME: Off-Brand Lego
If you, like me, grew up a proud Lego kid and always thought Mega Bloks were just a rip-off, you're right! While the line was originally created to be an oversized alternative to Lego suitable for younger kids, a "micro" line was introduced to directly compete with Lego, who then created their own line of oversized blocks for babies, called Duplo. Lego has tried to sue Mega Bloks over a dozen times!
Mega Bloks even tried to get into the licensing game, which has worked so well for Lego, but went after an older market, securing popular video game licenses like Halo and Call of Duty.
6 BEST: The Actual Best Action Figures
While the toy wars of the 80s were mostly dominated by two major players, Hasbro and Kenner, there was one plucky little one that tried to make its mark: Playmates. While Playmates had a few half-baked attempts to bore their way into your impressionable little mind, none of them really took off. That is, until the 1987 debut of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Turtles, while being well-made toys with tons of accessories and memorable characters, had one major advantage over their main competitors Transformers, GI Joe, and Ghostbusters: Attitude.
5 LAME: Sheep Soldiers
All it takes is one look at these figures to know where this idea came from. Chasing that sweet Ninja Turtles money, Playmates produced this line of mutated, paramilitary farm animals in 1989 and, yes, there was a cartoon to go along with it.
Despite coming from some nicely detailed molds, these figures were about as simple as you get, and feature no articulation at all. They did each some with their own weapon and a card describing each character, which Wikipedia describes as "humorous." There's a ringing endorsement for you.
4 LAME: DIY-Pad
Another controversial item, I know, what with the absolute ubiquity of the commercials for Lite Brite and it's the neon-glow 80s-ness of the thing, but I didn't know a single kid who actually owned one of these and I have no idea what you actually did with them.
One visit to a hip cocktail bar may prove that Lite Brite was ahead of its time, what with small neon signs making a comeback. The thing is basically an LED screen, so perhaps Hasbro anticipated the screen-heavy world we now live in. Speaking of Hasbro, they do own the rights to this, so it's possible we'll see a big-budget Lite Brite blockbuster movie in a few years.
3 BEST: Cute Kitchen
A lot of toys on this list are flashy, colorful, exciting, in your face. Let's slow down for a second and give respect to one of the most iconic and recognizable of the toys we grew up with, the workhorse of the playroom: the Little Tikes Kitchen.
While the company could be seen as enforcing gender roles in kids, with the kitchen marketed to girls and the workshop marketed to boys, once it was out of the box, nobody cared. There's something that is still so exciting to me small, kid-sized anything and the cutesy design of the Little Tikes line was so consistent.
2 LAME: The Worst Thing To Happen To Video Games Since Atari's E.T.
Here we go, the quintessential crappy 80s toy and the worst answer to "What did you get me for my birthday, Grandma?" Tiger handhelds lured kids in with colorful, expressive exterior art and recognizable franchises, everything from classic Nintendo titles like Castlevania to major movies like Jurassic Park.
Firing up my Jurassic Park Tiger for the first time was when I learned what disappointment was.
The joy ends as soon as you turn them on, however, with "graphics" made up of a few still images in different areas of the screen in a mockery of human movement. The controls range from confusing to completely incomprehensible and even something as simple as what you're supposed to be doing is totally obtuse.
1 BEST: A Nintendo
Let's be honest, there's only one toy that every single kid wanted in the 80s. Transformers, sure. My Little Pony, I'll take 'em. Lego, absolutely. But you don't rush over to your friend's house for Ninja Turtles. You don't stay up all night, trying to be as quiet as possible, while playing with your Hot Wheels. You don't scream at the top of your lungs on Christmas morning after unwrapping a Slinky.
Unless you're a kid in WW2 and you're just stoked to have something metal.
Notice I call this entry "a Nintendo" and not "Nintendo Entertainment System" or "NES." No, "a Nintendo" is what everyone wanted, even if what they really wanted was a Sega Master System or a computer. "Nintendo" was the word that escaped the lips of confused parents who knew what their kids wanted, but not why and certainly not what it is. It's the most 80s of all the 80s toys.