What are the best toys? This is a question I’ve been dying to try and answer. If I phrase it another way, what makes a good toy. As a toy collector I know that more often than not I am seeking something that fulfills some sense of nostalgia. It is a missing piece of the puzzle of my life. But why those toys in the first place? I mean nostalgia is steeped in childhood memories so why did child me pick these toys over other toys?
For starters toys are more than a thing to play with. To me, they are treasures to be cherished. Now I don’t keep mine in the package, sealed up brand new to be placed on a shelf and looked at, oh no not me I play with my toys. I will, quite often, buy a sealed toy from yesteryear and open it up. I paid more money than I care to admit for a boxed Megazord Dinozord set from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers toyline. This toy had been in an unopened box since 1993. I got it home, opened it up and somewhere between my last couple of moves, I lost the Power Sword and the horns to the Triceratops. Even though I “devalued” this highly collectible item, I was more interested in buying an unopened product just so *I* could be the one to open it up and experience it brand new as if I would have done in my youth.
I can tell you why I picked Power Rangers when I was a kid. I already had an obsession with Transformers and the Zords were basically like the combiner robots from that series. Oh sure someone will bring up Voltron but let’s not go there. I never had Voltron okay. The other thing that appealed to me was they were kinda like Ninjas. They did martial arts and wore Ninja-like outfits. Then there was the name. It reminded me of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, another toyline I already had an affinity for. This made it easy for me to get into Power Rangers.
When I take a look back at the different toys I played with a good many of them had cartoons to sell me on the toys. Naturally Gobots, Transformers, TMNT, G.I. Joe, He-Man and even Power Rangers all had some sort of TV show to get me excited about wanting to own the toys. I am sure this played a role in my developing an emotional attachment to these toys right? Well, not so fast!
You see I was born in 1983. He-Man was already done by the time I was old enough to watch cartoons. I vaguely remember watching it passively but honestly, gods honest truth here, I don’t recall a single detail from the show. Not even the who’s who of characters. This is similar to Transformers. The cartoon was on it’ last season when I started watching it. That’s right when I was a kid ALL I saw of Transformers on TV were those terrible Tommy episodes with the giant Power Master Prime puppet. Of course my Optimus Prime toy was a Power Master Optimus Prime so it made sense. But none of the toys I had came from or were featured on the cartoon. I had Goldbug not Bumblebee. I had Double Cross not Swoop. I had Skyhammer not Skyfire. I had Skullgrin instead of Megatron. I had Pretender Grimlock who didn’t look anything like his cartoon counterpart. So how, or why, did I end up with a bunch of Transformers toys that were never featured on the cartoon? Simple, I never watched the cartoon I just liked the toys. Oh but I DID watch a transforming robot cartoon that came on USA during it’s Cartoon Express block. It was Challenge of the Go-Bots.
That’s right despite my undying, unwavering and unending love for all things Transformers, the cartoon that got me into transforming robots in the first place wasn’t even theirs, it was the show commissioned to sell their failed counterparts. Now this worked out for Hasbro in that Gobots were no longer being sold on toy shelves so I had the one, just the one my dad picked up at the airport when he returned from California after attending his dads funeral. So I would watch Gobots and play with Transformers, yes pretending THEY, the Robots in Disguise that were branded as being More Than Meets the Eye, the Autobots and Decepticons, I would pretend they were GOBOTS. My toys stood in for Renegades and Guardians.
Remember that Goldbug, he made a good stand in for Scooter. Skyhammer was a good stand in for the Renegade Thruster. Silverbolt became Leader-1, Skullgrin was turned into Cy-Kill, Power Master Prime became the Guardian Command Center with the truck (cab robot) becoming Staks. Yes I had an Optimus Prime toy I would PRETEND was Gobots Staks. Today, this very day I have a Gobots Staks I actually do play with more than my Optimus Prime.
So in a roundabout way it was a competitors cartoon that got me into Transformers. What about TMNT? Did I plunge head first into the cartoon then immediately run out to buy the toys? Nope yet again my path was slightly different.
I played the TMNT arcade game. I thought TMNT was this weird new fun 4-player beat-em up style game I instantly fell in love with. Having grown bored with Double Dragon I was excited to play this new and improved game in that same style. In my young mind TMNT was a video game first. I somehow discovered the cartoon and movie later, thus thinking those things were done because the video game was so popular. Hey Mario got a cartoon and movie and he was just a video game so it tracked in my tiny underdeveloped child-brain.
The point is despite everyone saying these cartoons served just as toy commercials is a fallacy. Yes many kids were in fact prompted to buy toys based on their favorite cartoon. But what about the toys we bought that didn’t have a cartoon to sell us on? Or the toys were picked up even after t’s cartoon was long gone and we never saw a single episodes? I never watched G.I. Joe A Real American Hero. I watched G.I. Joe: The Movie because it was a special that came on right after Transformers, in 1992 as a part of the G2 revival. Before that I never watched a single frame of that cartoon, it didn’t interest me one bit. But I still loved the hell out of the toys.
I can’t tell you what made me pick this toy or that toy as a kid, that was so long ago. Today I can tell you I don’t just rely on nostalgia. If I see a really well done action figure or playset from a current toyline, even if I have no attachment to or knowledge of it’s lore, I’ll pick it up. While I do have a fondness for Transformers and TMNT above all others, that doesn’t stop me from owning a Master Chief figure despite having never played Halo before. Or those Fort Night figures I bought even though I don’t even know how to play the game nor do I watch YouTubers play it. I just thought the toys were cool.
There are a lot of things that make me like a toy. It could be the sculpt. It could be the colors or the aesthetic. It might be the packaging or the name on the side of the box. I never know what is going to catch my eye and make me decide to add this toy to my collection over another.
The next time you try to knock down those of us who had a childhood in the 80’s as having been brainwashed by marketing giants, stop and consider the whole story. Not every kid came from a family made of money. Not every family had access to a steady stream of television content. Some of us were lucky to get any toys at all and sometimes we had nothing to go on but what was in front of us or what our imaginations told us would be fun to explore.