30 toys that defined the '80s
For children of the 1980s, buying toys wasn’t as simple as the click of the mouse. It usually required hours of begging your parents, who then had to venture to the toy store and hope they still had it in stock.
While buying toys has undergone a tremendous transformation over the past few decades, the nostalgia 30-somethings get from seeing their favorite childhood plaything remains. Stacker used historical and retail websites to compile a list of 30 toys that were popular in 1980s America.
Some of the toys that defined the time have crazy stories that surrounded them. Take, for example, shopping for a Cabbage Patch Kids Doll around Christmas 1983, which meant parents were putting their safety at risk, with the many riots that ensued inspiring an HBO documentary. When it came to Teddy Ruxpin, by the time the toy company Worlds of Wonder realized what it had with its new talking bear, demand had skyrocketed to the point the company was leasing jets, filling them with the plush toys, and flying them stateside.
Some ’80s toys started as American Greetings card series, including the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, while competitor Hallmark kept pace with Rainbow Bright. Safety wasn’t necessarily paramount in the ’80s, as a number of these toys prompted trips to the hospital, but not a decline in popularity.
Children of the 1980s, read on to find out Stacker’s list of 30 toys that defined the decade.
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The 10 original Care Bears, which wear belly badges to denote their personalities, were intended to be American Greetings card characters in 1981 until they became plush, stuffed Parker Brothers dolls by 1983. Cheer, Bedtime, Birthday, Wish, Tender Heart, Good Luck, Love-a-lot, Friend, Funshine, and Grumpy Bears were turned into a television series by 1985, and by the late 1980s also starred in three major Canadian-American movies. Though relaunched a handful of times throughout the years with new names, books, and films, the soft and furry fad slowly faded by the turn of the century.
Coin-operated arcade amusement took a severe hit when Atari released the first home-gaming console, which was created by the founders of the famous arcade game Pong. Atari 2600 came equipped with two joysticks, paddle controllers, a wood-panel printed console, and game cartridges, including "Space Invaders," "Pac Man," and "Asteroids" sold separately. The gaming system, with normal and hard difficulty settings, sold millions, making the three, red-lined Atari brand a staple in many ’80s living rooms.
Strawberry Shortcake and her sweet-smelling, dessert-themed friends like Lemon Meringue and Blueberry Muffin were all the rage for little girls in the ’80s. An animated television series, Atari video game, and memorabilia including pajamas and bedding, accompanied the craze of tiny plastic figurines, which according to character artist Muriel Fahrion may have made a billion dollars in franchise profits. But the frumpy-hat and freckled Strawberry Shortcake was more than just a toy, with Fahrion sharing on the 40th anniversary of the doll that she’s heard playing with the character created an escape for some youth who had family struggles.
The Pogo Ball is a Saturn-looking jumping device manufactured by Hasbro and cousin to the Pogo Stick, which is now an official extreme sport. Unlike gaining gravity with a steel coil and footpads, the inflatable ball placed in the center of a sturdy plastic circle helped kids catch air in the ’80s. After the fad’s popularity began to deflate, the use of the toy remained, with physical-education teachers using it teach balance to students and adults using it as an exercise ball.
To capitalize on the back of the success of George Lucas’ smash-hit "Star Wars," The Lego Group, which manufactures plastic toy bricks, released up to 200 separate sets of astronauts and spaceships in the ’80s including mini-figures with visor-less helmets and wheeled vehicles. It wasn’t until 1999 that the toy manufacturer would issue its first intellectual property license to "Star Wars," bringing Lego and Lucas together for real. The toy’s cultural impact remains today, with the most recent Lego Star Wars sets released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the merger.
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Monster in My Pocket
Matchbox’s release of Monster in My Pocket had kids in the ’80s hiding plastic figurines in their garments. Inspired by true-to-life monsters from mythology, religion, literature, and film, the brightly colored toys first sold based on a “scary” point series, with the Great Beast from the Bible worth 25, and less frightening figures like The Witch rated at 5. However, high officials from the Hindu religion requested Matchbox apologize in 1993, when the toy line depicted Indian divinity as tiny plastic monsters, which was offensive to their culture.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Italian Renaissance-named reptilians Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo are as hot now as they were in 1983, when two artists first sketched them on a piece of paper, which sold for more than $70,000 in 2012. What began as a comic book series, turned into a pop-culture craze, beginning with the 1987 Saturday morning cartoon series featuring the pizza-loving martial-arts experts that was picked up by Nickelodeon in 2012. Merchandise depicting the four evil-fighting brothers totaled more than $1.1 billion in the first four years of “Turtlemania.”
Lining up nine squares on the six-sided, primary-colored 3D puzzle had kids competing against themselves when the Rubik’s Cube debuted in 1980. Originally named the Magic Cube, the toy’s popularity made finishing fast a sport, with the first speedcubing Rubik’s World Championships in Budapest in 1982. After mid-90s anniversary relaunches, including a diamond-studded cube, Rubik’s remains popular today, enjoying its most successful year in 2017, with over $250 million in sales.
The Roller Racer, a human-powered toy consisting of rams horn-shaped handlebars connected to wheels atop a tractor seat, had kids racing down streets and scientists studying its physics in the ’80s. The side-to-side thrust vector concept, inspired by a retired Boeing engineer as a present for his grandson, was sold by the brand WHAM-O, which also produced other pop-culture classics like Hacky Sack and Slip ‘N Slide. Decades later, Roller Racers remain a hit with physical-education teachers using the toy in relay races, obstacle courses, and roller tag.
Speak & Spell
The handheld Texas Instrument toy Speak & Spell came with learning cartridges, including Homonym Heroes, Noun Endings, Magnificent Modifiers, and Vowel Ventures. Sister toy to Speak & Read, and Speak & Math, the educational game focused solely on the English subject. The learning aid was the first to use digital signal processing, which converted analog sound information into speech capable of teaching kids both the proper spelling and pronunciation of a word.
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