It was a golden time.
The 1980s brought us an explosion of pop culture, new intellectual properties and an avalanche of new cartoons and toys, A lot of this is because of Ronald Reagan and his deregulation of what was allowed to be advertised to children but it brought us some of the best toys of the 80s.
Up to that point there were severe restrictions on promoting directly to kids as they can’t differentiate between what were TV shows and what were ads. There was so much study and support behind this but when he became president, he lifted all these things. This is why you see a tidal wave of new cartoons, and toys that went with them, in the 1980s.
You may see this is as capitalism run amuck but if you were a kid growing up in the 80s, you didn’t give a crap because we were the victors in all this. The problem was there was so much that you wanted and so much that looked good. I’m surprised a second Christmas wasn’t introduced midway through the year to be able to promote toys and products a second time. Having to wait till your birthday or the “regular Christmas” could make this tough. What would you ask for? What was realistic to ask for? I know I couldn’t ask for the USS FLAGG aircraft carrier so you had to have a wish list, but still leave room for some dream toys.
Obviously, a list like this will be subjective so we can argue this till the cows come home but here are my top 13 80s toys from the perspective of a young male human child who lived in Canada and was still occasionally afraid of the dark.
Madballs were awesome; hated by parents and loved by kids. Anything that parents rejected kids were going to eat up with a spoon. Madballs were created by AmToy in the 80s and were a series of rubber balls that had grotesque faces. They come from the same company that brought us things like Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and the Popples but they wanted something that appealed more to boys.
When you combine something you can throw and bounce with gross-out humour, you’ve got the attention of boys – especially me. I remember getting one for my birthday from a friend but his younger brother spilled it beforehand, and he went nuts on him. I didn’t care. I still got a Madball.
The creation of Madballs is as bizarre as the balls themselves as they were thought up during a game of hot potato. The designers thought that when the music stopped and you were the one holding the potato what if you instead looked down and saw a grotesque face? This was the actual accidental creation process and then the designers all had an unofficial competition to see who could draw the grossest face.
The company they worked for caught on to this, realized they had a hit on their hands and they ended up being a massive seller. If you want the full story on Madballs, check out my in-depth blog all about it.
12. Care Bears
I didn’t necessarily love Care Bears, but I still saw them as a significantly important toy of the 80s. They made a huge impact on pop culture through the toy and TV shows and maybe I really did like them a bit.
Care Bears were created in 1981 from the awkwardly named company “Those Characters From Cleveland”. But they didn’t start out as toys but rather for use on greeting cards. In 1983 Kenner saw the promise with them and turned them into plush toys. They then went on to dominate the small screen with two TV specials in 1983 and 1984 and then a full TV series from 1985 to 1988. They also had three feature films.
Each Care Bear was a different color with a different logo on their chest revealing their specialty power. These logos were technically called “tummy symbols” or “belly badges” both of which are adorable af.
11. My Pet Monster
A plush toy made for boys. My Pet Monster was made in the same vein as MadBalls in that companies wanted to make toys that appealed to boys instead of the more “girl based” products they had focused on. This was the case with American Greetings the company behind My Pet Monster.
They wanted to create a plush toy but that had more of a menacing appeal so boys would like it. They gave him blue fur, fangs, and orange handcuffs so that he could be attached to you everywhere you went. It worked and My Pet Monster was a huge hit. In a rare reversal, they actually would make a cartoon series after the toy came out. Up to that point, most cartoons were used to launch the toy product.
I remember thinking that My Pet Monster wasn’t really a “doll” but was a cool toy that just happened to be plush and soft. A lot of other kids felt the same way, and it was one of the defining toys of the 1980s. They also released a live-action movie in 1986 but for the love of God don’t watch it.
If you want the full backstory on My Pet Monster check out my blog on it here.
10. My Little Pony
Again, not up my ally but culturally significant and deserves a place on the list. I had a younger sister so I was ALL too familiar with everything to do with My Little Pony. I had to let her watch shows like this before I could watch what I wanted so I ended up sitting through a lot of them.
My Little Pony was developed by Hasbro in 1981 and the ponies had colorful bodies with a unique symbol on both sides of them called “cutie marks”. I have something similar on me… This first line of toys was technically called “My Pretty Pony” and in 1982 it officially became “My Little Pony”.
These were a massive hit right out of the gate (that was an unintentional but very funny pun) The toy line ran all the way to 1992 in the U.S. and till 1995 globally. I’m not going to get into the further appeal and the growth of the “Brony” culture because I’ll just end up getting mad.
I mentioned at the start of this article about deregulation and cartoons being used as 22-minute commercials to push toys on kids – My Little Pony was seen as kicking off this whole thing. It was widely frowned upon to be sneakily advertising to kids through the use of a cartoon show, but nothing would stop this and it would open the floodgates with some other toys we’ll get to in a second.
Either way, My Little Pony was a massive hit with the toys, TV series, and movies and was another definitive part of the 1980s.
It’s our old friends American Greetings back at it again and with their side company; Those Characters From Cleveland. You probably never really heard of either of them compared to companies like Hasbro and Mattel but they brought you some of the most significant toys of the 1980s. The Popples were another such one. I thought these were pretty awesome and they earn a spot on my very coveted list.
The Popples were kind of half sock, half stuffed animal that were marsupial teddy bear type toys with long tails that could fold into balls. That idea of them being part sock is actually not a joke as their creator, Susan Trentel, supposedly got the idea from rolling up socks. She was a powerhouse toy designer and also created Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears.
The Popples were released between 1986 to 1988 and also had a cartoon series from 1986 to 1987. There were nine Popples in the first line including ones such as Pancake, Puffball, and Potato Chip and they all sound delicious. There were many other lines introduced over the years but these nine would make up the core era and were a somewhat short-lived, but very popular 80s toy.
I personally would like the GoBots higher on my list as I loved them but I have to be realistic about their place in 80s toy culture. Often considered the poor man’s Transformers, the GoBots actually predates them by a bit but didn’t catch on as much until the Transformers really took off.
GoBots were a smaller, and simpler, transforming robot that started out as Machine Robo in Japan. Tonka actually released them in 1983 as the GoBots and decided to give them something they didn’t have in Japan; a backstory.
GoBots were from the Romulus system and were made up of the good “Guardians” and the evil “Renegades”. Again, all of this, including backstory and character personalities, were all developed before Transformers. So they come out in 1983 and some toys include Leader-1, Cy-Kill, and Bug Bite. They were only 2-3 inches high and based on basic vehicles like cars and planes.
A cartoon series, called “The Challenge of the GoBots” would come out on September 8, 1984, debuting ahead of Transformers by 9 days. I had never been so excited for something and faked sick to be able to stay home and watch the first episodes as I normally got home from school after they aired.
I regret nothing.
7. Teddy Ruxpin
This was like alien technology that had come to earth. A talking bear that could sing and tell you stories. The tale of Teddy Ruxpin is an interesting one too. It was invented by a guy who designed the animatronic characters for “Welcome to Pooh Corner” and also worked for Disney and created the giant animatronics for Chuck E. Cheese. (Fun fact: Chuck E. Cheese’s real name was Charles Entertainment Cheese, and he threw birthday parties because he was an orphan who didn’t know when his own birthday way. You’re welcome…)
Teddy has a backstory and is technically an “Illiop” and comes from the land of Grundo. He would use cartridges in his back to play his stories and he went from a prototype of a head on a stick to store shelves in just 6 months. That is an insanely fast turn around but they had to have him out for Christmas of 1985. They sold a staggering 41,000 units in the first 30 days and made $93 million dollars by the end of the year.
Teddy Ruxpin is one of the best-selling toys of 1985-96 which is right smack in the middle of one of the greatest decades for toys in history. Here’s my full blog on Teddy Ruxpin so you can see the very detailed story about his creation.
6. Cabbage Patch Kids
One of the hottest toys of all time and the toy that started the concept of a toy craze as we know it. Cabbage Patch Kids came out in 1982 and may have been a stolen idea. The first iterations were called “Doll Babies” by a lady named Martha Nelson Thomas. She would sell them at craft shows where a guy named Xavier Roberts saw them. He would buy them and start selling them for money. She hated this, and he vowed that he would make his own.
And he did.
The likeness was pretty similar but he would mass produce them and they would be released by Coleco. Each doll was unique and would come with an adoption certificate. They also looked more like a baby and not a horrifying porcelain doll that would come to life in the middle of the night and murder you. So you combine this new concept with a very good advertising campaign that leads into Christmas and you have one of the hottest toys ever made.
The Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1983 was the first incidents of trampling and broken bones for a new toy. Stores were completely understocked and thousands of people would have to be turned away. This seemed to set the stage for Black Friday of the future but there was no denying the impact they had on the culture. By the end of 1985, they had made over $600 million dollars and were on wish lists for many kids.
Here’s my way more in depth blog on this whole crazy story. It’s worth a read.
5. Snoopy Sno Cone Machine
This technically came out in 1979 but it makes the cut as it was propelled into the 80s. This was the frozen version of the EZ Bake Oven and one that showed you the value of hard work because this was pure manual labor.
There had been previous sno cone toys out before but slapping Snoopy on it made it more coveted. The Peanuts are usually associated with A Charlie Brown Christmas so there was an immediate associated with Snoopy and snow.
It was made by Hasbro and you would stuff ice cubes into the top and you had to really give ‘er on that hand crank handle. It was like churning butter, but worse. But the fact you could make your own treat at home made this a hugely coveted toy.
4. Pound Puppies
The Pound Puppies were cute, and I was a big fan. This took the concept of the Cabbage Patch Kids but put it into dog form. Each Pound Puppy followed the similar adoption idea, and they came in little cardboard dog houses that you could carry.
They were put out by Tonka of all people and released in 1984. They were plush dogs with long ears and drooping eyes and came with their shots – in case you were worried. They were also machine washable so kids were encouraged to give them baths.
There was a successful cartoon that went with them in 1985 and would make over $300 million during the 80s. The interesting thing is that the Pound Puppies were a reaction to the video game crash of 1983. This was when Atari went belly up and Nintendo was not yet on the scene. Toy companies had been really burned when the video game market went down and they wanted to invest in low-risk toys like dolls, teddy bears and the like.
The difference now is they weren’t just releasing a stuffed dog, but they were putting out a brand of them that had character and a story to them. This makes it easier for kids to associate and connect with a toy and the Pound Puppies were proof of taking a simple concept but personalizing it.
Check out the very interesting story of the Pound Puppies and their unlikely creator.
He-Man was a dream toy to a kid like me. It was part action figure, mythology, and superhero all rolled into one. Here in this list, we are getting into the heart of it for toys that were released because of TV shows. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was spellbinding for a kid like me and is one of the few examples of an original idea being launched successfully.
The toys came out in 1983 but were years in the development. They were influenced by the success of the Star Wars toy line but if you remember those toys, they were pretty thin and flimsy. With He-Man you got a more solid muscular action figure, and it just felt like a better value.
They had one of the best mythologies of any toy with the story of Adam from Eternia and his transformation into He-Man by the Power of Grayskull! The toys were awesome and included characters like Skeletor, Cringer, and Man-At-Arms.
It also included what is arguably the greatest playset ever released in Castle Grayskull. All in all, you’ve got one of the most perfect toys ever developed.
2. G.I. Joe
G.I. Joe goes back to the 60s, as most people know, but the new iteration in the 80s made it one of the best of the decade, and one of the best of all time. If My Little Pony was seen as kicking off the era of advertising directly to children, G.I. Joe took it to the next level.
Put out by Hasbro, they were also influenced by the Star Wars line. The original G.I. Joe were 12-inch figures with real clothes and furry heads. Partly due to oil shortages – and the success of the smaller Star Wars toys – G.I. Joe was also shrunk down to 3.75 inches and re-introduced in 1982. Just in time to have no restrictions on how it was marketed.
The cartoon came out in 1983 and ran to 1986 and even though it was creative, it was 100% used to market the toys. If you remember those old shows, each episode was pretty much to introduce a new character or vehicle. And in each episode, every character was always referred to by their full name as were the vehicles. This is so you knew the exact name of the toy that was subsequently being released along with it.
Whatever, this worked for me, and pretty much every other kid in North America. You had an amazing war hero story vs the bad guys of Cobra and the coolest action toys and vehicles out there. And man did they release a lot of them. There were over 200 vehicles alone and hundreds of action figures – basically enough to sink a battleship. Oh, and speaking of battleships they put out the largest toy ever released in the USS FLAGG; a giant 7-foot long aircraft carrier that if you ever owned makes you a complete asshat.
Not that I’m jealous…
Was there any doubt?
If you’re seeing where my tastes lie then there’s no surprise that, to me, this is the best toy of the 80s. It was two toys and one and combined all the great things mentioned in all these previous toys. There was an amazing backstory and mythology of the Autobots and Decepticons from Cybertron and the subsequent cartoon that went into launching them.
The cartoon started as a four-part series to launch everything about the toys and the backstory but then it grew from there. The toys were a kids dream come true. They were alien robots that you could transform from robot into cool as hell vehicles. They did not feel cheap and took some skill to transform.
WIth Transformers you felt like you could identify with the characters and this is no doubt is thanks to the amazing mythology they created. Everything about these toys made them the best of the decade and you liked the bad guy toys as much as the good guys. With notable choices like Megatron, Soundwave, and Starscream, they matched up amazingly to Optimus Prime, Ratchet, and Ironside.
Then they released the Dinobots, and I almost passed out.
The toy line as a whole is not original at all and comes from the Diaclone line from Japan but Hasbro jumped all over these. They put out their new version of these Japanese toys in 1984 along with the TV show and we were never the same again.
Until Michael Bay put his dirty hands all over it. Whatever, check out my full blog all about the Transformers here
Wrapping It Up
Phew, what a decade and those were the top 13 80s toys. I understand I probably have left some of your favorites on here but I think I covered a good range of the best toys of the 80s and explained their significance. As I’ve been alluding to, this was a golden age of toys and if you grew up in it you know how lucky you were to have these things shape your childhood.