What were the top selling toys of the 1980s?
Come holiday season, many parents keep a close eye on toy trends to find the perfect gift for their child. What were some of the most hotly desired toys and gadgets during the 1980s? Here’s our answer.
1980: The Rubik’s Cube.
Now the most popular puzzle toy in the world according to the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Rubik’s Cube had an accidental origin. Teaching at the Academy of Applied Arts and Crafts in Budapest, Hungary, architecture professor and sculptor Erno Rubik made his first “magic cube” as a way to demonstrate an object that could have independent moving parts without the mechanism itself falling apart. He did not realize that he had created a puzzle until the first time he scrambled his new cube and then tried to restore it. After successfully applying for a patent in 1975, he began work on his idea. Debuting in Hungary in 1977 and to the world in 1980, the renamed “Rubik’s Cube” was a massive success, and still sells well to this day. Speedcubing has even become an international sensation, with the current world record of solving the cube being set by Yusheng Du in 2018 at a mere 3.47 seconds.
After the Hanna-Barbera produced Saturday-morning cartoon debuted in September 1981, The Smurfs cemented themselves in American pop culture. Originating in 1958 in comics by Belgian artist Peyo, the three-apples-high blue villagers captured the hearts of kids everywhere in animated form, making them a hotly demanded item during the Holiday Season of ‘81. The cartoon ran for nearly a decade until NBC cancelled the show to make room for more live morning shows on the weekends. Reruns of the original show can still be caught on Cartoon Network’s Boomerang channel of retro cartoons, and a brand new show with computer animation was announced in August 2017 for a 2020 release.
1982: BMX Bikes.
The year of the first BMX world championship, 1982 was a major year for the sport. Popularity skyrocketed with the event, which was the culmination of several years of BMX gaining traction among kids who enjoyed watching motocross. In the early 1970s, the availability of the Schwinn Sting-Ray made it the go-to bike for anybody wanting to get it on the hot new trend. Once the sport grew in size, other bike makers had to take note and start designing with the style in mind. By 1982, several different manufacturers had models out on the market, propelling this gift to the #1 spot at the end of the year. Today, BMX bikes are still just as popular as ever, with the “BMX Freestyle” event being a staple at the annual Summer X Games.
1983: Cabbage Patch Kids.
Originally conceived as “The Little People” by creator Xavier Roberts, these “adoptable” soft-sculpture dolls were one of the hottest kids’ toys of all time. After debuting to rave reviews at the International Toy Fair in New York City, Cabbage Patch Kids were said to have caused riots at toy stores across the country by parents who were eager for the new fad. The advertised unique identity of each doll, as well as their “adoptability”, is what led to the incredibly high demand. Cabbage Patch Kids even made the cover of Newsweek before Christmas, and apparently sold around 3 million dolls by the end of the year.
Created in collaboration between Japanese toy company Takara and American counterpart Hasbro, the “robots in disguise” line of transforming vehicle toys were a pop culture sensation. They were designed with a backstory in mind that kids could latch onto, and boy did they. The first generation of Transformers television productions and comic books not only added depth to the toys, but were a cross-advertisement for the various companies that produced each piece of media. Kids were captivated by the endless struggle between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, and both the toy line and its accompanying stories were a major hit in 1984. The television show continued until 1987, with toy production barely stopping in the thirty-five years of the franchise, and a massively successful Hollywood reboot series beginning in 2007.
1985 & 1986: Teddy Ruxpin.
Although a talking bear toy might seem quaint by today’s standards, Teddy Ruxpin was truly the first of his kind. Containing an audio cassette player in his back, this doll had servomotors that let him sing along to the specially made tapes by using the left audio track to control his eyes and mouth. Parents could put their own cassettes into Teddy’s player, but he couldn’t sing along, as his servomotors would ignore the left audio track. Today, Teddy Ruxpin’s influence can be felt in the talking, animatronic toys that are everywhere, but nowadays the technology is a bit more sophisticated.
1987: Koosh Ball.
In 1986, engineer Scott Stillinger was having trouble teaching his two young kids to play catch. He realized that he needed a ball that was soft, wouldn’t bounce, and could be grasped easily by a child’s hands. Made of 2,000 rubber filaments that radiate from a steel-bound core, the Koosh Ball was patented and released the following year. After showing his early prototype to his brother-in-law, Mark Button, both men were so confident in the product that they quit their jobs to start the toy company OddzOn Products. Stillinger even build the machine that would make the balls and operated it out of a barn near his house. Eventually, Koosh was bought by Hasbro in 1997 for over $100 million.
1988: The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Originally the Family Computer (or “Famicom” for short) in Japan, the NES debuted in North America in 1985, but it didn’t find its place as a Holiday must-have until 1988, due in part to the release of four different bundles over the first few years of its life overseas. The Action Set came out in November 1988, and included the Control Deck, two controllers, the Zapper, and a dual Game Pak containing both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. Plus, it was more reasonably priced than the Deluxe Set that released several years before. The Nintendo Entertainment System became the iconic home video game console of the late ‘80s, and spawned many of Nintendo’s most popular franchises, such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid.
1989: The Game Boy.
After completely dominating the home video game console market, Nintendo set their eyes on portability. Although Gunpei Yokoi is known for many major innovations at Nintendo, he is most famous for the Game Boy. By combining the portability and LCD display of the Game & Watch with the cartridge system and 8-bit processor the NES, Nintendo had a hit on their hands. The original launch title for the Game Boy was Tetris, in its first of many handheld incarnations, which helped bolster sales tremendously, remaining the second-highest selling game on the console to this day. The Game Boy went through many different iterations throughout the years before being replaced by the Nintendo DS.