Like any other decade in the recent past, the 1990s had its share of smash hit toys that every parent wanted to buy their children for Christmas or their birthdays.
Many of these toys have enduring popularity, and others have had a lasting impact on our culture. In other words, they weren’t just average toys that got marketed really well; they were good toys, the kind that kids and even those who were already adults at the time will remember for years to come.
Why people loved them back then, and still appreciate them now 20 years down the road, depended on a variety of factors.
Boiling it down, though, and as is true today, if the toy was easy to use, fun, and acceptable to those who ultimately had to buy the toy, that is, the parents, it stood a chance to be among the best. Still, in order to better understand what made a toy “cool” back in the 1990s, it’s helpful to take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the best toys and why people fell in love with them:
Nintendo first put its Game Boy on the market, in its home country of Japan, in 1989. However, the original system peaked in popularity in the 1990s and further established Nintendo as the king of the gaming industry, at least during that time.
Although there were other portable systems on the market at the time that even offered games in color, people liked the Game Boy for a lot of reasons:
- At the time, Nintendo and its affiliated software developers had a reputation for producing games that were simple, parent-friendly, and good hours of fun. For example, Tetris, one of the earliest games for Game Boy, is just an elaborate digital way of arranging blocks while under time pressure. Still, millions of gamers loved it.
- The Game Boy’s controls were underneath the screen instead of off to the sides, as was the design on existing portable systems. This made the system easy and familiar for users who usually already had experience with the similar controller layout on Nintendo’s home system.
- Although the Game Boy wasn’t in color, that sacrifice allowed the engineers to equip the Game Boy with a system that allowed players to link their Game Boys and play multi-player, making it easier to share the fun with others.
Lest one think the original Game Boy is a thing of the past, Nintendo recently renewed its trademark on the device, sparking rumors that a vintage version of this early portable gaming system will hit the markets in the near future.
Tickle Me Elmo
When Tyco first released its Tickle Me Elmo doll in 1996, Sesame Street had been around for decades, and Elmo had been a regular character on the show for over 10 years.
So, although the Tickle Me Elmo doll talked and moved in response to getting ticked, it’s hard to call it a really new idea, even back in the mid-1990s. However, at the time, people could sell the dolls for hundreds if not thousands of dollars to parents who were desperate to get one for Christmas.
The Tickle Me Elmo sensation remains known as one of the greatest holiday fads ever. Aside from an ingenious marketing campaign, what made the doll worth it?
- Parents who were buying the toy would find a talking red puppet pretty innocuous. Moreover, they probably liked the idea of promoting an educational television show that was kid-friendly.
- For youngsters who watched Sesame Street, which is just about everyone between 2 and 5 years old, having the doll was like having a local celebrity in the house. That alone gave the doll considerable appeal.
- A two-year-old can use the doll and get an audible response without much trouble.
The doll helped Tyco achieve $350 million in annual sales when it had in previous years posted $70 million. The toy prompted several shoot off toys that were also successful.
Although not quite the star of the toy market that he used to be, Tickle Me Elmo is still available for sale today, almost a full generation later.
Hasbro introduced different types of Nerf balls decades ago, and, without doubt, kids quickly figured out how those balls, meant for playing sports, could also be used as weapons in play fights with each other. Some might say it was therefore only a matter of time before Hasbro invented guns and crossbows with ammunition made of the Nerf material.
The first Nerf weapons appeared in the 1990s and were highly successful. They have consistently sold well since that time, and the latest Nerf gun models are on the shelves this Christmas season.
- While some parents might object to these toys as promoting violence, judging by their retail success, it seems like the vast majority of parents prefer boys and girls having Nerf shooting wars with each other to their doing other things.
- It’s not too hard to load a Nerf gun, aim at your friend, and pull the trigger.
- The weapons add a whole new dimension to the classic boys’ game (which of course girls can also play) of toy guns, especially when the weapons can hit a target about 80 feet away and rattle off up to 9 Nerf darts each second.
- Nerf Guns also had the benefit of a favorable market, with parents and kids wanting better ways of playing old games like guns, water balloons, etc. For instance, the Super Soaker water gun, which Hasbro eventually acquired the rights to, was also popular at this time.
To some extent, the popularity of these dolls, the brainchild of Ty Warner and his “Ty” company, is somewhat tragic. Many people invested in these dolls as collectors’ items, sometimes purchasing one of these £10 dolls for thousands of dollars in the hopes it would yield a return.
It turned out, though, that for the vast majority of collectors, the market for Beanie Babies turned out to be a financial bubble that popped. Very few actually got rich off of the small stuffed animals.
Still, even if they did not make the best investments, the stuffed animals had some unique features that made them popular:
- They were cute, little stuffed animals that didn’t take up a lot of room. It was easy to store them, and they made good decorations and personal collections.
- So long as they weren’t planning on getting rich off of them, parents could appreciate the modest price of about £10.
- Because their interiors were full of foam beans, they could be moved around and put in to a pose more easily than could other stuffed animals.
The lesson of the Beanie Babies craze may well be that even the best toys are rarely if ever going to be a means for an average citizen to get wealthy. Still, the legacy of the Beanie Babies continues, even if that legacy is somewhat tarnished.
Although itself not so much a toy as a playground game, it led to a market for millions of game pieces that kids who played the game collected.
The game, which started in Hawaii, involves opponents taking turns “slamming” a stack of game pieces that come with different creative designs on them. Originally, they were caps off of the bottles of Hawaiian POG juice.
As in marbles, the idea is for a player to collect as many of his or her opponent’s POGS. If a kid is good at the game and plays for keeps, the game is a low-cost way to get a lot of collectible game pieces with a kid’s favorite fictional characters or attractive designs.
- The game was not always approved of by adults, especially some school teachers and administrators who tried to ban it as a form of gambling. Still, as in the case of Nerf guns and other toys, POGS might be one of those games that is at least generally tolerated by adults in a child’s life even if not actively encouraged.
- The game had a very basic principle: slam a stack of playing pieces, and if you flip your opponent’s piece over properly, you get to keep it.
The game quickly spread across the United States, and many kids who went to Junior school in the 1990s will probably remember it. If you’re feeling somewhat nostalgic, Amazon still sell them!
As is the case with other fads, a lot of the best and hottest toys of the 1990s had a great marketing team behind them, and some of them were successful simply by good timing or even a stoke of luck.
However, these toys also had something enduring about them. Usually, they took a simple concept and made it better while still keeping it simple. What this meant was that a child could both figure out how to use the toy and still have a lot of fun with it by using it in new and various ways. In this respect, it’s no surprise that many of the most popular toys were really just building on old concepts, like a playground game or a stuffed animal.
The bottom line is that what made toys popular 20 or so years ago, simplicity, enduring fun, and parental acceptance, are the same things that will separate the best toys in future years from the less memorable ones.