We recently explored the backstories of some of the most influential toys of the ’80s and ’90s, accompanied with illustrations courtesy of David Lo.
If there’s one thing the Internet has afforded us, it’s the notion of getting to be nostalgic without having to rely solely on one’s memories. A kid who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s have their entire childhood’s archived – from the stonewashed prints to athletic achievements – and certainly the colorful, noisy and game-changing objects that permeated free time.
Much like the visuals that still float around the web, so to do the stories that tell the origins, inspirations and downfalls of some of our favorite toys that pre-date the technology that exists to preserve them. Here are 10 stories about some of the most influential toys of the ’80s and ’90s, with illustrations by David Lo.
Super Soaker 50
According to Biography.com, “African-American engineer and inventor Lonnie G. Johnson was born in Alabama in 1949. After graduating from Tuskegee University with a master’s degree, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. His other assignments included working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.”
While still working for the Air Force and tinkering with a prototype for an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon, the subsequent “testing phase” that took place in his bathroom that resulted in a powerful stream of water jettisoning out of the nozzle was the beginning of what we now know as the Super Soaker. According to ABC News, “Johnson says he told himself, ‘Well, you know, what I can do is put the hard-science stuff aside for a minute, do a water gun, make some money on that, and then I can go pursue my other ideas.'” After seven more years of tinkering, Johnson ended up being the inventor of one of the 20 best-selling toys of all-time.
Creator Donald Levine came up with the idea for the G.I. Joe while serving in the Korean War and saw it as an opportunity to honor the armed forces. While kids from the ’80s and ’90s will recall the smaller versions of the toys, the initial challenge centered on not wanting the G.I. Joe to be referred to as a “doll.” Thus, the term “action figure” was spawned. The Hasbro prototypes were originally named “Rocky” (marine/soldier), “Skip” (sailor) and “Ace” (pilot), before the more universal name G.I. Joe was adopted. As an anti-war sentiment began to arise following the conflict in Vietnam, Hasbro countered in 1970 by introducing “Adventure Team” G.I. Joes that played down the military connection – instead focusing on heroic endeavors and cutting edge advances in toy movement like “Kung Fu Grip.” That version of the character would pave the way for the ’80s-friendly incarnation of G.I. Joe, in the “Real American Hero” line which pitted the Joes against members of Cobra.
Nintendo Entertainment System
Having made playing cards since 1889, Nintendo enlisted the help of Shigeru Miyamoto in 1977 as they attempted to segue into the world of video games following the success of 1972’s Pong from Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney and Atari. While Miyamoto is credited with some of the most iconic games of all-time, it was in fact Masayuki Uemura who is credited with the actual design of the console. Originally called the Famicom and renamed NES for the West, the 1985 game system was commissioned by then Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi who Uemura recalls told him, “‘Make me something that lets you play arcade games on your TV at home.’ Donkey Kong was a huge hit in the arcades by then, and I suppose he wanted to get our name into homes as well. His reasoning was that, after all, we were a company that started with playing cards and got into toys later on, so unless we did something that no one’s done before, it wouldn’t have much value as a product.”
According to Polygon, “When did Uemura realize that he might have a hit on his hands? When he began to see how the Famicom invaded Japanese living rooms with his own eyes. ‘At one point,’ he recalled, ‘before Super Mario Bros. had come out, the Famicom had sold about three million units. My personal sales record at the time on a toy I had worked on was about three million, so anything after that was unexplored territory for me. I lived in a big apartment complex in Osaka with around 1000 people in it, and usually if a toy sold a million across Japan, there’d be one family or so in each building of the complex that had it. With the Famicom, though, I’d start having neighborhood kids go up to me and say ‘Hey, that video game you made doesn’t work on my TV.’ They’d ask me for customer service! And that just kept on happening.'”
Tiger Electronics’ Talkboy
The Talkboy is arguably one of the most iconic props used in a movie – right up there with Marty McFly’s hoverboard in Back to the Future. A mere prototype at the time of its usage in Home Alone 2, it took a huge letter-writing initiative to get Kevin McCallister’s instrument for hijinks in the hands of the consumer. The Seattle Times reported that Tiger Toys was unable to meet the demand and was fielding 300 phone calls a day nationwide. It was made from specifications provided by screenwriter John Hughes and the movie studio, which wanted a device that was realistic but at the cutting edge of new technology.
Elliot Handler founded Mattel out of his garage with his partner Harold “Matt” Matson (a blend of their names) in 1945. The first Mattel products were picture frames, but Handler soon developed a side business making dollhouse furniture out of picture frame scraps. After the Handlers bought out Matson, they turned Mattel’s focus to toys. Soon after – and at his wife’s urging to craft a doll she called “Barbie” – by 1965 sales of the now iconic girl’s toy reached $100 million USD in sales. According to The Los Angeles Times, “in the late 1960s, Mattel was looking for a toy that would appeal to boys as Barbie had to girls. Handler came up with an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles that would incorporate speed, power and performance.”
Tetris has the distinction of being the first piece of entertainment programming exported from the USSR to the United States when it was made available for the Commodore 64 and IBM PC. The brainchild of Alexey Pazhitnov who created Tetris – a name derived from combining the Greek numerical prefix “tetra” (each block has four pieces) with the word “tennis” – at the Moscow Academy of Science’s Computer Center during the height of the Cold War, his aim was to mimic a real-world puzzle game, Tetrominoes, which employed seven different shapes.
The real spark of inspiration came from Pazhitnov’s decision to use virtual “gravity” to give the game a ticking time bomb kind of feel that anyone who has played Tetris is definitely aware of. After the initial prototype and subsequent version that gained popularity both at home and abroad in places like Budapest, the initial challenge was that because Pazhitnov was an employee of the state, so to was his intellectual property.
Despite it gaining further acclaim once it came to the States, still no one could claim official “rights” to the video game phenomenon. According to Business Insider, “in 1989 several different companies claimed the rights to create and distribute ‘Tetris’ software for computers, consoles, and handheld systems. Companies were licensing and sublicensing rights to the game that they didn’t even hold to begin with. Some companies were distributing the game on consoles, some on computers. But none of them was sanctioned by the Soviet government, which actually held the rights to the game. Finally, the Soviet government had had enough. It began to market rights to ‘Tetris’ through an organization called Elorg. It decided that Atari Games would have rights to the arcade version, and Nintendo would have rights to the console and handheld versions of ‘Tetris.'”
Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Ernő Rubik invented the Rubik’s Cube in 1974 but it wasn’t available to the public until 1980 when the Ideal Toy Corp. brought it to the marketplace. His initial thought in designing the cube was for educational purposes in order to understand, “how could the blocks move independently without falling apart?” Rubik has been quoted in the past as saying, “It was wonderful, to see how, after only a few turns, the colors became mixed, apparently in random fashion. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this color parade. Like after a nice walk when you have seen many lovely sights you decide to go home, after a while I decided it was time to go home, let us put the cubes back in order. And it was at that moment that I came face to face with the Big Challenge: What is the way home?”
Of course, we now know the way “home” as the means of solving the puzzle – which ultimately took Rubik a month after he had scrambled all the pieces together.
According to IGN, “Mattel and other toy companies started making portable games and electronic toys in the ’70s, and in 1979, Milton Bradley released the Microvision, the very first programmable handheld game console, with a library of 11 games.” But one of the main problems that they faced was that the 16-by-16 resolution screen and 0.1 MHz CPU weren’t advanced enough to provide anything of substance or that sparked people’s imaginations.
As the legend states, Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi was riding the train to work, when he saw a businessman trying to amuse himself with a small LCD pocket calculator. It dawned on him that there might be a way to do something considerably more fun with the same basic technology. The result was the Game & Watch whose roots culminated in the creation of the Game Boy in 1989. The real challenge for designers is that their predecessors had relied on chip-based gaming, while they strived for the real McCoy like the home systems by being able to utilize cartridges.
The notion of Lazer Tag took the idea of going to war with your friends to a whole new level – forgoing Nerf Darts for a futuristic battleground where each direct hit caused your body to rumble. According to the Houston Chronicle, the roots of Lazer Tag and the technology that went into crafting the luminous instruments for both fun and warfare originated in Texas – but it’s debatable just who came up with the precise concept we think of today. “Sometime early in 1984 Lee Weinstein built a game called ‘Star Laser Force’ and opened a game center near Chimney Rock and the Southwest Freeway,” they contend. “At around the same time, in Dallas, inventor George Carter was finishing two years of work developing another brand of laser tag. Carter opened his first Photon game center in March, 1984. Carter had considerably more commercial success, eventually opening 70 Photon franchises around the country.”
The truth is, when the Pogs phenomenon swept the globe, it wasn’t necessarily for the gameplay elements which to this day still seem to take a backseat to the visuals associated with the round pieces. Seen as a distant cousin to the Japanese game Menko which was popular during the Edo Period which lasted from 1603-1867, the game was brought to more contemporary popularity when a Hawaiian teacher, Blossom Galbiso, decided to use the game as a way to challenge the kids to have a physical outlet that wouldn’t be as draining on her attempt to teach as other playground activities. Thus, they sought out milk tops from the Haleakala Dairy on Maui who just so happened to produce a Pog Juice – made from passion fruit, orange and guava – which would later serve as the inspiration for the name of the game when it hit the Mainland in 1993. According to Mental Floss, as kids began using the game to “play for keeps,” schools in and around the United States, Canada, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, the UK, and Australia all banned the pieces, which spelled the beginning of the end for the pog craze.