It’s tempting to idealize our childhoods, what with the neighborhood games of capture the flag that went past midnight, friendship pins we displayed like war medals on our hi-top Reeboks and Saturday morning cartoons that kept us rapt long past lunchtime (bologna sandwich, Fruit Roll-Up and a Capri Sun, of course). But for all the awesomeness that makes us wistful for the ’80s, we’d be foolish not to look with a critical eye on some of the weird, boring, upsetting or just plain idiotic toys we endured during our formative years.
We were kids. We didn’t know to question things. You handed us something brightly colored and told us it was fun, and we blindly proceeded to play with it, even if it was actually a sort of terrible toy. Let’s take a look at some of the toys we just accepted that were actually not good toys at all.
1. Waterful Ring-Toss
It was the indoor, sedentary, one-fingered version of horseshoes—if horseshoes were conducted underwater, and if that water were a weird primordial ooze that had none of the properties of water besides being clear.
The object here was to push the single button at just the right intervals to somehow get the tiny rubber rings to land on the clear plastic stalagmites. Only it was impossible to really apply any skill to the Ring-Toss because you had one imprecise button with which to control the velocity of the rings. And once you got the rings on the posts, then what? No one was impressed, you had carpal tunnel syndrome in your one thumb, and then your sister would come along and shake the thing up and you were back to zero.
2. Sit’n Spin
The ads for Sit’n Spin [sic] showed kids whirling around on the floor, having a blast, transporting their Sit’n Spin from kitchen floor to the patio and back again. Sometimes they would sit ‘n’ spin with a friend! The only problem with this toy was when it worked, you got so dizzy you fell over and definitely threw up your TidBit crackers from snack time. Otherwise you’d sit and work the wheel like you were trying to parallel park a school bus and no spinning would occur. I think this mostly happened when you were technically too big for the Sit’n Spin and didn’t have the arm muscles to make the thing turn under your growing body, which was a sad moment for a child: You are now too big to have fun with a toy that was never actually fun in the first place.
Sorry! was a game that required no skill and involved moving your pieces around the board, hoping you landed on a space where a competitor’s piece was so you could then knock that competitor’s piece back to “Start.” At which point you would ostensibly cry “Sorry!” as you continued your journey around a board where pretty much nothing else happened. The game taught a generation of children how to be passive-aggressive, to apologize when we didn’t actually mean it and to foolishly believe that if it had a board and was called a game it was actually fun.
4. Chatty Telephone
It was a telephone on a string. On wheels. With a face. And a rotary dial. Fun pull toys are animals—like caterpillars and ducks and dogs—because animals move through space, so pulling them around the house makes sense. Pulling around a plastic phone with a face on it was confusing. Although I suppose one could argue it is no dumber than the phones we drag around everywhere with us now.
We had the Yogi Bear and the absolutely terrifying Bozo the Clown one. These were good for kids with rage issues. A life-size Weeble that wobbled but refused to fall down, there was only so much fun you could have with a Punch-Me before you were so frustrated you wanted to punch something. Else.
6. Barbie Dream House
There will be some who think this is a controversial pick, and I hear you. But contrast the Barbie Dream [sic] House with the Barbie Townhouse, which had three floors and a working elevator! The “Dream” House was all plastic, came in three sections, and wasn’t actually that spacious for Barbie, Ken, Skipper, Tiffany Tuesday and all the other off-brand dolls you wanted to live in it. The furniture was all made of one solid piece of plastic, unlike real dollhouse furniture that had real cushions and real linens and real stoves with fake food inside. It looked very cool in the box, but once the “Dream” House was set up, it was yet another boring plastic sadtime that had none of the glamour of the Barbie Dream’Vette or the splish-splash summer fun of the Barbie Dream Pool.
7. My Buddy
My Buddy was a not-very-cute effort to get boys excited about dolls, and I recently learned that it was one of the inspirations for the Chucky movies. The commercial jingle is what was really insulting about this thing—”My Buddy and me like to climb up a tree, My Buddy and me are the best friends we could be.” No kid wanted a doll as a best friend, no kid believed that that creepy stuffed toddler wanted to climb trees or ride a Big Wheel. Kids wanted Cabbage Patch Kids and Atari and to be included in four square games with their real live friends on the playground. (Kid Sister, the girl version of My Buddy, barely even registered in human consciousness, and thank god.)
The first handheld computer game! The thing itself was a mystery object that made sounds, the instructions were impossible to decipher, and if you did figure them out, you’d find that Merlin was a battery-powered gizmo that would play tic-tac-toe, the world’s most boring non-computerized game you never even wanted to play in real life. The buttons were also very hard to press, which made “playing” with Merlin more of a chore than anything else.
Operation was a terrifying experience on every level. You had a frowning naked man with a middle part who looked like he might be found, post-op, lurking suspiciously on the fringes of the playground. He needed a lot of work done, mostly having bones removed with metal tweezers wielded by children who did not have the dexterity to do so without a major malpractice suit. So you’d go in to remove his funny bone, touch the side of the funny bone cavity, and basically receive an electric shock—the scary man’s giant gin-blossomed nose would flash red and a buzzer so loud as to give a tiny child a heart attack would sound. ZZZZZ! You’re a bad surgeon! This game still exists, but the patient is now wearing shorts. I can’t believe it’s still around, and I can’t believe this dude keeps coming back to the same child-run hospital.