Tag: Toys

The Mega Haul of Christmas 1986

 

Two weeks ago, I spent quite a bit of time working on, and posting the article, 1986:  The Year Santa Became Real, for the Christmas season here at Retro Ramblings. In it, I go into detail about how my Christmas experiences took a huge upturn in 1986, and mentioned several awesome toys that I got from Santa Claus that year. I didn’t have the space in the article to go into a lot of detail on each of those toys, so this whole article is dedicated to just that!

Cobra Terror Drome

The big one that Christmas morning in 1986 was the G.I. Joe Cobra Terror Drome. At that time in life, my world revolved around four toys. G.I Joe, Masters of the Universe, Construx, and Legos….with G.I. Joe being at the top of the list. Knowing this, it was no surprise to my parents that the biggest hit of the holiday season would be this huge G.I. Joe play set.

It had room for plenty of figures, so massive battles were a foregone conclusion. I stockpiled this sucker with every bad guy I had in my collection, and then began a full on assault with all of the good guys I could find. Even Bo & Luke Duke in their 3 3/4″ figure form and the General Lee got in on the action on the side of the Joes!

 

More Dukes of Hazzard:  Looking Back at Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise From the 80’s

 

 

Cobra Terror Drome

The initial battle was a stalemate, with Cobra barely able to hold off the tremendous might of the Joes, as they retreated back a little ways to regroup and plan for a second assault. Now of course this stalemate was only to ensure that the Terror Drome was intact to play with again the following day. I spent a while Christmas afternoon interacting with various parts of this set. The Cobra vehicles re-fueled at the re-fueling station built into it, while some of the top Cobra brass interrogated a captured Joe down in the holding cell area.

The shine of this toy didn’t wear off anytime soon, but I had gotten quite a few other new toys this Christmas that required my attention, so I had to let the action cool down a little so I could get on to some of the other stuff like…..

Continue reading “The Mega Haul of Christmas 1986”

The Hottest Christmas Toys Through the Decades: The 1950’s

Christmas Through the Decades

It doesn’t matter how far back through the decades you go, each Christmas season has had it’s “must-have” hot toy that all the kids wanted.  Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were hot in 1983, but Davy Crockett coonskin caps were just as hot in 1954.  We’re going to be taking a look back at the hottest toys for Christmas’s through time, and this time we’re looking at the 1950’s.  You can also check out the decade of the 1940’s.

 

1950

Buzzy Bee

Buzzy Bee

Fisher-Price introduced the Buzzy Bee, a wooden pull-toy shaped like a bee whose yellow plastic wings not only rotated when pulled but made a delightful clacking sound.  Further delight was added by red wooden balls that waved at the end of coiled-spring antennae.

 

Hopalong Cassidy Lunch Boxes

Hopalong Cassidy Lunch Boxes

Hopalong Cassidy lunch boxes, inspired by the new TV hit, flew off the shelves.  Before December is out, over 600,000 had been sold.

Continue reading “The Hottest Christmas Toys Through the Decades: The 1950’s”

The Hottest Christmas Toys Through the Decades: The 1940’s

 

It doesn’t matter how far back through the decades you go, each Christmas season has had it’s “must-have” hot toy that all the kids wanted.  Cabbage Patch Kids dolls were hot in 1983, but Davy Crockett coonskin caps were just as hot in 1954.  We’re going to be taking a look back at the hottest toys for Christmas’s through time, and we’re starting with the 1940’s.

 

1942

Little Golden Books

Little Golden Books

Little Golden Books published it’s first twelve books.  1.5 million copies were sold in the first 5 months alone.

 

Lionel Paper Trains

Lionel Paper Trains

After being forced to halt production to their normal metal trains due to the war, Lionel offered a paper train for the holiday season.  In its Model Builder magazine and its Railroad Planning Book, Lionel urged boys and their dads to start planning their post war railroad now.

 

1943

Chutes and Ladders

Chutes and Ladders

Produced by Milton Bradley, Chutes and Ladders created a fervor among kids everywhere.

Continue reading “The Hottest Christmas Toys Through the Decades: The 1940’s”

Christmas Mornings of the Past, Part 1

No other time of the year holds more nostalgic memories for me than Christmas.  All my life – from a kid, up through today – I spend all year long looking forward to this time of year, and making plans to make it as special as possible for my kids.  The climax of the whole season is Christmas morning itself.  That magical time of the year when you get up real early, and rush to the Christmas tree to see what Santa Claus has left for you.

It seems that Christmas morning is kind of a tally sheet for the year doesn’t it?  Like, as a kid, you had all these things you wanted all year, and all those wishes would culminate in that one single morning.  If you got a lot of loot, or very cool loot, your year was a success.  If not, well…better luck next year kid.  At least that’s the way it went in my mind all those years ago.  I had a few of what I thought were less-than-stellar Christmas mornings, but then 1986 came along and changed all of that.

Nowadays, I like to look back on different people’s Christmas mornings of years past and marvel at how cool it must have been to be in their shoes on those mornings so long ago.

Christmas Morning

So first up, this kid looks pretty pleased to have gotten the Go Bots Command Center play set under his tree on Christmas morning.  I was a big fan of the Go Bots cartoon, but only ever had two of the action figures….Loco and Dive-Dive.  Now while I wish I had more of the figures, and would have loved the Command Center, I never put it on any of my Christmas lists because it wouldn’t have been very much fun without a lot of the action figures to go along with it.

In the background on his right, someone has gotten some kind of G.I. Joe play set, because we can clearly see the opened box.  I’ve gotta take a few points away from this kid now knowing that he chose to pose with the Go Bots toy when he could have been posing with the G.I. Joe one instead.

I can’t really tell what his brother is holding in the background, but just in front of it is a nice looking piece of gold ribbon, which indicates their Christmas presents were probably well wrapped and made for a very nice presentation.  And I am almost certain, that on the far right of this photo, you can see what is the box of a G.I. Joe Cobra Rattler!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these kids had a pretty damn good Christmas.  A Go Bots play set, and a couple of G.I. Joe toys means a big Christmas morning, regardless of what other loot they may have found.

More Christmas Memories:  Making My Christmas Wish List From the 1986 Sears Wish Book

Man these kids really hit the jackpot!  You can clearly see a buffet of G.I. Joe play sets including the Cobra Rattler, Cobra Vamp, G.I. Joe Wolverine, and the G.I. Joe Dragonfly helicopter!  I don’t see any carded figures in the picture, but one can only assume these kids already have several of those.  I’m sure there was quite a battle fought between the Joes and Cobra later on this Christmas day.

More G.I. Joe:  My 5 Favorite Episodes of G.I. Joe

While this kids looks happy to have received the legendary Castle Grayskull, he doesn’t seem excited enough.  When I got my Castle Grayskull I ran around the living room shouting and jumping for joy.  I just don’t see that kind of enthusiasm pouring out of this kid.  It looks like there is a stack of boxes in the background that clothes are usually given in, so his senses may be dulled at the moment by opening all of those crappy presents before getting to the main event.

More He-Man:  Wax Pack Flashback – Opening a pack of He-Man Trading Cards From the 80’s

I bet these kids had one long, and awesome Christmas day filled with video game fun since they got the Atari Video Computer System that morning.  I just hope they got some cool games to go along with it.  I believe my brother had gotten his Atari for Christmas, but not I’m not sure as I can’t quite remember back that far.  But I do remember spending whole days playing it with him.

The one kid in this photo is handing off what looks to be a camera maybe?  I’m thinking that due to what appears to be a one of those old flashes that used to be on every camera.  Speaking of flashes, am I the only one who always loved the look of the long stack of flash cubes attached to the top of cameras from back in this time period?

So these three kids all look like they got exactly what they wanted for Christmas judging by the looks on their faces.  That poor dog in the arms of the little girl looks like he’s having a rough morning though.  I’d be willing to bet he was forced to play tea party or something with the girl and her new stuffed dog toy.

The kid in the cool red pajamas looks pretty bad ass on his new big wheel.  The particular one he is astride is the quite popular and sought after “Green Machine”.  That thing was pretty awesome due to it’s alternative steering versus tradition big wheel toys.

And the kid in the middle…the one after my own heart…holding up with pride his new set of Legos!  That would be the iconic Galaxy Explorer set.  My brother had that thing and I was never allowed to touch it.  What a douche.  Anyway, these kids look like they had a great day, and many days after that too thanks to the cool stuff they got for Christmas that year.

You can get a scaled down version of that cool space cruiser along with the book, Great Lego Sets:  A Visual History.  It is a fantastic look back at a lot of the most popular and well-remembered Lego sets of the 80’s and 90’s.  I highly recommend it.

We’ll do more of these Christmas morning photos next week, so check back then.  But you don’t have to wait that long for more retro Christmas content.  We’ve got fun stuff coming up each days this week, so visit often!

 

The Year Santa Became Real

By the fall of 1986, my thoughts were starting to turn to the coming Christmas season, and anticipation was starting to build for the holiday. The hope of children isn’t easily pushed to the side, but back in those days, I would be lying if I said that Christmas didn’t feel a little lacking.

Admittedly, I personally never felt slighted on Christmas morning. Whatever was under the tree from Santa Claus always left a lasting impression on me, even if I sometimes felt the little internal tug of wanting a little bit more. But when I would return to school, and see and hear about all the cool things my friends and others had gotten for Christmas, I would get a little jealous.

I was a good kid. I never caused trouble at school, and I definitely knew better than to cause trouble at home. I did my chores and I ate my vegetables, so why did I seem to be farther down Santa’s Nice list than some of the other kids? “Jonathon pushed Samantha down and hurt her arm”, “why did he get a huge Lego set and I only got a trumpet?”. “Zach punched me in the arm all year…hard.” “Why did he get a cool G.I. Joe HISS Tank and all the Dreadnoks figures and I ended up with a set of cars?” Such are the worrisome wonderings and questions of a kid who is not aware of all the comings and goings of adulthood.

What I didn’t know or understand back then, and actually I’m still learning and gaining a greater perspective on now, is that times were very tough for my family in the early eighties. My Dad was a self-employed business man. He bought and sold new and used conveyor belts to coal mines, and as the coal business went, so did my family’s financial well-being.

1983 was a very tough year. My Grandfather’s alcohol addiction was in the last stages of consuming his life, and my Dad spent more time helping my Grandmother, both emotionally AND financially, than he did on the business. The first week of December, my Grandfather passed away. Christmas was lean due to dealing with the emotional struggles of losing someone close, and the fact that so much time had been spent away from the business.

1984 came along, and so did the large-scale United Mine Workers of America strike in West Virginia…..primarily against the A.T. Massey Coal Companies and subsidiaries. West Virginia was always the bread basket of my Dad’s business. When strikes occurred, it crippled his business and our financial well-being for quite some time, and unfortunately, this strike would not be over quickly.

1985 came, and the strike was still on. It wasn’t resolved until late in the year. Too late for lost income to be made up. Several straight years of lean and underwhelming visits from Santa Claus was wearing on my faith in the man.

But then came 1986. The strike had been resolved, and with the mines back in full-time operation, orders poured in from all sides. It was a VERY good year. Not so coincidentally, Santa seemed to fill his sleigh completely just for my family. I guess he was making up for lost time.

Continue reading “The Year Santa Became Real”

Looking Back at Random Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise, Part 2

A few days ago, I did a post highlighting several different pieces of Dukes of Hazzard merchandise I had when I was younger.  (Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise Part 1) So here we are again as promised for Part 2 of looking back at some cool Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise from the 80’s.

Dukes of Hazzard Bowl, Plate, and Cup

I don’t think this set came with the TV tray, but who knows.  I remember sitting around before school, and more mornings than not, my breakfast was served on these fine pieces of plastic.  And it was a hard plastic.
Each piece featured scenes from the show, and I would sit and stare at those pictures morning after morning.

Dukes of Hazzard Etch-a-Sketch Scenes

Etch-a-Sketch was such a brilliant toy, and is still a big hit with kids today.  As much fun as it was trying to create a masterpiece work of art, you could ramp up the fun even more by adding a fun sheet over the Etch-a-Sketch itself.  These were things like mazes, race courses and other things that would test your knob turning ability.
There was a Dukes set that featured several games you could play on your Etch-a-Sketch, but my personal favorite was the maze.  There was a Hide and Seek style game, a Boss and Roscoe roadblock game, and a Cooter to the Rescue game.

Continue reading “Looking Back at Random Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise, Part 2”

Looking Back at Dukes of Hazzard Merchandise From the 80’s, Part 1

Growing up, and still today, I was a big fan of The Dukes of Hazzard television show.  As I got old enough, I would watch the new episodes on Friday nights, and beyond that, it was shown in syndication on my local station every afternoon after school, so I had plenty of opportunity to watch.

 What I didn’t realize until recently was just how much merchandise I had that came from the show.  A while back, I mentioned having a Dukes of Hazzard TV tray that I would eat dinner off of occasionally. That sparked several other memories in me of stuff that I had that tied into the show that I had completely forgotten about. So today, I just want to review some of that stuff and relate some of my memories of those things.
Dukes of Hazzard TV Tray

Dukes of Hazzard TV Tray

We’ll just start with the first item that spawned the floor of memories, and talk about the TV tray for a moment.  As several of you may remember, my Dad traveled a lot when I was younger.  My brother was eight years older than me, and as soon as he was old enough too, he got a job working evenings and nights at the local grocery store.  This left just me and my mom at home at night for dinner.
She would usually make one of our favorite “just us” meals like tomato soup with cheese sandwiches, or Sloppy Joes, or some other simple dinner.  We rarely ate at the table since it was just the two of us, and instead we would eat dinner in the living room while watching TV.
I would usually sit on the living room floor, with my Dukes of Hazzard TV tray set up in front of me holding my dinner while we watched Batman (1966) on the Family Channel, and whatever would follow on the original Nick at Night.
Much like everything else on this list, I don’t know what happened to that TV tray, but I still have vivid memories of it and those times alone with my Mom as we bonded over dinner and classic TV.
Dukes of Hazzard ERTL Cars

Dukes of Hazzard ERTL Cars

What red blooded American boy who was a fan of the show didn’t have the Matchbox size replica cars?  I know I sure did.  Between my brother and I, we had a couple of the General Lee, four of the white Hazzard County police cars, Boss Hogg’s car, Daisy’s jeep, Uncle Jesse’s truck, and the rare golden Chickasaw County Police Car.
Of course the General Lee was the fastest in our Matchbox/Hotwheels collection, and not only could it out run those Hazzard County police cars, but also the Hotwheels City cop cars and anything else that tried to chase it down.
Those cars were the perfect licensed product for that show, since one the biggest attractions were the car chases featured, as well as the incredible stunts those Duke boys would pull off in the General Lee.  The little cars made it so easy to replicate whatever you had just watched on the show, and provided countless hours of play time fun for my brother and me.
Dukes of Hazzard Happy Meal Boxes

Dukes of Hazzard Happy Meal Boxes

This is one of the stranger items on this list, but maybe one of the coolest as well.  I’ve not taken the time to research exactly when these were issued or anything, but at some point in the 80’s, a deal was struck with McDonald’s to feature the vehicles from the show as boxes for Happy Meals.
They were made of a thin, molded plastic, two piece construction….a bottom and top…that held your Happy Meal inside.  They came with a decal sheet that you would use to decorate it and make it look like the vehicle from the show.
Now why that may have been cool enough, let me tell you the real magic of these things.  The plastic would crinkle just like the fender of a real car in a wreck!  So I would spend hours playing with these things…having car chases and such, but sure enough, most chases ended with the vehicles crashing into each other and causing significant body damage.  But fear not, because you could open it up, push out the dents, and start all over again.
I’m not sure how long they lasted until they were too beat up to repair, but I know I pushed them to those limits before I would let my Mom throw them out.
Dukes of Hazzard Wrist Racers

Dukes of Hazzard Wrist Racers

I came across a picture of these the other night, and it was like a lightning bolt striking me.  My mind had lost all traces of the memory of having these things, but once I saw them, the memories came flooding back.
This was such a cool toy, as you had a small (smaller than Hot Wheels) General Lee car or Police car that would wind up so you could let it go and it would take off.  You wound up the car and attached it to it’s “wrist” base, and left it there until you were ready to set it off on it’s journey.  On the front of the base, was a pull out ramp that made it possible to lower your arm to the floor, and have the ramp ON the floor so when you launched the car it didn’t wreck once it left your wrist.  One push of a button released the wound up car and it would zoom across the floor!
This was such a genius idea, and it was made all the better by the fact that it was built like a watch so that you could wear it around everywhere you went, and be ready to launch it at any time.
There’s a lot more merchandise to cover, but we’ll cover it later this week..  Next time around we’ll be looking at some of the Color Forms and other merchandise like the Dukes of Hazzard Big Wheel!

Looking Back at Big Trak

Bog Trak

November of 1979 was the moment the future finally arrived in the American living room. When the holidays arrived a month later, many American children (mostly boys) were treated to the toy of their dreams, lovingly realized in injection mold plastic and the invisible world of internal chip technology.

Imagine the revelatory shock that spread like miniature mushroom clouds of excitement through your nervous system when underneath the torn wrapping of a holiday gift lay a bright, shining box containing Big Trak, the first artificial intelligence robotic vehicle made expressly for children. The mind raced with evil genius delusions of grandeur, fantasizing about all the limitless applications of your new six wheeled, programmable domestic assault vehicle.

Big Trak, the brainchild of an electronically minded Milton Bradley Company (who released Simon and Microvision during the same period), looked like a toy version of the futuristic armored RV from Damnation Alley. The squat, low and sturdy appearance of the truck had an almost militaristic feel, which was heartily reinforced by Big Trak’s ability to fire “Photon” lasers (actually a focused high wattage light bulb behind a red filter). The toy retailed for about $43.00, a price high enough that it was often marooned it to the envious land of “toys” other people have in their homes.  Big Trak also had one “trailer hitch” accessory that, for anyone who saw Big Trak commercials, was an absolutely necessary purchase. The trailer sold for $12.00 and could be used to haul cool stuff around the house. In the commercial, a kid giddily programs his Big Trak to surprise his father with a cool, refreshing drink, perhaps thanking him for spending so much on this techno-wonder.

Big Trak

In the end, remotely serving your father his evening gin & tonic was about the limit of Big Trak’s practical applications. The plastic multi-colored numeric directional keypad located on Big Trak’s back was just complicated enough to make navigating the hallways and rooms of the average family home a daunting task at best. There was a difficult system of pressing numbers and arrows in sequence in order to command the vehicle to “go forward,” “turn left,” “go forward again,” “fire photon,” “retreat,” etc. This was made more problematic by the fact that each time the forward arrow was pressed in the sequence of commands, the Big Trak would move approximately 13 inches. This was not a particularly helpful formula for precise driving, and a lot of living room furniture suffered as a result.

Even if Big Trak was eventually proven ineffective as a toy, its lure and appeal were supreme. While the electronic aspects were particularly hypnotic, the idea that Big Trak offered an element of control to a child that had very little power over the world around them was like entering the realm of magic. A child’s environment is often dominated by schedules, rules and parameters designed by someone else’s hand. Big Trak promised a child his own agency in decision-making. Move here. Turn there. Fire weapon. Bring me a drink. Obey me, Big Trak, for I am your god.

Ouija Board

Ouija

So there’s no gray-haired psychic in your town? And you can’t sneak another call into the astrology hotline without your mom noticing the long distance charges? If you need some answers in your life, and answers more specific than the good old Magic 8 Ball can provide, the Ouija Board might be your next stop. Not only, for example, can the Ouija tell you if you should go ahead and color your hair, it can tell you what color you should choose. Fortune telling was never this specific! There is much debate as to what moves the pointer around on the board-is it the players themselves or the busybody spirit world? And if you think the 8 Ball has its fair share of literal-minded, no-fan-of-anything-you-can’t-reach-out-and-grab opponents, you should get a load of the apprehension and controversy that the Ouija inspires. All of it would make William Fuld, the board’s quirkily entrepreneurial patriarch, very, very proud.

In mid-nineteenth century New York, communing with the “other side” was all the rage. Spiritualist churches were popping up everywhere, and the city’s chic hostesses clamored for authentic mediums to attend their gatherings, so that chatty members of the spirit world could speak through them. As an alternative to all that zany vocalizing, there was “spirit writing,” wherein the medium would establish contact with a spirit, grab a pencil, and let the spirit do the rest. A doohickey called the “planchette” was invented for such parlor sessions-a small, heart-shaped plank (planchette means ”little plank” in French) with a pencil at the heart’s apex. The downside to spirit writing was that the mediums, or ahem, their spirit-communicators, didn’t always have the most legible penmanship, and message transmission tended to be a bore-and nobody wants that at a seance party.

“Talking boards,” the brainchild of three Americans named E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard, came next. This rectangular wooden slab provided a flat surface for the wooden-pegged planchette to glide over, featuring the alphabet, numbers one through ten, and words “yes” and “no.” According to some, Kennard called the board “Ouija” after an Egyptian word for good luck, and even better yet (at least better for Ouija’s sometimes purposely murky history), Kennard claimed the board itself suggested the word. In 1892, Kennard’s ex-foreman, William Fuld, took the company over, named it the Ouija Novelty Company, and began producing the board in high volume numbers.

Ouija 2

Fuld, no marketing dimwit himself, concocted his own version of the Ouija’s genesis: claiming he invented the whole enchilada himself, and that the word Ouija was actually an amalgam of the French “oui” and the German “ja”-possibly just a way to force people to pronounce it correctly. Fuld didn’t own the market on talking boards (there was Milton Bradley’s Genii, for instance), but he certainly cornered it. In 1927, Fuld fell from a factory roof in his native Baltimore-some say suicide, some accident. Fuld’s children took over after that, and then in 1966, Parker Brothers bought the company.

Today, the board is made of folding cardboard instead of wood, and the planchette glides on velvet tabs instead of wooden pegs, but other than that, it looks nearly the same as it did over one hundred years ago. The alphabet spans the board in two crescent rows, the numbers are below that, and in the corners are the words “yes” and “no,” and at the bottom, “good bye.” All this handy data faces the player who sits at the base of the board, so if reading upside down doesn’t come easy, savvy players sometimes recruit a note-taker to jot down the letters, which can then be deciphered later.

The unspoken rules that go along with this game are legion. Never play it alone. Never play angry. Never, especially in the case of permanent hair color choices, let the Ouija be the final authority. Play at night, because according to Ouija aficionados, there is less traffic in the psychic atmosphere. Decide on one person who will ask all the questions, because there is less confusion to any, um, spirits who are out there, navigating said psychic traffic. Candlelight is recommended (the spirit world having always been a big advocate of energy conservation), and two players are best. The board is best placed atop the two players’ knees, but a table is okay if the candlelight is making a jittery player’s knees knock. Warm the planchette, or pointer, up by moving it around in circles, but then stop moving it altogether. Check for white around the fingertips, which indicate someone is pressing down, and then ask a clearly stated question. Hopefully, if the atmosphere is favorable and the traffic is light, the spirits will take over.

Or will they? Some believe the board is just a reflection of the players’ inner psyches no spirits at all, just us good old fashioned, earthbound folks who guide the pointer unconsciously. Fair enough, but let’s face it, sometimes the pointing isn’t always unconscious. Those same rascals who occasionally “borrow” from the bank in Monopoly when no one is looking are also known to form words on the Ouija Board deliberately. And then, of course, we feign great surprise (with a sly mental nod to their junior high drama class teachers) as that magic planchette spells out exactly what we want to hear.

Parker Brothers likes to avoid negative Ouija connotations, but when dealing with a supposed conduit for incorporeal intelligences, there’s a certain degree of creepiness can’t be helped. The board was supposedly banned in Britain during the 70’s, and there are plenty of parents and religious groups today who’d just as soon their kids just play checkers. Of course, all the mystique just sells more boards and makes impromptu Ouija sessions feel nicely forbidden and scandalous-a feeling you just can’t get from checkers.

Sea Monkeys Were a Cool Concept

Sea Monkeys

There have been plenty of toys that allowed to children to put their natural creative energies to work. Legos, Erector sets, and countless other similar items let kids build elaborate kingdoms and complex machines to satisfy the need to create. Sea Monkeys took this process one step further and allowed more enterprising youngsters to actually create life. With the help of elaborate ads that seemed to appear in every comic book released during the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the scientific marvels known as Sea Monkeys became one of the most popular toys of all time.

Sea Monkeys are not actually monkeys, but they do come from the sea and are real living things (contrary to popular belief and urban legend). To be specific, they are “Artemia Salina,” or “brine shrimp” in layman’s terms. They were thought of as mere fish food for many years until Harold von Braunhut, a man who is famous among toy enthusiasts for inventing X-Ray Spex, discovered these marvels of the sea. He saw their potential as a pet and developed a simple, three-step kit that allowed aspiring young marine biologists to raise their own brine shrimp in a container of water.

Honey Toy Industries obtained the rights to Von Braunhut’s kit and began marketing it in 1960 as Instant Life. When it didn’t become an immediate hit, Von Braunhut came up with the brainstorm of advertising the kit in comic books. Von Braunhut also noticed that the little brine shrimp resembled monkeys when they grew to adulthood, so he added the phrase “Sea Monkeys” to the packaging of Instant Life. As a result, sales for the newly-named Sea Monkeys began to skyrocket, and Sea Monkeys ads became an ubiquitous presence in the ad pages of comic books everywhere.

By the 1970’s, Instant Life was one of the coolest toys a kid could own. As a result of its success, Honey Toy Industries changed its name to the more official-sounding Transcience Corporation. Also, Instant Life became known simply as Sea Monkeys, since the fanciful depictions of Sea Monkey families used in the ads had become the crucial selling point. Indeed, comic book-reading kids everywhere fantasized about raising their own kingdoms of these strange humanoid-looking creatures.


Check out Kirk Demarais’ Awesome Book, Mail Order Mysteries, For More Great Toys Like Sea Monkeys


Sea Monkeys gained additional hipness when they were packaged with special containers called Ocean Zoos. These mini-aquariums have since become the definitive home for Sea Monkeys. Sea Monkeys gained another home when the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway was introduced in 1974. This device, which took advantage of the fact that Sea Monkeys swim against the current, included “tracks” so the Sea Monkey owner could raise champion Sea Monkeys. Another success, the Speedway led to follow-ups like Sea-Monkey Cycle Race, Sea-Monkey Ski Trails, and Sea-Monkey Fox Hunt. There was also the Incredible Sea-Bubble, a mini-aquarium on a chain that could be worn as a necklace.

The Sea Monkeys phenomenon had become an institution by the end of the 1970’s. Its success also inspired a follow-up pet from Transcience Corporation known as the Crazy Crab. They were actually hermit crabs, a land-dwelling scavenger species. Like the Sea Monkeys, they became a hit and inspired a craze. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Sea Monkeys moved on to new distributors like Larami and Basic Fun with middling degrees of success. They were no longer as hip as they were during their 1970’s heyday, but the novelty of Sea Monkeys remained strong enough to keep them selling on name-value alone.

In the mid-1990’s, Sea Monkeys made a triumphant comeback when they began being distributed by ExploraToys. Now that the toy was old enough to be retro-hip, both kids and the adults who grew up with the Sea Monkey phenomenon were buying Sea Monkeys. They have also transcended their comic-book ad origins to be sold in national toy-store chains. And as long as toy fanatics want to take their love of creating things to the next level, Sea Monkeys will allow them to “create life.”

Small Cars, Big Fun: The Short Story of Penny Racers

Penny Racers

At first, it seemed like kind of a rotten deal. You’d saved up every last penny you could scrounge to buy one of Takara’s Penny Racers cars, and here they were, asking you to give up another cent just to play with it. Oh, but it was worth it. Matchbox and Hot Wheels were great for driving fast or for zipping along tracks and playsets, but for the spin-crazy, wheelie-happy, stunt driving kid, only a genuine Penny Racers would do.

Takara’s dinky little toy cars were originally released as Choro-Q vehicles in their native Japan. Brought over to the States as Penny Racers in 1981, the cars grabbed the attention of many kids, who saw the amazing tricks executed on TV commercials and knew they had to have one.

At its core, the Penny Racer was just a pull-back motorized car, something that had been around in one form or another for years. The gimmick was in the penny. A slot in the back of the car let kids slide in a penny to shift the weight around. Slide the penny to the right, and the car would favor that side, hitting quick spins before taking off in a new direction. Put the penny dead center, and chances are you’d see some two-wheeled wheelie driving. The package gave a few tips on tricks you might try, but experimentation was always encouraged.

A wave of Penny Racers in several styles hit the market in 1981, taking names like Van Man, Baja Blaster, Grizzly Gasser and Z Machine. Unfortunately, the gimmick wasn’t enough to sustain an international career. Takara continued to make Choro-Q cars in Japan, but American kids had to content themselves with similar models from major U.S. die-cast makers like Tonka. The toy was reborn, however, as a racing game for the Nintendo 64 in 2000.

Before Magic or Settlers of Catan, There Was Dark Tower

Dark Tower

Dark Tower…it was like every planet in the game universe had suddenly aligned. It was a board game, it was an electronic game, it was Dungeons & Dragons, all rolled into one. Milton Bradley called it Dark Tower; we called it “Dear God, I promise I”ll never ever do anything bad ever ever again if you make sure I get this game, and please make world peace, amen.”

The center of this 1981 game was the Dark Tower itself…not only did the big edifice loom over the circular game board, it was also the engine that made the whole game run. The object was to work your warrior’s way around the circular board, all the while building up armies, finding three needed keys and hoarding supplies of gold and food. Individual game cards with red and white pegs kept track of your current physical and financial status, but the real action took place inside the tower itself.

When it was your warrior’s turn, you pressed a button on the tower keypad to signal your turns action’s visit to the Bazaar for purchases and haggling; an exploration of Tombs or Ruins, where reward or battle might await; a simple one-space move; and so on. A randomizing engine inside the tower took care of the rest. At any moment, an enemy army of Brigands could strike, famine could decimate your troops, or luck could yield surprise treasures – the opponent-cursing Wizard, the dragon-slaying Dragonsword or a quick-travel Pegasus card. All results were indicated by one of many lit-up icons inside the tower’s dark, translucent face (an LED display took care of numbers). A dragon game piece roamed the board as well, acting as a fire-breathing spoiler.

After circling the board and amassing keys and troops, the final battle was an assault on the tower itself. After solving the riddle of the keys (which of the three went in what order), a final force of Brigands awaited, one that would tax the limits of your troops’ reserves. Fare thee well, young warrior.

Part of Milton Bradley’s leap into the electronic future of toys (along with Simon, Big Trak and others), Dark Tower was certainly a step up from your run-of-the-mill, dice-rolling board game. The emerging Atari generation was spellbound, as were D&D; aficionados. Unfortunately, the game’s relatively hefty price tag kept it from joining the ranks of Risk, Battleship and others, as Dark Tower vanished back into the Medieval mists after an all-too-brief lifespan.