Everyone has fond memories from childhood of that certain class of toy: toys that were, objectively speaking, absolutely terrible. They were either creepy little homunculi to stare at you from your dresser while you slept, or they broke almost immediately and you pestered your mom to buy another one because it was your absolute favorite, or maybe you just had to find your toys and sit down to watch their cartoon adventures every Saturday morning to get your fix. There was something wrong with them, or they just seemed overly complicated, but they were somehow exactly what you were looking for in your next favorite toy. They mattered to you.
There’s no shortage of classic toy lines that featured (but were not necessarily ruined by) truly terrible gimmicks. Whether it was a case of putting the cart before the horse and trying to create demand where there was none, or just a total misread of what would be fun for a child, sometimes the wasted effort that went into these toys’s complex universes make them all the more charming. Check out our list of our favorite misfit toys and classic lines that we love to death in spite of themselves.
15. VISIONARIES: KNIGHTS OF THE MAGICAL LIGHT
Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light was a 1987 toy line from Hasbro about a group of good and evil knights who were able to use magic in a post-technology world; it’s just this side of Dune by way of She-Ra. The toy sales did not bear up under the media empire that was foisted on them from the beginning, and have faded into obscurity.
The television show was unfortunately short-lived at the time, due in part to toy sales, but the franchise has found new life recently. Hasbro has taken steps to create a movie universe for the Visionaries, with writers like Nicole Perlman, Michael Chabon, and Brian K. Vaughan in the writer’s room, and Magdalene Visaggio & Fico Ossio are launching a Visionaries vs. Transformers miniseries at IDW in December.
14. STRETCH ARMSTRONG
Stretch Armstrong hit the heights of his popularity in the early ’90s, and was reintroduced at the 2016 New York Toy Fair by Hasbro. He is a fairly plain toy, really just a man in black shorts who can stretch to impossible length — each figure was only about a foot and half tall, but could stretch almost four times that far.
Stretch is currently making a comeback, with a full season of an animated series set to debut from Netflix later this year and a tie-in comic from IDW coming next year. He’s come quite a long way from being a toy that inevitably tore and had to be patched with a bandage within a week of being purchased; now he’s a bona fide media star.
13. NINTENDO’S R.O.B.
R.O.B. may be most familiar to people these days as a Nintendo character associated with StarFox, as he appeared in StarFox 64 piloting the Great Fox and dropping supplies for the player. He began as the Robotic Operating Buddy peripheral for the NES, and was compatible with a whopping two whole video games, both of which were designed specially to interface with him. The R.O.B. received controls via flashes in cathode ray tube televisions (similar to the NES Light Zapper), and he could spin tops and stack things on trays.
R.O.B. wasn’t robot enough to save himself from obsolescence, but he’s been kept alive by Nintendo as an unlockable character in several games, and a major part of the Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Adventure mode.
12. BIKER MICE FROM MARS
Another of the parade of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle-inspired cartoons of the early ’90s, Biker Mice From Mars followed three Martian Mouse brothers who all inexplicably loved motorcycles, and their quest to save Chicago from resource-draining fish-people (natch). BMFM at least had a little bit of a leg up on Street Sharks in that they were mammals, and not aquatic dwellers. Points for originality.
The series had tie-ins aplenty when it aired; from kid’s flashlights to a Tiger electronic LCD game to action figures, Biker Mice From Mars merch was riding high during the three years it was on the air. If you want to get your fix of the Biker Mice nowadays, there was a revival in 2006 that included new episodes of the show and a video game; in 2015, a mobile phone game was released with the full endorsement of Rick Ungar, the series creator.
11. PRINCESS GWENEVERE AND THE JEWEL RIDERS
Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders was a relatively short-lived television program from 1995-1996, two short seasons of the magical (and musical!) adventures of the titular princess and her best friends as they quested after enchanted jewels to save their kingdom. It has enjoyed something of a long twilight, finding a second life in the book series, Avalon: Web of Magic.
For as much as Hasbro promoted the toys, the line itself was a bust. Even after a “Watch and Win” promotion in February of 1996, in which fans of the show could call in with a code word from that week’s episode and win free toys, interest in the line remained low, and it passed quietly out of production with the television series, leaving the storyline behind for the novels to take up several years later.
10. CAPTAIN POWER AND THE SOLDIERS OF THE FUTURE
Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future was a Canadian-American TV show from 1987-1988 alongside a Mattel toy line, and it is one of the most complex media tie-ins on this list. The show itself and the storyline of the toys revolved around a kid-friendly Terminator rip-off, humanity subjugated by machines, resistance fighters, etc. Captain Power and his Soldiers of the Future all had powered exoskeletons — hence the name.
The Captain Power toys were standard action figures, but Mattel also created vehicles that were basically light guns that could interact with computer animated segments of the television show, allowing children to play along at home. Some of the toys also came with VHS tapes that included live introductions and interactive segments to use the toys; the downside being that VHS tapes could only play out the same way every single time. Altogether too much trouble for a mediocre show.
9. PUPPY SURPRISE
Ever since humanity tamed the wolf and created the modern domesticated dog, children have wanted dog toys. Many dog toys go on to become beloved childhood mementos, and Puppy Surprise is no different, despite the dark turn the toy takes.
Puppy Surprise takes dog toys in a bold new direction that’s half Operation, half blind boxes. Each Puppy Surprise was a heavily pregnant stuffed puppy doll. In order to fully experience the toy, you had to rip open the velcro in Puppy Surprise’s stomach and pull out anywhere from three to five puppies. The idea is cute on paper; you buy this cute dog and you get a random number of extra cute dogs with it — presumably, they made way more with only three dogs inside so they could save some money. In practice, however, the toy is nothing but nightmare fuel.
The iconic Troll doll was introduced to the world in the ’60s, and they manage to have a noticeable resurgence in popularity about once every decade. They most recently appeared in their own animated movie from DreamWorks, the latest classic toy to be shoehorned into a feature film.
Trolls are widely beloved, but there isn’t much to them. They have distinctive faces, and sometimes they have jewels in their belly buttons, but the real gimmick for the whole line is their shock of neon-colored hair. The hair itself is beyond dry, the dolls are naked for reasons that have yet to be adequately explained, and the jewels were apparently attached with something that wasn’t quite glue. For the good luck these trolls were supposed to bring, all they actually brought was an unsettling sense of being watched while they were on display in your room.
Zoids are a model toy kit line that have spawned several successful animes and manga volumes in the last 30 years. Each model was supposed to be a giant mecha, sort of a Power Rangers Zord meets a Transformer, except instead of Transforming, they were models to be assembled. Over the years, the Zoids have been released in too many varieties of formats to keep track of — if it’s a kind of figure, there’s probably been a Zoid of it.
Unfortunately, the commitment of Zoids to their franchise is what leads to the different models and toy types; if there’s a successful show going, toys have to keep coming to tie in. For the most part, Zoids are a faceless toy brand these days, conjuring up many half-images of toys, rather than one emblematic design.
HitClips are an unimaginable piece of luxury in this day and age. When an entire song costs 99 cents, a dollar twenty-nine at most, paying six dollars for less than a minute of a pop song that was on the radio all the time anyway is practically unforgivable.
The last in the long, shuffling ancestry of the 8-Track, HitClips had their brief blaze of glory in the years at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, right before the iPod came along and killed them, right alongside the Discman. Soon, it would be completely obsolete in the wake of the Zune and the iPod, but if you just wanted to hear the chorus of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” it was still the way to go.
5. PREGNANT MIDGE
Barbie has a variety of family and friends, from Ken to Skipper, Tutti and Todd, there are dozens of slight variations on America’s favorite teenage model/doctor/astronaut. Her best friend Midge Hadley was introduced to counteract the claim that Barbie was a sex symbol, and she has since appeared alongside Barbie in several lines of toys.
Midge was the star of her own line in 2003: The “Happy Family” line featured Midge and her then-husband Alan (since retconned out of existence by Mattel), and their newborn baby, Nikki. Sounds great, right? Sure, up until the moment you realize Nikki is magnetic and will stay in Midge’s stomach (also a magnet). People criticized it for encouraging teen pregnancy, but all it promoted was some brutal nightmare fuel.
4. STREET SHARKS
The Street Sharks were a Mattel toy line featuring such rad ’90s-isms as a whale shark riding a skateboard, a rollerblading tiger shark, and of course, a motorcycle-riding great white. The Street Sharks were the four sons of the unfortunately mutated Dr. Robert Bolton, who were all subjected to his device, the “gene-slammer,” which turned them into half-man/half-shark street-fighting monsters. The show ran for three seasons, though the first two were shorter; it was eventually folded into a different package as supporting players in their own time slot on Dino Vengers featuring Street Sharks.
Street Sharks is another franchise that only existed to support the weight of its toy sales; its brief television spotlight turned unceremoniously into obscurity as another of the many products inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
3. GLO WORMS
This may be punching down a little bit, as the Glo Worms was originally intended for young children — however, the franchise grew to an extent that older children would have been exposed to it. The original Glo Worm was a stuff worm body with a soft plastic head which would glow softly when a button inside the body was pressed. They’re off-putting to the touch, and just a kind of lame gimmick all around.
Eventually, Glo Worms were joined by Glo Snugbug, Glo Doodlebug, and Glo Bashfulbug. Many of the offshoot characters (the “Glo Family”) were created as part of a 1989 tie-in with Wendy’s, and by the time all was said and done, there were almost twenty different Glo Family members. Their soft heads have also been accused of harming children, due to the phthalates used to soften them, but if you want to risk it, they still make them.
The ultimate classic toy with the ultimate terrible gimmick, Furbys were the hot-ticket toy item of Christmas 1998 (and the lukewarm-ticket item of Christmases 1999 and 2000). Furby was intended to be a sort of “pet” robot, initially speaking nothing but its native language, Furbish, before eventually “learning” English — the robots were actually programmed to begin inserting English words at a predetermined rate.
Furby’s faded into obscurity for most of the ’00s, wounded by their reputation for being too creepy to be cute, as well as the occasional rumor that they were repeating Satanic phrases back to children. They were reintroduced in 2012, with controls based around a mobile app, and LCD eyes that could be even more reactive. For now, they bide their time and await the singularity from the safety of your childhood bedroom closet.
1. SECRET WARS
Marvel ventured into the toy business guns blazing in the mid- ’80s with their Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars toys, and they released their first major company crossover of the same title to cross-promote it. Under Jim Shooter’s editorial supervision, Secret Wars the comic is a little messy, but remains a fun nostalgia trip (and stands as an all-time great Doctor Doom story).
The toys were a different story. Produced in small runs, many of the figures were based off of the same three or four molds with slightly different cosmetics and paint jobs. Each figure inexplicably came with a shield with a lenticular/semi-holographic picture. Many of the figures were of characters who didn’t even feature in the comic. Ultimately, the line died a quiet death after only two and a half waves, which are perennial favorites at comic con toy booths.
Do you have fond memories of these toys? Let us know in the comments!
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