The Greatest Toys from the 1980s

Atari 2600
Atari 2600

I am a Gen X, and as such, spent a good chunk of my childhood in the 1980s.  To me, those were interesting times.  Action figures, arcade parlours and Atari reigned supreme, together with the early days of cartoons that were generated chiefly to promote toy lines.  People weren’t “plugged in” or “online” as they are today.  Home computers were starting to become popular, but even so, us kids spent a lot more time playing outside or in the bedroom rather than sitting at a keyboard.  So this is my little walk down memory lane, and my list of what I consider to be the top ten toys from the 1980s (although I acknowledge some of the items I list may have originally been released before then):

Number Ten – Laser Tag 

When I first heard about this concept, it just blew me away… “wait… you get a laser gun, and a laser target each, and you shoot each other, and if your laser hits the target, it beeps and flashes to say you are hit… no way!?”

I had a hard time believing the technology from the movies was available to us kids as a toy line.  As a result, I was possibly one of the absolute first kids in Thailand to have a full laser tag set.  My friends and I spent hours running through the side streets of Bangkok, shooting each other.

The only disappointing thing with laser tag though was that in the adverts, it looked like a visible laser came out of the gun.  In the target reticle there is even a little red dot for aiming.  However, the real toy only emitted an invisible infra-red beam.  It was a let-down after I spent months waiting for it… but that didn’t detract from the game-play.

Number Nine – Ghostbusters

I didn’t collect these, but I loved the movies and the cartoon series, and would have collected them if my parents didn’t think I had too many toys as it was.  The figures and play-sets were really cool, and one of the most sought after items was the Ghostbusters fire station headquarters.  It was nicely detailed on the interior and even had the containment area and the fire pole, straight out of the movie.

Number Eight -My Little Pony

I didn’t collect these, but my sister did, and I have to admit that I did occasionally sneak a pony or two into my action figure battles.  Other than turning heads, the ponies themselves were not posable, but they came with pretty cool play-sets.  Some of the later ponies even had functions like grow-able hair…. pull it out, brush it, and then wind the neck to retract the hair again.

Number Seven – Cabbage Patch Kids

They were aimed more at girls, but I still thought these were cool when they came out, and geez did every girl in class have to get one!  This was one of those must have items courtesy of some very good marketing.  I liked how each kid actually came with a certificate.

Number Six – MASK

MASK’s claim to fame, in addition to a great cartoon series, was to combine the coolness of Transformers type vehicles with small sized action figures (smaller than Star Wars and GI Joe).  The smaller figures meant you could have more elaborate play-sets and large scale wars with your friends.  Unfortunately the toy line never took advantage of this (unlike Dino-Riders), and instead had a fairly limited line-up… a truck, a few cars, motorbikes, choppers, and from memory, just one real play-set… the gas station headquarters.  Also, the smaller size meant the figures weren’t as posable as the GI Joes and didn’t have anywhere near the same level of accessories.

Number Five – Masters of the Universe

“By the Powers of Grayskull! I have the power!!!”  I am sure everyone remembers the Sunbow cartoon series playing on Saturday mornings.  These were some of my favourite cartoons, and I liked how they had a message at the end of each one such as don’t trust strangers.


The toys themselves were ultra-cool.  The characters were well-sculpted and often came with really cool accessories.  Most characters had spring-loaded waists so that you could line up a couple of figures and have one knock the other over using a spring-loaded strike.

In addition to the cool figures (and awesome character concepts) there were some cool vehicles and play-sets too.  The actual Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain were available, and if you had both of these, you had little space left for your bed in your bedroom.  The toy designers had actually thought out how kids might want to play and included various cool features into the play sets such as trap-doors, escape tubes, prisons, and the like.

The biggest down-side to the MOTU figures though was that they were quite large, meaning the vehicles and play-sets also had to be large, meaning it was hard to have large battles (between friends) and each vehicle/play-set became quite expensive due to size.

Number Four – Transformers

If you couldn’t decide what you wanted… a toy car, or a robot, well, the designers of Transformers solved that problem… why not make it both.  A robot that turns into a car, and vice versa.  This was marketed together with a cartoon series and comic book that brought the characters to life.  These toys offered plenty of hours of battles and I used to enjoy just sitting in class, quietly converting a transformer between car and robot, from under my desk.

However, as cool and creative as these toys were, I found that it didn’t take me too long before I became bored with them.  After all, each individual transformer only converted from a robot into a single type of vehicle.  Also, there was a lack of any real play-sets to make things interactive (with the exception of a large card-board play-set that looked cool but was utterly useless).

Number Three – Star Wars

The biggest movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s would have to be the Star Wars franchise.  In addition to defining a new standard for sci-fi blockbusters, Star Wars also defined new standards for action figures by starting the trend with the 3 3/4 inch posable figurines, vehicles and play-sets.  These figures, in mint condition packaging today, are some of the most sought after collectors items.  Even back then, Star Wars toys were something I constantly had my eye out for whenever I was on a shopping expedition with my parents.

Star Wars figure collection
Star Wars figure collection

The great thing about the Star Wars toys were that you could recreate your favourite battles from the movies.  In addition, some of the vehicles that Kenner created were truly amazing.  The Millenium Falcon (although slightly off scale), the Y-Wing and the Emperor’s Shuttle were awesome models.  Unfortunately, the sculpting on the figures left a lot to be desired and the figures only had limited posing ability (arms up/down, legs forward/backward and head rotates left/right).  Even Lego minifigs had more movement than this, and the lack of movement impacted on the figures’ ability to interact with the awesome vehicles and play-sets.

Number Two – GI Joe

GI Joe would have to be one of the leaders of the pack when it came to marketing strategy in the 1980s.  These toys were highly advertised, quite often in very subtle ways such that kids don’t even realise they are being marketed to.  For instance, the entire Marvel GI Joe comic was written very much with the objective of showing off each new line of GI Joe figures and vehicles.  Larry Hama did a fantastic job of writing new characters into his stories that I didn’t realise until I was well into my teens.

However, ignoring the questionable marketing strategy aimed at children, GI Joe was at least a great product.  For the first time, you had a toy line where the figures were small enough that you could set up large scale battles with your friends, but still large enough to be fully detailed and fully posable.  Each figure came with a file card that gave some good information about skills, and also came with different weapons and accessories.  In addition, you could mix and match, creating new accessories and roles for your favourite figures.  If you read the comics, you learned to really love your GI Joes, because the stories really breathed a lot of personality into all of the characters.  This would easily have to be why Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow became the two most sought-after characters.

USS Flagg
USS Flagg

Lets not forget the vehicles.  The manufacturers of the toy line didn’t just come up with tanks, jeeps and a few army type accessories.  Instead, they added in boats (some that really floated), helicopters with winches and rotating propellers, jets (with retractable landing gear, working parachutes and swing wings) and the piece de resistance, a whole aircraft carrier that was over 7 feet long!  I actually had the aircraft carrier, and I spent many weekends in my back yard with my friends, launching amphibious raids on Cobra from the flight deck.  Those moments constitute some of my fondest childhood memories.  Too bad about the Sunbow GI Joe cartoon series… it was so childish compared to the comic book.

Number One – Lego

Okay, this one existed well before the 1980s, and I first started on Lego back in the 1970s.  However, Lego really started becoming cool in the 1980s when they introduced proper mini-figures (aka minifigs) with movable arms, legs and rotatable hands.  Hand in hand with the minifigs, Lego became more serious about its different themes, such as Lego Town, Space and Castle.  Pieces started becoming more specialised, such as laser guns, and figures could now actually sit inside cars, boats, helicopters, and houses and they each had cool opening doors and hatches to get the figures in or out.

Lego trains
Lego trains

Out of all my toys, Lego was definitely the one I spent most time with.  I was constantly dreaming up new concepts and then building them.  Usually I would create vehicles, bridges or towers out of technic and then start integrating minifig elements to it.  I even used to create vehicles out of Lego that I would then use with my Star Wars or GI Joe action figures.

Because there was no limit to what I could create, Lego was easily the top toy of the 1980s.

My Thoughts

To me, what made these toys cool was in how the toy companies worked with other media such as cartoons and comic books to create more personality to the characters featured by the toys.  The other important factor to me was attention to detail.  I liked a lot of working features such as detachable missiles, guns with multiple removable parts, removable backpacks, and lots of extra accessories with each figure.  Lego doesn’t quite fit any of these criteria (ie no cartoons or comics, barely any guns at all and no war themes) but because it was a complex building tool, it was impossible for me to get bored with it.

A lot of the same types of toys are still available today… but I am not sure if the impact is the same any more… I somehow feel that technology and the internet have changed the way kids play to a large extent.

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