We always reminisce about presents ‒ unwrapping them, using them ‒ but we never stop and think about all the hours we spent looking through magazines at all of the amazing toys we really, really wanted… but could only hope to get. This article will attempt to bring some of that nostalgia back. If you were a kid at any point between 1983 and 2017, there’s a good chance you’ll think back fondly on at least one of these popular toys.
It’s not the same as looking through lists of toys and hoping your parents would get you one of them, I know. But the holidays are nearly upon us, and what better way to prepare than by getting all nostalgic about the toys of years past?
I can’t think of anything… so let’s get to it!
1983: Cabbage Patch Kids
The Cabbage Patch Kids were only 5 years old when they conquered America. Created in 1978 by a 21-year-old college student, demand for these puffy-cheeked dolls turned toy stores into violent free-for-alls during the 1983 “Cabbage Patch Riots.” Shoppers were actually going state-to-state, buying every doll they could and fighting all who opposed them.
By 1985, the toy had amassed more than $600 million in sales, making it one of the most successful dolls in history.
Not many toy lines can say they’ve spawned multiple successful film and television adaptations. Transformers is one of those hallowed few.
Created by Hasbro in 1984, this collection of extraterrestrial robots took the 80s by storm. In the 34 years since their inception, the Autobots have taken their battle with the Decepticons from living rooms to television screens to movie theaters. And with yet another Transformers film slated for a 2018 release, their run shows no signs of slowing down.
1985 – 1986: Teddy Ruxpin
If you go to a modern toy store and pick up a random doll, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll start talking to you. That hasn’t always been the case.
If you went to that same store in 1985, you’d probably find a single doll with the ability to communicate: cuddly, wide-eyed Teddy Ruxpin. Armed with cassette tapes and books, Teddy would move his lips and tell you stories as you listened and read along.
1988: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The Nintendo Entertainment System is arguably the most important thing to ever happen to video games. Its 1988 release sold more than 7 million units, and the market for game cartridges was bigger than the whole computer software market.
While it was not the first game system to see mass adoption, the NES set the stage for Nintendo’s dominance in the coming decades. Game systems like the Gameboy, Gamecube, Wii, and Switch owe their success to granddaddy NES.
So if you’re a fan of Pokemon, Mario, or any of the other characters in Nintendo’s massive universe… you have 1988’s NES to thank.
1989: Koosh Ball
1989 was the year of Koosh. Unlike our previous list items, the Koosh ball is a very simple toy… it’s basically just a ball made out of a few thousand rubber strings.
Despite its simplicity, it dominated the 1989 holiday season. Kids, grandparents, and everyone in between were throwing, stretching, and squeezing these brightly colored balls.
While they’re still sold as fun toys, the soft Koosh ball has found another useful purpose: safe replacement tennis balls for beginners.
1990: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If esteemed Renaissance artists Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael were alive today, they’d be horrified that the world associates them with pizza-eating turtles more than magnificent art.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles originated in the pages of comic books, but have since expanded their reach to cartoons, toys, video games, and movies. While they are still popular today, 1990 was arguably the peak of their success. as more than 30 million TMNT toys were sold before the year ended.
1991: Super Nintendo
1988’s NES gave Nintendo their success, and the 1991 release of the Super Nintendo solidified it. With over 49 million units sold throughout its lifetime, this 16-bit video game console crushed the competition with its superior graphics and audio.
The Super Nintendo held its own against some staunch competition: namely the Sega Genesis, which was positioned itself as the “cool” console. The Super Nintendo owes much of its success to its retention of key game developers from the NES era ‒ most notably Capcom, Konami, and Square.
1992: Barney Doll
If you grew up in the 90s, you know who Barney is. The lovable purple dinosaur and his merry group of friends were created in 1987, when a Texas woman couldn’t find any educational shows her son would find entertaining.
The success of the television show inevitably spawned a bunch of different merchandise, including a Barney doll. Naturally, watching TV is more fun when the show’s main character is sitting next to you… so tons of parents bought the doll to keep their children company.
The Talkboy is a simple audio recorder made specifically for “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”. The movie’s popularity caused such a demand for the toy that Hasbro mass-produced it for sale in stores.
The result? Demand for the toy grew to such an unsustainable level that Hasbro actually had to cancel the ads for it. They were selling them faster than they could produce them. Talk about good problems…
1994: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
You’re probably sensing a theme by now… popular toys often come from film and television. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are no exception to this rule.
The TV series, which aired in 1993, was an overnight classic. The action figures that followed were a massive hit. 1994’s holiday season saw kids all over the world unwrapping these flashy heroes.
1995: Beanie Babies
If you talk to someone who was into the Beanie Babies craze of the 90s, you’ll find one of two emotions: fondness or regret.
The feeling you encounter depends entirely on whether they bought into the idea that Beanie Babies would one day be worth a fortune. Those that did saw them as an investment, and invested thousands into stuffed animals that would eventually become worthless.
It’s not hard to see why many thought they’d be a good investment though. There are quite a few examples of Beanie Babies selling for thousands of dollars, and at one point they made up more than 10% of eBay’s sales.
1996: Tickle Me Elmo
Based on the friendly red Muppet, the Tickle Me Elmo plush toy took 1996 by storm. And it’s not hard to see why ‒ Elmo was one of the most beloved Sesame Street characters, and playing with it was highly addictive. A squeeze would make Elmo vibrate, shake, and laugh maniacally.
Demand for the toy had shades of both the violent Cabbage Patch Riots and the ridiculous price inflation of the Beanie Babies. Limited supply caused violent fights to break out over the few toys available, and the $28.99 toy was selling on eBay for more than $1,500 at the peak of its hype.
Tamagotchi represents one of the first digital pets. The handheld, egg-shaped device contained a digital creature entirely dependent on you for survival.
Like a real pet, Tamagotchis require constant feeding and attention. Many parents thought it the perfect gift to give their kids a taste of responsibility, making it one of the most popular holiday gifts of 1997.
Furby is a sort-of creepy, sort-of cute sort-of bird. It has enormous ears, talks, and rapidly blinks its eyes whenever you interact with it.
Despite its weirdness, Furby managed to charm more than 40 million shoppers in its first 3 years. That’s pretty impressive, especially given the hefty $35 retail price.
1999: Pokémon merchandise
1999 marks the peak of the most successful media franchise of all time: Pokémon.
The juggernaut, which has generated more than $85 billion in revenue, started out as a Gameboy game in 1996. The anime show began its run by 1998, and by 1999 the franchise was selling more toys sold than any other brand.
2000: Razor Scooter
Many of the previous items on this list have been strictly indoor activities. Perhaps motivated to get their children off the Gameboys and out of the house, parents bought scooters in droves. More than 5 million were sold in just the first 6 months, making the compact and foldable Razor Scooter the most successful toy at the start of the millennium.
The rise of the Razor also brought freestyle scootering into the semi-mainstream. While it hasn’t yet been included in the famous X games, there are still professional scooter teams all around the world traveling and competing in competitive events.
2001: Bratz dolls
Released in 2001, the big-headed, well-dressed Bratz dolls were a fashion-doll goliath in the early 2000s.
Featuring four 10-inch dolls ‒ Yasmin, Cloe, Jade, and Sasha ‒ the Bratz quickly overtook Barbie as the most popular fashion doll line. By 2006, they had global sales of over 2 billion dollars and 40% of the entire fashion doll market.
Their popularity has fallen in years since, but doll lovers will never forget their post-millennium heyday.
If you were a kid (or had a son) in the early 2000s, you’ve probably heard of Beyblades: spinning tops that you put into an arena to “battle.” They were highly customizable, allowing you to replace any part of your Beyblade with one of the many accessories sold in addition to the standard set.
Despite the recurring theme of television shows spawning toys in this list, there’s no way a spinning top could have come from a TV series… right?
Fortunately, that is indeed the case here. While Beyblades did have a television show attached to it, it was created because of the popular battle tops ‒ not before they came into existence.
Robosapien is a remote-control robot. The controller has 21 different buttons, allowing for 67 different commands you can give to your Robosapien.
For a robot made in 2003, it was capable of some pretty crazy stuff:
- It could pick lightweight objects up and throw them.
- It could use a built-in speaker to say several different phrases.
- It could walk.
These advanced features definitely helped Robosapien dominate the 2003 and 2004 holiday season. In 2004 alone, more than 1.5 million units were sold.
2005: Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 was without a doubt 2005’s most popular holiday gift. With high-definition graphics yet unseen in the world of consoles, gamers and gift-givers were tripping over themselves to get one during the limited initial store release.
As far as sales go, the Xbox 360 was the first of the mid-2000s “next-gen” consoles to hit the market, and Microsoft cashed in big-time. They sold more than 1.5 million consoles by the end of the year. That’s pretty impressive, considering the console launched in late November.
2006: Playstation 3
The PlayStation 3 was Sony’s answer to the Xbox 360. They were hampered by a later release and a higher price, but made up for that with some fantastic exclusive titles and a built-in Blu-Ray player.
The PS3’s release was unfortunately surrounded by reports of violence. There were numerous scuffles, drive-by BB gun shootings, and robberies at gunpoint ‒ all to get a $499 video game console.
2007: Nintendo DS
Despite the dominance of Sony and Microsoft in the console department, Nintendo never lost their ironclad grip on the handheld gaming device market. The dual-screen Nintendo DS took the reins from the Gameboy series and charged ahead to become the most popular handheld system in history.
2007 marks the start of the DS’s chart-topping 154 million unit run.
2008: Nintendo Wii
The Nintendo Wii and its groundbreaking motion-tracking technology looked like it might be just a gimmick before it was released. Nintendo was sacrificing graphics quality for a novel experience… would it pay off?
The answer, of course, is yes. While it was released in 2006, the Wii built up steam with each successive year. 2008 is arguably the Wii’s pinnacle, with more than 13 million units selling in the U.S. alone.
Their success prompted competitors Sony and Microsoft to release their own motion-tracking technology ‒ though they failed to create systems as innovative and engaging as Nintendo’s Wii.
2009: Zhu Zhu Pets
Zhu Zhu Pets are plush robot hamsters. They were originally released in the United Kingdom under the moniker Go Go Hamsters, and they were enormously popular during America’s 2009 holiday season.
Unlike most of the other products on this list, the Zhu Zhu Pets franchise were managed by a very small team of people. Only 16 people were employed in their United States branch, despite demand being so high that people were willing to pay $60 for something that retailed at $9.
The iPad was Apple’s first foray into tablet computers. A decent touchscreen computing experience had previously been limited to phones, and the iPad changed that. It brought the benefits of a larger screen to the mobility and versatility of the iPhone.
The iPad marks the first entry on our list that reaches beyond the toy realm. We still had to include it though, because it was so damn popular. Apple sold more than 300,000 iPads on the first day of release alone, and many millions more in the months and years that followed.
2011: LeapPad Explorer
Leapfrog is famous for creating quality educational products for children. Perhaps their most successful product is their LeapPad Explorer: a $100 tablet stocked to the brim with educational games.
Many parents who were hesitant to buy iPads filled with mindless games jumped at the opportunity to get a tablet that would only make their kids smarter. Add in the significantly lower price point, and you can see why the LeapPad Explorer comes right after the iPad on our list.
2012: Wii U
Nintendo’s Wii U brought two much-needed improvements to their Wii game console:
- Improved hardware that could actually compete with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
- A handheld controller with a touchscreen on it.
While it wasn’t a wild success as far as game consoles go, the Wii U was definitely a hit, selling more than 3 million units by 2012’s close. Many of the people who bought it were likely already fans of the Wii, and looking to get their hands on an upgraded version of their favorite console.
2013: Big Hugs Elmo
As it turns out, Sesame Street has some really long-lasting appeal. Almost 20 years after the success of Tickle Me Elmo, the red Muppet came back with another smash hit toy: Big Hugs Elmo.
Instead of giggling maniacally, this child-sized version of Elmo would hug you when you touched him. He would also sing, talk, and dance, making him a great playfriend for young children familiar with his TV show.
The street price of this Elmo never hit the $1000+ levels of its predecessor, but maybe that’s for the best.
2014: Elsa doll
Disney’s “Frozen” was a box office juggernaut. And if we’ve learned anything reading about popular toys, it’s that many are the result of success on the screen.
Following the film’s release, almost every little girl on the planet wanted an Elsa doll. Their parents, wanting to make them happy (and instill in them the good values of Elsa), bought the doll.
The result? Disney sold nearly $4 billion worth of merchandise in 2014 ‒ and much of that was thanks to “Frozen” and the Elsa doll.
2015: BB-8 “Star Wars” Toy Droid
Disney had another massive box office hit in 2015, with their release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. The long-awaited seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise also brought its share of merchandise, all of which was just as successful as the film.
There was one standout amongst the new Star Wars toys though: the BB-8 Toy Droid. It was sold out completely on the very first day of availability, and was actually a catalyst for increased sales for the entire 2015 toy industry.
2016: Hatchimals and the NES Classic
2016 gives us a rare tie for hottest holiday toy: Hatchimals and the NES Classic.
A Hatchimal is a toy that you must care for – kind of like a real-life version of the Tamagotchi. The toy actually comes in the form of an egg. You have to nurture the egg in order to hatch the toy inside.
The NES Classic is a modern re-release of 1988’s Nintendo Entertainment System. You know, the one that catapulted Nintendo into the stratosphere of video game fame. Anyway, the NES Classic came preloaded with 30 of Nintendo’s most popular NES games, including “Super Mario Bros.” and “The Legend of Zelda.”
2017’s most popular holiday toy is without a doubt Fingerlings ‒ robotic monkey dolls that latch onto your fingers. While the Fingerling is definitely a cool toy, it may owe its success to a somewhat novel advertising strategy: Youtube ads (instead of TV ads).
Despite the $20 price point, which is kind of hefty for such a small toy, orders for the finger monkey were coming in by the truckload. It looks like the era of digital advertising is here to stay, and the toy companies that master it are likely to next year’s 2018 slot.