For many children in the western world, the magic of a birthday, Christmas or even Easter means the possibility of a host of new toys and games, a sense of competition over who got the latest and greatest novelty, and the promise of time off school. For every adult, it means stress for precisely the same reasons. The latest craze in 2014 is landing an elusive piece of Disney’s Frozen merchandise, with some ‘Elsa’ dolls going for $1000 on Ebay and frustrated parents furious at Disney’s ‘mismanagement’ of the demand for Frozen merch. Behind all this, of course, is skillful marketing and big business. The age old favourites like Barbie and Monopoly remain year-round strong sellers, but it is the seasonal – and particularly Christmas – must-haves that really stick with us and capture our imagination.
In a nostalgic look at toys past, the folks at Fast Company took a look at the best sellers each Christmas from the past 50 years. In 1963, it was the Easy Bake Oven, 1976 Connect 4 and in 1980 the mind-bending Rubik’s Cube. We’ve condensed this list down a tad, beginning in 1989 and looking at the most memorable toys of the past 25 years, each of which were huge bestsellers monopolising the Christmas market the year they were released. Some will inspire nostalgia, others plain confusion, but the list highlights the difference between a flash-in-the-pan trend and brands they have the longevity to stick around. From toys to technology, here then are the most popular toys of the past 25 years.
10. Game Boy: 1989
If you thought the tech buzz was something recent, think again. The original grayscale Game Boy was released in Japan and the United States in 1989, with Europe following in 1990, and it took the world by storm. To date, it’s still Nintendo’s best-selling console -selling over 150 million units worldwide. The Game Boy made Tetris the phenomenon that it was, and Super Mario the continuing hero that he is. These days the Game Boy has been revived for the modern mobile player, while the original still sells on Ebay. Those who remember the original console buy back into the childhood fun while hipsters around the planet have declared the original Game Boy “vintage.”
9. Super Nintendo: 1991
Super Nintendo was launched in November 1991, right on time for the Christmas rush. Super Nintendo preceded their competitor Sony’s gaming console Playstation – which debuted in December 1994 – meaning that it was able to corner the gaming market. Super Mario moved from the black and white world of the Game Boy to the television screen, with Mario Kart a best-selling follow up. The other major player on the gaming scene in the early 1990s, Sega, took a heavy knock when Super Nintendo debuted, in particular in the United States. 49 million Super Nintendo consoles were sold worldwide.
8. Tickle me Elmo: 1996
A brief interlude amidst the tech toys, Tickle Me Elmo was the runaway winner of Christmas 1996. The toy – based on the excitable, fun-loving Sesame Street character – is still used today as a benchmark for successful marketing and outreach campaigns, and all this in a world before social media. The animated stuffed toy was so successful it saw manufacturer’s Tyco’s revenue rise from $70 million to an incredible $350 million. With the doll retailing for around $35 a pop, that’s a lot of giggling Elmos. But the money raked in by the children’s toy is nothing when you hear the extremes parents went to back in 1996 to procure such a doll. Black market sales (yes, off the radar toy sales!) saw Elmo sell for as high as $2,000! It’s likely, then, that this would’ve been a favourite on eBay if the shopping site had been popular in ’96.
7. Tamagotchi: 1997
In 1997 Japanese toy maker Bandai came up with a smart but simple concept: a virtual pet. The pretend pet would be small and easy to keep in any house but teach the child the responsibility of caring for a ‘living’ thing. This was the idea behind the Tamagotchi and children jumped on it. The colourful appearance and compact size meant that kids shared and collected the Tamagotchi, while often forgetting to actually look after their virtual pet. At an age when e-learning was only beginning to emerge, the Tamagotchi was well before its time. Bankai re-released the Tamagotchi in 2004 but it never again gained the success it achieved in the late 1990s. At the height of their popularity however, 15 Tamagotchi sold every minute in the United States alone.
6. Furbies: 1998
Another giggling toy on our list, Furbies followed the trend of Tickle Me Elmo; a cuddly but mischievous giggle monster. Furbies were so popular they sold 16 million units in the Christmas of 1998. The toy was billed as an interactive learning device, but for many it was no more than an uncontrollable time bomb of loud noises and giggling. Furbies made noise when you played with them, made noise if you didn’t play with them, made noise when you were told not to play with them and most memorably made noise from the depths of a closet long after you had forgotten them. The dolls were intended to mimic what their owners say – apparently the NSA got so worried they might reveal State secrets that they banned these electronic critters from their offices. Either that, or they just got sick of the racket they make. No explanation as to how the small child’s toy got into the NSA’s offices in the first place, though.
5. Pokemon: 1999
“Gotta Catch ‘Em All, Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” This was the slogan for all things Pokemon and man did it work. From trump cards to soft toys, television shows to movies, Pokemon captured the imagination of the world and any kid worth their salt knew their Chaneys from their Geodudes. What’s interesting about Pokemon is that it was the brand, rather than a product, that was successful: Pokemon existed as an after-school cartoon, a trading card and Nintendo game, a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy and of course the cute Pikachu toy. And what’s more interesting is that while the craze has certainly died down, it’s never fully gone away. Pokemon still exists as a Nintendo game and everyone still recognises the original character set. A lesson in toy domination.
4. Pogo Sticks: 2001
Something of a flash in the pan trend-wise for toys here, for some mystifying reason in 2001 all any kid wanted for Christmas was a pogo stick. Yes, a pogo stick, the thing you bounce up and down on, spend a lot of energy on, attempt to travel from A to B on, but ultimately end up going nowhere. Kids most likely released this pretty soon and by about December 26th the pogo stick was quickly forgotten. It’s interesting to note though that the pogo was preceded in 2000 by another flash in the pan toy, the razor scooter. The dawn of the new millennium evidently triggered something of an outdoorsy health kick amongst kids, but that was quickly forgotten and by the mid-noughties we were back to tech and gaming.
3. Playstation 3: 2006
Once upon a time there was the humble Playstation. Kids played the likes of Tekken and Crash Bandicoot and parents marveled at the technology. Then there was the PS2 and as the kids grew older, they still played the console. Their parents worried about them, thinking they would spend too long gaming and would never make a career in the real world. Then all these kids grew up and made careers developing game for – that’s right – the Playstation 3. What began in the arcades spread to the home and what was initially aimed at children found a following among all walks of life. As of November 2013, the Playstation 3 has sold over 80 million units worldwide. Graphics in gaming have come a long way since the days of Tekken; the games, too, have become more sophisticated and the result is that children never played with the 2001 pogo stick again.
2. The iPod Touch: 2007
Another far cry from 2001’s pogo stick, the iPod Touch paved the way for the gifts of the future. iPods had existed prior to this, but were created purely for downloaded music. 2007 was also the year the first iPhone hit the scene, but this was at a time when the majority of us – or at least those still requesting gifts from their parents – were still using conventional cell phones. iPod Touch integrated many of the iPhone’s features, such as internet and email access, and a music library, while coming in at a cheaper price point. What is possibly more surprising to us today is that the iPod Touch is still on the market, although many predict that these will be phased out in the near future.
1. The iPad: 2010
Evidence that toys are no longer what they once were: in 2010 and still today, everyone from toddlers to CEOs are in need of their trusty iPad. When the product launched in April 2010 it was presented as the portable face of the future. With the explosion of the smartphone market, tablet devices are just one prong of the lucrative mobile market, but iPad was the first to introduce the ‘tablet’ to the general public. Crucially, the device was significantly cheaper than Apple’s other online products. The plethora of apps – for business, pleasure, gaming and learning – meant that there was something for everyone in the family with this gift. The iPod has of course since been challenged by the broader range of Android tablet devices, but in terms of brand identity, iPad for many is the name synonymous with the tablet device.