10 Ultimate Components of a Geeky Eighties Childhood

Geek Culture

Everyone has toys from their childhood that they remember fondly. I was born in the early 1970s, so most of the toys I feel nostalgia for were popular in the eighties. It’s surprising (to me, at least) how many toys from the eighties are still, or again, popular today, so I wanted to come up with a list of toys and related items that aren’t around now, but that I (on some level) wish were, so my kids could play with the same things I did.

1. Merlin – I absolutely loved my Merlin, playing with it regularly for years. My earliest exposure to the workings of electronic devices came when fixing it the several times the buttons stuck, until it finally broke irreparably. Considering how crude Merlin seems compared with my son’s Nintendo DS, for example, it seems amazing just how much fun they were to play with. In searching for links for this article, I found out that Hasbro has actually reissued Merlin, with phone-style buttons…strange, but cool.

2. Stretch Armstrong – I have no idea why they don’t make these any more—probably something to do with safety regulations—because they were a lot of fun. You really could stretch them an incredibly long way before they broke, and pretty much everybody I knew who had one found out just about exactly how much stretching they could take. I’ve heard of, but have never actually seen, the Incredible Hulk version of the toy they made. The fluid inside them was basically corn syrup, which makes me wonder how hard it’d be to construct a homemade Stretch Armstrong of your own.

3. Giant Tinkertoys – Sure, regular Tinkertoys were great, but there was a limit to how big you could make something before it collapsed under its own weight (unless, I suppose, you had lots more Tinkertoys than I or anyone I knew did). Giant Tinkertoys allowed you to make supersized things, including structures you could actually get inside. The current toy Toobeez is billed as being similar to Giant Tinkertoys (check out the home page title), but doesn’t look much like the ones I remember.

4. Wacky Wall Walkers – Yeah, I know there are similar things available today, but none with quite the same appeal as these hugely popular octopus toys. It was really a ridiculous amount of fun, throwing them at a wall and watching them make their sticky way down it. Anyone who was over the age of four in the early eighties is bound to remember these, and everyone who wasn’t is bound to look at you like you’re crazy when you tell them how popular these things were.

5. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe – Why has nobody tried to resurrect the He-Man cartoons in such a long time? Think of how cool Castle Grayskull would be rendered in CGI. And maybe they could put a few more articles of clothing on He-Man so he isn’t quite so…well, I can’t think of a good euphemism for "homoerotic." The He-Man cartoons were formulaic, preposterous, and kitschy, but those were all part of their charm. Battle-Cat/Cringer was always my favorite, even if I could never figure out why he was green. I mean, seriously, was he a Vulcan cat or what?

6. Underoos
They weren’t toys, of course, but they were such an important part of eighties geekiness that I have to mention them. What geeklet didn’t have, or at least covet, Darth Vader or Superman or Wonder Woman or Ms.
Pac-Man Underoos? It never really occurred to most of us, I think, that displaying the characters we loved on our underwear was a bit silly, probably because they were just so awesome.

7. Coleco
Tabletop Games – Most people remember Coleco for Cabbage Patch Kids or for ColecoVision, the last gasp of early gaming consoles before PCs took over the videogame market for a while. But the tabletop games were awesome, self-contained games you could put on a table and pretend you were in an arcade—at least, until your parents told you to turn it off and do your homework.

8. Trapper Keepers
– I think these are still around in some form, but if you grew up in the eighties in the U.S. you must remember their heyday. Everyone had to have a Trapper Keeper, and in some way your coolness or geekiness was defined by what was on (and in) yours. I only vaguely recall my various ones Voltron_2Voltron_2
(you had to get a new one every year, of course), but I think I had a Star Wars one at some point, or possibly a generic one that I simply covered with Star Wars stickers.

9. Voltron – I caught an episode of Voltron a few months ago, and I can’t quite see why I ever thought it was anything but cheesy. But I did, and so did all of my friends. We had to watch every episode, of both the series with the five lions and the series with all the little ships. We bought the toys, which took way too long to make it to the U.S. from Japan, and we pretended we were in the show. Come to think of it, I do remember making fun of the fact that the plot was always the same in every episode, and that they always stopped moving whenever they spoke.

10. Shrinky Dinks
– I realize these are still around, but I haven’t seen them in a store in well over a decade, so I’m including them. I thought these were just the most awesome thing, and still think it’s kind of a cool idea. As a parent, I wonder about whether it’s such a good idea to deliberately put plastic in your oven, but how neat is it to draw on a large piece of plastic and then get it back much smaller, thus making any mistakes you made that much less significant?

If you have any ideas, and I’m sure you do (since I had to leave out a lot), please share them in the comments.

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