With Christmas in the air, our minds drift back to our dreams of toys under our trees in the 1980s. During this decade, the toy industry quickly moved to release some of the most defining toy lines. Some of these lines are still with us even today. Some, like He-Man, created such intense waves of popularity that other companies in the industry mimicked their formula. While these knockoffs and mimics provided cheaper options, they provided nothing but sorrow to the children who eagerly unwrapped their presents.
Any 1980s child would explode into delighted screams when they unwrapped one of the hottest toys for the season. As parents wanted to get their children the hottest toys in the 1980s, they plucked the toy aisles clean. Many vividly remember the crazed riots that followed the most desirable toys of this decade. Some dedicated parents even traveled hundreds of miles to snag the perfect gifts for their children.
So, which toys were amongst the most desirable Christmas presents in the 1980s? Join us as we explore the top-selling toys from the decade of glam rock. While we have dug up the greatest presents from this decade, we decided not to present them in any particular order. Instead, we leave it up to you to decide which toy was the greatest Christmas gift from the 1980s.
Presenting ten toys that every 1980s child desperately wanted for Christmas
Hasbro’s Transformers – Optimus Prime (1984)
Years after Japan first experienced transforming robots in Takara’s Diaclone and Microchange toy lines, Hasbro snatched up the license to bring over these toys. They also imported a small array of other similar toys from Japan to fill out the ranks. Realizing that they needed to craft a compelling backstory for these toys, Hasbro turned to Marvel to help craft the civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Emerging as the leader of the Autobots, a red truck, Optimus Prime, became one of the most important characters from that initial wave.
Both parents and kids loved the honorable Autobots over the treacherous Decepticons. So, while Megatron was a popular choice as well, he seldom became the first choice for children. Not to mention, while things were different back then, there were still parents who would have thought twice about buying a transforming toy gun with a questionable trigger.
For any child who found Optimus Prime under their Christmas tree, they soon discovered that the Autobot leader came with his own playset. In addition to the large array of accessories, including a small robot partner, roller, Optimus Prime came with a trailer that transformed into a battle station. So, this toy alone provided several hours of play in addition to the transforming fun.
Mattel’s Masters of the Universe – Snake Mountain (1983)
In many ways, Mattel changed the game for toy marketing when they released their Masters of the Universe toy line. When they launched the toy line that introduced He-Man in 1982, they made certain to forge a storyline that would attract buyers. So, each of the original figures came packaged with a mini-comic. They also quickly bluffed retail staff as they stated that they were developing a cartoon series. After making this assertion, they quickly rushed to make certain that the cartoon would happen.
By quickly responding to the requests for additional media, Mattel created a multimedia sensation that launched them into fame. To help bolster their success, He-Man’s comics and cartoons presented moral lessons that helped teach children how to improve their lives and help others. As He-Man fought off the forces of evil, he also spoke about the importance of telling the truth. So, parents became even happier to purchase this toy line.
Even into He-Man’s second year of production, the craze remained strong. In 1983, Mattel expanded the line by presenting the lair of Skeletor and his evil forces, Snake Mountain. This gigantic playset became a great companion to their prior playset, Castle Greyskull. So, the battle for Eternia’s fate could span between both playsets.
Ideal’s Rubik’s Cube (1980)
While Ernő Rubik first created his famous 3-D cubic puzzle game in 1974, the concept took years to hit American store shelves. During the seventies, the puzzle appeared in stores around Budapest as the Magic Cube. However, this cube was destined for much larger things. As the Magic Cube appeared in the 1979 Nuremberg Toy Fair, it attracted enough attention to convince Ideal Toys to bring the toy over to the States. Before the puzzle was ready for the American market, Ideal made one major change, they renamed the puzzle after its creator. Thus, the Rubik’s Cube was born.
Not long after Ideal Toys launched the Rubik’s Cube in May 1980, they began pushing the puzzle with newspaper advertisements and television commercials. Not long after, the toy became the German Game of the Year, along with similar awards in other countries. By 1981, the craze was in full effect, leading to multiple of these cubes filling the stocking of children across the nation.
Helping to cement the Rubik’s Cube’s cultural significance, multiple organizations, including the Genesis Book of World Records, hosted speedcubing championships. While there is a simple trick to understanding how to solve the cube, many believed that the cube acted as an intelligence test. However, as more people figured out the simple solution, the craze died off, though the cube never fully left store shelves.
World of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin (1985)
While technology in the 1980s was not yet ready to present robot dogs to children, companies began experimenting with interactive toys. One of the first examples of an animatronic toy came in the form of World of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin. Back then, the small motion in these toys’ eyes and mouths, which corresponded to their stories, was a marvel. So, children loved to have a Teddy Ruxpin in their household. They loved it even more if they could also have his insectoid friend, Grubby.
For the most part, Teddy Ruxpin was a teddy bear that housed a tape player, which composed most of the bear’s torso. After inserting a special audiobook cassette into the bear’s back, the player would read the signals from the left track to control the servos in his eyes and mouth. Thus, the toy gave the illusion that Teddy Ruxpin, or his connected friends, were reciting the story.
Amazingly, another product that World of Wonder helped push into the American market also led to the downfall of Teddy Ruxpin. As WoW believed in the power of the Nintendo Entertainment System, they pushed retailers to carry it if they also wanted to sell their popular laser tag and Teddy Ruxpin products. While they received a commission for helping to push the NES into stores, the popularity of this gaming system overshadowed all demand for their interactive toys.
Mattel’s She-Ra – Crystal Falls (1986)
Not long after He-Man pulled Mattel out of its financial quagmire, Mattel hoped to strike gold again with the female demographic. So, they decided to form a sister product that would complement the popular boys’ toy. So, they looked at the success of their longest-lasting toy line, Barbie, to help formulate He-Man’s long-lost sister, She-Ra. In addition to bolstering He-Man sales, this new character would help inspire renewed interest in the Barbie toys.
Unlike He-Man, this new toy line formed in conjunction with the production team for the animated series, Filmation. With the two companies collaboratively working together, they developed the backstory for Adora, the lost daughter of Queen Marlena and King Randor. As she grew up on Etheria, Adora served as a Horde Force Captain until He-Man helped her see the evil actions of the Horde. She then gained the Sword of Protection, which unlocked her ability to transform into She-Ra.
As the series and toys became a hit, multiple children began seeking out the toys and playsets for She-Ra. Unique amongst these playsets was the Crystal Falls, which represented Mermista’s home. Unlike playsets for He-Man, this set offered a wonderous getaway for She-Ra and her friends. To help set the stage for this magical place, the Crystal Falls featured a water pump that allowed water to run down through the falls.
Kenner’s M.A.S.K. – Boulder Hill (1985)
As Kenner moved away from their hit brand, Star Wars, they experimented with several toy lines. One of their most memorable original concepts was the M.A.S.K. toys, which helped encapsulate the eighties. These toys featured the forces of the Mobile Armored Strike Command, M.A.S.K., who drove fast vehicles to defeat the forces of the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem, V.E.N.O.M. Helping to promote these toys, Kenner worked together with DIC Enterprises and ICC TV Productions, Ltd. to produce a seventy-five episode long animated series.
These toys featured multiple vehicles, like the Thunderhawk, a red Chevrolet Camaro. Other notable vehicles in the series included the Rhino, a maroon Kenworth semi-tractor, and the Volcano, a blue monster truck. Meanwhile, the drivers of these vehicles also had action gimmicks that activated from their various masks.
For nearly all that wanted a complete M.A.S.K. collection, they dreamed of the day when they would own the Boulder Hill playset. So, many children hoped to see this large set under their Christmas trees, especially in 1985. Boulder Hill was an armed fortress that disguised itself as an unassuming gas station in Nevada. So, the playset had several secrets that would unveil as players converted the station into a fortress.
LJN’s Thundercats – Electronic Cat’s Lair (1986)
While LJN was the bane of any owner of a Nintendo Entertainment System, they created one of the greatest hit toy lines in the 1980s. As Mattel made a hit with the fantasy-based Masters of the Universe characters, LJN decided to create a set of anthropomorphic cats to save the day. Unlike the turtles that were gaining popularity at this time, LJN decided to craft a space epic, where these cats were refugees from a destroyed planet.
To help sell their toys, LJN licensed their new toy line to Tobin Wolf who produced a four-season-long cartoon series. This series brought attention to the Thunderians as they escaped the destruction of their planet. After they landed on Third Earth, this group of cats looked to the leadership of Lion-O as they faced new perils, like the evil Mumm-Ra.
Creating the home base for the Thundercats, LJN introduced the Cat’s Lair in 1985. This Electronic playset offered multiple play options for fans of the Thundercats. In addition to producing sounds, the base also featured flashing laser lights and reacted to the attacks of enemy forces. As this toy easily housed three of the Thundercats’ action figures, it offered an excellent display for any collection. So, many fans hoped that any large present under their tree would turn out to be the Cat’s Lair.
Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Party Wagon (1988)
As the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles leaped off the pages of Mirage Comics, Playmates brought their antics to homes across the nation. Unlike many hit toys that appeared in the 1980s, the Turtles began as a successful comic book series before they entered the toy market. However, the exploits that Mirage Comics created were too dark to be marketable as toys.
As Playmates agreed to create the toys for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they set forth to create several changes to help market these mutants. First, they made one definitive change that fans quickly embraced. Instead of all wearing the same orange masks, each turtle now wore a different colored mask. Then, Playmates approached Murakami-Wolf-Swenson and the IDDH Groupe to produce a hit cartoon series. As the cartoon introduced audiences to the turtles in 1987, Playmates had set the stage to release a hit toy line.
As their first wave of Turtles hit store shelves in 1988, they released the four turtle brothers, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo, along with Shredder and his foot clan. They also produced two vehicles for the turtles to ride in. The most desired and beloved of these vehicles was the Party Wagon, which the turtles built themselves. As this wagon was similar to Batman’s batmobile, many children dreamed of seeing it under their Christmas trees to help complete their Turtles collection.
Coleco’s Cabbage Patch Kids – Maddie Nola (1983)
No list of hot Christmas toys from the 1980s would be complete without mentioning the single toy that created massive anguish for parents. In many ways, the Cabbage Patch Kids were not a new development, they continued the trend of toy dolls that has lasted for decades. Unlike the dolls of the past, the Cabbage Patch Kids decided to tap into the collector’s mindset by giving their dolls a birth certificate.
Originally, these dolls began as “The Little People”, hand-stitched dolls that Xavier Roberts registered for copyright in 1978. Twisting the usual mindset for selling dolls, Roberts told potential customers that they could not buy his dolls. Instead, they could adopt them for whatever price he believed fit.
By 1981, Roberts became ready to license his dolls to the mass market. So, a licensing agent, Robert L. Schlaifer, took his idea and converted it into the Cabbage Patch Kids. By 1982, they found the perfect home for these dolls, Coleco. In the transition to mass production, these dolls gained cuter, softer features, which appealed to the masses.
After their release, parents around the country went insane with the Cabbage Patch Kid craze in 1983. In several stores across the nation, potential customers broke out into violent outbursts as they fought over these dolls. Thus, some retailers took on special measures, like handing out tickets to buy these toys.
LEGO #7740 Electric Inner City Passenger Train Set (1980)
Since LEGO fully cemented the idea of their interlocking bricks in the 1960s, their toys have fascinated children for decades. Unsurprisingly, they continued to fascinate the masses in the 1980s. Even though LEGO had created multiple train-building sets over the decades, the 1980s pushed the sets into new heights.
While LEGO had included electronic components in their building sets for years, they now had Minifigures as well. So, they gave their trains a massive facelift, updating the building sets to accommodate the popular minifigures. Additionally, these new trainsets now featured new additions like Remote Controlled Switch Tracks. With the versatility of the new remote elements, a new craze for LEGO trains formed.
In addition to having a wide selection of remote controls, these new LEGO trains offered the ability to control everything one a central hub. After setting up the transformer/speed controller, owners would have complete control over their train tracks with a single extendible keyboard.
Thus, as the Electronic Inner City Passenger Train hit the market in 1980, it and its fellow trains quickly became the hottest selling items. Across the nation, LEGO fans, both old and new, hoped to unwrap one of these sets so they could build their perfect railroad.
What toys did you look forward to seeing under your Christmas tree?
We have presented to you ten examples of the hottest toys that we wanted for Christmas in the 1980s. Some of these toys even created riots that are remembered to this day. However, we would love to hear from you. What toys did you hope to find under your Christmas tree? Let us know in the comments below.
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Bio: I am the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab pop Culture and Toy Shop. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys and pop culture, triggering fond memories, and reigniting their imaginations. Every day, I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. I scour the internet, like when we had the Sears Catalog of yesteryear, for the next great treasure. Then, I await the arrival of the postman as if he were Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their own versions of Christmas. Every day as a vintage toy buyer is an absolute joy!