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Home / Features / Hall of Fame special: the 11 best toys of Christmas past

Hall of Fame special: the 11 best toys of Christmas past

Remember these? The Stuff team celebrates the forgotten stars of its childhood Christmas mornings...

As a kid, Christmas is always the highlight of your year.

And while Madcap Marathon sessions and ill-fitting jumpers play fine supporting roles, the main event is always that one big toy. 

Usually spotted in the Argos catalogue, it was undoubtedly a pile of plastic tat – and all the better for it.

In fact, if it didn’t have whopping great labels on the box shouting “Real FX noises!”, “Flashing lights!” and “Die-cast parts!” then it wasn’t a proper present at all.

So, grab a mulled wine, curl up by the fire and prepare to reminisce: here are some of the Stuff teams’s all-time festive favourites.

Tomytronic 3D, 1983 (Richard Purvis, Production Editor)

Tomytronic 3D, 1983 (Richard Purvis, Production Editor)

Christmas 1983. The Flying Pickets were on Top of the Pops with their smash hit ‘Only You’. Superman was about to start on ITV. But I wasn’t really there with the rest of the family, in the front room. No, I was a fearless space captain fighting off legions of baddie aliens. In 3D.

A full 33 years before Oculus Rift and HTC Vive introduced a new generation to virtual reality, the Tomytronic 3D cast a spell across young gamers everywhere. Alright, so this wasn’t virtual reality – it was a sort of pseudo 3D. But it sure felt real enough to eight-year-old me.

A sort of binocular-style handheld, you looked through the Tomytronic 3D’s two lenses and it served up a stereoscopic 3D images. This was 1983, remember, so with hindsight the games were incredibly limited – but then that was true of most games back then, and at least with the Tomytonic you felt properly immersed.

I say games, but each device only came with the one built-in option; if you wanted another game, you’d have to buy another handheld. But I didn’t care. I had Planet Zeon to conquer and on Christmas Day 1983, neither Top of the Pops or Superman was going to tear me away from it.

Star Wars AT-AT, 1981 (Fraser Macdonald, Consulting editor)

Star Wars AT-AT, 1981 (Fraser Macdonald, Consulting editor)

Probably in an attempt to encourage sibling co-play, my brother was given an AT-AT and me a Rebel Snowspeeder.

I don’t recall it working. I think we just stayed opposite sides of the room, conducting troop training scenarios and releasing propaganda about our readiness for a decisive offensive.

It was a kind of Hoth Cold War. Of course, I quietly craved that AT-AT, despite the fact that it was a slightly poor toy.

Hulking but largely static (like my brother), it often ended up as a centrepiece around which you based more dynamic activity.

M.A.S.K Boulder Hill, 1985 (Mark Wilson, Features editor)

M.A.S.K Boulder Hill, 1985 (Mark Wilson, Features editor)

Yes, Transformers was great, but there was something a bit cooler about M.A.S.K’s Bond-inspired morphing vehicles.

I was lucky enough to get both Raven (a black Chevy that turned into a seaplane) and Condor (a green motorbike with secret helicopter skills) for Christmas ’86. And yet neither of those were a patch on M.A.S.K’s HQ and quite literal peak, Boulder Hill.

By day, it was a humble mountainside gas station. Nothing suspicious about that. But any hint of an attack by V.E.N.O.M (who could have kept a lower profile by not calling themselves the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem) and you could get Buddie Hawks to engage ‘defence mode’.

Thanks to a series of levers, this meant the storefront flipping down to reveal a bunker, gas pumps turning into freeze cannons, and a neat trapdoor which saw figures falling into a little jail cell.

Despite all of this technology, Boulder Hill’s party trick was, naturally, a giant boulder that could be triggered to fall down onto armoured attack vehicles (or anyone unlucky to be filling up their truck with unleaded at the time).

Yep, my cousin’s Boulder Hill was one of the few 80s toys I’d have gladly traded my A-Team van for.

Screwball Scramble, 1979 (Chris Rowlands, contributor)

Screwball Scramble, 1979 (Chris Rowlands, contributor)

Hit the timer. Up and down the ramps. Round the pivot. Across the crocodile lake. Along the platform. Hop, hop, hop up the steps. Through the mouth. Through the maze. Spin around. Into the catapult. DING, you’re done.

Screwball Scramble was a plastic challenge of adrenaline thumping pressure that didn’t need batteries, a screen or anything more than your fingers, small orange joysticks and a little metal ball.

And boy was it fun. If you’ve never tried to complete the dastardly thing whilst the click-clack timer was running, you’ve never felt true fear.

Anyone who’s played will be familiar with the angst of getting almost to the end, only for the catapult to fling the ball beyond the bell – not to mention that pesky maze.

Zoids: Redhorn the Terrible, 1985 (Craig Grannell, contributor)

Zoids: Redhorn the Terrible, 1985 (Craig Grannell, contributor)

Zoids scratched a multitude of childhood itches: a love of stompy dinosaurs; a penchant for construction kits; a fascination with massive robots bristling with guns.

So I was overjoyed upon tearing wrapping paper off of a present from my grandparents to be faced with Redhorn the Terrible.

This wasn’t my first Zoid, but my others were piddly wind-up creations that flailed about a bit before falling over.

But once built and with a couple of batteries inserted, furious Styracosaurus Redhorn was a real-life Ray Harryhausen creation, rampaging across the carpet, scaring two shades out of the dogs, on a mission to take over the world. (At least until the two AAs ran out.)

Thundercats Sword of Omens, 1985 (Marc McLaren, Editor)

Thundercats Sword of Omens, 1985 (Marc McLaren, Editor)

My Sword of Omens was way more than just a plastic weapon. It tapped into Thundercats’ main idea, repeated in basically every episode, of firing a distress signal into the sky so your mates could find you and help fight off Mumm-ra. In the pre-smartphone age, that was powerful concept that never got old.

The version I had in the mid-80s was a little less ornate than the one above (which you can buy here), but my imagination filled in the gaps. That meant pretending be Lion-O and firing blasts of energy at enemies at the back of my garden, or freezing them in ice.

But mainly it was about creating a perilous scenario in which I needed to press the button on the handle, light up the Eye of Thundera and melodramatically repeat the Thundercats mantra as the logo shot into the night sky (well, the lounge ceiling).

Sure, the sword’s light wasn’t quite the sky-illuminating searchlight you were hoping for (there was only so much a AA battery could do), but Sword of Omens replicas were still a hell of a lot more convincing than the lightsabers of the time.

Auto Morphin White Power Ranger, 1995 (Esat Dedezade, Deputy Features editor)

Auto Morphin White Power Ranger, 1995 (Esat Dedezade, Deputy Features editor)

Back in 1995, Michael Jackson topped the charts with Earth Song, Eric Cantona went all Crouching Tiger on a fan, and seven year old me was obsessed with the best thing in the universe – the Power Rangers.

I remember arguing with my cousins about who would be Tommy in our living room recreation of the greatest movie ever made – Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie – but all was soon forgotten when I unwrapped the above.

Looking at it now, it looks totally, utterly naff, but at the time, the head-flipping action, which transformed a helmet-less ranger into a cranium-protected one, was the most amazing thing I’d seen since Lucky Charms cereal.

Plus look at those shoulder pads. So glam.

Hot Toys Crack-Ups, 1985 (Tom Parsons, Deputy Editor)

Long before Destruction Derby hooked me on the thrill of wilfully smashing up cars just to see the real-time damage, Hot Toys’ Crack-Ups cleverly did the same with toy cars.

Orchestrating crashes was one of the main uses for a toy car, of course. So the Crack-Up cars’ ability to show actual damage thanks to a spring-loaded revolving panel was a stroke of toy genius.

I received a Bumper Thumper pick-up truck in my stocking, but with each car showing damage in a different way (including on the roof), it wasn’t long before I was pining for a Side Banger and a Top Bopper.

Lite-Brite, 1991 (Tom Morgan, Reviews editor)

Lite-Brite, 1991 (Tom Morgan, Reviews editor)

Looking back, I can see why my parents thought a Lite-Brite was the perfect toy for me: the light-up peg board would let their darling son’s creative side blossom, but without any of the mess and cleanup that comes with paint or crayons. Bit of a neat freak, my Dad.

Unfortunately it didn’t really help spur on my artistic ambitions, but the glowing green, red, yellow, pink, purple, white, blue, and orange colours kept me quiet until at least Boxing Day – which is pretty much all your parents really want for Christmas. If you wanted a peg-shaped portrait of a cat or a house, I was your man.

I never quite had enough green pegs to finish my ambitious Thunderbird 2 design, though, and had a nasty habit of knocking them under the sofa, under the fridge, and other places where pegs certainly didn’t belong. I think a few even ended up in the VCR. Luckily, Hasbro sold refill packs for when you inevitably lost your initial supply, those crafty devils.

Tamagotchi, 1997 (Ryan Jones, Staff Writer)

Tamagotchi, 1997 (Ryan Jones, Staff Writer)

Looking back to my childhood, it’s obvious why my parents bought me a Tamagotchi. They were testing me to see whether I was responsible enough for a real pet.

While I still needed to feed and play with my Tamagotchi pet to keep it healthy, there was no risk of the RSPCA knocking on our door. And despite living in a miniature handheld device, it was surprisingly realistic. Pets could increase in weight, become sick or even leave dropping everywhere.

But unlike a real animal, its faeces had no smell. For this reason alone, perhaps having a Tamagotchis was better than the real thing after all. Or maybe I’m just saying that because my parents refused to buy a dog after too one too many of my Tamagotchi pets kicked the bucket.

Thunderbirds Tracy Island (Rob Leedham, Editor)

Thunderbirds Tracy Island (Rob Leedham, Editor)

Remember that time Blue Peter taught the world how to make Tracey Island out of bog roll and washing up liquid bottles? What history won’t tell you is that most attempts to follow Anthea Turner’s instructions so looked like garbage, which given the materials list involved isn’t all that surprising.

Thankfully, I was one of the lucky few to get the Thunderbirds’ home for real come December 1992. Cue instant jealousy from the entirety of my school reception class and a year spent saving the world as Jeff, Scott, Virgil and the gang.

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