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10 best 1980s toys: from Transformers to Care Bears

In a decade of excess, the toy landscape was also revolutionised. From Zoids to My Little Pony, playtime would never be the same again

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/polymerheart/5069361387/

In the 1980s, home computers had rubber keys, 98 per cent of all music was composed on a single synthesiser in a dingy London studio, and there were only four UK TV channels. But the toys were brilliant. At Stuff HQ, we racked our brains to come up with a list of the very best 1980s toys.

A quick note, Star Wars and Big Trak fans — those toys were 1970s lines, so didn’t make the cut. Teddy Ruxpin, on the other hand, was omitted because he was rubbish. But do you otherwise disagree with our list? Feel free to say so over on Twitter.

Our pick of the best 1980s toy lines

1. Transformers

First appearance: 1984.

Parents thought they were clever when buying ‘robots in disguise’. Two toys for the price of one! Robots that changed into cars, fighter jets and also surprisingly large cassettes, hinting at a very slight problem with scale!

Kids didn’t care — they were busy having robots punch each other in the face, only occasionally wondering why Heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime was so bloody earnest in the cartoon and prone to killing himself in the comic.


Eventually, Transformers succumbed to stupid gimmicks, disappearing up its own backside with a line of non-transforming Transformers. But the concept lived on, repeatedly relaunched until Michael Bay discovered it, creating the most expensive and explosive toy commercials in history for the big screen.

Image credit: Rob Boudon

2. Zoids

First appearance: 1982.

Zoids combined a Japanese penchant for mecha with a childhood fascination for all things beasts, dinosaurs and construction. Essentially miniature Ikea robots, Zoids in the hands of a reasonably adept child would rapidly transform from flat-pack plastic kit to motorised angry thing, only occasionally getting snared on the carpet like a confused Ray Harryhausen creation. In the UK, there was even a comic, detailing precisely why terrifying mechanical Triceratops Redhorn the Terrible wanted to gut Mammoth the Destroyer.

3. Lego: Light & Sound

First appearance: 1986.

Lego hit many peaks in the 1980s — mini-figures could fit inside vehicles, the Town theme was hugely expansive, and there wasn’t any apparent gender divide. Oh, and there were flashing lights and WEE-OOO-WEE-OOO noises, which was equally important.

Yes, light and sound came to Lego in the cunningly named Light & Sound System, amusing small children and scaring the living daylights out of pets. The line petered out in the late 1990s, presumably because kids were no longer impressed by a tinny speaker and some flashing bulbs.

4. My Little Pony

First appearance: 1983.

Although originally two plastic creations (‘My Pretty Pony’), My Little Pony is best-known for the subsequent vinyl characters. Almost devoid of articulation, the line nonetheless sank its hooves in, through that foolproof combination of cute and collectable, this time with added hair-brushing.

My Little Pony

Only six ponies were initially released, but the line rapidly grew, adding seated ponies, Unicorn and Pegasus ponies, seahorse-like sea ponies, cuddly ‘soft’ ponies, and eventually ‘Big Brother’ ponies, which in reality were just a bit bigger and not in fact enigmatic dictator ponies. More recently, the line’s been rebooted with creepy anthropomorphised versions of classic characters. No, we have no idea why either.

Image credit: Katie Brady

5. Cabbage Patch Kids

First appearance: 1982.

The story behind the Cabbage Patch Kids — 16-inch-high dolls with plastic heads, fabric bodies and sinister eyes — involves a boy being led by a BunnyBee (a sort-of bee with rabbit ears) behind a waterfall and through a tunnel to a land where a cabbage patch grew children that needed homing. Naturally, then, every kid wanted to adopt one of the things, leading to fights in toy shops during the 1983 holiday season, parents desperate to secure one of the gurning babies for their own (possibly gurning) babies.

6. Action Force/G.I. Joe

First appearance: 1985 — sort of.

Star Wars mercilessly swept away the old guard. G.I. Joe (Action Man in the UK) had soldiered (ha!) on since the 1960s, providing dolls with guns for angry young boys, complete with large and clunky accessories. Then came George Lucas’s merchandising savvy, resulting in small, varied figures, spaceships and Wookiees. No contest.

G.I. Joe

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. G.I. Joe morphed into an action-figure line much like the Star Wars one, but with better articulation. Cunningly, a story was also added, with G.I. Joe becoming a counter-terrorism force battling the evil Cobra. (Action Force took a while to catch up, suffering more reboots than a Superman franchise before finally matching the US outfit.)

Image credit: Denny Deluxe

7. Masters of the Universe

First appearance: 1982.

In hindsight, there’s something odd about Masters of the Universe, where suspiciously muscle-bound men run about the place in furry pants, hitting each-other with swords. But with spring-based action-punches and a diverse array of characters in the toy line, heroic He-Man, hapless evil Skeletor, and their various comrades, captured the imagination of countless children.

Masters of the Universe

If anything, though, the line aimed at girls of the day, She-Ra: Princess of Power, was superior. It ambitiously aimed to gel Barbie with He-Man’s fantasy world, but placed the heroes in a subversive underdog role, battling a tyrannical despot, Hordak.

Image credit: semihundido

8. Care Bears

First appearance: 1982.

Considering that they started life as illustrations on greeting cards, Care Bears have had a seriously good innings, and still exist today. The key early on was in giving each of the bears distinct colours and emblems that signified a unique personality. So there was dour Grumpy Bear, with a cloud on his belly, the yellow Funshine Bear with a grinning sun on her gut, and irritatingly perky Cheer Bear, pink with a rainbow emblem.

Care Bears

Refreshes and movies expanded the line-up, although we never did quite get as far as Ex-Celeb Bear, with matted grey fur and a drinking problem.

Image: John Trainor

9. Micro Machines

First appearance: 1986.

Gimmicks were key in the 1980s, and toy cars were looking a bit old hat. If they didn’t transform into something else, what was the point? Micro Machines bucked the trend. The basic idea: take toy vehicles, make them absurdly small, affordable and collectable, and create little playsets that themselves were pocketable. Genius. Amusingly, even Micro Machines caught the transforming bug during the 1990s, albeit with playsets morphing between two forms.

10. M.A.S.K.

First appearance: 1986.

You can imagine the boardroom meeting that birthed M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armo(u)red Strike, er, ‘Kommand’): “Hey, kids like Transformers, right? Kids like Action Force/G.I. Joe, right? ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING?”


The result: a toy line reeking of focus group, but kids loved it. Action figures could drive around in vehicles before — SPROING! — hey, look, it’s now a thing with guns! We reckon 95 per cent of the cool and craving was really down to Matt Trakker’s ‘Thunderhawk’ Camaro that turned into a fighter jet (i.e. the swing doors went up, becoming wings, simultaneously thumbing a nose at health and safety); it certainly wasn’t down to the ‘Rhino’ tractor trailer’s ‘mobile defence unit’ mode, which was significantly less impressive then Optimus Prime’s transformation.

Image credit: Russell Warner