Like any kid, toys played a huge part in my early years. And like any kid who grew up in the 1990’s, I had access to some of the most awesome pieces of plastic junk that ever graced this Earth. It was a veritable smorgasbord of games, action figures, and fake guns.
Kids just don’t know what they’re missing these days. So I took a trip down memory lane and looked at the five toys I loved the most during my childhood and considered why I loved them so much. Then I put them in the cold hard light of modern day!
For more of my nostalgic trips into the past, visit “My Five Favorite Childhood Movies,” “My Five Favorite Childhood TV Shows,” “My Five Favorite Childhood Videogames,” and “My Five Favorite Childhood Books.”
Have a personal favorite or even your own top five? Let me know in the comments section below!
5. Optimal Optimus Primal
Being a ‘90s kid, I was too young to have caught the Generation 1 wave of Transformers. Instead, it was Beast Wars that got its hooks into me at a young age. And, of course, with any Transformers TV fandom comes the requisite obsession with the toyline. After all, this is a series where the toys came first and the show came second. To sell more toys, obviously. But it wasn’t until late in the series where I got what I considered to be the granddaddy of all Transformers toys at the time. Optimal Optimus Primal – a towering, neon-colored, quadruple-changing beast of a Maximal leader.
Why Did I Like It Then? Decepticons, Legos, Capitalism – Optimal Optimus Prime could crush anything that stood in its way! The sheer size of this Transformer was enough to set it apart from the legions of other Autobots that I owned at the time. I had a few triple changer Transformers at the time, but this quadruple changer was far more complex. I liked the challenge of figuring out, memorizing, and speeding up my transformations with Optimal Optimus. Throw in working missile launchers, exploding armor, and light-up pieces and nothing else could stand up to it.
How Is It Now? This quadruple changer is still awesome, even after generations and generations of toys that came after. It’s also still enormous. This thing felt like a brick to my child arms and it’s still hefty today. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s a faithful translation of the enormous Maximal leader from the third season of the show.
4. Lightning Strike Batman
My love for Batman: The Animated Series has been well explored on this blog. So it should be no surprise that a toy associated with the series became one of my favorites in the early days. In fact, this is connected to some of my strongest childhood memories. The only “show and tell” I remember was the one in first grade where I took Lightning Strike Batman. I showed off his cape, the awesome paraglider it changed into, and his super cool lightning costume underneath. I probably professed my love for The Dark Knight in a way that I’m sure is similar to something I’d say today. All the kids loved it and I felt popular for once. After school, I ran back to my mother’s car having Batman fly along beside me.
Why Did I Like It Then? It was Batman! And the closest thing I had to the Batman found in The Animated Series. Throw in a cool lightning-covered costume and the idea that it could fly and it was no wonder I loved it so much. Maybe its simplicity was perfect for my age. Just a few stiffly moving limbs and an easy-to-change paragliding cape made it the perfect tool for my imagination. Batman could go on any number of adventures! It was just up to me to send him on his way.
How Is It Now? Just how many different Batman toys did they make back then? There were countless plastic iterations of The Dark Knight alone, ranging from “Infrared Batman” to “Tornado Batman” to “Cyber Gear Batman.” Basically everything but the normal Caped Crusader. You know, the only version that was actually on the show. But that was par for the course with cartoon action figures in the ‘90s. Today, the simplistic and somewhat silly nature of Lightning Strike Batman can’t outweigh the serious nostalgic heft that this action figure still carries.
These were the ultimate expression of creativity for me as a child. Legos provided me with the chance to create anything I wanted. I was only limited by my imagination and the amount of blocks I had. Thanks to my parents, I had a pretty wide assortment of sets. Everything from pirates to time travelers to a faux-Indiana Jones that lined up well with the childhood interests. Much like Transformers, half the fun was in creating a fresh Lego set by tediously following the dozens of steps provided in the booklet. The other half was in smashing them together and making epic storylines that not even the largest studio budget could recreate on screen.
Why Did I Like It Then? This was the best of both worlds. Preestablished sets and characters allowed me to embrace some form of preconceived world, while a total lack of any existing storyline allowed me to inject my own thoughts and feelings into these yellow figures and their ever-shifting worlds. Who knows what odd ideas I played out in the little Lego world. Thank God for that time traveler set. These storylines wouldn’t have made sense to my little brain without it!
How Is It Now? Legos are a timeless classic! If The Lego Movieis any indication, people old and young are still emotionally connected to Legos. Nothing else quite matches the boundless creativity that these little plastic blocks can spark in kids or even adults. I still get a little excited seeing a new set, especially something massive I knew I could never get as a child (like The Millenium Falcon) or a super nerdy recreation of a well-loved movie (like the new Back to the Future sets). Legos are still awesome!
2. Nerf Guns
My childhood perfectly coincided with the original rise of the Nerf gun. These plastic dart shooters started out as little more than pop guns, then quickly escalated into all manner of animal shapes and fake cybernetics. Getting a new Nerf gun was like discovering a long-lost mystical weapon! In total, my childhood collection included: Nerf Manta Ray (half shield, half gun), Nerf Expand-A-Blast (a semi-useless expanding sniper rifle), Nerf Roto Track (a manual machine gun my tiny kid arms could never work), and the Nerf Cyberstryke Strongarm (a strange dual shooter that made me feel like the most useless cyborg ever created).
Why Did I Like It Then? Boys like to play war and have shootouts. Maybe we’re all just corrupted by society. Maybe our inner violent nature is so strong it asserts itself in our early years. I don’t know. I didn’t think about those sorts of things back then. I just had fun shooting my Nerf guns! My sister and parents didn’t really like to play with me, so I often resorted to practice shooting. But that just made my aim better! And when a friend did come over to play, I gave them a war they never saw coming.
How Is It Now? Well, the Nerf guns I had as a child are long busted. Old cracked plastic keeps them from holding any pressure. If I found one today, I’m sure it wouldn’t shoot further than a foot. But the truth is, these were pretty bad Nerf guns, even back then. Even if I got them to work, they often couldn’t shoot straight or very far. The toyline has obviously come a long way, with some seriously heavy Nerf artillery for sale these days. I’d much rather take a new Nerf pistol over any of these old iterations, but I can’t fault them too much. They made me a fan in the first place.
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Like any good ‘90s cartoon show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sparked an insatiable hunger in my child self for licensed toys. These awesome plastic versions of the Heroes on a Half Shell and their many allies and enemies were the cause of countless hours spent creating stories while laying on the carpet, making all manner of punching, kicking, and slicing noises. My collection? A might one. It included Michelangelo, Rocksteady, Bebop, Usagi Yojimbo, Cyber Samurai Shredder, Ace Duck, Metalhead, Casey Jones, The Mutabike, Panda Khan, Fugitoid, Walkabout, Grand Slammin’ Raph, Crazy Cowboy Don, Cave Turtle Leo, Leo the Sewer Samurai, Leo as The Wolfman, Halfcourt, Rhinoman, The Technodrome Scout Vehicle, and Midshipman Mike. Can you beat that outstanding assemblage?
Why Did I Like It Then? These toys were even better than the TV show! At least, I have far more memories of playing with them than I do of seeing the cartoon. These sturdy yet detailed toys were perfect for all manner of battles. Throw in legions of monochrome weapons and these TMNT wars were legendary!
How Is It Now? The ridiculous cash grab nature of so many of these TMNT toys is far more apparent today than it was back then. Leonardo as The Wolf Man? How quickly did they run out of ideas? But the idea of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is silly already, especially in their early ‘90s cartoon form. So they can’t get much sillier by being dressed up in all manner of costumes.
One interesting trend I found looking back: I always wanted the original figures, but could never get them! Instead, I often settled for their strange later versions and the vehicles that weren’t quite the originals. I guess my parents tried their best. But what mom or dad can tell the difference?
Honorable Mentions: Hot Wheels, Super Soaker, Crocodile Dentist, Pokemon Cards, Street Sharks