It was a cold Friday night and everyone was getting ready to go out. So, naturally, I, a thirty-ish-year-old woman in her prime, stayed in and pondered the 90s. The 90s were my formative childhood years, so I understandably have a bit of a bias. Still, I believe the '90s were freaking awesome for fashion, television, and...90s toys.
Our childhood toys were really influential, and if you think about it propelled culture forward in a way that today's toys do not. Where a lot of innovation occurred in the 90s, current toys seem to be lacking twenty years worth of enhancements. Here is a quick list of 90s toys that influenced our culture, be it through isolationism, consumer artificial intelligence, public spectacle, or economic inclusion.
Game Boy, 1989
$120 at time of publication
It's truth time everyone! Our inability to put down our cellphones was twenty years in the making. Game Boys were the gadgets that were the precursor to cell phone culture, and I'll explain why. Before Game Boys, playing videogameswas still a near 100% social experience.
We either needed to own a gaming console (often shared with siblings), or we had to go to an arcade with our buds. Then, enter the Game Boy system which was equally entertaining and relatively inexpensive enough for each kid to have their own. Suddenly, kids everywhere began ignoring other human beings, traffic, and potholes; opting instead to focus on the captivating devices in their hands.
$33 at time of publication
Tamagotchis' were virtual pet toys and what I refer to as “obligation-entertainment" toys. As kids, these 90s toys taught us how quickly our digital pets would die if we forgot to feed them and clean up their poop. I can't help but feel that Tamagotchi-like toys conceptually paved the way for other simulation entertainment like the Sims.
I convinced my mother to buy me a Tamagotchi because it would teach me responsibility, but I just wanted to fit in. Everyone had a Tamagotchi, and that was a circle I needed to be part of. I desperately needed to become another pre-teen frantically feeding their digital pet during the passing period because they wouldn't be able to do it in English class.
Now, I'm an adult with real pets, and I want nothing more than to teach them how to take care of themselves. Why were we in such a rush to experience obligation as kids and why did it seem like fun?
Sony Aibo, 1999
$8,900 at time of publication
What was with the 90s and pet toys? It's like our parents went to a convention and asked electronic toy-makers to create as many devices to pacify our desire for living-breathing animals. The result of their secret meetings was the Sony Aibo which was marketed as an "entertainment robot" but was the beginning of consumer-grade artificial intelligence.
The Aibo didn't catch on as well as Sony would've liked because they'd designed a toy intriguing enough to buy, but not intelligent enough to perform critical tasks that kept kids interested. The Sony Aibo would sit, lay down, and beg - I think - but there were no "snoozles," no "zooms," no "mlems," or any other behaviors that made owning a dog worth it. It was all artificial intelligence, but there was no love for it.
Tickle Me Elmo, 1996
$29 at time of publication
Remember the craze of the Tickle Me Elmo? Well, a lesser-known tickle me toy did it first. His name was Tickles the Chimp, and he came out in 1992. None of us ever heard of Tickles the Chimp because he just didn't have the star power of Elmo.
I'm sure that somewhere Tickles is still telling the story of how he came first, and Elmo stole his gimmick. Tickle Me Elmo was full of drama. Aside from crushed dreams, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Tickle Me Elmo, and ‘til this day it has changed our conditioning of acceptable behavior in public spaces.
Tyco, Sesame Street, and Elmo helped usher in Walmart Brawl and public spectacle culture. I could be wrong, but before the release of Tickle Me Elmo, I'd never heard of massive fights happening in big-box retailers.
Looking back, I'm pretty sure the short supply of these toys was intentional; it was indeed a marketing genius. It seemed that during the Christmas shopping season of '96 there were several reportings of punches thrown, foot tramplings, and black eyes.
The chaos also spurred public spectating behavior as all of the brawl footage came from Walmart security cameras. In the end, all that violence did was make the plush doll more desirable. The toy retailed for US$29.99, but towards the end of 1996 E-bay sellers were asking $10,000 per toy. Amazing how such an adorable character could bring out the worst in adults.
Tiger Handheld Games, 1993
$48 at time of publication
If your family was "ballin' on a budget" in the 90s like mine, then you may have owned a couple of Tiger Handheld games rather than a Game Boy. The idea of this product was genius. All Tiger did was get licensing for the hottest games at the time, wrap them in inexpensive Game Boy-like casing and sell them for $20.
With the Tiger Handhelds, there were no cartridges. Each handheld was standalone, so if you wanted variety, you just purchased more units. By comparison, the Game Boy cost around $90 plus game cartridges. So, if money was tight for the family, Tiger made handheld gaming more accessible and inclusive.
$16 at time of publication
The original Legos were created in 1949, but the official lego website launched in 1996, so it counts! No matter how hard you try, you simply just can’t make a popular 90s toys list in the last 7 decades without mentioning LEGO.
While classic LEGO’s were fun, it was during the 90s that LEGO began to branch out, and bring creative sets based on popular pop culture franchises; such as Back to the Future’s signature Delorean time machine and Batman’s Bat Cave.
Always a pleasure, I still enjoy sitting down with a LEGO set whenever I can. Thankfully, LEGO’s popularity has never soared down and it has diverse sets for different types of people with different types of interests. And the best thing about LEGO is that they’re still under budget and made for everyone, young or old. Nothing makes a better present than this for those who like building things.
Lite Brite, 1967
The Lite Brite was originally marketed in the 60s but it was still influential for many 90s kids.
Nerf Guns, 1969
$13 at time of publication
The Nerf Gun was created in 1969, but it really took off once Hasbro acquired the brand in 1991. Our grandparents and parents grew up playing cowboys and Indians when they were kids. We took it to a whole new level with nerf guns, the toy craze that annoyed the heck out of our parents.
During the summer, you couldn’t take a step out of the house without stepping on or getting hit with an orange foam pellet shot from a Nerf gun. Many enthusiasts have taken the Nerf marketing slogan “It’s Nerf or Nuthin’!” a bit too literally with official Nerf tournaments taking place all around the USA during different times of the year.
While we absolutely loved shooting up the house with the bright orange foam pellets, dodging our mom’s broom was a mandatory survival tactic in the process, making for some really fun memories.
Sockem Boppers, Late 90s
$12 at time of publication
Sockem Boppers may go by "Socker Boppers" now, but every 90s kid remembers what it felt like to put these inflatable gloves on and terrorize other kids.
Koosh Balls, 1987
$11 at time of publication
Koosh balls are made of 2,000 rubber filaments and is a rather oddly satisfying toy to handle. Last year someone suggested me to get a fidget spinner to prove it’s more than just a fancy toy and could help me relax. After getting one and spinning it for 30 seconds I realized what I was missing; my favorite red Koosh ball from 7th grade that I could squeeze the life out of.
Koosh balls were basically stress balls for kids. Squeezing these balls were an absolute blast, especially when doing homework or listening to music as the rubber filaments produced a warm ticklish sensation that’s enjoyable. While they are still available in the market, compared to the variation and colors in its heyday, the color and design choices are comparatively limited.
Simon Says, 1978
$29 at time of publication
This electronic memory game was created in the 70s but 90s kids spent hours challenging their brains with it.
Yo-Yo, 440 B.C.
$13 at time of publication
Okay, I can’t even pretend that this toy holds some sort of special association with the 90s but they were no less popular. There’s even a Greek vase dating back to 440 b.c. that depicts a boy playing with a Yo-Yo. Regardless, this list really would be incomplete without the Yo-Yo.
Rarely seen nowadays, they can still make a good gift for anyone you know who likes to play with their fingers and hands. Finding a good quality yo-yo these days is a bit difficult as they’re treated more like novelty items now, but you shouldn’t have difficulty finding one if you look hard enough.
Rock‘Em Sock‘Em Robots
$33 at time of publication
Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots is yet another game from the 70s that 90s kids thoroughly enjoyed.
Spice Girls Dolls, 1997
$150 at time of publication
If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with Spice Girls Dolls. In 1997 the Spice Girls, hugely popular off of the heels of their single “Wannabe” capitalized on their merchandising contracts and signed a deal with Galoob Toys to create the Spice Girls Dolls. The deal reportedly made $11 million and were the best selling celebrity dolls of all time.
These dolls were genius because you could get a concert stage in your set and um, of course, we begged our parents to buy that add on.
$22 at time of publication
Honestly, what even was that thing? Maybe a cuddly gremlin? Apparently, it didn’t matter that its species was ambiguous because when Furbies launched in the 1998 holiday season over 40,000,000 units were sold.
Initially speaking only in ‘Furbese’, the language of the imaginary Furbie population, this adorable monster that looks like a cross between an owl and a penguin starts using English words slowly to mimic the process of learning English from its owner. Don’t underestimate Furby though, that little gremlin thingy was programmed to be able to speak in 24 different languages in its prime.
The latest version of Furbies can be controlled using a mobile app and features voice and facial recognition software as well as LCD eyes. Furbies are a great companion for kids who are scared to go to bed alone by themselves and need a friendly voice in the middle of the night, not!
$67 at time of publication
I can't remember which was more fun, singing Bop It's commercial jingle non-stop or actually playing it. "Now bop it...and twist it."
Easy Bake Oven, 1963
$40 at time of publication
Sweet baby Mary I wanted one of these so bad. Now that I’m an adult and don’t cook perhaps baking a mini cake in an Easy Bake Oven will be my best effort at a home-cooked meal?
My cousin did have an easy bake oven, however. Our very first baking attempt was on one of these awesome dough toy set that was popular among girls in the 90s once they got bored with their doll-house set. The miniature pots, pans, and oven sets make for the perfect experimentation ground for enthusiastic novice bakers.
After mimicking our grandma in the kitchen with the set, we proudly presented to her my first baking attempt at something edible which made me proud. The latest versions are safer and better designed than the 90s version which used a light bulb for heating purposes. The newer version has tungsten wiring for heating, much safer than its predecessor was. This is a really fun and safe way to get kids interested in baking at an early age.
Crocodile Dentist, 1990
$10 at time of publication
If you ask any American dentist in their late twenties and early thirties what made them passionate about their current profession, they’d probably answer Crocodile Dentist.
This simple 90s toy involved extracting all the teeth from the toy crocodile’s mouth one at a time with a plastic scalpel, all while the crocodile head made biting motions and snapped its teeth.
A perfectly fun game whether played with friends or alone, we had a lot of fun that one summer we entertained Mr. Crocodile at our home with all our novice dentistry skills we could muster to free him from his toothy burdens.
Let’s Go Fishin, 1990
$17 at time of publication
While the original fishing toy game by Pressman Toy was also something our parents played, the 90s saw a resurgence in popularity thanks to the more faster spins, larger sizes and colorful designs introduced by the different manufacturers.
Super-fun to play with, cheap and exciting all at the same time, I think my parents lost count of how many sets of these awesome toys they bought for us when we were kids.
This is the first game that I played that made me rage quit more than once, but I also loved it with equal fervor. Fishing toy games haven’t changed much since the 90s, so playing them should still feel the same should you decide to get yourself one this Christmas.
Magna Doodle, 1974
$18 at time of publication
The Magna Doodle could be considered the predecessor to modern tablets. Magna Doodles were one of the most unique and influential 90s toys I’ve come across, primarily because of its training applications in scuba diving which I discovered once I started diving lessons.
Many professional cartoonists and artists who grew up in the 90s started exploring their talents with a Magna Doodle Set.
Magna Doodle’s were immortalized in the 90s mainly thanks to the popular sitcom Friend’s where Joey and Chandler kept scribbling funny messages on one that they kept in their apartment across the seasons.
Talkback Dear Diary, early-1990’s
$90 at time of publication
The Talkback Dear Diary was created in response to the extremely popular Talkboy which was made famous as a prop used in the hit movie series, Home Alone in 1992.
The perfect outlet for angsty teenage girls just waiting to pour their hearts out. The Talkback Dear Diary was the password-protected place to deposit my nonsensical emotional ramblings into, you know, before my journal. I would say of all of the selections on this list, the Talkback Dear Diary is the one that pulls the most at my nostalgic heartstrings.
Sky Dancers, mid-1990’s
Remember those pretty little fairies with the pull-string? Such simple mechanics, but they were a satisfying toy to play with. The foam wings were perfect for launching dignified and petty attacks on our siblings.
On a serious note, while it all sounds like fun and games on paper, these dolls were also responsible for over 100 serious eye injuries which led these products to be recalled before early 2000. Hey, at least we got to keep the Sky Dancer cartoon series!
The 90s were the era of creating entire tv shows just to sell more toys. It was almost as if the minute the toy wasn’t a confirmed flop they were putting together an animated series.
$21 at time of publication
The bane of every 90s mom's existence, K’NEX made us feel like artistic geniuses. Similar to LEGO in concept but different in everything else, I’m surprised that nobody recognizes it these days, even 90s kids. Though not as well-known as LEGO, K’NEX still has a huge underground following worldwide which has still kept it in the market.
K’NEX was arguably more sophisticated than legos because you could make all sorts of machines and structures with the parts. The K’NEX was one of the 90s toys that a future civil engineer would’ve been drawn to.
The designs of K’NEX sets have also undergone major design changes with more complicated sets available nowadays. The main reason we never made progress with K’NEX as kids was because of the lack of manuals, but in the age of the internet, Youtube has all the video manuals one will ever need to create Minecraft level detailed structures in real life.
Beanie Babies, 1993
$2 at time of publication
Listen, I’ll admit it. Both my mother and I were crazy over beanie babies, and she did allow us to drop major cash on the Princess Di Beanie Baby. I think it ended up in a box at the goodwill after I left for college.
Even McDonald’s sold the watered-down version of real beanie babies in their happy meals. They were about a third of the size and had fewer beans in them but they were good enough.
As an adult, I’m pretty sure that the main reason I begged our parents to take us to McDonald's every once in a while was not because of the food but to get my hands on a new baby. I knew it, my parents knew it and McDonald’s knew it.
The Beanie Babies brand takes pride in being the world’s very first internet fad in the mid-90s. Seeing how each of these classic collectibles go for tens of thousands of dollars on eBay, I wish I held on to the ones I had. It’s easier to book a destination wedding than getting your hands on one of these plush classics.
Polly Pocket, 1983
$5 at time of publication
Our list would not be even close to complete without Polly Pocket. Another 90s toy turned animated series, my Polly Pocket collection was the object of my pride and joy. Polly Pockets hit stores in 1989 but they didn’t take off until Mattel acquired distribution arrangements for the toy in the early 90s.
It was really fun piecemealing Polly’s make-believe life together, snapping in her furniture and pets. Polly Pockets were the optimal toy for the on-the-go ten-year-old that valued both ample playtime and convenience.
Super Soakers, 1982
$39 at time of publication
While the Super Soaker was invented in 1982, it wasn’t made for sale until 1990. The story of this invention is pretty charming, and you can hear about it yourself from the inventor, Lonnie Johnson, who happens to be a fairly active Redditor. Mr. Johnson was an Air Force and Nasa engineer in the ‘80s when hecreated the Super Soakerprototype out of PVC pipe, acrylic, and a plastic water bottle.
While attending the American International Toy Fair in New York, he met the vice president of Laramai toy company who showed interest in his invention. Mr. Johnson later decided to shift his career away from NASA engineering and used the funds from the Super Soaker to sponsor his own research goals.
If you’re wondering what Lonnie Johnson is up to today, he’s still researching and inventing with efforts to make solar power more affordable.
Monster In My Pocket, 1989
$7 at time of publication
Before there were Pokémon, there was Monster in My Pocket. Though I don’t remember owning any of these, I still remember the craze over these mini collectibles. Collecting all the mythical creatures was all kids could think of the year these ‘pocket-monsters’ first came out. Each monster in the collection had a point value, the more colorful the more valuable, but the base colors were yellow, red, orange, green, and purple monsters.
The popularity only faded for these figurines when Gameboys and Pokémon cards took over. Spawning an entire franchise of goodies including a board game, card game, cartoons and video game tie ins. Monster In My Pocket has gained a strong cult following over the years and you can still find some of the goodies online if you look hard enough.
$14 at time of publication
Floam is sort of the rebel in this list because it was conceivedafterthe concept made its TV appearance on Nickelodeon rather than before. 90s kids loved slime.
There is something about kids and sticky stuff that go together, though adults try their best to separate one from the other. However, toy manufacturers in the 90s found a way to capitalize on this messy relationship and an entire generation's worth of putty based products were born.
One of the most prominent putty based toy I remember is Floam. It had beads in it which made it easier to mold. A lot of parents embraced it wholeheartedly at first to keep their kids from messing around with mud and dirt, but soon went crazy washing it off their clothes. Despite that, all the lovely things that could be potentially made from Floam outweighed its cons.
If you want to look for them online, check under the arts and crafts sections as most websites don’t categorize them as toys anymore.
$19 at time of publication
Tiger Electronics was the "it" 90s toy and game manufacturer of the 90s. They were behind many of the toys on this list, including the Skip-it.
As if regular skipping ropes weren’t enough, this deceptively simple-looking toy has been responsible for more broken and sprained ankles and bumped-up foreheads than any other toy in the 90s period. I owned one for about 3 days before I sprained my left ankle and leaving it in my toy box to gather dust.
It looks just like a regular skipping rope except it had a rubber ball attached in the middle which slowly increased the momentum of the rope’s speed along with a counter. An awesome product that turned kids into fitness nuts thanks to all the advertisement on Nickelodeon, this was a must-have in any kids toy collection in the 90s.
While it worked well on concrete, it wasn’t really good on grass which is why it was a very common scene in the 90s to see kids tripping in parks.
Creepy Crawlers, 1964
$100 at time of publication
Today’s kids have 3D printing, but 90s kids had the die-cast metal molds necessary to create bugs made out of ‘plastic goop.’ Back in the 90s, Creepy Crawlers were one of the few dough-based products that were as popular as Easy-Bake Oven.
Creepy Crawlers were awesome because they allowed us to create our mini plastic toys from scratch, starting from Bugs Bunny, Doc Elmo, Buzz Lightyear and many more of our favorite cartoon icons, making us feel like master sculptors. Parents also loved it because it saved them a bunch on a lot of occasions.