Thursday, June 20, 2013

Childhood Memories: 80s Robot Toys

As someone who spent my early childhood in the 80s, I got to experience almost the entire decade (born in late '81). Part of me would consider myself more of a "90s kid", because my late childhood and teens, literally when I "grew up", was the 90s. But I guess I was born at a good time, because I got to be both an 80s AND 90s kid, when you get right down to it. I got the best of both decades. And I don't think it's all that unfair to say that, with few exceptions (faster internet, etc.), those two decades were both light years better than anything that has come post-2000. In fact, the new millenia, so far, has been rather shitty, all things considered. But I digress.

Looking back at the 80s, one thing that really sticks out is that it was, unquestionably, the "Decade of Toys". Sure, many previous or following decades still have plenty of toys. But the 80s went kind of haywire with them. It's the only decade I can think of (having done the homework), that had such an ingrained phenomenon, for example, of cartoon shows either based on products, or cartoons made in tandem with a toy line specifically to sell it to kids. Transformers, Go Bots, GI Joe, He-Man, Care Bears, Glo-Friends, My Pet Monster, Potato Head Kids, Cabbage Patch Kids, MASK, Thundercats, Inhumanoids, Dino-Riders, the list literally goes on and on. And among the most popular of 80s toy trends, so it would seem, were toy robots. If you weren't alive in or don't remember the 1980s, trust me, robots were BIG.

So weird, sometimes so useless, yet still so cool.

As much as it was the "Decade of Toys", you could just as easily call the 80s the "Decade of Robots", at least in so far as society's fascination with them. You had R.A.L.F. (Robotic Assistant Labor Facilitator) from the movie "Flight of the Navigator". You had Johnny 5 from the "Short Circuit" movies. You had the adorable little living flying saucer robots from "Batteries Not Included". You had the Transformers and GoBots, and the robotic butler from Rocky 4 (totally out of left field). But what we're here to talk about, of course, are the toys.

Ah, THIS guy.

Pictured above is one robot toy I actually owned (and wish I still had). You can basically figure out what it does from just looking at it, a battery operated little guy who moves around on the floor in certain patterns, and his eyes light up and he makes cool "laser" sounds, or whatever. I also had a white one with blue lights and neat little laser-gun hands that I wasn't able to find a picture of on the internets. Growing up fairly poor, as I've touch upon in the past, I unfortunately wasn't able to own too many of these bad boys, though trust me when I tell you that I certainly wanted them. One of my biggest childhood letdowns, was the fact that at a younger age, before Nintendo and Godzilla took over my life, I had an at least temporary obsession with getting my very own Teddy Ruxpin toy. It was a teddy bear doll, that was a robot (of sorts), with a tape player in it's back. You buy Teddy Ruxpin story tapes, pop 'em in, and the doll itself would move it's mouth and eyes while the voice of Teddy on the tape told you a story. On the commercials, it just looked so awesome I HAD to have one, and they naturally had a (pretty cool) Teddy Ruxpin cartoon that made my yearning even worse. Alas, I never did get to have one. I had Care Bears dolls, I had all three promotional Burger King "Alvin and the Chipmunks" dolls, I had He-Man toys and Legos and M.U.S.C.L.E. figures and a couple of Battle Beasts and I even had a Dino-Riders figure or two. But no Teddy. I was almost as forlorn about this fact as I was at an even YOUNGER age, when I felt that I absolutely had to have a $500 Pow-Pow-Powerwheels car. Ah.....youth.

The one that got away.....

So yeah. There were all kinds of robot toys. There was this guy:

Just look at that smile.

Alphie II, an educational robo-toy. Taught you numbers, letters, colors, memorization skills, etc. Never had one, but it always looked fairly neat.

Then there was this thing:

What a great................toy?

Called the "Armatron", from Tomy, the purveyor of all things ridiculously cool but also fairly useless. It is exactly what it looks like. Again, I never had one, but I remember it. If picking things up with extra effort is your thing, then Armatron is your friend for life!

Then of course there was:

So cool. So useless. But so fucking cool.

Nintendo, in order to market it's NES console as a "toy" in the recently game-aversion North American market, created ROB here, the "Robotic Operating Buddy", and packed him in with the earliest NES models to be shipped to the states. He looks absolutely bad ass, and those red flashing eyes you see were how it kept track of things happening in the game on-screen, the flashes would cue the robot to make certain actions. He was SUPPOSED to be your automated second player, a cool concept to a little kid, but sadly, they only made two games that he worked with (Stack Up and Gyromite), neither of which were all that good, and honestly, the poor guy just didn't work that well, or was all that fun to play with. But hot damn did he still LOOK cool, and that alone helped sell many parents who were weary of all the crap that Atari and Collecovision and Intellivision and Magnavox, etc., had flooded the market with in the early 80s.

AGAIN, sadly, I never had a ROB. Totally useless, to be honest, but to tell you the absolute truth, I wouldn't have cared as a kid. I would have, in all seriousness, just propped him up somewhere in my living room, and still pretended that he was my robotic pal, watching me play games, giving me pointers, watching my back for foul enemy attacks, etc. And it would have been the greatest thing ever. Ah well. One of these days, when I can afford to buy the obnoxiously priced used models online, I'll finally have one. And I'll STILL prop him up and pretend he's hanging out with me.

"I'm WAY cooler than Sonic the Hedgehog. Really."

Believe it or not, even SEGA had gotten into the robot act a bit earlier in Japan, creating what was essentially a public promotional tool, called "Sega Chan". Sega was already fairly rich even in 1982 off of their arcade profits, and they created Chan here, to put in malls and fun centers and other places where families and parents would likely see it. It had voice recognition, could talk and answer a select number of questions, show you promotional videos for Sega games on it's little chest-mounted TV screen, hand out pamphlets, and even shake your hand without crushing it. Looks pretty cool, but much like ROB, it must not have worked out all that well, because he's a forgotten piece of obscurity today.

All in all, toy robots are a pretty sweet idea. Although, I still maintain that, honestly, fuck Furbies. Those things are creepy as hell and look like they're going to learn just enough to kill you in your sleep. But OTHER than Furbies......I'd say, so long as you don't give them adaptive AI so they rise up and kill us all, robot toys (especially of the cheesy 80s variety), are pretty damn neat. I wish I still had the black and white ones from my childhood. And to tell you the truth, if I had the money to blow, I'd probably buy a bunch more I never had on ebay or something, right this minute. So if you have some spare cash lying around, go browse eBay or Amazon, and find yourself a battery operated 80s robot toy. You'll be glad you did, and you'll have a friend for life, or at least till his parts stop working.

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