It is rare that you find a franchise that has managed to stay fresh and popular (though not entirely uncontroversial) for as long as that of Pokémon. With the ever-increasing growth of this pop culture phenomenon, came a plethora of toys and games that began with the creation of the Pokémon Red, Blue and Green video games for the Game Boy way back in 1995. Let’s take a look at some of the various toys that Pokémon has released throughout the years.
It is impossible to discuss Pokémon without bringing up the video games as this is where the whole franchise started. The Game Boy games set off the franchise and were and still are, incredibly engaging. I remember that I had a used copy of Pokémon Red that had a save file still on there from someone who was clearly a lot better at the game then I was. I lied for a while to my friends and my brother and said that I had managed to complete the game quickly and had levelled up my Charmander to Charizard equally fast. Guilt plagued me and I fessed up eventually but the experience showed me just how cool you could be considered by your peers if you were an expert Pokémon player. Despite my love of the Game Boy titles, it was the Nintendo 64 game Pokémon Stadium that truly got me into the franchise in a big way. I would play it for hours on end after school as it had an array of various game modes, including mini-games that I wasted way too much time on. It also had the added benefit that you could transfer your Pokémon from the Game Boy game into the N64 game. These games would go on to spawn multiple generations, with the eight generation beginning recently with the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield. There’s no doubt that the games initiated the franchise and are arguably the most popular toy to come out of it.
Another one of the big toys to come out of the Pokémon franchise has to be the Pokémon Cards. Although originally intended to be played as a trading card game, many people –myself included- would treat them as collectibles rather than focusing on the game element. Collecting all the cards has been a life-long goal for kids around the world. The cards also became a staple of the franchise, with kids of the 90’s going wild for them. I remember the feeling of excitement that would come with getting a new pack of Pokémon cards. There was always a sense of hope and longing for that one rare shiny that you needed. Not to mention the crippling feeling of disappointment when you got yet another Diglett or Machop (I had so many Machops). Pokemon cards were something that you could share with your friends if they were also into Pokémon, making purchasing a pack of cards a fun and social event. Fun fact: I brought in all of my cards to school once to trade and someone stole them all. Because of this, they ended up being banned from my school entirely. That was me. I was that kid.
The action figures of various Pokémon came in all shapes and sizes. Whether it was a Pikachu with light-up cheeks, a bouncy ball with a Pokémon inside it or actual Pokéballs, action figures were and still are one of the staples of the Pokémon toy market.
No Pokémon collection could be complete without a plushie or two. Pikachu was a big favourite of course but there was a wide variety to select from back in the day, even if it may seem like a paltry selection in comparison to the amount you can find around today.
The real-life Pokédex from the ’90s was the toy that got away when I was a child. I pined for it for so long as it was not only a cool electronic gadget, it looked just like the Pokédex from the anime series and I wanted nothing more than to live inside that world and be a Pokémon trainer. What seems so simple in this day and age seemed a technological marvel to me and I’m sure it felt the same way for a lot of kids back then. I never did get that Pokédex though. I don’t want to say that it emotionally scarred me but it basically emotionally scarred me.
The Pikachu Tamagotchi was pretty much exactly what you might expect. A Tamagotchi but programmed with everyone’s favourite yellow Poképal Pikachu. The user would have to care for Pikachu appropriately and if you didn’t, you would be scarred for life knowing that your lack of responsibility killed Pikachu. I did actually get one of these but I lost it somewhere in the messy confines of my room. The worst part was that I could still hear it beeping from time to time but no matter how hard I looked, I just couldn’t find my poor electronic Pikachu. The beeping became quieter until finally, it stopped altogether. It wasn’t until years later that I found my tiny Tamagotchi. It was a reminder that I, like many others I’m sure, was technically a Pikachu murderer. Rest in Peace Tamagotchi Pikachu. My carelessness may have killed you but your memory lives on.
The Legacy of Pokémon Toys
The Pokémon franchise- and the huge variety of accompanying toys- will continue to play a large part in the lives of kids and adults all over the world. They were such a large part of my life as a child that the franchise influenced my way into adulthood. I would often take comfort in the fantasy world of pocket monsters during the toughest times in any child’s life. Issues such as trouble at school, arguments at home and losing friends were all prevalent in my life like many others. I would often feel like an outcast as I was so different at times and felt like I was constantly putting on an act to make friends and be like everyone else. But when I got home and switched on the television to watch Pokémon, picked up a console to play the game or just cuddle with my Pikachu plush, I would feel a little less alone. It is amazing to me to know there are kids out there now- two decades later- who feel the same. Here’s hoping there’s someone out there who is also hugging their Pikachu plush and realizing that maybe one day everything is going to be alright.
Ello Creation Systems: Hands-On Play in the Dawn of Tech Toys
Toys We Love Spotlight
Remembering Ello Creation Systems
Children’s construction toys stand the test of time, even with the current dash forward to all things electronic. The genre has both long enduring franchises like the ever-expanding Legos universe, as well as pop-up toys that were more short-lived. The second category describes Ello Creation Systems, one of my favorite toys as a child, and one of the few toys I enjoyed that didn’t involve staring at a screen.
Ello Creation Systems was a construction and craft set, primarily marketed towards girls ages 5-12, during the narrow window of 2002-2004. At the time, I fit neatly within Ello’s target demographic, aged 10-12 years old during its run.
Looking at this short window of time is surprising to me, as this toy had many pros. Even after so many years, I remember the eye-popping colors and designs of each set’s pieces, and the experience of working together with a friend to create, demolish, and re-create again and again.
Each set came with a light-weight and reusable carrying case, with roughly 150-200+ pieces each. Ello encouraged children to build houses and furniture, characters, and jewelry. Ello Creation Systems used large, plastic geometric shapes to create open-plan houses, with smaller pieces for furniture, and long, squiggly strips to make staircases. The pieces ranged from opaque magenta and lime green to translucent cyan.
All the pieces were colorful and easy to work with—in fact, these were the two best features for the whole franchise. Building was easy to understand, as the pieces could all be held together by plastic “bolts,” colored spheres and cubes with ridges to lock in the larger pieces.
One final plus was its general openness to interpretation. Ello imposed little “narrative” onto its construction sets. For Ello Creation Systems, the only backstory came with general themes for each new set. For example, my own personal favorite was the “Aquaria” set, with most of its building pieces coming in varying shades of blues and greens, often with ocean-wave flourishes. Character pieces came to create mermaids, special pieces were designed to make colorful fish, stickers helped to place seaweed on nearly everything, and so on.
“Ello is hands-down the stand-out toy of my childhood.”
Beyond this, children were free to build and imagine on their own. It’s possible that lacking a firmer backstory may have contributed to its short shelf-life. However, this also made it easy to pool together pieces from different sets, literally multiplying the possibilities for your creations.
I remember my Ello sets coming most in handy during my family’s weekend trips to rural New Hampshire. I was equally invested in both my Gameboy Advanced, as well as CD-ROM games cashing in on the popular cartoons of the time. But when my Gameboy would become stale after hours of playing, and my Dad would need the one shared desktop computer for work, I would pack up my Ello sets in their carrying-cases to my friend’s house. We would spill the hundreds of pieces on her living room floor and work together to build our houses and their pretend inhabitants, with all the wacky furniture and design details we could pack in. The two of us would create and customize, and then take it all apart and start again. This was the beauty of Ello: there was something new to be created every time, and connecting the various parts was easy, but it had the distinct Elllo look that stays in my mind to this day.
Today, as I edge closer to my late 20s, I find myself having thick nostalgia goggles for the early 2000s, from music to movies and video games. In the case of the hands-on, non-electronic toys of the times, Ello is hands-down the stand-out toy of my childhood. Today, Ello sets are hard to find online, having been discontinued years ago. However, if I were to swallow my pride and buy a physical toy from my childhood, Ello would be on the top of my wishlist.
Beanie Babies: The Collectables with Heart
Toys We Love Spotlight
For our Toys We Love Spotlight, I’m looking at one of my personal favourites: Beanie Babies. I had collected so many of these growing up, and households worldwide in the 90s and early 2000s were sure to have at least one Beanie Baby in their possession (was it even the 90s if they didn’t?). These plushie companions were cute, cuddly, and collectable, so it’s not a surprise that the Beanie Babies craze swept the globe, forcing parents and toy collectors everywhere to dig into their wallets.
Beanie Babies had a few aspects to them that made them stand out from your average plushie. Firstly, they did not have as much stuffing as most soft toys. Whilst some thought that this made them look cheap, it also made them light, posable, and gave them a realistic feel and look. The bear Beanie Babies were particularly good to pose, and this set them apart from run-of-the-mill teddy bears. Another element that made Beanie Babies more unique was their special tag. Each toy had a tag attached which had the toy’s name, date of birth, and a quotation etched inside. The former was something that could have been a risky choice, as although it wasn’t completely taking away the child’s choice of name — there was nothing stopping them from just calling their Beanie whatever they wanted — a pre-selected name can be difficult to sell, as kids can often take great pride and pleasure in naming their toys.
It was a great success, however, and worked as a nice finishing touch for the Beanie Babies, adding a dash of personality and flair (something much needed in the often critically over-saturated soft toy market), as well as making each Beanie Baby feel like their own creature with their own little stories. Adding to that was the wide variety of animals that were available, such as Tiny the Chihuahua, Pegasus the Unicorn or Swampy the Alligator. This means that the desires of each individual child or enthusiastic collector could be catered to (I myself favoured the dogs and bears).
The Beanie Babies also had their own way of tackling difficult issues in society, showing them to kids through the guise of a soft toy. I’ll give you an example through my own experience: I had a Beanie Baby that (as odd as it may sound) gave me more of an understanding of the horrors of September 11th. Weird, right? Allow me to explain. I was only just nine years old on that now-historical day when the twin towers in New York were attacked and so many innocent people lost their lives. I had come home from school (it was afternoon time here in the UK when it happened), and I remember my mum watching it on television in complete shock. She had watched the whole thing whilst I’d been at school.
I didn’t really understand what was happening to be honest. Even when I was watching the repeats of the plane crashing into the side of the tower, I was somewhat oblivious the gravity of the situation (though as a nine year old child, I suppose I could be forgiven for that). The news continued to report the tragedy for a long time, and my school held assemblies to discuss the matter. I knew people had died, and that made me very sad, but I remember thinking that people died all the time, so why was this one incident reported on so much? About a month or so after, TY released three Beanie Babies as a tribute to those lost during 9/11. One of these was a Dalmatian Beanie Baby called Rescue, and I wanted him the moment I saw him, not really knowing the true nature of his purpose. My mum obliged happily, knowing what he represented. I remember taking my little Dalmatian with the red collar and American flag on his leg home and reading his tag. It read:
To honor our heroes
who lost their lives in the
national catastrophe that
took place on September 11, 2001.
We mourn for them and express our
deepest sympathy to their families.
God Bless America
I found Rescue in my room recently, and the memories flooded back to me upon reading it again. I remember looking into all the acts of heroism and bravery after reading Rescue’s tag, and that’s when the situation really hit home to me. I looked into the stories of firefighters and first responders and those who had died, as well as all the search-and-rescue dogs attempting to save people among the chaos. As a child, it can be hard to see past your immediate opinion and truly consider the sheer weight of a situation, but with Rescue’s help, I was able to see just how this event was indeed very different to anything I had ever seen before, and how serious it was. It was the first time I felt like I was thinking like a grown up. I looked at the world differently from then on — obviously as I got older, but also from my ability to think harder and search deeper. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have even bothered if it wasn’t for Rescue reminding me of exactly how much was lost on that day.
Beanie babies will forever be ingrained in culture. They are still bought, sold and collected even now and will remain a timeless staple of most of our childhoods. They certainly are for me. Especially you Rescue, the bravest firefighting Dalmatian the world has ever known.
The Transformers: Lessons in Warfare, Scale, and Childhood
Toys We Love Spotlight
The Transformers are an enduring part of American pop culture. Starting with the introduction of the first toy lines in the early 1980s, the animated series went on to define a large part of ‘80s culture, reaching its apex with the release of The Transformers: The Movie in 1986. After a disappointing performance in theaters, however, the brand reached a nadir in the post-movie era, receding from the front of American pop culture until the late 1990s, when Transformers: Beast Wars brought the franchise to the forefront again.
It was into this climate that I was born. By the time I was old enough to watch TV and get toys courtesy of the North Pole and my parents, I began to take an interest in the series. After all, what five-year-old boy doesn’t like the idea of giant robots fighting each other for control of the earth and the universe?
My local video store (yes, those used to exist) had a copy of the first three episodes of the original Transformers series, Generation 1, on VHS. I remember renting this one particular copy from the store and watching it at least three times, sun-faded front cover and all. Even then, I loved the series, though I only had a few generic dollar-store “transformers,” an Armada Megatron that I had received for my fifth birthday, and a couple of hand-me-down G1 figures from my Dad.
Some of my earliest memories of Transformers came from a trip my parents and I took to visit my Dad’s former college roommate, a professed 80s culture geek. I remember watching a ton of G1 episodes, like “Dinobot Island,” as well as The Transformers: The Movie on his large projection-screen TV, an experience which inculcated within me an intense love of the series.
The first real episodic Transformers show that I watched with any sort of consistency, however, was Transformers: Armada. Now, I don’t remember much about this show — for good reason, as it’s derided by many Transformers fans for its poor animation, bad dubbing, and terrible story — but what I do remember is one particular toy that I really enjoyed: Armada Unicron.
I think it was the Christmas of 2002 when I first got Unicron. I remember having seen him in the store and (probably) telling my parents something or another about it, but I was utterly shocked when Santa brought it to me as a present. As a kid, Unicron was an impressive toy that towered over all of my other Transformers. He was such a hefty toy that I had trouble just picking him up from the ground. After having seen The Transformers: The Movie, I was just impressed by having the planet-eating destroyer of worlds himself in toy form. It was good to be a kid.
My consumption of Transformers-related content stayed relatively the same for a couple of years. Since my family didn’t get any of the channels that the shows came on, I was often left to make up what stories I could from my own memory, but we had Netflix (back when it was a DVD mail-in service), so I was able to watch some of the old series, including Beast Wars, Beast Machines, and Transformers: Energon on DVD. As usual, however, I spent most of my time in school or playing on my GameCube.
When Michael Bay’s Transformers released in theaters in 2007, it ushered in an entirely new era of Transformers fandom across the world. With the return of G1 originals Peter Cullen and Frank Welker as the voices of Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively, the ‘80s were alive and well again. This transformation (pun fully intended), brought about the introduction of an entirely new show, Transformers Animated, which aired on Cartoon Network. Before the days of DVR, it was nearly impossible for someone like myself, who was usually involved in any myriad of school activities on any given day, to find the time to watch a show at its air time.
However, luckily enough for me, Cartoon Network aired reruns of two episodes of Animated every day at 6:30 AM. As someone who lived literally two minutes away from school, I usually didn’t leave my house until around 7:45 or 8:00, so I had plenty of time to watch the show. I remember getting up every morning, fixing myself a big bowl of cereal, and sitting down to watch Animated before anyone in the house was up. Just me, Transformers, cereal, and a lot of fun.
Soon, as I aged and Animated was replaced by Transformers Prime, I grew into a more nuanced appreciation for the shows’ storytelling. Prime, a dark tonal contrast with Animated, found me at the perfect time in my life. I appreciated its reverence for Optimus Prime and its overarching themes of sacrifice and leadership. While some would say it was boring or over-wrought, for a burgeoning pre-teen it was an engaging combination of cool and edgy that I thoroughly enjoyed.
When I sit down to think about the impact the Transformers series has had on my life, there’s one point in particular that sticks out to me: the imagination that playing with Transformers encouraged. While the brand was doubtlessly born of a commercial desire to sell as many pieces of plastic as possible, it nonetheless developed into a series capable of some interesting, if not always deep, storytelling.
I copied this sense of storytelling when it came time to play with my toys. I remember incorporating various weather machines, weapons of ultimate power, and energy crystals into overarching narratives that could last a whole afternoon. Narratives in which Autobots died, lost limbs, or were otherwise in peril before the power of the Matrix of Leadership or Primus himself showed up to save them in the end. While this may not seem all that unique, I credit the series with instilling in me a sense of narrative detail. In fact, I remember not mixing my G.I. Joes and Transformers together, because in my internal head canon, they weren’t to scale (everyone knows that Transformers are at least three to four times taller than humans.)
However, Unicron himself created all sorts of problems for an internal narrative. For a being the size of a planet, he was rather puny in scale when compared to the other figures. So, I would always put Unicron to the side and pretend that the smaller Transformers were mere dots on him, tiny little specks that could barely be seen, the same as they had been in The Transformers: The Movie. I feel like the toys gave me an appreciation of the tropes of narrative fiction that I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed or appreciated.
Today, I still love the series and try to watch The Transformers: The Movie at least once a year. Newer entries, like Transformers: Rescue Bots and Rescue Bots Academy allow me to share my love of the series with my younger siblings without encountering the darker elements of some of the classic shows. It allows me to teach them all about the Cybertronians that I grew up with, and perhaps encourage them to craft stories of their own. Now, excuse me while I help the Rescue Bots put out a fire on Wayward Island…
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