Kids today are lost without iPads and smartphones – but in the ’80s, a few colored plastic buttons were enough to keep us entertained for hours. We’ve done some diligent reminiscing to come up with 15 of the best childhood gadgets from the ’80s – so get ready for some nostalgia, Nintendo and robots…neon clothing is optional!
15. Speak & Spell
Preparing for a spelling bee is a lot more fun when a robotic voice tells you whether your spelling is correct! Introduced by Texas Instruments in 1978, the Speak & Spell was one of the earliest handheld electronic devices with a visual display to use interchangeable game cartridges. The Speak & Spell has even influenced popular music; the internal circuits of the educational toy can be manipulated to create sounds that have been sampled by a number of pop artists. Depeche Mode also named their 1981 debut album Speak & Spell.
14. Nintendo (NES) and The Zapper
Nintendo has introduced a lot of systems and games over the years, but it’s hard to forget the original Nintendo NES and Super Mario Brothers (1 and 3…let’s be honest, Super Mario Brothers 2 was super weird). The Duck Hunt gun (aka The Zapper) was also a source of endless hours of interactive fun. The zapper works by blacking out the TV for one frame and then detecting changes in light as objects move across the screen; it doesn’t work with LCDs, plasma displays or other flat panel displays.
13. Nintendo R.O.B.
My parents didn’t splurge on the NES until Super NES was practically on shelves – but very lucky ’80s kids who got the game system Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe Set between 1985 and 1987 also got the Nintendo R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy, referred to in Japan as the Family Computer Robot) along with it. This adorable robot only lasted for two games, but he was an important sales tool that established Nintendo’s presence in the U.S. Since it’s pretty rare, it’s a fun collector’s piece of gaming history.
12. Power Glove
If you want an incredibly fashionable NES controller you can wear, look no further than the Power Glove. Released in 1989, it’s even immortalized in the amazing Nintendo-produced film The Wizard; bad guy Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson) proclaims, “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.” Unfortunately, it was pretty bad; the Power Glove was criticized for being imprecise and hard to use. Still, it looks totally dope.
Technically, Simon was released in the ’70s, but it didn’t become a huge hit toy until the ’80s. Players attempted to recreate a sequence of tones by pressing the colored buttons in the correct order; as the game’s slogan goes, “Simon’s a computer, Simon has a brain, you either do what Simon says or else go down the drain” (seriously, that’s the slogan that sold millions of toys). Today, you can play Simon for free on your iPhone or iPad with the Simon Flash app; if you’re a badass like the kid in the commercial, you can even try a tougher color-free version.
10. Game Boy
Released in 1989 (it just made it onto our list), the Game Boy and later Game Boy Color have sold 118.69 million units worldwide. Although the original Game Boy lacked the color display and other technological advances of handhelds like the Atari Lynx and Game Gear, the Game Boy was cheaper, used fewer batteries and offered longer gameplay. Nostalgia for the Game Boy is clearly alive and well, since you can buy a retro Game Boy case for your iPhone.
9. Mario Bros Handheld Game
In the early 1980s, Nintendo released a number of Mario Bros and Donkey Kong handheld games. In Mario Bros., our favorite Italian siblings work in a packaging/bottling factory facility and they have to keep track of boxes or face the wrath of their boss. In the handheld game, which opens like a book, the left hand controls Luigi, while the right hand controls Mario. If you don’t want to shell out $90 for a Mario Bros. handheld game on eBay, trying playing remake versions of these games online.
Kids are still performing ill-advised surgeries with Milton Bradley/Hasbro’s Operation, which was first introduced in 1965 and has seen updates with its electronic handheld version, Disney Pixar Cars 2 Edition, Brain Surgery Game and online Operation games. Today’s version looks a bit different from the one we grew up with in the 1980s, but I’m happy to see that the poor patient has the same goofy haircut.
7. Etch A Sketch
Etch A Sketch creator Andre Cassagnes passed away earlier this month at the age of 86. A French electrician, Cassagnes created the toy in 1950; it was brought to the US in 1960. Since then, more than 150 million Etch A Sketches have been sold, with appearances of the device in Toy Story and Toy Story 2 reinvigorating demand for a new generation of kids. I never had the patience to draw more than a few lines or boxes, but others have made more memorable creations: check out these mind-blowing Etch A Sketch drawings from HuffPo.
6. Kenner Star Wars Return of the Jedi “The Force” Lightsaber
The original Star Wars lightsabers were flimsy, inflatable toys – but in 1980, Kenner released a sturdy new Return of the Jedi “The Force” version in yellow and red (the yellow model was replaced with a green one in 1983). It’s technically not an electronic gadget – but when you swing it, air rushes through its hollow shaft and makes different kinds of humming noises. Today’s lightsabers haven’t changed a whole lot – and even President Obama enjoys a little lightsaber duel every now and then!
5. Teddy Ruxpin
Teddy Ruxpin, a bear who moved his eyes and mouth as stories played via audio cassette, was the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986 (he also spawned a cartoon series). The original version of Teddy stopped being sold in 1987 (those original bears are now collector’s items), but other versions have been produced since then, including ones with digital cartridges. For more info, check out the My Teddy Ruxpin FAQ Pages, a website that claims to be “Everything you wanted to know, but couldn’t find.” I guess there are a lot of Teddy Ruxpin fans still out there!
4. Atari Lynx
Introduced in 1989, the Atari Lynx was the world’s first handheld electronic game with a color LCD and the also the first to feature integrated math and graphics co-processors. Unfortunately, the Game Boy was released the same year and surpassed the Lynx in sales; in addition, Sega’s popular Game Gear came along in 1991 and offered a larger library of game titles. The Lynx’s color display made it superior to the Game Boy, but its higher price, six AA battery requirement and short battery life made it less attractive.
3. Lite Brite
Did you know that you can still buy Lite Brites? Today, they’re portable, cordless, battery-powered and made with LEDs. Hint: you can still use your Lite Brite to spell out mean messages to your siblings when they cut off your Barbies’ feet. (Am I the only person this happened to?) If you don’t want the hassle of tiny little pegs, you can also download a Lite Brite app for iPhone and iPad - but I don’t think it’ll be the same without the actual lights.
The Armatron was a joystick-controlled robotic crane that could pick up small objects. It also came with a countdown timer than indicated the Armatron’s “energy level.” I’m not sure why it’s so exciting to pick up objects with a movable crane, but HEY, IT’S A ROBOT! One YouTube commenter says it was “loud as hell,” while another suggests that combining it with G.I. Joe toys makes for optimal playtime.
In the mid-1980s, TOMY (the company behind the Armatron) also produced the Omnibot, a robot that could record and play back sequences of commands and regular audio recordings with its cassette player. The robot could carry small objects – and the second version, the Omnibot 2000, could even take cups and glasses from its motorized tray and move them into its arm. Both versions used a digital clock with timers and alarms to schedule recordings, meaning that you could program it to follow commands at certain times, like coming into your room and greeting you in the morning (or waking up your parents when they’re trying to sleep in). How did I not have one of these?? I’m not surprised that the Omnibot has shown up in both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and How I Met Your Mother.