Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s

Aimee Heidelberg - June 7, 2023

While the 80s were for kids growing up in the 80s, one of the best days of the year was when the Sears or Montgomery Ward Holiday catalog came in the mail. It was a smorgasbord of fun, from brightly colored dolls to wild car tracks to science kits, every kid could find something to wish for. The toys that shaped the children of the 80s may not have always originated in that decade, but they were part of the growing up experience. While the 80s were far from idyllic, there was a lot of free-roaming fun to be had, spending hours with the toys that left a lasting impression on the kids who played with them and generations to follow. Here are some of the most beloved toys kids in the 80s played with, and some that burned bright then faded from the spotlight.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Pong, one of the first home video games. mbiebusch (2010).

PONG – Started the video game revolution

It is a simple concept; two “paddles,” made up of a single 8-bit line, tried to keep the “ball” from getting past them and going off the screen, while trying to hit it past the other player. Pong was initially an arcade unit, rivaling pinball and pool games in bars and restaurants. By 1975, developer Atari came up with a brilliant new market niche for Pong. They developed a home version of the game, to work on a television set. They introduced Home Pong in the 1975 Sears Catalog. The first run sold hundreds of thousands of units. It would continue to grow in popularity during the early 80s, and for many 80s kids, be their first introduction to home video gaming, an obsession that would give rise to even bigger names and games.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Atari gaming system. Public domain.

Atari- Introducing 80s kids to home gaming

As famous as Atari was in the 1980s, it struggled in the years after its 1977 release. They had to compete with Intellivision, which was marketed as “sophisticated and graphically superior,” and ColecoVision, a short-lived but high quality gaming system. But in 1978, they had the foresight to license home games of wildly popular games like Space Invaders and Asteroids. But the biggest boom to the home gaming industry came in 1982, when Atari adapted a maze-and-chase game into a game cartridge for their moderately priced home gaming console. The game was Pac-Man. It was a raging success for Atari, selling over 7 million copies of the game and increasing sales of the Atari console.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Atari game cartridges. Clare McBride via Flickr (2013).

Game Cartridges

Kids of the 80s who had gaming consoles would typically have an Atari, Intellivision, or ColecoVision. These games required a cartridge inserted into the console. The cartridge held the entire game, all levels, all action, in its storage, as downloading game content was decades away. Some of the more popular games on multiple systems – if you had a cartridge for each system. You could play Pac-Man or Pitfall on Atari and Intellivision, but only if you had the Atari cartridge and the Intellivision cartridge. Additionally, each gaming system had unique, proprietary games. If you wanted to play AstroSmash, you had to have an Intellivision. If you wanted to play Space Invaders, you better know someone with an Atari, or you had to go to the local arcade. Having a huge game cartridge library was a gold mine for 80s kids.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Pac-Man arcade game. slgckgc via Flickr (2013).

Pac-Man, Video Game to Kids Commodity

While Atari, Intellivision, and ColecoVision games were popular, and games like Donkey Kong, Forgger, and Qbert leaped off the screen and into the merchandise realm, Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were kid toy royalty. It was a simple concept; a round yellow figure with nothing but eyes and a mouth ran around a maze, chomping on digital dots. But four multi-colored ghosts stymied Pac-Man’s goal. In 1982, with Pac-Man a raging success in the arcade and home gaming market, toy manufacturer Coleco obtained the license to develop figurines of Pac-Man and other gaming characters. Hanna-Barbera developed a Pac-Man cartoon. Buckner and Garcia released the song “Pac-Man Fever.” Toys and merchandise were inescapable. Hanna-Barbera, the cartoon giant behind The Flintstones and Scooby Doo, even developed a Pac-Man series running from 1982 and 1984. By 1983, Pac-Man was the “Mickey Mouse of the 80s.”

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Public domain.

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – From Quality to Quantity

After Atari’s fortune in the early 1980s, the market for home gaming stagnated from quickly produced but poor quality games, like Atari’s E.T. video game fiasco in 1982. But Atari’s bust was another’s boom. Nintendo, a century-old entertainment company in Japan, expanded into home gaming consoles. The 1985 introduction of the NES system in the North American market revived the industry. But unlike Atari, who allowed third party developers to create games without oversight, Nintendo kept tightly controlled game developers. Third party developers could release only two games a year and weren’t allowed to release games for other consoles. Nintendo oversaw content for years, prohibiting things like too much blood, sex, or blatant religious content. They turned blood to sweat in Mortal Kombat and changed a character from a drunk to an elderly coffee lover in Pokémon. As other home gaming console sales declined, Nintendo sold 62 million consoles.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Merlin memory game. Junkyardsparkle (2013).


While home gaming played on the television was gaining steam, there was still a strong market for handheld electronic games. Merlin, developed by former NASA employee Bob Doyle, brought electronic gaming into homes in the late 1970s, but its reign continued well into the 1980s. The game was a long, narrow, bright red rectangle divided into three segments. Players could choose between six games like Tic-Tac-Toe, blackjack, Magic Square, or just make music, all by using eleven red LED-lit buttons. The microprocessor inside the unit controlled all gameplay, ran by a battery, making Merlin an easily portable game. There were five million Merlins sold during its initial run, and it inspired other electronic gaming, with ever-increasing technological and visual capabilities.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Simon, the memory game. Shritwod (2018)

Simon, the revolutionary kids memory game

Around the same time Merlin made its appearance, another electronic game was making a name for itself. Simon was invented in the late 1970s by Ralph Baer, and distributed by game empire Milton Bradley. It was a simple circular device, with a control panel in the middle surrounded by four large, colored buttons. The buttons were red, yellow, green, and blue, and pushed by the player. Players would listen to a simple musical tone generated either by the game or by their opponent, and watch its corresponding button light up. They would then have to repeat that tone by pressing the correct button in the correct order. As the player advanced, the tones became longer and faster. Simon would inspire copycats, such as Waddington’s Wizard game, with similar gameplay but without the iconic flashing buttons. Simon reached its sales peak in the 1980s, and still sells decades later.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
The Little Professor by Texas Instruments. Joe Haupt via Flickr (2013).

The Little Professor: Making Math Fun for Kids

Electronics firm Texas Instruments released The Little Professor in 1976, but its popularity in blending math with electronics helped the toy remain popular well into the 1980s. The game was a “reverse calculator.” The device, a small handheld device with its professor character grinning from around its digital screen, would give the player a math problem. The player then had to solve the problem. When the player inputs the right answer, the screen would offer its digital praise for a job well done. It was one of the hit toys upon its release, and moderately priced to reach a greater number of buyers. It made math fun for those who love it, engaging for those leery of it, and led to the electronic educational toy revolution. With more than a million games sold, The Little Professor paved the way for Texas Instrument’s next (yet inadvertent) success.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Speak and Spell. Bill Bertram (2006).

Speak and Spell: Bringing Kids Education to Gaming

While video games set up their cultural empire, kids continued to covet handheld electronic toys. Texas Instruments wasn’t looking to revolutionize the late 1970s technological learning toy market. It was doing well with its calculators, computer electronics, and microprocessors. But four engineers, two of which helped develop The Little Professor, convinced the electronics giant to give it a try. The Speak and Spell blended fun, a unique solid-circuit technology, and education, pleasing kids and parents. The idea was simple; the game tells the player to spell one of its 200 words. The player would have to spell the word on its built-in keyboard. If they spelled the word right, they would hear “That is correct” or “That is right!” and moved to the next word. Speak and Spell got an added marketing boost when it featured in the blockbuster hit movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial Doll. supermattzor.

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg’s hit movie about an alien who befriends a young suburban boy was the #1 top grossing film in 1982, earning $359 million in its initial run. This heartwarming film about friendship and longing for home was also a hotbed of product placement. The movie is famous for launching Reese’s Pieces. E.T. communicated with his home using a device made from a modified Speak and Spell. But E.T. didn’t just use product placement as a plot device – it became the product. In 1982 and 1983, E.T. was everywhere. His big-eyed face featured on toys, games, bedding, clothes, school supplies, even peanut butter and chocolate cereal. The 11 individual companies that held licensing rights were set to make millions just from merchandise before the film even opened. But E.T.’s merchandising success cannot be mentioned without paying tribute to one of the most successful – and long-lasting – franchise toy industries.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Star Wars Action Figures. Nick Amoscato (2013).

Star Wars Action Figures

Star Wars wasn’t the first time a movie or television became a merchandising success. Disney sold replica Davey Crockett hats. Charles Schulz licensed the rights to his Peanuts characters, creating a merchandising industry that included clothing and toys. But these were precursors to the true Empire – Star Wars toys. Star Wars, the epic tale of good versus evil, the light side versus the dark side, and Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, was the perfect platform for toys. Star Wars action figures rapidly became the hot toy of the late 1970s. And that popularity continued well into the 1980s. There were action figures, ships, play sets, dolls, plastic replicas of anything remotely tied to the film. When the other two films in the Star Wars trilogy opened in the 80s, the merchandise was inescapable. It wasn’t just the massive collection of action figures. It was a lifestyle.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Star Wars merchandise. Stgeven Miller via Flickr (2022).

The Star Wars kids Toy Phenomenon

A kid might wake up in their Star Wars pajamas in their Star Wars sheets, eat Star Wars cereal, and grab their Star Wars backpack. They may use Star Wars pencils at school. Once home, there were Tie Fighters and X-Wing fighters to recreate battles. They could practice with a replica light saber. At the end of the day, they could store action figures into a Darth Vader storage case. But the fascinating part of the phenomenon is its staying power. This metaphorical kid could be living in the 1980s or the 2020s. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Davy Crockett hat on a kid’s head today. Snoopy has staying power, but it is much more low-key. But Disney still produces original Star Wars content, keeping the story of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance in the public eye. It’s a cross-generational phenomenon that has lasted nearly fifty years.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Star Wars cereal. theimpulsivebuy via Flickr (2015).

Merchandising in the 1980s

Star Wars reached a merchandising high that a toy manufacturer could only dream of. It didn’t go unnoticed. Saturday morning cartoons became toy commercials. Companies developed characters specifically for the merchandising opportunities. There were no regulations about the amount of advertising targeted toward children. If there was a product that could have a character slapped on it, it was in production within weeks. Clothing and toy lines were obvious choices, but merchandising expanded well beyond that. Cartoon characters smiled from electronics, home décor, and cereal boxes. Toys weren’t just toys anymore. They were worlds where kids could escape their own realities and go on adventures in their own imaginations. Kids could spot fellow fans with the merchandise they wore. The characters became a child’s entire world, and gave popular culture some of its most beloved, and long-lasting, characters like the Smurfs, Care Bears, and My Little Pony.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Brainy Smurf. Agaath (2022).

Smurfs: From Comics to Kids Toys

The Star Wars toy phenomenon showed toymakers the power and profit of TV and movie tie-ins. The Smurfs, small blue forest creatures who wore little white Phrygian hats and leggings, solved problems and had adventures showing the power of working together with others, no matter how different. Smurfs debut in 1957 as a Belgian children’s book, Schrtoumpf. In 1979, NBC and Hanna-Barbera debut a Saturday morning Smurf cartoon series. The series was a hit, with a forty-four audience share. The original Smurf toys and debut in 1965, but the merchandise tied to the series propelled Smurf toys into the pantheon of 80s toys. In the mid-80s, Smurfs were everywhere. On TV, in toy boxes, on clothes. Kids traded Smurf figurines as if it were their own commerce. They were inescapable, but only part of the trend of TV tie-ins that swept through the mid-1980s.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Snork figurine. Studio Alijn via Flicker (2013). Public Domain.


Hanna-Barbera was on a roll in the 80s with the introduction of the Snorks. Snorks were tiny underwater creatures that lived in Snorkland. They have round heads capped with a tubular snorkel that helps them move rapidly through the water. But each Snork was easily identifiable; they were distinct colors, with different facial features, and wore different clothes. Each Snork embodied their own personality traits. The show ran for four years, and in the grand tradition of their successors, the Smurfs, were heavily marketed as toys and other gear. The figurines were collectable and tradeable. They were on sleeping bags, notebooks, bedding, and T-shirts, and just the right form to become plush toys. The success of Star Wars, Smurfs, and Snorks proved that in the 80s, toys, television, and movies were almost indistinguishable. Even the greeting card industry was getting in on the “cute and marketable character” game.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Care Bears at the Childhood Museum, London. Cristian Bortes (2008).

Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake Dolls

The Smurfs were in good company. American Greetings illustrator Muriel Fahrion was asked to create a doll character for their greeting card line. Strawberry Shortcake was a character that lived in Strawberryland, along with her wide network of food-themed friends. In 1979 the character evolved into a doll line, with names and scents appropriate to their themes. The early and mid-80s success of the Strawberry Shortcake franchise led American Greetings to ask for another character line. Fahrion developed the Care Bears. These colorful bears had icons on their stomachs showing a personality and emotion. In 1983, the bears became a toy line, and by 1985 they had their own TV show and movie. While children used Strawberry Shortcake dolls for imaginative stories with articulated dolls, play sets, and merchandise line, Care Bears were more for comfort and to help children express emotions (which explains the presence of Grumpy Bear).

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Shirt Tales Rick Raccoon headphone set. Joe Haupt via Flicker (2014).

Shirt Tales

The Shirt Tales were a band of animals, including such luminaries as Pammy Panda, Rick Raccoon, and Bogey Orangutang, who wore T-shirts emblazoned with words that would change depending on their emotions or what they wanted to communicate. Their human handler didn’t know the Shirt Tales had secret lives as crime fighters. They, too, started their lives as Hallmark characters and adapted into yet another Hanna-Barbera Saturday Morning cartoon success. And with that success came the merchandise. They landed merchandising deals rivaling Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, appearing on clothing (of course, T-shirts), toys, plush toys, even accessories like headphones. They landed a deal with fast food franchise Hardees to give away stuffed plush toys with children’s meals. Shirt Tales haven’t had the sustained longevity of Star Wars or Transformers, nor the resurgence like Smurfs. But 80s kids will get that “Ah, right! I remember those!” sensation from Shirt Tales.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Rainbow Brite and her Sprites. Ben Becker (2009)

Rainbow Brite: Bringing Color to the World of Kids

While Shirt Tales was a success for Hallmark, they reached another level of popular culture history with Rainbow Brite character. Introduced in 1984, with the sole intention of creating and marketing a toy line, Rainbow Brite was a young girl in a bright rainbow jumper dedicated to bringing color and happiness to the world with her friends, the horse Starlite and a fluffy creature with star-tipped antennae called Twink, who helped her on this mission. Along the way, she met the Color Kids, they launched a merchandising bonanza that involved luminaries like Disney, DiC, and Mattel, spawned a series, a line of books. While Rainbow Brite was criticized as a giant toy commercial, it must have worked as the merchandise generated billions of dollars. Rainbow Brite is one of the lucky toys that has staying power – it has had modern reboots to introduce it to a new generation of kids.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Cabbage Patch Doll. Bernard Gotfryd (c. 1977 to 1990)

Cabbage Patch Dolls: Kids Dream is a Parent’s Nightmare

As popular as Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, and Smurfs were, there was one doll that ruled the toy market. It was the trophy of competitive toy acquisition. The Cabbage Patch Doll, based on a design by Martha Thomas and adapted by Xavier Roberts, had round faces, yarn hair, and tight-lipped smiles, was unique to the doll market. Each doll was different; some had dimples, some were brunette, some blonde, some redheads, some were bald. But each one had the signature of Xavier Roberts, their fabric sculpture creator, printed on their rear end. And one of the best parts of 80s kids to discover – the doll came with a birth certificate with a unique name. Nobody knew who they were going to get. The dolls were so popular, in 1983, the dolls were so coveted it sparked actual battles between adults to get one for the holiday season.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Transformer Optimus Prime. David Luders (2011).

Transformers: Robots in Disguise

Cabbage Patch Dolls and Care Bears cornered the “cute and cuddly” market, there was plenty of demand for action and adventure. While Star Wars toys took that battle to outer space, Transformers brought it down to Earth. Transformers were a 1983 adaptation of the Diaclone toys made by Takara Toys in 1980. In 1982 their car-robots, complete with backstories of conflict between the Autobots, led by the hero Optimus Prime and Decepticons, under the control of the evil Megatron. The Autobots were forced to look for new energy sources, as their home planet Cybertron was running out. The search led them to Earth. In 1984, Transformers would move from toy line to TV series. While Transformers became a mega-hit with staying power that lingers to this day, a similar transformable car-robot combination with a backstory, Tonka company’s GoBots, came and went from the cultural lexicon, despite predating Transformers.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Voltron, a giant robot made of cat vehicles. George (2007)


Transformers would dominate the transformable robot market for forty years, in 1984, there was a rival for transformable robot toys. Voltron started as an adaptation of several Japanese animated series about a team of explorers in high-tech vehicles sent to find new land for their overcrowded planet and defeating those trying to stop them. The climactic moment of each show is when the separate vehicles came together to form mega-robot Voltron. The toy Voltron allowed kids to assemble and disassemble Voltron, recreating that moment for themselves. Unfortunately for kids, in 1986, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled Voltron toys due to the lead paint used to create the bright robot colors. While Transformers has become a pop culture phenomenon, the lesser-known Voltron has had a quiet staying power, with a new series in 2018 and Voltron Lion Team toys still in production.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
He-Man and Battle Cat. semihundido (2011).

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Like Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe started out as a toy franchise. The action figures debut in 1981. Also like Transformers, the popularity of the toy led to the development of a cartoon series that debut in 1983. It filled in the story of Prince Adam. When Prince Adam lifts his sword and recites an incantation (“I have the POWER!”), he turns into He-Man and becomes an excessively strong hero. He battles with his archnemesis Skeletor for control of Eternia. The show was chided for being nothing more than a commercial for action figures and toy sets, but kids didn’t care. But because of that claim, the FCC forbid syndicate stations from showing any Mattel commercials during airing. But He-Man, She-Ra (He-Man’s sister and her spinoff series), and the Masters of the Universe realm stays in the hearts of 80s kids and has had the staying power.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Garfield doll. Studio Alijn via Flickr (2013).

Garfield Toys

Jim Davis debut his comic Garfield in 1978, but it would become a phenomenon of marketing and merchandise in the 1980s. Jim Davis, in an interview with the Washington Post in 1982, blatantly said that Garfield was a “conscious effort to come up with a good, marketable character.” He looked at cartooning with an advertiser’s eye, scouting trends in the most popular strips. Davis developed his lasagna-loving cat to join the popular pantheon of cartoon pets like Snoopy and Marmaduke. He kept the cartoon controversy-free, in service to his goal to dominate the merchandise market. Garfield was soon a toy and clothing powerhouse. Fortunate children even had a Garfield phone. But Garfield had crossover appeal for adults; in the late 1980s, it was nearly impossible to travel down a highway without seeing a Garfield plush suction cupped on a car window. Garfield is still a merchandise industry.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
BIll the Cat and Opus. JD Hancock via Flickr (2009).

Attempting to Avoid the Kids Toy Market: Bloom County Toys

Bloom County, a subtly political cartoon inspired by the subversive Doonsbury, ran for eight years, with characters like the bow-tie wearing penguin Opus, and the questionably alive cat-mess Bill the Cat. For a time in the mid to late 1980s, Bill the Cat and Opus were everywhere, toys, T-shirts, figurines. Ironically, its creator Berke Breathed was unimpressed with the merchandising of cartoon strips, like Garfield’s rampant popularity. He wanted the anti- Garfield. Breathed designed Bill as a joke, making him the least appealing character to turn into a toy. According to Breathed, “The gag, honestly, was to draw a cartoon character that had zero – or even minus – merchandising appeal.” Bill was misshapen, drooling, constantly coughing hairballs and swarming with flies and dirt flecks. Yet Bill captured the toy market, perhaps because of his imperfections. Kids saw themselves in Bill, a complete mess who still managed to function in society.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Ronald McDonald Doll. Midnight Believer via Flickr (2017)

Ronald McDonald Dolls

Merchandise tie-ins in the 80s seemed to be cross-promotional. Saturday morning cartoons were based on toys, or toys were based on cartoon series. But 80s kids may remember a ubiquitous 1970s holdover that seemed to pop up in bedrooms and play spaces everywhere. This one wasn’t promoting a series, it was promoting hamburgers. In 1971, McDonald’s released a cloth doll of its mascot, Ronald McDonald. The doll was 40 centimeters tall (roughly 16 to 17 inches), with its wide grin, frothy hair, and a yellow jumpsuit bearing the McDonalds logo printed onto a single piece of cloth. For decades, the red, white, and yellow clown was the personification of the restaurant, and the doll was a constant reminder that kids wanted French fries. The McDonalds company made it clear that “Ronald McDonald is not a salesman. His sole role is to represent the fun of McDonalds.”

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
My Little Pony. Studio Alijn, via Flickr (2014). Public Domian.

My Pretty Pony: The Original My Little Pony

My Pretty Pony, released in 1981 by toy company Hasbro, was a 25 centimeter (10 inch) brown horse with a brush-able tail and mane. A lever under the horse’s chin would make the tail and ears move and the left eye winks. The horse came with grooming accessories like a cowboy hat, a comb, a checkered belt, and ribbons to decorate its hair. A year later, Hasbro released a pink My Pretty Pony, with dark pink heart on its flank. The horse wasn’t a runaway success, but Hasbro saw potential in a smaller version of the pink Pony. A scaled down version of My Pretty Pony relaunched in 1983 as “My Little Pony.” The original line consisted of six smaller and different colored ponies, still with comb-able hair. Each pony had a personality trait on their flank and would, over the next thirty years, become a pop culture phenomenon.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Sectaurs. Scott via Flickr (2008)

Sectaurs: A Genetic Experiment Gone Wrong… For Kids!

Coleco wasn’t exclusively a home gaming producer; they were active in the traditional toy market as well. In 1985, they released Sectaurs, a line of human/ insect (or arachnid) hybrids in conjunction with the limited-run Marvel comic line and animated series. The Sectaurs, under noble Prince Dargon of Symbion, battled with General Spidrax and Empress Devora, fought for the power of the Hyves, an ancient culture who held the key to ultimate domination. Toy domination proved to be more challenging. They were twice as expensive as He-Man figures (although scaled to the same size so the toys were inter-playable), the market was saturated with fantasy hero and villain toys trying to imitate the most popular toys that didn’t make a cultural splash. But Sectaurs have had a quiet sustainability. Like so many 80s cultural phenomenon, Sectaurs are rumored to be getting a reboot.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Mr. Sandman, the Pillow Person. Public Domain.

Pillow People: A Kids Nighttime Friend

The ancestor of today’s Pillow Pets, Pillow People arere introduced in 1986. With the merchandising trade in full swing, Pillow People proved there was room in the market for regular, non-television or movie-based toys. The standard-sized pillows had a cartoon character printed on them. Each had attached legs, hands, and arms, and occasionally hair or a hat depending on their theme. They weren’t technically toys; most Pillow People sold in home décor departments instead of the toy aisle, but kids didn’t care. Pillow people earned its producer Spring Industries and PSE Marketing $120 million over its initial run. The pillows didn’t escape the merchandising craze for long; Pillow People became a line of bedding, figurines, books, and a Christmas television special. Pillow People had a resurgence in the mid-1990s when Best Brands re-issued six of the characters, and again in 2022 with another limited re-issue.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Rubik’s Cube. Lars Karlsson (2013)

Rubik’s Cube: Not Just for Kids

Despite technology and merchandising driving 80s toy sales, there was room for non-electronic games. Rubik’s Cube, another 70s invention, hit the wide market in early 1980. The puzzle is a three-dimensional cube comprised of nine cubies on each side. Cubies mixed up as sections of the cube is rotated; the puzzle is to rotate sections of the cube until all the same-colored cubies are on the same side. It sold 100 million of the square puzzles in its first three years and became the best-selling toy of the 1980s. The Rubik’s Cube was more than a child’s toy; people of all ages tried to solve the puzzle. There were tournaments to see who could solve their Rubik’s Cube the fastest. And for those whose desire to solve the puzzle far outpaced their patience. It was a simple case of removing the colored stickers and putting them on their respective sides.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Pyraminx. (2012)


The success of the Rubik’s Cube led to other geometric twist-and-match games bursting onto the market. Pyraminx was a tetrahedron rather than a square, and the matchable pieces were triangular, not square. It was invented in 1971 by puzzle designer Uwe Meffert. Meffert tabled the project, thinking the game lacked public appeal. In the early 1980s, he saw the Rubik’s Cube light up the toy industry. Meffert filed the patent for Pyraminx in 1981, where it gave Rubik’s Cube fans another gameplay challenge. Like the Rubik’s Cube, the Pyraminx mixed the colors on each side. The goal was to have all the colors match on each side of the puzzle. It sold ninety million little tetrahedrons in its first three years, second only to the Rubik’s Cube phenomenon in the three-dimensional geometric puzzle industry.

Most Nostalgic Kids Toys from the 1980s
Tanner Foust and Greg Tracy driving the Hot Wheels Double Dare Loop. Brian Fitzharris via Flickr (2012)

Kids Toys with Nostalgic Staying Power

Merchandised toys, home gaming toys, and Rubik’s Cube defined the children of the eighties, but the toys mentioned here are just the tip of a plastic empire. Some of the names that might spark nostalgia include some franchises that are huge hits with Generation X; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debut in the 80s. Jem and the Holograms became a 2015 movie. G.I. Joe, Barbie, and Glow Worm are still on toy shelves. Kids still ride Big Wheel style bikes and head home for a Snoopy Snow Cone machine treat. Gremlins toys rivaled E.T. for movie merchandise impact. Holdovers from earlier decades were still popular; Colorforms, Shrinky Dinks, Monchichi, Etch-a-Sketch, Hungry, Hungry Hippos, Matchbox and Hot Wheels retained popularity past the Reagan years. Dungeons and Dragons created a new phase of interactive gaming. It was a revolutionary time, before the Internet but after Atari, to explore the world through toys.


Where did we find this stuff? Sources and Additional Reading

A brief history of the Rubik’s Cube. Hope Reese, Smithsonian Magazine, 25 September 2020.

A thorough oral history of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, the game-changing eighties toon. Jamie Greene, SyFy, 14 January 2019.

A twist of fate: The invention of the Rubik’s Cube. Monica Smith, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institution of American History, 15 July 2014.

‘Bloom County’ gave us Opus, Bill the Cat – then took them away. Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 26 May 2016.

Breathed, Berkeley, One Last Little Peek: The Final Strips, the Special Hits, the Inside Tips 1980-1995, Little, Brown and Co., 1995

Do you remember Pillow People and Pillow Pets? (n.a.) Retroist, 18 September 2014.

Pac-Man Video Game History and Background. Jennifer Rosenberg, ThoughtCo, 24 March 2020.

Pong, Atari, and the origins of the home video game. Angela Modany, National Museum of American History, 17 April 2012.

Sterner stuff: The history of the Transformers. Phil Kollar, GameInformer, 10 December 2009.

The best-selling toys for Christmas from 1980-1989. Jamie (no last name), Everything 80s Padcast. 28 November 2019.

The consumer electronics hall of fame; Texas Instrument’s Speak & Spell. Brian Santo, IEEE Spectrum, 31 October 2019.

The legendary history of Voltron. Nate Osterman,, 5 October 2020.

The NES: How it began, worked, and saved an industry. Andrew Cunningham, ARS technical, 9 December 2021.

The not-so-simple Simon proved the young were swifter than the old. Owen Edwards, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2006.