If you ask a toy collector what they received as a holiday present or birthday when they were 5, I can guarantee you they can answer it right away (mine was a Little Miss Singing Mermaid in 1990, and, yes — I absolutely still have her). Nostalgia is a major part of toy collecting, especially since grown-up collectors have their own money to spend on toys rather than having to wait for a present. And that nostalgia for decades-old toys is shaping which toys are being made right now.
Over the history of the collectors’ market, which began as we know it in the mid-1970s and continues to this day, an enormous number of toy lines have come and gone. It’s an especially amazing time to be a toy collector, as the figures that are around in 2020 are of unprecedented quality (some of the paint, sculpts, and articulation on these $20 figures is bonkers), but what we can collect is getting better and better, too. And with that, some of our favorite toy lines are starting to come back. But what goes into the resurgence of a toy line? To an outsider, it might feel like toy collectors whine and yell until toy manufacturers take note and feed them to silence their cries.
But it is actually much more complex than that.
Let’s take a look at G.I. Joe, a toy line that had been on ice for many years, with the exception of a few anniversary and convention releases. Suddenly now, in 2020, G.I. Joe is revived and back in the hands of fans. (Well, mostly — finding these toys on the shelves has been nothing short of difficult due to low production numbers and pandemic-related delays.) Sure, the original 3.75-inch toys with O-Ring rubber bands are long gone and have been replaced with 6-inch figures with hyped articulation, but the spirit is alive within the toys and fans’ favorite characters are present and ready to be collected. Fan reception has been great, but Hasbro, which makes G.I. Joe toys, didn’t bring America's movable fighting man back due to demand alone.
“We are always thrilled by the support of fan communities for our product announcements,” Casey Collins, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Global Consumer Products at Hasbro tells SYFY WIRE. “But I wouldn’t say we are ever truly surprised by their reaction because a lot of research goes into each product launch so we can ensure that we are creating products that will resonate with fans and families. Each product launched is informed by consumer insights. ”
In other words, toy revivals don’t just fall out of thin air. There are years of market research and development involved leading up to figuring exactly how to rekindle a toy line.
“When you bring a classic franchise back, what you’re doing is creating a bridge between two generations,” explains Jeremy Padawer, Partner & EVP at Jazwares, the company behind the rebooted Micro Machines toys. “Often they are parent and child. If you can create something nostalgic for the parent, there’s a better chance that the parents and children will play together.
“It’s an amazing connection that people have when something they love comes back for a second round," he continues. “But for those people that didn’t play with it the first time, they will be impressed and happy with the quality and how much fun it is to play with.” Padawer notes that the revival of Micro Machines also jump-started the secondary market. “I looked at the prices on Micro Machines before we made the announcement last year [that they were coming back], and there was no secondary market,” he recalls. “It was a little scary and concerning! But six months after we made the announcement, there were thousands of listings on eBay.”
Another toy line experiencing its non-collectors market resurgence is Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Originally created as a children’s toy line by Mattel in 1982, the toy line fell out of circulation within a few years. Mattel managed a He-Man revival in the mid-’90s (completely redesigned), and yes, there were a few toys to go along with this release, but it was nothing like the ‘80s toy line with the subsequent Filmation cartoon series. Even the limited to 1,000-piece 2001 San Diego Comic-Con He-Man looked more like the '90s redesign.
However, in 2016 Mattel released a series of figures called Masters of the Universe Classics (MOTUC) which all looked like the characters from the cartoon series and not the original toy line. That same year, it was announced that indie toy maker Super7 had acquired the Masters of the Universe license and would begin making He-Man toys geared toward the adult collector (with a price tag to match). Once Super7 managed to singlehandedly reinvigorate and stoke the flames of MOTU Madness, it was then and only then that Mattel stepped back in and, in 2019, announced a new line of He-Man toys (which very closely resembled the original He-Man toys from the '80s). The line was titled Masters of the Universe Origins.
Truthfully, from an outsider perspective, the situation appears like Mattel allowed its toy line to die, let Super7 pick up the scraps, and then took it all back once Super7 proved that the fandom was very much alive and hungry for MOTU toys. Mattel saw that with Super7 at the wheel, Masters of the Universe continued to be a wildly popular toy line for the collectors’ market. While collecting that percentage from Super7 for allowing them to use the MOTU license, Mattel not only realized it could get a larger check by making their own toy themselves, but they saw via the collector’s market that this toy line was not ready to be thrown to the wayside — that today’s consumer, both young and old, still wanted to play with this toy.
All toys come and go, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to see our favorite toys brought back for a special anniversary line. I recently discovered a Polly Pocket playset from 2019 that was an unadvertised Amazon Exclusive. Strawberry Shortcake is turning 40 this year and therefore has a new anniversary doll on shelves at Target. Those My Little Ponies are still going strong (finally coming out with self-aware mashups like Transformers, Power Rangers, and D&D ponies), and Hasbro remade The Real Ghostbusters cartoon action figures in vintage Kenner style.
It is now, more than ever, a very unique time to be a toy collector in the sense that there is an open door between manufacturers and collectors/fans. Social media has made praising or airing of grievances very easy for collectors; it has created that instant line of communication between creator and consumer. And because of this, while it still takes at least a year or more for a toy to land on shelves, toymakers can have their ear to the pulse of nostalgia. Because of eBay, toy manufacturers can instantly see what the secondary market looks like and use that as a kick-off for their own research and development. Therefore, when we toy lovers are missing our childhoods or want to see our favorite adventures and hobbies released from the vault, it’s really nice that the warm and fuzzies in our hearts can become tangible adventure pieces in our hands again. Even if it is generated by market research. My shelves won’t know the difference.