The Me Decade: Toy Fads of the 1980s

If you grew up in the 1980s, you know it was a glorious time to be a kid. Commonly known as the “Me Decade”, the ’80s ethos extended to children as well, with a plethora of toys, games, cartoons, television shows, movies, comic books, popular culture, and media marketing targeted directly toward the little tykes. It was truly a golden age for childhood. The epicenter was Saturday morning in front of the TV watching cartoons, while the rest of the weekend was dedicated to convincing your parents to buy the latest action figure or other toy that had been featured in an episode of your favorite show or during a commercial. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but when it did, these are some of the ’80s toy fads that might have satiated your desires.

Video Games

Whether you were a Nintendo kid, an Atari kid, or even an arcade kid, video games were a massive part of childhood in the 1980s. For kids who were a little older during the decade, the comforting wood panelling of the Atari home console brings back fond memories of days after school spent blasting asteroids in Asteroids, avoiding the pitfalls of Pitfall, and conquering Donkey Kong’s Donkey Kong. The local arcade was a popular destination if you were persuasive enough to wrangle a fistful of quarters and a ride out of your mom or dad or – more likely – if your parents just wanted to get rid of you for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. Either way, you fed those coins into that machine like a maniac until you achieved the high score in classic arcade games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Galaga, Street Fighter, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

In 1985, Nintendo reignited the home video game craze with the monumental release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Along with the original NES came the less epic release of its Robotic Operating Buddy, R.O.B., a confusing gadget included with the deluxe edition of the system that was only compatible with two forgettable games none of your friends ever wanted to play. Despite R.O.B.’s failure, it wasn’t long until every kid had a friend with a Nintendo and the incessant begging began until your parents finally broke down and bought you one to replace that perfectly good Atari 2600 you just got last Christmas. As dependable as that Atari had been, nothing could match the otherworldly enchantment of losing yourself in a session of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.

Although there were games available for personal computers, they weren’t as widespread as consoles and generally weren’t marketed to children. Nevertheless, if your dad had a PC, you probably came across one of the Leisure Suit Larry games and were left scarred as a result. The technology and sophistication of video games has increased dramatically in the intervening decades, but these classic games and systems still hold an everlasting appeal to the generations who have enjoyed them. For more information on retro gaming, check out Retro Pool.

Action Figures

As a kid in the ’80s, you were bombarded from every angle with promotion for action figures, dolls, and playsets of all kinds. Saturday morning and after school were all about watching cartoons, and cartoons meant marketing opportunities for countless lines of toys and accessories that became must-have items you could barely live without.

  • He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The most successful toy line of the 1980s, He-Man is notable as the first action figure collection to inspire an animated series, rather than the other way around – the toys were released in 1982, while the cartoon premiered a year later. In addition to the figures, Mattel released playsets depicting the iconic locations of Castle Greyskull and Skull Mountain to provide appropriate battlegrounds for your skirmishes between He-Man and the villainous Skeletor. To attract young girls to the franchise, He-Man’s twin sister, She-Ra, debuted in her own series featuring her own line of toys and accessories in 1985.
  • Intergalactic warring robots who could transform into various vehicles and other objects, Transformers were the most unique and well-made action figures on the market upon the release of the toy line and cartoon in 1984. The ongoing feud between the benevolent Autobots and evil Decepticons expanded in 1986 with the events of the animated movie, leading to Hasbro adding a succession of toys to the line over the years.
  • WWF Wrestling Superstars. Fueled by the combination of colorful World Wrestling Federation stars and MTV promotion, WrestleMania fever swept the nation in the 1980s and captured the imagination of millions of kids via weekly syndicated TV programs and an animated series entitled Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. From 1984 until 1989, LJN added to the hype with a line of eight-inch rubber figures that looked remarkably like their real-life counterparts, as well as a wrestling ring to hold steel cage grudge matches against your friends.


While much of the toy market was directed at young boys, little girls of the 1980s were not immune to promotional pressure. First manufactured in 1959, Barbie was still going strong throughout the decade and appeared in a number of iterations as an astronaut, doctor, office worker, fitness model, and more. In 1987, Barbie even became a rock star to compete with a popular line of dolls aimed at young females, Jem and the Holograms, featured in their own cartoon that ran from 1985 until 1988. The most memorable toy fad of the ‘80s was the Cabbage Patch Kids, an adorable doll franchise that proved to be wildly in-demand upon its release in 1983 and incited riots at stores among parents desperate to bring one home. If you got a Cabbage Patch Kid, you knew your parents loved you.

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