Retro toys making a comeback this Christmas

It’s that time of year again, as households all over Ireland get ready for tonight’s Late Late Toy Show.

Bed time is late, letters to Santa Claus are written, or redrafted in favour of the must-have, expensive, high-tech gizmo you know has novelty value for a few hours only to be abandoned for a simple box of Lego.

And, speaking of Lego, it’s just one of the many toys in the top 20 this year that have a retro feel. We may love our PS4s, X Box’s and Nintendos, but at the end of the day, there are just some toys that can’t be replaced, although many have been updated.

The Toy Retailers’ Association says the top toys this Christmas include Lego’s City Coast Guard Patrol (rrp€72.99). Its captains dash to a lighthouse to rescue a couple in a sinking dinghy, with sharks swimming nearby. The Lego pieces can amalgamate with other sets.

Top of the tech list is InnoTab 3S, by VTech (€139.99). This allows a child to browse the web within strict parameters and also has educational apps. An alternative is the LeapPad Ultra (€167.99), which allows parents to monitor the child’s learning and skills.

The Teksta Robotic Puppy (inset right) at €71.99, a revival of a ’90s favourite and updated with new features, is more playful. He walks, flips, and responds to hand movements and music.

The love affair with the ceaselessly chattering Furby (€72.99) of the ’90s, has also been rekindled. Typical of re-ignited romances, the irritants are forgotten: in this case, getting up at night to switch off his intermittent chatter — in Furbish, his native tongue. While his Furbish vocabulary has developed and he is programmed to spout English after a few months, his new feature is his ability to react to his owner’s behaviour (€72.99). Spooky.

A board game is a must for the lazy days of the holiday, with Monopoly the all-time favourite. It’s been updated, with the Empire edition: instead of buying property, global brands are up-for-grabs (€29).

There has to be a new doll for Christmas, although the Monster High 13 Wishes Doll Collection is rather different to the cuddly baby tucked into a pram and fed with a bottle. These girls are cool and sassy and come with a pet, a brush and diary, and a back-story about how they relate to one another (€27.99). Let’s call them Sindy and Barbie with attitude.

It’s lovely to see another old favourite still in fashion. Dr McStuffins Doctor’s Bag, based on the television series, is the antithesis of cool. Yet, it’s tipped to be one of the hot sellers this Christmas. Containing all the necessary equipment to make sick dolls and teddies better, it is also a reminder that encouraging imagination never goes out of fashion.

This is why, for 50 years, the Cabbage Patch Doll has been a big-selling toy. These odd-looking creatures, designed by an American art student in the late ’70s, have faces only a little girl could love. You didn’t ‘own’ the doll; you adopted her, with a birth certificate and adoption papers.

These dolls were huge in the ’80s, and probably the first toy Santa could not supply in sufficient numbers to satisfy demand.

Shortfall in demand for toys is spurred by television programmes and films. Mutant Ninja Turtles were in short supply in the 1990s.

In 1996, the Toy Story films catapulted Buzz Lightyear into infinity and beyond, putting him out of reach of many parents when shop shelves were cleared in advance of Christmas week.

Before merchandising to accompany films and television programmes, the toy emphasis was on imagination and understanding.

Monopoly is an example, and is still to be found in the collection of any board-game-loving family, although it started as a method of explaining tax theory, 100 years ago. It only became a hot property when Parker Brothers produced it as a family game in the 1930s. The newest version, favouring investment in global brands like McDonalds and Coca Cola, is still Monopoly, but not as we knew it.

Possibly the most annoying and inexplicably popular toy of all time was the Rubik Cube, in the 1970s and 1980s. Its inventor, Erno Rubik, a Hungarian professor of architecture, frustrated children and adults with his puzzle. Such was its popularity that it now has its own international governing body, which stages tournaments, and still makes an appearance in stocking these days.

Barbie, another must-have in the toy box, is now in her early ’50s, but has only grown in popularity in Ireland in the last 20 years. Prior to that, we had the much-loved Sindy, who was a more wholesome and better-fed version of the slim-line dressing-up doll.

She represented something aspirational, but also had a wonderful, imaginative element, so even if we didn’t have an extensive wardrobe of cool clothes ourselves, we could have it vicariously through our ever-fashionable Sindy.

But what about the ones that didn’t join the retro revival?

Remember Meccano? It consisted of metal plates and nuts and bolts, used to construct cranes and buildings (the pieces, along with tinsel and pine needles, rattled up the hose of the vacuum cleaner post-Christmas). This was followed by the inevitable ripping-open of the cough-inducing dusty bag to retrieve them. It was adored by boys in the ’60s and ’70s, less so by their mothers.

Girls responded to the craze for Spirograph in the ’70s and ’80s. Thanks to little plastic wheels punctuated with holes, it produced beautiful, geometric, roulette drawings on paper that made us less creative types feel like artists. Careful preparation of the equipment, and a steady hand, were key to a successful drawing. Just one slip of the pen, and a page filled with a kaleidoscope of perfect, multi-faceted inky spirals was ruined and much bawling ensued.

Stockings, now filled with iTunes vouchers, DVDs and computer games, used to contain Enid Blyton books — Mr Pinkwhistle, for little children and the Famous Five, for older ones; Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books for girls; a skipping rope, and things called scraps, which consisted of cut-out pictures of angels, animals, flowers and trees. You placed them between the pages of a book and swapped them with friends, or just admired each other’s collections.

Meanwhile, your brother got a bag of glassy-alleys, and, before, you check Google, there is no reference to them. The official name was marbles and you lined them up and then tried to knock them out with another marble, or sometimes a big one, called a conker. There had to be an Airfix model airplane in the stocking, too, and a set of clackers, which consisted of two snooker-type balls, which knocked together on two strings. It was the sort of toy that would not get past health-and-safety these days, with the amount of wrist bones they broke and knuckles they bruised. Happy days, eh?

If you are finding your chosen toy hard to locate this year, and many of the top 10 are already selling out, there are still some options online, and you might just make it in time, including overseas post, if you get browsing now.

* The Dublin Toy Fair is at the RDS, Saturday and Sunday, 10am-7pm. The Late Late Toy Show is on RTE 1 tonight at 9.30pm.


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