Editor's note: Every week we ask people around the office questions to see what makes them tick. This week we wanted to know what their favorite electronic toys were when they were kids.
I have to go with Tamagotchis even though it was almost impossible to keep these digital pets alive, especially when you had an entire key chain's worth to take care of and teachers were constantly confiscating them. Even if they were pretty frustrating, they were still fun. I'd estimate Nano Pets are at least 15 percent responsible for why my millennial generation is waiting longer to have kids. You can't just replace the battery if you forget to feed a real kid.
My favorite was the VTech video painter. I fancied myself as something of an artist when I was younger. I couldn't count the hours I spent mucking around with this thing on my parent's old Zenith TV. I easily equally divided my time between this and the original NES. I would sketch my favorite cartoons, play mini games and make cartoons ... limitless fun (at least at the time.) Shortly thereafter I graduated to the Spider-Man and X-Men cartoon maker PC games, but this was my OG.
Quueeestion NUM-ber one: Who was the coolest trivia-packed robot toy of all time?
You selected B: Tiger Electronics 2-XL -- and you are COR-RECT!
The cassette-tape-playing robot with a quizzical personality challenged you to multiple-choice questions, and you had to answer by pressing one of his four buttons. Press the wrong button, and 2-XL would know — and he would remember. But get the question right, and you might just be rewarded with a corny joke.
As a kid, there was some real magic in how 2-XL seemed to follow your every move and remember your actions. That illusion was achieved through the buttons that would switch through four different tracks on the tape. A cassette tape has a total of four tracks, one for the left and right channel on each side. Depending on the button you pressed, it would switch around and play a different piece of the tape.
He also used his buttons to tell choose-your-own-adventure style stories with additional tapes (sold separately).
A few tapes would entertain my brother and I for hours. The robot itself didn't move. Only his eyes and mouth would light up. But he didn't need to move. The entertainment was all in our heads as we imagined different stories and acted fast with our critical-thinking skills. (A peanut is neither a pea or a nut -- true or false?)
But he wasn't the first 2-XL. The original came out in 1978 by the Mego Toy company, and it used bulky 8-track tapes. Tiger's comeback version in the '90s used the same voice actor as the original, Michael Freeman, who also happened to be the toy's inventor. The modern 2-XL was even the star of his own TV game show, Pick Your Brain, hosted by Marc Summers, and he could be seen hanging out in PSA spots with Michael Jordan.
This was 1992, when Boyz II Men ruled the airwaves, Kevin McCallister was lost in New York, and everyone thought it was funny to do the Tim "The Toolman" Taylor grunt. For that era, 2-XL was an advanced educational tech toy -- and we were glued to something that didn't have a screen.
I have very clear memories of jumping up on my day bed, popping a tape into the back of Teddy Ruxpin, sitting back and listening to the adventures he told me. That, now slightly creepy, little furry face was such a staple of my childhood. So much so, I had 2 so one could live at my grandparent's house so I'd never be without him. And what a genius idea. A stuffed animal and cassette player in one! Very much looking forward to the reboot Teddy and buying one for my son.
I had a few slot car sets growing up, but a track from Tyco Toys is the one I remember the most. It didn't start out as a huge track, but one year I used my birthday cash to buy tons of extra tracks. I think I bought 20 long straight tracks and some bank tracks for good measure. What resulted was a race track that went down the full length of the hallway at our house. I'd invite my friends over to race until I had to take it all apart before my parents got home.
I'm much older now, but looking at all the images on Google has got me wanting to get another track. Must. resist.
It wasn't just petty jealousy that had me coveting Milton Bradley's Big Trak when I was a young boy, it was that it felt like the future. My best friend Steven received a Big Trak for his birthday just days before I did, and the six-wheeled lunar-rover-tank thing was like nothing I had ever seen.
I don't remember what birthday I received it for -- it must've been around age four, at the dawn of the '80s. Not only did Big Trak tap into my budding love of cars, it provided my first exposure to computer programming. An innovative toy, it memorized up to 16 basic commands in sequence, shot a blue photon beam (a.k.a. 10-cent LED), made impossibility cool "pew-pew" sounds and consumed D batteries at a voracious rate.
Uncharacteristically expensive for a gift from my parents, it surely cost a small fortune. Perhaps my mom and dad knew Big Trak would soon give me a leg up on my classmates learning the computer language Logo in grade school, which functioned using similar logic. Or maybe they just wanted to make me smile and ignite my imagination. Either way, they succeeded.
Aaand now this assignment has me scanning eBay...
Chris Paukert - editor
When I was a kid, no electronic toy was more fun for me than VTech's Videosmarts. I still remember the little jingles it used to get me to learn things like vowels and homonyms -- its interactive console and VHS tape combo was way, way ahead of its time. I also remember the View-Master Interactive Vision, which was similar but a little more advanced. So fun.
I've been working with words professionally for nearly two decades now, and I'd be a fool if I didn't recognize the early influence my Speak and Spell had on me. I spent hours playing with it, and if I recall correctly my folks got quite tired of hearing its voice. But I didn't, and the sense of accomplishment I felt when I correctly spelled one of the harder words was immeasurable. I'd worn a lot of the lettering off the buttons by the time it finally gave up the ghost.
In the late 1970s (yes, I'm an old person by Silicon Valley standards) it was hard for a Star Wars-obsessed kid to miss the fact that a crazy new concept called video games had arrived. The Heathkit GD 1380 Pong game was a high-tech marvel when my dad mail-ordered one. The Heathkit company dates back to the era when people thought building your own electronic devices was fun -- a precursor to today's maker movement -- and we carefully wired and soldered it together.
Dad somehow wired it into our Sony TV, and my sister and I faced off, twisting the rheostat knobs on our controllers to control the paddles and bop the square ball around the screen in the tennis-esque game. It was of course primitive hardware compared to today's consoles or even the Atari 2600 console my best friend got a couple years later. But that's not a fair criticism. Compared to playing text-based Zork on a line printer logged in over a phone line to a DEC minicomputer, it was amazing.
In the late '60s (which, if you're counting, makes me even older that Shankland) toymaker Mattel put out something called the ThingMaker, also known as Creepy Crawlers. It was essentially a hot plate with die-cast metal molds into which you'd squirt colored liquid rubber (called "Plastigoop"), then drop them into the heating unit to vulcanize them. Then once you'd dunked the mold in cold water, you could pry out the now-flexible bugs, worms, dragons and all manner of other rubbery toys and doo-dads, which were known as "Creepy Crawlers."
Mattel has recently revived the "ThingMaker" trademark, but nowadays it's a 3-D printer that runs hundreds of dollars. The original version gave me, my friends and siblings countless hours of rainy-afternoon entertainment (although lord knows what kind of toxic fumes we inhaled as we hovered over the bubbling hot plate waiting for our creations to finish cooking). The toymaker later came out with an edible version of Plastigoop called "Gobble-de-goop" but as I recall it wasn't terribly good tasting, just very sweet. It was very low-tech by today's standards (not to mention a lawsuit in the making, considering the heating unit was blazing hot and probably resulted in many burned little fingers), but it was hours of fun as a kid.