Robert Hutchins explores the special relationship between toys and video games.
It was when the Ninja Turtles were going through their most formative years and the Ghostbusters were on call most nights, that the UK toy industry woke up to a new dawn of children’s entertainment.
1993 was a year of big franchises and even bigger toys; the Ghostbuster HQ Playset sat beneath the Christmas trees and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures stared longingly out of the windows of their plastic packaging.
While these big movie franchises drummed up some big business for toy retailers across the country, ToyNews – the UK toy trade publication – was fervently filing stories of a new toy destined to change the shape of things to come.
It was arguably Nintendo’s Game Boy that aligned the toy market with its video games cousin, tapping into a young audience that took pleasure in the handheld’s big buttons, robust construction and its multitude of child-friendly, big, character-driven properties.
Since then, toys and video games have enjoyed (or endured) a relationship that has thrown up record sales figures for toys-to-life pioneers Activision and its Skylanders franchise and Tomy's best-selling Pokémon lines. Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters also delighted in a period of playground currency courtesy of Vivid not so many years ago, and we’ve all heard of Minecraft.
The relationship has hit its share of speed bumps, too. Disney Infinity failed to land at retailers too far outside of Toys R Us, and I don’t recall reporting on indie retailers scratching out each other’s eyes to get their hands on a World of Warcraft action figure line.
Meanwhile, pop-culture nerd Funko likes to hedge its bets and offer the wide-eyed, bulbous-head Pop! treatment to video game characters of almost any ilk, but it’s not a luxury all manufacturers can afford.
What works for one, will not always work for another and the toy industry must remain shrewd with the properties it invests in. K’Nex’s Mario Kart construction range, for instance, sits far more comfortably on the local toy retailer’s shelf, than Mega Blox’s Halo collection.
Is Mario more child-friendly? Hardly – you’ve seen the bloke, like a dodgy uncle with a BTEC in plumbing and a hatred of turtles. He’s hardly Mr Tumble. Meanwhile, kids have been playing some derivation of cops and robbers or goodies and baddies for generations.
It’s no secret, of course, that video games have overtaken movies as the biggest form of mass entertainment, and the concept of the franchise has overtaken that still. Nintendo’s strength in the toy market is owed to its franchise-savvy approach, one that has been successfully mirrored by Skylanders, Pokémon and to a certain extent Angry Birds.
All the market is waiting for now is for video games to flip it all on its head again, à la 1993.