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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Toys of the past showing great presence

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

KB Toys store manager Robin Lo says the Care Bear and Strawberry Shortcake lines are making a Christmas comeback.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Christmas 2003 looks strangely familiar to the nation's top toy expert.

"It's Christmas 1983," says Chris "The Toy Guy" Byrne, whose reports on hot toys and toy trends are carried in numerous print and broadcast media. "The Care Bears are back. So are Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ..."

And they're not just back to take up space on the shelves, Byrne says. In a Christmas season thankfully devoid of the single must-have toy (Furby who?), these Reagan-era retro toys are outperforming a lot of their hipper competitors.

"They're selling phenomenally well," Byrne said.

Exact figures aren't yet available from the Toy Industry Association, but there are strong indications that retro toys for girls, particularly the throwback trinity of Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony, will be among the season's top sellers.

Last month on eBay, the online auction site that has become a leading barometer of pop culture trends, there were 5,943 Strawberry Shortcake items listed, including new and vintage dolls, clothing, sheet sets and furniture. My Little Pony (3,918 items) and Care Bears (3,500) also had a strong presence.

Robin Lo, a manager at KB Toys at Ala Moana Center, says demand for all three product lines is so strong the store will likely sell out of its stock within the next week or so.

"Moms are buying them because they had them when they were young," Lo says. "Grandmas are buying them because they remember buying them for their daughters. And the kids themselves love them."

Lo, 30, admits that she too has gotten caught up in all that retro good feeling.

"I just bought some Strawberry Shortcake dolls," she says. "I was into Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears when I was a kid. I'm a fan."

Preschool teacher Raquel McNamara, also 30, said she was pleasantly surprised when she started hearing her young students buzzing about the same toys she loved as a child.

"These (toys) take me back to when I was little," she says. "I had everything — the pillows, the figurines, everything.

"When I heard the kids talking, I just thought, 'Oh my God, they're back,' " she says. "It seems like about every 30 years things circle back around."

McNamara was at KB Toys looking for a special something to give her 5-year-old niece, Destiny Cabrera. We won't say what she brought to the register, but you can bet it wasn't the latest Bratz doll.

"I'd rather give something that I'm familiar with instead of something new," she says.

Lerin Linares, 23, is looking forward to sharing her Care Bears love with her young daughter this Christmas, but Daniel Hong, 34, isn't sure that's a good idea. Hong, who grew up on Kikaida, prefers He-Man to huggable bears.

The return of these particular toys at this particular time is something to consider. When Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake last ruled the market in the 1980s, some cultural observers were intrigued by their almost over-the-top sweetness. (The Care Bears, in fact, have been credited with inspiring the term "warm and fuzzy.")

Jamis Peters, a 27-year-old Hawaii Pacific University student, thinks the retro-toy trend is a response by Generation-Xers who have come into adulthood at a time of economic uncertainty and political unrest.

"With the U.S. at war all over the world, I think a lot of people, a lot of young adults, are reaching back to the things that were innocent from their childhood," she says. "Strawberry Shortcake might seem kind of lame, but it's like a comfort toy. If I had a daughter, I'd want her to play with something like that, to live in that kind of world."

Or, as Byrne puts it: "Ostensibly, a toy is just a piece of inert polyvinyl chloride, but they can become a part of our emotional lives," Byrne says. "So much so, in fact, that they become almost totemic."

Indeed, in a culture where it has become acceptable to drag the toys of one's childhood from the toy box to the dorm room to the office cubicle, the retro trend could easily morph into a single integrated and continuous lifestyle of totem collection.

In the short term, it's likely that retro toy marketing will continue through at least the next Christmas cycle. IMPS, which holds the rights to the Smurfs, has strategically increased its market presence over the last year. Mattell has negotiated various product tie-ins for its Masters of the Universe line. And the Hasbro Toy Group, which owns My Little Pony as well as boy toy lines GI Joe and the Transformers, has made retro products a central part of its marketing efforts.

So what's up with all this retro retailing? Byrne has an informed opinion.

"It's sheer capitalism," he says.

Byrne says the trend started about three years ago with a soft reintroduction of the Care Bears at a most unusual place: alt/goth/punk/subversive pop culture retailer Hot Topic.

"I think initially they were brought back by Hot Topic as a sort of satire for the biker-chick-from-hell types," Byrne says. "I don't think anyone knew what a hit they'd be."

Of course, it didn't take long for PA Distribution to recognize the opportunity it had to reintroduce Care Bears to the mass market. The latest Care Bear set comes with a bear and a video of old Care Bears cartoons, the sort of tie-in that Byrne says has been effective in hooking new young fans.

"Yes they're back and we can feel all warm and fuzzy about them, but the long-term success of these toys will depend on whether they can establish the same strong connection with the next generation," Byrne says.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 535-2461.

• • •

The persistence of 'Pong' in pop-culture memory

Ex-Pixie Frank Black once asked the musical question "Whatever happened to 'Pong'?"

We now have an answer: It's on eBay.

Last week, we saw bids for the old Atari home game, complete with original box, reach $110.

The CD-ROM for "Pong: The Next Level" was a much cheaper bargain for $8.99.

Tireless Google-searchers can also find "Pong: The Movie," 3-D Pong, 4-D Pong and (groan) Pong the Text-Only Game.

Yep indeedy, classic video games — didn't this used to be an oxymoron? — are back in a big way.

From "Pong" to "Pengo," "Space Invaders" to "Pac-Man" (Original, Ms., and Jr.), "Frogger" to "Q-Bert," the games that inspired so many Generation-Xers to skip (old) school are popping up in a variety of forms: free Internet downloads, video game console throw-ins, home computer packages, portable Game-Boy style games, even the original telephone-booth sized arcade units.

"There's something about the old games," says David Navarre, 37. When you're playing, "the sights, the sounds, the touch, they full-on take you back to when you used play them the first time. It's like old friends."

Navarre says he feels too old to seek out retro games at the arcades but he has downloaded free games from the Internet and likes to play "Frogger" and "Tetris" with his daughter, Syndene, 14, on the family PlayStation.

"Sometimes it's fun," Syndene Navarre says. "But I have to play to be nice to my dad. He only likes old things."

Sega and other video game makers have been offering packages of "classic" games for years, sometimes as free cross-generational add-ons with more contemporary games.

The Dave & Buster's chain has capitalized on the interest, stocking their adult-oriented games rooms with "Ms. Pac-Man," "Centipede," "Joust" and other '80s favorites.

A sizeable Internet community has also developed around '80s video games. There are hundreds of official and unofficial sites devoted to individual games, gaming history and culture, even arcade game maintenance and service.

Restart game?