File, 1983: Katherine Esterman, and her brother, Jesse, try out new Atari games (Bettmann / Getty Images)
It’s a cycle that repeats seemingly every year: The season’s "hot toy" is crowned as holiday shopping gets started, and before long, it’s nowhere to be found. As desperate parents roam from store to store – or website to website – their less-than-jolly efforts begin to get noticed by the media.
Here’s a look back at how local TV stations covered some of the toys and items that kids had to have – and parents struggled to find – over the last 50 years.
These days, electronics often make the list of hot toys, but there’s nothing new about that. Simon was among the first must-have electronics back in the late 1970s after it debuted with a midnight release party at NYC’s Studio 54 in 1978. Its initial price was $24.95, the equivalent of $114 in 2023.
You may not have known: Video game pioneer Ralph Baer based the game’s four tones on the notes that a bugle plays.
The Atari 2600
That same year, an Atari was on the list of many kids who hoped to be able to play some of their arcade favorites at home. The Atari 2600 was among the first home video game systems to feature swappable game cartridges.
You may not have known: The term "Atari" is a Japanese word taken from the strategy board game ‘Go’ which describes a gameplay situation similar to the concept of "check" in chess.
The Rubik's Cube – as iconic as it is challenging – was invented by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Ernő Rubik back in 1974, but it wasn’t widely released internationally until 1980. The following year, it was already a popular gift for all ages.
You may not have known: Over 450 million cubes have been sold worldwide, making it the world's bestselling puzzle game and toy.
Cabbage Patch Kids
The faces of the Cabbage Patch Kids are instantly recognizable to every ‘80s kid. As Coleco Industries struggled to meet demand, the hard-to-find dolls were among the first toys to contribute to the in-store melees that would later become synonymous with Black Friday.
You may not have known: In 1985, Xavier Roberts settled out of court with an artist from Kentucky who alleged that Roberts had copied design features of her handmade dolls.
By the mid ‘80s, kids were ready to combine dolls and robots. That’s where Teddy Ruxpin came in. The animatronic teddy bear, powered by a cassette tape deck in its back, was the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986.
You may not have known: Phil Baron, the voice of Teddy Ruxpin, was a singer, songwriter, and puppeteer who also provided the voice of Piglet on Disney’s live-action ‘Welcome to Pooh Corner.’
Masters of the Universe
One of the first TV cartoon-toy crossovers, He Man and the Masters of the Universe had kids everywhere coveting Castle Grayskull and its built-in microphone so they, too, could shout, "I have THE POWER!" The action figures were hot sellers, and the show remained a Saturday morning staple for two years.
You may not have known: There were eight characters when Mattel released the original He-Man action figure set in 1982; there were 72 figures by 1988 when Mattel stopped production.
When the Nintendo Entertainment System first came out in 1986, it rejuvenated a video game market that had languished for several years. The latest video games and their systems would go be on nearly every "hot holiday toy" list in the seasons to follow.
You may not have known: Only 17 games were initially available for the NES when it was released in North America; that list grew to 678 by the time the console was phased out.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Adults may have had a hard time pronouncing – much less understanding – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze, but the radical pizza-loving dudes jumped from the comics to the cartoons in 1987 and the action figures were initially among the hardest toys to find.
You may not have known: Aside from the turtles themselves, one of the most popular elements in the toy line was the "Retromutagen Ooze" slime that had, according to the story, transformed the turtles into mutants.
Of all the hot toys through the years, Pogs may have proven the least enduring. Yet the game of "milk caps" itself dates back to the 1920s or 1930s, when kids in Hawaii would use caps from milk bottles. The 1990s revival is generally credited to a teacher who introduced her students to the game she played as a kid.
You may not have known: The name originates from the acronym POG, a brand of juice made from passionfruit, orange, and guava.
Tickle Me Elmo
Tickle Me Elmo was released in July of 1996 and remained widely available until Black Friday, when they suddenly sold out, sparking a frenzy and even violence as resellers charged up to $1,500 for the $30 doll. Its popularity led Sesame Street producers to feature the character of Elmo much more prominently.
You may not have known: Tyco didn’t initially have the rights to Sesame Street characters, so the toy debuted as "Tickles the Chimp."
Beanie Babies were slow to take off when they were introduced in 1994, but when manufacturer Ty, Inc. decided to start limiting the quantities of the characters and even retiring some, collectors began hoarding the $5 toys and later reselling them at much higher prices. The craze became a national phenomenon.
You may not have known: Ty, Inc. is credited with creating the first business-to-consumer website designed to engage their market.
It would be impossible to compile a list of hot toys and omit Barbie. Though the doll herself has rarely had a standout item in high demand, the sheer breadth of the toy line and its enduring popularity make it a popular gift each Christmas. The success of the 2023 movie will undoubtedly mean more children will be asking for Barbie-themed gifts this year.
You may not have known: Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts and her parents' names are George and Margaret Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin – at least according to a series of Barbie novels published by Random House in the 1960s.
RELATED: The rise and fall of Black Friday