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Game and Watch
Liquid crystal thrills
If the inventor of Game And Watch didn't retire a multi-millionaire at the end of the '80s to a luxury mansion in the Bahamas then there is no justice in the world. For what was this toy but a perfectly weighted and targeted marketing triumph? A small, portable game that could masquerade when required as a digital watch, meaning kids could persuade parents and teachers alike that it was a legitimate scholastic tool ("But Dad, don't you want me to know what the time is?"). Seriously, though, who did Nintendo think they were fooling? 99% game and 1% watch, these credit-card sized consoles could be customised to appeal to almost any demographic (ersatz Donkey Kong for hardened arcadaholics, Snoopy Tennis for girly girls), with such simple-to-grasp gameplay that even the class Joey could be a high score king. Plus, the in-built LCD screens were so easily cracked that replacements had to be shipped in almost weekly. The boredom-novelty churn was managed by the 'Tendo releasing an ever-increasing number of variations into the market (double-screen games, widescreen games, colour displays) until they resembled nothing more than a modern-day palmtop. The bubble burst with the arrival of home entertainment systems and the fully controllable "characters" which populated the games thereon. Ironically, of course, we've since produced a generation of kids who can download Java games onto their mobile phones, but who can't actually tell the time.
Play Doh Barber's Shop
Inspired clay-based depilation
First there was the Playdoh Fun Factory - a sort of press wherein a lump of the evocatively-smelling, carpet-staining clay was deposited and then extruded out into a variety of cross-sectioned sausages, to the great amusement of countless young children still harbouring a vestigial toilet fixation. The real genius, though, was the decision to ally this abstract device to a model person with holes in the top of their head (and chin, in the male instance), thus creating endless opportunities for "cut 'n' grow" streaky purple dreadlock shaving fun. Despite there being something slightly skin-crawl inducing in the way the clay tendrils wormed their way out of each Playperson’s scalp, it would be years before such an image would be capitalised upon by the British horror industry (and we’re only thinking about the Hellraiser films here). Scissors, clippers and a sort of permanent wave clamp thing for the ladies added to the variety. The playset went away for a bit but has now resurfaced as the Barber and Beauty Shop, so we presume the obligatory TV tie-in version endorsed by Ricardo from C4's The Salon can only just be around the corner.
The big knobs drawing-on-a-screen game
Developed in the late 1950s by Frenchman Arthur Granjean, the Etch-A-Sketch was first marketed as L'Ecran Magique (The Magic Screen). The toy hit the big time in '59 at the International Toy Fair held in - surely the world capital of all recreational fun - Nuremburg. Here it was snapped up by the Ohio Toy company and given the "ETCH … A … SKETCH!!" moniker that would later lend itself to a bafflingly catchy jingle. Essentially a box full of crap (well, aluminium flakes to be precise) it worked thanks to an internal stylus you moved around by twiddling two satisfyingly chunky knobs. That stylus scraped the film of flakes off the inside of the screen, ergo producing a line. In short, it was a bit like scraping your car windscreen but with more impetus for producing a single-line drawing of a house with blocky smoke coming out of the chimney. To erase your picture when you'd finished looking at it for a bit you'd simply shake the thing about thereby flinging the aluminium crap back onto the inside of the screen. In appearance, the red-clad Etch-A-Sketch was a Tron-esque vision of the future, an apparent plasma slab you could sit on your lap and create Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy style animations with. An apparently miraculous device it was much coveted, but in truth its appeal was limited, really only lending itself to drawings of circuit diagrams. Still, a good one for your autistics, there. Bursting out of the dark grey on grey world of Etch-A-Sketch, we should also mention Tomy's rich kids' toy Lights Alive. We're not even pretending to know how this one worked, suffice to say you could get stuck in about it with a handheld stylus and produce a multi-coloured Family Fortunes board of artwork. The box it came in included some great 'serving suggestions' for the toy, ranging from drawing a big twinkling elephant to playing noughts and crosses – futuristically! Alas, after writing your own name on it and then possibly some mild sweary-words ("SNOG!") Lights Alive's appeal would again quickly dim. And worse than that, it was supposed to be "educational" too.
After-dinner Agatha Christie
Cluedo seemed to appear out of nowhere as some murdery-mystery rival to Monopoly. The posh kids had it first, probably because it featured a "study" and a "drawing room" but it wasn't long before the whole street was testing their detective skills with plastic tools of death and cards that you had to keep in little wallets like After Eight Mints. Essentially a glorified board version of 20 Questions (just keep asking until you guess whodunit, where-they-dunit and with what) but featuring murder, it stirred the nascent serial killer in many a small child. The kid who claims he didn't secretly want to see Mrs White bludgeoned to death with the lead pipe in the bedroom is lying through his teeth. (Of course, this almost-amusing observation conveniently ignores the fact that the actual murder victim – Dr Black - couldn’t simultaneously be one of the players.) Quite where the stereotype characters were drawn from remains unexplained, though we suspect some play on words implicit in Mrs Peacock and Col. Mustard. And whilst it must be said that both Rev. Green and Professor Plum weren’t exactly marketed as teen heartthrobs, Miss Scarlet stirred more than just violent urges - appearing as she did on the cards as a bright red pawn with a mane of flowing blonde hair and a saucy, yet sophisticated smile. Thinking about it, any game that prompted a pre-pubescent sexual frisson from a chess piece, and that educated young Crippens as to which household items could best be used to kill, should probably have come with some form of parental advisory warning. But this was in the good old pre-PC days, so we had free rein to don our imaginary balaclavas and go a-garrotting. With the length of rope. In the kitchen.
Battling Tops
Gyroscopic gladiators
Battling Tops? 'Tis a grand olde European folk game, sir, as famously depicted in 16th century paintings by Brueghel and his ilk. However, we suspect his Battling Tops weren't housed in a plastic arena, presumably didn't go by such wrestling ring monikers as Hurricane Hank, Dizzy Dan or, er, Smarty Smitty, and were certainly far from Ideal. Yep, the company that invited you to wind up Evel Knievel was dishing up more red plastic crank-powered fun with their repackaging of an old wooden favourite, with defiantly un-medieval box art depicting various '50s-type kids and their worryingly Barry Cryer-like dad enraptured by the centrifugal tournament taking place under their noses. Space Attack was an air hockey variant on the rotating theme. Crank the red handle with all your tiny might and stop the spinning top being knocked into a trough with a plastic slider. Or, as they put it, "Fight off the lightning alien attacks!" The "space" theme was provided by a piss-poor "galactic" backdrop on the field of play, with a pointless concentric red ring design overlaid. They might as well have written, "Look, it's in space, all right? Use your bloody imagination, you ungrateful little sods" and been done with it.
When fun and geometry collide
An awful hybrid toy/drawing implement, with the flimsiness of construction putting the emphasis firmly on "toy". Spirograph comprised of many plastic discs, each with tiny teeth round the edge and tiny holes round the centre. With those cogs came rings of plastic, teeth again protruding from the outside and inside edges. The idea was to lay the rings onto a piece of paper, tack them down with drawing pins and then roll your chosen disc around the ring, pushing a pencil through one of the holes. The resulting unimpressive spiral on the paper could be reproduced to create more unimpressive spirals on top. This carried on and on with different-sized plastic pieces - eventually producing something akin to a flower, every single time. You may be surprised to learn that spiral-graphs have a basis in maths, being used to solve polynomial equations of a higher degree. Their application as a toy, however, whilst perhaps giving kids a tiny bit of insight into advanced mathematics, has to be called into question. For instance, no one ever explained what you should do about the little holes left in the paper by the drawing pins. Of course, you could try to hold the ring in position, but only the slightest movement meant that the spiral effect was ruined completely. Even more obscure was the confusing Rotadraw; this was a red plastic disc, which you placed on top of a piece of paper and then pinned to a board (or, indeed, mum's fine oak dining room table). Next you rotated the disc, Spirograph-style, filling in the stencil-like holes. When you'd gone all around the wheel, bingo! There was a picture of Goofy (or whoever). We can't even begin to imagine what this may have looked like.
The 2.30 from Newmarket rendered in vibrating felt
As the cod-Spanish name suggests, this game is ancient - dating from the 1920s, in fact. Several attempts have been made to capture, in game format, the excitement of horse racing (although for our money the 'excitement' of horse racing begins and ends with a Ladbroke's payout). Chad Valley, stalwart makers of toy guitars and drum kits for several generations of British youth, were the first. The problem with this enterprise, of course, is - how to replicate the element of chance and surprise fundamental to the thrill of the turf? The answer - by exploiting the random power of the wobble. By turning an old-fashioned crank at one end, the wobbly green cloth "track" vibrated, resulting in the erratic movement of several, probably highly toxic lead, model horses frozen in mid-gallop. Some made for the finish line. Some didn't budge. Some fell over. Nearly all fell over, in fact. But hey! That's racing. There was a token system of betting, but small-change-laden children certainly weren't above acting like grown-up men of the world and suggesting they make things "a little more interesting". For a while, they tried to extend the brand with variants, including greyhound and speedboat - speedboat? - editions, but only the original lasted through the decades, with little changing save for a reduction in the danger of the model horses to tender young intestines. For those of us too young to go on fruit machines, it was a tentative toe in the glamorous waters of that mysterious world beyond the blacked-out windows of William Hill.
War Of The Daleks
Space-Ludo with Skaro-centric baddies
Arguably the most cumbersome feat of paper-and-plastic engineering, War Of The Daleks was played on a hollow card box-cum-board of roughly the same thickness as the average upholstered chair cushion. The game involved moving card figures of a nondescript early 1970s comic strip man around a circular playing area and trying to get to the centre whilst avoiding the Daleks. With not a staircase in sight to impede their progress, the Daleks themselves were surprisingly faithful plastic renditions (in non-canonical silver/red and gold/blue colour schemes) that stood a good three quarters of an inch tall and were inserted into concentric slots cut into the board. When the even taller pale blue "control centre" in the middle of the game was rotated, the card disc underpinning these concentric slots also rotated, causing the Daleks to move around the board and subsequently "capture" hapless players. If a player made it to the centre, they could destroy the control centre simply by lifting it up, although so doing displaced four panels - three bore illustrations of harmless computer equipment, but the fourth depicted a hitherto unknown King Dalek who by landing next to you could invalidate the entire game. Despite (or perhaps because of) its ludicrous bulkiness, War Of The Daleks was massively popular but most of the sets that now find their way into second hand shops are invariably missing the odd Dalek or two, not to mention the all-important King Dalek panel which has often thoughtfully been replaced by a child's felt tip drawing on a flimsy piece of lined paper. A couple of years later came a straightforward Doctor Who game from the same company which, despite boasting a handful of cut-out Tom Bakers and a plastic TARDIS was an extremely boring and slow-moving affair. Insert your own joke about similarities to the Sylvester McCoy TV era here.
Tiny Tears
Blubbing, enuresis-afflicted doll
Are there any vintage girls' toys out there that aren't just plain creepy? The vacant-eyed, H20-seeping Tiny Tears is yet another case in point. A kind of cross between Play School's Hamble and a hospice in-patient, Palitoy's innovative doll was nevertheless an acknowledged Rolls Royce in the field of plastic surrogate children. Created in the 1950s, the doll reached the UK by 1966. Initially sporting a hard plastic head, which made for a weighty cosh if younger brothers became annoying, the doll's novelty came in its ability to both cry and piss its pants. Simply fill it with water from a bottle, and the thing was off. Promoted via an insidious advertising campaign as an actual new member of the family to be placed in the care of all little girls, it seems as though Palitoy were advocating keeping tots miserable and permanently soiled. And because of that, Tiny Tears was an absolute must-have; a real stayer that hadn't floated in on the back of a Saturday morning cartoon and wasn't about to lend its name to a flotilla of spin-off merchandising (although a Tiny Tears endorsed travel rubber bedsheet would have made childhood sleep-overs at friends' houses a little less fraught). Potential crossovers into the world of boys' toys never happened, alas. 'Cos we would have gone mad over Men-At-Arms incontinence pants. They'd have been great!
Screwball Scramble
Ball-bearing in a maze madness!
Another one of those games that we would only ever glimpse across the classroom, on someone else’s desk, on the last day of term. With a concept latterly reinvented as Marble Madness for your new-fangled microcomputers, Screwball Scramble was a genuinely addictive race-against-time affair from Tomy. Your job was to guide a ball bearing through a crazy maze via the use of a button, a lever and a knob. Could you get it from start to finish before the tick-ticking timer wound down one minute? Destined to ratchet up your nerve-endings, Screwball Scramble's life expectancy rapidly shortened as the game became regularly sighted sailing across the room following yet another maze traversing failure. Still in production today, we do have to wonder how many of those gobstopperish ball bearings actually ended up taking the rather more "screwy" route through some child's rectal canal. Particularly on the last day of the school term. In Moss Side.

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