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Rom The Space Knight
Futuristically armoured action toy
Our first exposure to Parker Brothers' easy-to-spell Space Knight came courtesy of the Bullpen Bulletin page in Marvel Comics, bigging up the antics of this new cosmic character. We have to confess that at the time we thought him to be yet another also-ran from the pantheon of rubbish second-string comic characters like Ghost Rider, Ka-Zar, Deadlock or any of the other losers who'd appear for an issue in Spider-Man Team-Up, and we were totally unaware of his exciting action-figure origins. For some reason, we also had him mixed up with REM, the android one off of TV’s Logan’s Run series. Jam-packed with LEDs (two for his eyes, two in his chest, two in his rocket packs plus an extra one in his utility cable – whatever that was) Rom could also boast the essential additions of an Energy Analyzer, a Translator and a Neutralizer. All in all it made for high-octane action around the sandpit at lunchtimes. But better yet, Rom could also make electronic noises thanks to two buttons on his back; one of these being the sound of heavy breathing. We're wondering if latter additions to the Rom kit included a space-age inhaler. The best thing about Rom The Space Knight, however, was that in UK he was marketed as part of the Action Man range. Cue hundreds of kids trying to pull his space head off to cop a look at the familiar Clayton Hickman-with-a-duelling-scar visage below.
Petite Super International Typewriter
Clackety clackety clackety clackety clack - ping!
When the pre-Christmas Powers-That-Be ran out of ideas for training the housewives of tomorrow (see elsewhere on this list), someone had a bright idea: let's train the secretaries of tomorrow! But let's do it covertly, so that they don't know what they're doing. We suspect that the Petite's moment of glory may have coincided with the rise of the Superman films - suddenly journalism was a glamorous career and, with one of these babies, an adventure-packed life as the next Lois Lane or Clark Kent (or failing that, Julie Burchill) seemed only a Caps Lock away. It was an actual functioning typewriter, differing from the real deal only in its, well, petiteness (and sometimes its colour - snazzy blue if you were lucky, dull grey if you weren't) but at any rate it was far more businesslike and chic than the crappy pink Barbie typewriters that followed. (Although, was it just us, or did the red half of the ribbon always dry out after about two days?) Anyway, had you wanted to use it to write a sequel to "The Bitch", you probably could have done so. Really enterprising kids probably supplemented their pocket money by knocking out a spot of porn and sending it in to Mayfair. Most of us, however, just sat banging away for hours at the asterisk key, giving our parents a migraine. The novelty really wore off when we realized that all it was good for was typing thank-you letters to our gran, and now we had no excuse not to. Drat.
Silly Putty
Gooey toy and cheap Xerox machine stand-in
Dateline 1942 (or thereabouts) and with war ranging across the globe what the world needed was a right good smile. The US Government's War Production Board, aware that the Japanese were apparently staging a systematic invasion of any and all rubber-producing countries, charged its boffins with finding a new synthetic substitute. One, boss-eyed Scots engineer James Wright, reckoned he might have just the thing, combining boric acid with silicone oil in a test tube to create… something gooey. Blowed as to what this new sticky gunk could actually be used for, samples of it were sent out around the globe to see if anyone could give it a sensible use. In 1949, a toyshop owner did just that and started selling it as a fun new toy. By 1950 the moniker Silly Putty was coined and soon the useless stretchy stuff was being shipped out in Kinder Egg-like containers to millions. The reality is, however, that Silly Putty was another one of those toys that you coveted for ages, but tired of almost immediately. OK, it bounced and that was good. But what was less good was letting it lift the ink off your Beano thereby emblazoning a reverse-image of Little Plum across your putty. Pointless, surely – and it dirtied the putty! Despite that, credit where it’s due; Silly Putty has endured. In the 1990s a new version was created that changed colour with the heat from your hands and 50 years after its creation a metallic gold coloured putty was introduced into the range. But we still can't understand why anyone would want to press Little Plum onto it, though.
Play-at-home surgical fun without the gore
Operation is an early and surprisingly durable example of a crossover between the worlds of board game and electronic game. A pair of metal tweezers was used to remove comically named plastic body parts (amongst them "wish bone", "funny bone", "wrenched ankle", "bread basket" and "butterflies in stomach") from the prostrate form of a cartoonish man who looked not entirely unlike a well groomed and marginally less uninteresting Fred Flintstone. If a player committed the error of touching the "sides" during the operating procedure, a buzzer would sound and the huge red bulb standing in for the cartoon man's nose would light up. There were two small but crucial flaws in this otherwise perfect plan; firstly, the deliberately fiddly "charlie horse" would inevitably become wedged in its oddly shaped slot (a situation that was not exactly helped by the tendency of the plastic-supported board to become worryingly and complicatingly concave after a couple of weeks' use); secondly, and more significantly, the wires connecting the tweezers to the board would eventually develop a break and be rendered – a-ha ha ha - inoperable. The question of what you were supposed to do if and when the bulb blew was also never really addressed. On top of this, younger siblings were wont to find the game inexplicably frightening. See also the somewhat sturdier distant relative, Purple People Eater, a huge rubber contraption akin to a melting Davros mask and actually quite repulsive to the touch, from the mouth of which players were supposed to retrieve small red plastic troll-like figures without touching those all-important "sides" lest they trigger its electronic "monster"' noise, and which was promoted by a Tiswas-straddling television advert utilising a cunning rewrite of the ancient novelty rock 'n' roll number of the same name.
Ricochet Racers/Wrist Racers
Weapon-propelled miniature cars
Only one word for this Palitoy production - inspired. The original Ricochet Racer set took the two things closest to the heart of every ten year old boy - cars and guns - and combined them with an effortless genius Robert Downey Jr. can only dream of. The high-tech white-and-red rifle, resembling a failed auditionee for the part of Starbuck's fighter in Battlestar Galactica, was loaded with "cartridges" containing a miniature car, which could be fired at great (theoretical) speed along the floor. But, as ever, what sounded like a dream product was scuppered by the twin toy demons of safety (to avoid potential lawsuits, the gun would only fire the cars when resting on the ground, thus putting paid to mischievous dreams of airborne car assaults from top floor windows) and the mundane reality of your average '70s house - instead of the acres of just-polished parquet flooring possessed by the parents of the children in the ads, a few square yards of traffic-calming nylon carpet was the deal more often than not, severely restricting the duration of any prospective race. Still, you could always gain limited fun by firing them from the top of the stairs when your mum was on the phone in the hall. Variations included a "speed duel" double set, a "sharpshooter" gun with a stack of little barrels to knock over, a glow-in-the-dark model, and the later Wrist Racers, which strapped to your arm watch-style, presumably to further remove that troublesome firearm association.
Haunted House
Rentaghost-busting paranormal and plastic game concoction
One of those board games with extra bits to assemble before play and a stalwart of the Cream Era. The ads depicted spooky goings-on as stage school kids gathered round the board inside an actual haunted house. As always, the reality was slightly less exciting. The board featured a standard "follow the path" configuration and was split into four quarters, each representing rooms in the house, with a large "haunted house" structure included to build in the centre. The main purpose of this was to construct a complex system of tunnels with one entrance in the chimney at the top and several exits around the sides. Occasionally during your trip round the board, you'd be asked to pick up a card from the horror-themed pile. The game came with a glow-in-the-dark skull and, usually, the cards ordered you to toss the skull into the chimney to let it find its own way out of the house. If your counter (a cardboard cut-out of a scared-looking kid slotted into a base) happened to be in front of an exit, the skull would come crashing out and knock your child over. This sent you back to the start or inflicted some other horrible penalty. If you survived the onslaught of the skull, on you went, following the footprint-shaped spaces around the house until you arrived at the foot of the house stairs - the winner was the first to climb these and close the lid on the coffin at the house apex, thus banishing the banshees forever. Haunted House featured the enigmatic "Ghoulish Gertie" as a notional head of the house, with the skull card reading "Ghoulish Gertie drops it down the chimney" (“it” became a marble after you lost the skull). And they never explained how to read the board after you turned the lights off for full-on glow-in-the-dark action.
Dungeons & Dragons
“Alternative reality” adventure role-play game
Amplified by the almost permanent presence of The Hobbit on ‘70s and ‘80s English Lit. syllabuses, Dungeons & Dragons offered those who were unpopular in the playground some solace in an imaginary Tolkein-esque world they could control. Manufactured in Standard and Advanced D&D flavours by US company TSR, and based on an original premise by Chicago-born college dropout E. Gary Gygax, it mixed medieval Britain with magical folklore and monsters to create a fantasy magpie's nest in which an unlimited number of pretend, non-cardiovascular, but meticulously detailed battles and adventures could take place. How to play? Extensive rule books (but no board) and fiendishly complicated challenges (requiring the appointment of a “Dungeon Master” to preside over events) made it difficult to get to grips with, but AD&D soon established itself as a sort of lunchtime school club sub-culture in much the same way as chess, astronomy and orchestra rehearsals (largely due to it being legitimised by an allocation of early-lunch tickets). A typical game exposition: “Your attempt to cast a spell on the Orc fails and he strikes a blow with his axe. You lose three stamina points”. Much talk of druids, clerics and the Call of Cthulhu; players would grow up with real ale and Marillion-aping folk pub bands called Arcadian Pentangle. For the less dedicated, the Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson were a portable alternative. For the disinterested, there were at least the multi-coloured, translucent resin dice with an unexpectedly large number of sides (our favourite was the tangerine dodecahedron).
Synthetic goo
Most toys were no use to an only child. There’s not much mileage in playing Monopoly alone. Even games with no format, no rules and no board, the kind that challenged the imagination – “playing Action Man” for example – were more fun with two or more people involved. Precious few Cream era toys were not only aimed squarely at the solitary child but also made absolutely no sense in company. Slime was one of ‘em. Dreamed up by some genius marketeer (and we’d put our last dollar on that being one of those American dreams we hear about) presumably after watching too many ‘50s B-movies, this viscous mixture of latex, wallpaper paste and food colouring (the actual ingredients may have differed slightly, but that’s what we’re guessing) hit the shops at roughly the same time the TISWAS gang were chucking buckets of water and foam flans at each other and basically making a right old mess on telly every week. And whilst no parent would normally leave his or her offspring unsupervised with just any old gunge, the restrained anarchy of Slime (water-based, non-staining on wipe-clean surfaces such as the kitchen lino) was perfectly suited to out-of-the-way play. Once the contents were emptied from the Oscar the Grouch type green “trash can” container, however (Slime came in different colours, some with plastic eyeballs, some with rubber worms), there was precious little play to be had. Sure, it could slowly ooze and bubble (a satisfying trick was to trap air in a glop of the stuff and slowly force it out with a farty sound) but any toy primarily exploited purely for its tactile qualities was always destined to hold only a transitory allure for us. Nothing, however, could match the disappointment of finding an accidentally-left-open pot of the stuff, dried to a husk and rendered useless to either man or beast. Slime was but a fleeting pleasure, and therefore all the better for it.
Cadbury’s Chocolate Machine
Obstacle to chocolate
It’s bizarre that this should even make it into a children’s wish list of most desired games or toys, being - as it is – the very definition of the anti-toy. Ostensibly a cross between a savings bank and a chocolate dispensing machine it actually fails to live up to the promise of either. But that is to underestimate its novelty. Although in reality it amounted to a deferral of pleasure, no more than a tuppenny barrier between the chocolate and your mouth, there was still something of the faintly exotic in getting hold of a load more of those mini-Dairy Milks and Bournevilles than you would ever find in a box of Roses. In the days before washing powder tablets and digital cameras, the fascination with anything miniaturised was not to be underestimated. The classic dispenser was designed and moulded in ‘50s-throwback red plastic (leading us to fancifully imagine that the Fonz himself would mete out his chocolate from one) with properly embossed gold Cadbury’s branding, plus it came pre-loaded with a dozen baby chocs. In theory, a 2p piece slotted in the top would, with a twist of a knob on the front, release a single, fully wrapped miniature that could then be enjoyed in isolation. In truth, and in part because not only was the chassis of the dispenser made of plastic but also the lock and keys, it took about ten seconds for greed to overcome the flimsy workings of this metaphorical chocolate chastity belt. With the contents therefore devoured in their entirety (and not so easily replaced, at least not until the next Argos trip), what essentially remained was a moneybox and, given that it generally wouldn’t contain more than about fourteen pence, not a very good one at that.
Your luminous round bossy chum
In the mid-'70s, arcade giant Atari came up with a novel idea for a cabinet-based game - four flashing lights illuminated in a set order, which the player had to copy by pressing the appropriate buttons. Unsurprisingly, it sank without trace, perhaps not helped by Atari's chosen title for this meisterwerk -"Touch Me". A couple of years later, Milton Bradley happened upon the idea and churned out a round, tabletop version of the concept, gave it the (relatively) more macho name Simon, and cleaned up in the Christmas of '78. Its resemblance to the final scene of Close Encounters has been often remarked upon and, just like that effects tour de force, Simon was visually hypnotic and staggeringly pointless. In fact, the ideal conditions in which to play the thing - in a quiet, darkened room, with your face right up against it, dead to the world, finger poised ready to jab - could well have provided the catalyst for the whole "computer games are rotting our kids' minds" movement. Towards the end of the decade, imitators aplenty came out, often hedging their bets by offering more games, with more and various coloured lights - anyone recall Mego's Fabulous Fred? Of course not! They all forgot the simplicity that was the key to the original game. Just four lights, a tune, and a disapproving low farty beep when you cocked it up. The handheld Simon made it to the market eventually, but the simple design of the original was - oh, go on, then, if we must - iconic.

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