I’ve been in the toy industry for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I’m often referred to by my colleagues as an old-school industry guy. A term of endearment, for sure. But, hearing it does make me think back to the early days of my career, way before I started my own design agency. Like when I was working at Larami Corp., where I designed the original Super Soaker packaging. And when I lived in Rhode Island for a full-time gig at Hasbro, where I worked on packaging for G.I.JOE action figures and vehicles. Lately, though, it isn’t simply a conversation with an old toy industry friend that causes the reminiscing. It’s also the fact that so many legacy brands are bringing back their original product lines in just about every toy category.
An addiction to nostalgia
What is it about these products that’s so appealing to consumers that toy manufacturers have been reintroducing them to today’s marketplace? I think it’s because we’re addicted to nostalgia. It’s something that affects us all in the same way. We think back to wonderful moments from our past with fondness. We remember a time when there was much less weight on our shoulders – when we had less responsibilities and no real fear of the unknown. Reliving these moments is safe and comfortable because we’ve experienced them already. It’s this familiarity that brings us a warm, fuzzy feeling and a sense of pure joy.
These legacy toy brands are nostalgic triggers. Especially when they’re reintroduced in their original packaging. The packaging as well as the products are snapshots, if you will, that call to mind specific moments from our past. And they were positive moments because we were in a state of fantasy and play. Who doesn’t want to experience that feeling again?
Repackaging classic action figures of the 70s and 80s with authenticity
One of my favorite entertainment franchises is Star Wars. I was 12 years old when A New Hope released in theaters and, like many others with a pulse, I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve also been known to collect a few Star Wars action figures (if not for the products, then certainly for the package design), like the Disney Store Elite Series die-cast figures, Hasbro’s The Black Series figures and a handful of Hot Toys 1/6th scale figures. But, none of them took me back to the excitement I felt in the late-70s more than Hasbro’s Star Wars Retro Collection action figures.
Announced at New York Toy Fair 2019, the Retro Collection brings back the original Kenner Star Wars 3.75-inch figures, which look almost exactly the same as they did when they were initially released, except for the additional detail that has been captured using modern techniques. What I love the most about the Retro Collection is the package design, which has been recreated to look like the original Kenner packaging from 1978. The familiar black background and “airbrushed” radius-cornered double raceway architecture that originates from the Star Wars logo and surrounds the product and character image provides the ultimate smack of nostalgia. Hasbro even added a distressed texture along the edges and folds of each package to suggest that they’ve been authentically aged. The Retro Collection is still going strong, with the release of figures from The Empire Strikes Back early last year.
Although Hasbro led the way with the reintroduction of classic action figures in retro packaging, Mattel recently took us back to 1983 with the release of their He-Man and the Masters of the Universe product line. The figures are almost exact replicas of the originals, although they appear to be slightly larger, making them very close to the modern-day 6-inch standard. Mattel nailed the look of the vintage packaging with the 2020 reintroduction, featuring the large Masters of the Universe logo across the top of the blister card with the remainder of the card background being the red rock explosion. Even the font used for the product name and descriptive text beneath it is a perfect match.
Leveraging familiarity to establish an emotional connection with parents
Clearly, the afore-mentioned examples are geared towards the adult collector. But, many toys and games from our youth are making a comeback in retro packaging to appeal to parents as well. During the pandemic, parents have been drawn to the simpler, familiar products that they’ve always known. With their days having become filled with anxiety, these toys and games from their past provide the sense of nurture and comfort they want for their families.
Classic board games, such as Hasbro’s Candyland, Monopoly, Scrabble and Battleship are all available at Target in packaging that reflects their respective original designs, aside from a snipe in the upper right corner that designates these products as part of the Hasbro Gaming Retro Series. The connection to our past is instantaneous when we see these familiar designs. And it’s difficult for parents who grew up on these games to avoid purchasing them for some family fun time.
Pop-cult favorites reintroduced to a new generation in original packaging
Another game from a simpler time, which has been re-released in “retro style” packaging, is Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Designed by Marvin Glass and Associates and released in 1964 by the Marx Toy Company, this game enjoyed quite a bit of success, becoming a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. Today, you can purchase the Mattel Games version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots in packaging that features original art from the Marx Toy Company’s packaging.
Speaking of pop culture phenoms, I was so pleased to learn that the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, which was originally released in 1973 by Ideal Toy Co, was reintroduced to the marketplace by California Creations last year using the original product molds. One of my childhood favorites, this amazing toy featured a poseable action figure of Evel Knievel and his authentically-styled stunt bike. The action figure and bike were attached to a plastic base, revved up by hand using a plastic crank, then launched into action. Its new packaging isn’t an exact replica of the original. However, it does still feature the original Evel Knievel logo and Stunt Cycle type treatment as well as the diagonal speed lines background. If my kids were still of an appropriate age, I would share the back story of the world-famous daredevil, then show them how much fun you can have recreating the excitement of his dangerous jumps and harrowing crashes with a simple home-made ramp or two.
Whether it’s the difficult to resist appeal of nostalgia, the anxiety-inducing effects of a global pandemic, or simply an interest in getting kids to disconnect from their electronic devices for some open ended, unstructured play, parents and collectors alike seem to be interested in the old-school classics. Clearly, the best way to capture their hearts and minds is through revisiting the package design visuals that they remember so well.