by TED MININNI, president and creative director, Design Force
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. It’s 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.
I worked 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, I designed 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.
What makes these products so appealing to consumers that toy manufacturers are 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 fewer 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 — and the same goes for packaging.
These legacy toy brands are nostalgic triggers, especially when they’re reintroduced to the market in their original packaging that’s so familiar to consumers. Both the packaging and the products inside are snapshots 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?
One of my favorite entertainment franchises is Star Wars. I was 12 years old when A New Hope debuted in theaters, and, like many others, I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m also 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 1:6-scale figures. But, none of them took me back to the excitement I felt in the late ‘70s than Hasbro’s new 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 Hasbro captured using modern techniques. What I love most about the Retro Collection is the package design, which Hasbro 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 the boxes authentically aged. The Retro Collection is still going strong with the release of The Empire Strikes Back-inspired figures early last year.
While Hasbro led the way by reintroducing classic action figures in retro packaging, Mattel recently took us back to 1983 with the release of its 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, 6-inch standard. Mattel nailed the look of the vintage packaging with last year’s reintroduction, featuring the large Masters of the Universe logo across the top of the blister card, and the red rock explosion covering the remainder of the card background. Even the font used for the product name and descriptive text beneath it is a perfect match.
Clearly, the aforementioned examples are geared toward the adult collector. But, many toys and games from 30-60 years ago are making a comeback in retro packaging to appeal to parents as well. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have been drawn to the simpler, familiar products that they’ve always known. Perhaps these toys and games from their past provide a 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 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. It’s difficult for parents who grew up on these games to resist purchasing them for some fun family time.
Another game from a simpler time is the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, originally released in 1964 by the Marx Toy Co. Designed by Marvin Glass and Associates, this game enjoyed quite a bit of success, and even became a pop culture phenomenon. You can now get a new version from Mattel Games after the company rereleased it with “retro-style” branding that features original art seen on the Marx Toy Co. 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. The 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 fit the appropriate age group, I would share the backstory 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 homemade 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, the old-school classics are sparking an interest in parents and collectors alike. Clearly, the best way to capture their hearts and minds is through revisiting the package design visuals that they remember so well.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!