Just twelve months after the major toy companies were talking about preferring 'play value' over 'property recognition,' licensing is back thanks to strong fourth quarter performances from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and the continuing sales of merchandise associated with perennial TV series like the Simpsons (see 'Strong Q4 Boosts Toy Industry'). Toy companies are also employing the latest technical advances in computer chips and sensors to make traditional toys more interactive and to ape the appeal of the fast-growing video game industry. The oldest toy known to mankind is making a strong comeback in a new high tech format and those venerable little toys with spring-loaded craniums are back with a vengeance. Meanwhile anime continues to make inroads into the American toy industry, and there is a major revival of 80s pop culture properties.
Speech recognition technology is at the heart of many of the most advanced toys at this year's show. Numerous companies displayed products that could react differently to various commands and phrases with some specializing in snappy comebacks and others actually telling a variety of simple stories on command. Action figures and dolls have also been tricked out with various sensors that can differenciate between the clothes and accessories placed on their bodies and comment or react appropriately. The number and length of phrases that toys can utter is also growing quickly as more sophisticated chips become available. Infrared control systems now allow kids to smash cars or robots with handheld controls that bear a startling similarity to those used in video games. All the major players in the toy industry seemingly have their version of battling robots (or cars, or tanks) that play like 3-D versions of video games.
The Spin Meisters
The spinning top, perhaps the oldest toy known to mankind, is back in a very big way. Hasbro introduced the Japanese BeyBlade 'spinning top' combat game (see 'Nelvana Nabs Beyblades') before Toy Fair, and it's easy to see why, since other companies like Bandai, Playmates, and Trendmasters have managed to get their own 'knock-off' battling tops games on display at the show. The sophisticated tops in these games do often benefit from gyroscopes and they are powered by 'rip strips' rather than the conventional string, but it all boils down to who has the last top spinning.
Bob to the Future
Bobble head dolls are everywhere. Although they aren't nearly as ancient as tops, Bobble Heads are so hoary with age that they were traditionally described as 'dolls' since the face-saving -- for males at least -- term 'action figure' hadn't been invented when these bouncing toys were in their prime. Small toy companies in particular are using this venerable spring-loaded toy as if it just came on the market yesterday. Major League Baseball helped sparked this trend with 'Bobble Head' days at many big league parks last year. The Seattle Mariners 'Ichiro' Bobble Head doll was a major hit last summer, selling for big bucks on e-Bay the day after it was given away. Now we have Mayor Giuliani Bobble Heads, NYPD Bobble Heads, fireman Bobble Heads -- you name it, you can probably find it.
Judging by the growing number of anime-related toys, anime continues its solid, continuous growth (see 'Top Anime Stories of 2001'). Mattel, one of the two largest toy companies, is producing a series of Yu-Gi-Oh figures, and numerous smaller companies such as Toynami, Toycom, and Diamond are showing increasing numbers of anime and manga-inspired items. The small, blocky figures known in Japan as 'Kubricks' were also very much in evidence at this year's show. It will be interesting to see if these little 'collector's items' catch on in a big way here in the States, since if they do, they will provide yet another format for successful action figure lines.
This is another trend we have been following at ICv2 over the past year (see 'Top Movie/TV Merchandise Stories of 2001'), and it is very much in evidence at this year's Toy Fair with Equity Marketing's line of Scooby Doo figures and a sprightly lineup of Muppet figures from Palisades Marketing, which is also recreating the modular (and interchangeable) Micronauts toys (see 'Palisades Lands Micronauts'). Toss in Mattel's revival of He-Man, Diamond Select's Battle of the Planets figures, a wide variety of G.I. Joe merchandise, and the revival of 80s toy-based comics (see 'Devil's Due Gets Micronauts'), and this trend looks like it's picking up steam this year.