Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Book Review: Just Can't Get Enough -- Toys, Games and Other Things from the '80s that Rocked

Elements of this article originally appeared on the (now defunct) This one's for you, Phil!

Pic from

Just Can’t Get Enough: Toys, Games and Other Things from the ‘80s that Rocked

Authors: Matthew Robinson and Jensen Karp

Year: 2007

Publisher: Abrams Image

The Background

When my now-wife and I started dating back in 2009, one of the first things we bonded over was our mutual love of the 1980s. Sensing my fondness for kid's toys and pop culture, she loaned me the subject of today's review, which I instantly loved and have never really returned -- now that we're married, the point seems kind of moot, too.

The Book

Toy-wise, the 1980s and 1990s were an interesting time to be a child in the Western world. Cartoons and action figures had been around for several decades previously, but it was in the 1980s that the combination of the two really came into bloom. Cartoons like He-Man, Thundercats and Transformers dominated not only the TV screens but the toy shop as well. Care Bears sold by the truckload. Kids all around the world were lapping this stuff up, and the companies involved were presumably all sleeping on mattresses filled with gold bullion.
In hindsight, all these kid's fads seem to be a typical example of the “Greed is Good” attitude that many believe defined the 1980s. Yet it is a model that has never truly gone away…just grown more subtle over the years. As adults, we're a little more aware that our favourite childhood toys were often more the products of cynical marketing meetings, rather than inspired creativity -- and yet it does not usually affect our previous enjoyment of them.

Styled to look like a Trapper Keeper, Just Can’t Get Enough is awash with brightly coloured pictures, amusing anecdotes, disturbing personal revelations and historical trivia. It’s somewhat comparable in concept to The A-Zof Cool Computer Games, though perhaps a little more cynical and (although I dislike using the term as a descriptor) American.

Many of the biggest children’s fads of the decade get a look-in. He-Man, Voltron, World Wrestling Federation, Hungry Hungry Hippos….the list goes on. Most you’ll be familiar with, even if only in passing. But there were a few I’d genuinely never heard of before -- the Lite-Brite? Did any of you ever own one of these? Maybe it was a U.S. thing, or maybe I was just too young, being an '85 baby.

Each chapter takes a look at the history of the toy/game/book in question, its current availability status and a brief overview of any related spin-offs. For example, the section on He-Man features an assessment of the live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella (oh, it happened).

I was particularly pleased to see that Choose Your Own Adventure books were also featured within. Anyone who knows me well is probably aware of my childhood obsession with these marvellous pieces of children’s literature. They’ve long since come and gone in their popularity, but as a young child I was absolutely hooked.
Importantly, it’s not just boy’s stuff that gets a look in -- there’s plenty of coverage for more traditionally female items like Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake. The Cabbage Patch Kids chapter in particular is one of the funniest in the book.

How do all of these retro relics hold up after so many years? As might be expected, it’s a little bit mixed. There are plenty of toys within that still look cool as an adult. Other items have not fared so well, or were simply terrible at time of release, but people were sucked in by hype. Take Pogo Balls -- much like the authors, I remember just about everyone owning one of the things, but I would be hard pressed to remember seeing anyone actually use one. I suppose it’s a powerful example of how well marketing can work on young impressionable minds.

There were a few omissions from the volume that were disappointing. Perhaps the most shocking was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, posterboys for the 1980s if ever there were some. Still, things are always going to get left out, I suppose.
Not long after the original version of this article was published online, I actually interviewed Jensen Karp via email. My document of this seems to have been lost (though I am looking), but I recall him mentioning there were a number of other chapters planned, but for space and other considerations, they just didn't happen (possibly accounting for the lack of TMNT?). He also mentioned the prospect of a 1990s-based sequel, which didn't seem like it was getting off the ground through no fault of their own -- one was released in 2013, but it seems that it was entirely separate from their involvement. I own that volume too, though, so I may have to look at it on here soon.
Just Can't Get Enough is primarily a hilarious experience and highly recommended. But it's also slightly tinged with sadness; the 1980s are gone and they'll never be back. Similarly depressing is that  the reminder (or in some cases, revelation) that many of your favourite childhood moments were facilitated by cynical companies who were simply looking to squeeze money from your parents. Still, that’s all part of growing up; you can’t live in a rosy childhood forever.

Though it seems increasingly unlikely, I’d love to see a companion volume, covering some other '80s fads. With their reverential yet irreverent tone, Jensen Karp and Matthew Robinson did a thoroughly entertaining job of bringing some of these near-forgotten things to life again.

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