Optimus Prime vs Prime Interest Rate: Were 80s toys a good investment?
I only lived through two years of the 1980s, but being the youngest of ten cousins, I still got to play with the era’s best toys. I learned about empathy from the Care Bears, awakened my latent anxiety disorder playing Perfection, and discovered from Puppy Surprise that dogs give birth via velcro c-section. These were formative years.
Turns out I’m not the only weirdo who still has strong emotional attachments to these things — prices for mint-condition 80s toys can be staggering. An original boxed set of Transformers sold for a million bucks back in 2007, and the market for truly terrible Nintendo games continues to swell.
Before you try to pawn your older brother’s Alex P. Keaton action figure, remember that the only way these toys tend be to worth anything is if they’re in the original packaging. And of course, it all depends on what something is willing to pay on any given day. What sells on eBay for $500 one week might barely net $100 the next. The market for these things is niche.
But just for kicks, let’s dive into some of the most tubular toys from the decade and see if it’s worth you trawling through your parents’ attic. Hey, if Hollywood can keep mining 80s nostalgia to hawk products, so can we.
Cabbage Patch Kids
Everything about these dimpled gnome children was bonkers, but we’ll start with their origin story. They were invented by a 21-year-old art student named Xavier who called them “Little People” and sold them out of a repurposed medical clinic he bought in small town Georgia. The store was called Babyland General Hospital, and Xavier pitched it as birthing, nursery, and adoption center where you could a buy a hand-quilted doll along with its unique birth certificate. Surprisingly, no one was murdered.
Thing only got weirder when toy company Coleco bought the rights and started mass producing the redubbed “Cabbage Patch Kids.” Step aside Hatchimals, Furbys, and Tickle-Me-Elmos — the Cabbage Patch Kids were the original must-have toy that whipped spoiled kids and their gullible parents into a frenzy. To this day, no one’s did it better. Just check the entire page Wikipedia’s devoted to the “Cabbage Patch Kids Riots.” People brought baseball bats to K-Mart.
Cost of a Cabbage Patch Kid in 1982: $25
What you could get for one of them today: Your $25 investment would net you exactly $25 in 2017. Don’t do the inflation math on that one.
And if you’d sunk that $25 into AT&T instead? Cell phones and the internet got pretty big when the 90s rolled around. You’d be walking with $905.59.
Long before they became synonymous with sexually objectifying women on motorcycles and probably causing Shia Labeouf’s mental breakdown, the Transformers were just innocent kids’ toys documenting a galactic power struggle between alien robots intent on world domination.
Everyone lost their mind when Rihanna made that Battleship movie, but Transformers were the original children’s plaything-cum-media empire. Within two years of their American release, the toys had an animated television show, a comic book series, and a full-length movie featuring Leonard Nimoy, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and uh, Orson Welles. Meanwhile, Michael Bay’s latest monstrosity is set for release this June.
Original retail price of first generation Optimus Prime figure: $20.99.
What you could get for it today: $600 in its original packaging, $120 on its own.
What if you’d put $20.99 into Costco in 1984? People really love those food court hot dogs. You’d be walking with $1,408.88.
He-Man (Masters of the Universe)
To look back at the 1980s world-view through the lens of He-Man, it was a time when real men wore fur speedos and elegant bob haircuts, while the ladies were half-eagle sorceresses in metal breastplates.
According to an enduring urban legend, the original “Masters of the Universe” toys were a transparent attempt by Mattel to capitalize on the Conan the Barbarian movie while avoiding copyright law. But in a classic 80s tale, the figures proved to be so popular that they spawned a media franchise. Comic books and movies quickly followed, along with, of course, the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons now screened ironically at your local dive bar.
Original price of a He-Man figure in 1982: $4.99.
What you could get for it today: By the power of Grayskull! A boxed He-Man will score you $2,450, while a loose figure is worth about a tenth of that.
And if you’d sunk that $4.99 into Nike?: I guess mass-produced rubber and plastic is generally a sound investment. $4.99 invested in Nike in 1982 would get you $1,060.22 today.
Lean in to that Reagan-era patriotism, baby: Play with G.I Joes, and you’re defending ‘murica against the faceless terrorism conglomerate of Cobra.
The G.I Joe actually got its start in the 1960s, under the catchier title of “America’s movable fighting man.” Hasbro figured that boys wouldn’t play with dolls, and so the toys were pitched as “action figures.” They proved decently popular, but it wasn’t until 1982 when Hasbro shrunk the toys down to 9.5 cm and pushed an onslaught of ads, comic books, and the tv show (with its “knowing is half the battle” PSAs) that things really took off. Coupled with the obligatory matching vehicles and playsets for purchase — along with spin-off merchandising with video games, t-shirts, and posters — by 1985, G.I. Joe took the title of top-selling toy in the USA.
Original price for a 1982 Cobra Officer: $1.95
What you could get for it today: If you kept it in the box, you could get around $365. Exposed to the elements, it’s a meager $50.
And if you’d invested those two bucks in Disney instead? You could have rode that lucrative wave of Frozen merchandise to a cool $252.66
After the video game crash of 1983, it looked like console gaming would go the way of leg warmers, Member’s Only jackets, and the keytar. But with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 — along with titles like Duck Hunt, Ice Climber, and of course, Super Mario Brothers — sales hit 60 million units worldwide and a new era of home gaming was born.
I’m not sure if you knew this already, but gamers can be passionate. A vintage NES console in decent condition will net you some coin, but the truly ridiculous money is in the games. There are tons of stories about lucky thrifters who stumbled on games like Stadium Events ($7,500-$30,000, estimates vary), Little Samson ($820-$1,200), and Flintstones: Surprise at Dino Park ($650-$900).
Original price of an NES in 1985: $89.99
What you could get for it today: Eh, around $50.
And if you’d sunk that $89.99 into Electronic Arts?: If you held off until 1989 and invested that money in Nintendo’s American counterpart, you’d net $17,460.00.
So what did we learn from all this?
The 80s were really the golden age of toy investing. This was back before each and every kids’ plaything was marketed as a “collectible,” so people weren’t trained to hoard stuff in mint condition.
Even if your family did manage to set aside some Rubik’s Cubes and Strawberry Shortcakes in the storage unit, toys will rarely beat an investment in the stock market. So spend your Sundays trawling through yard sales if you really want, but you’re still better off just sticking your money in a savings account and throwing on an episode of Thundercats when the 80s nostalgia craving sets in.