In 2009, the closure of our old mainstay Cut Rate Toys in Chicago temporarily put an end to our annual tradition of the Cheap Toy Roundup, our yearly look at the most inexpensive, low-quality toys we could find on behalf of parents who don’t love their children, relatives who want to keep their budgets low while maintaining pretenses, and children-at-heart who don’t want to waste too much beer money on their glee and whimsy. But in 2010, the Cheap Toy Roundup returned, thanks to the glorious (and not very surprising) discovery that dollar stores carry toys, too. With that in mind, The A.V. Club once again realized that it’s still possible to disappoint children via the expenditure of very little money and a great deal of apathy. So this year, we again returned to our area dollar stores to scrape the bottom of that ever-overflowing barrel of monkeys that is the world of entertainingly cruddy toys.
Christmas is basically Halloween, right? The hollowed-out top of a dinosaur’s head is basically a mask, right? Without accepting those two premises, it’s kind of difficult to understand why anyone would accept this bumpy, painted piece of foam as a worthy Christmas present, unless they really, really wanted to act out their favorite early Order Of The Stick strip. But that’s what Cheap Toy Roundup is all about: not worrying too much about whether anyone wants these things. It’s a buck. It’s kinda funny because it looks like a crocodile is eating your head. Put on your damn dinosaur hat and like it, kids.
Someone in China doesn’t quite understand that firemen save people from fires, they don’t save fires from people. (Those poor innocent fires, just trying to burn free, without people dumping water and sand and stuff on them all the damn time.) No matter; kids who want to rescue fires now have their own option in the form of Fire Rescuer, a baggie of 48 plastic dudes who are essentially little green army men, but in fireman form. Granted, there aren’t as many roles for firemen as there are for soldiers, so Fire Rescuers only come in a few varieties: dude with axe, dude with bullhorn, dude with first-aid kit (or maybe it’s a lunch pail? rescuing fires is hungry work), dude clutching entertainingly phallic crotch-hose. Also dude who’s probably blowing a whistle and conducting traffic or something, but who kinda looks like he’s sucking on a lollipop while signaling a left turn. Anyway, a bag of little red guys to go with the usual bag of green guys might make for fun color-coded wars, like the kinds ants fight. But given the fire rescuers’ general lack of ranged weapons, the green army guys are going to kick their pansy asses.
Everyone in the office we showed this sphincter-faced little fella grimaced. Then we poked his stomach to make him sing, and they flinched. There’s just something unpleasant about watching that fuzzy pink mouth (with its oddly detailed little teeth and tongue) spasm around those guttural moans, while the dead glassy eyes stare at you. Oh, and if you poke the hand, an embedded sensor lets you shift modes, so instead of groaning random notes, the Sing-A-Ma-Jig can laboriously sing a single recorded song, one syllable per stomach-press, in a creepy monotone: “It’s Rain. Ing. It’s. Pour. Ing. The. Old. Man. Is. Snore. Ing.” For one extra dollop of unsettling, once you stop messing with the Sing-A-Ma-Jig, it sits quietly for a minute or so… then abruptly says “Good niiiiiiight…” in an insinuatingly eerie singsong that implies that the next words will be “Just forget that I have a kniiiiife…” The back of the box suggests that parents should buy the whole Sing-A-Ma-Jig line, and activate them all together as a sing-along chorus. No thank you. Such ideas are the spawning points of Stephen King books and Takashi Miike films.
This toy really looks like it should be called Patti And Her Talking Animal-Shaped Tumors. Apparently the idea is that she’s somehow walking around with a cow, a donkey, a pony, a chicken, and a cat crammed into her pants, with only their heads sticking out, but that seems anatomically improbable and uncomfortable for everyone involved. Then again, bulging animal-head-shaped tumors—which, when activated, shout annoying little rhymes in high-pitched Alvin And The Chipmunks voices—aren’t that much fun either. Still, Patti looks pretty cheerful about her horrible medical anomalies (and her rigidly taped-down bangs, for that matter). Presumably the Percocet has kicked in and she’s feeling no pain.
Pity the children of today, who are apparently growing up thinking that “pirate” means “Captain Jack Sparrow,” all swish and flounce and braids and beads. What else could explain this ridiculously rococo “pirate gun,” in eye-hurting gilt, green, and orange? Actually, maybe time travel can explain it. Maybe this gun was stolen from some fancy-pantsy far-future pirate, given that it has an old flintlock attachment, but when the trigger is pulled, it makes a zappy/exploding noise.
Here’s the basic problem with the power flinger: Who really needs to fling discs across a room? And why is it necessary to have a specialized colorful plastic device for the purpose? Even uncoordinated kids can toss small discs around if they really, really want to. If anything, this “flinger” complicates and slows down the process. If your kids are ever being attacked by some sort of slow, stupid monster that can only be taken down by soft flung discs, they’d honestly be better off just hucking the things directly at it rather than trying to get the foam discs to first stick to the end of the flinger, then come off again at will. Then again, maybe parents would prefer it if their kids had a device that made the process of throwing crap all over the house slower and more frustrating.
But if not… What could possibly be more fun than the electric equivalent of 52-card pickup? Just in case the kids weren’t making enough of a mess on their own, now there’s a device that will spray little fish-shaped pieces of plastic all over the room all by itself! The idea behind this game is that kids feed the plastic fish into Freddy (the fish-shaped base), and turn on the internal blower, whereupon Freddy barfs all his smaller fish friends into the air, and two players compete to catch the spraying fish-plastic in nets. But the plastic fish tend to either all pop out in one hungover heave, or get stuck in Freddy’s extended barf-tube. Either way, it’s kind of a disappointing mess, as games centered on catching fish vomit so often are.
Speaking of flinging, the Alien Force Fling Shot offers up a projectile that’s a bit more fun than discs: a sticky, stretchy alien. Just attach him to the Y-shaped cross (it becomes an alien crucifix once he’s in there!), then stretch back and fire away. You can get some decent distance, though not enough power to do any damage. If you hit something glassy or metallic, the alien might even stick for a second. But heed these package warnings: “Do not use projectiles other than those supplied or recommended by the manufacturer. Do not shoot at people or animals.” Also, do not fire at Whitley Strieber or other alien-conspiracy nuts. It’ll just validate them in unproductive ways.
After the title, in even bolder type: “THE Modern of toys.” Okay, we realize that Engrish is a bit old-hat by now, but the packaging on this triple-decker windmill thingy, combined with its overall weirdness, is too much to pass up this holiday season. Not only is it the modern of toys, it’s also a “super funny toys set” and “the beautiful toys world.” The windmill itself is unlike any we’ve ever seen, consisting of a yellow plastic smiley frog festooned with three “have a nice day” happy-face windmills. They do spin, so that’s something.
Speaking of Engrish, what child could resist the allure of “Super pedestal ball,” a game that you might know as “tiny plastic billiards with strange hockey-like table markings”? There are no pool-hall skills to be learned here, of course. The “table” is warped cardboard, so the plastic balls—not numbered, and in a strange configuration of seven light brown, seven dark red, one black, and one white—aren’t weighty enough to take direction when you smack at them with the tiny plastic cues. Perhaps there’s an Asian sport called pedestal ball, and this is actually a miniaturized version of that.
How many times have you said to yourself, “I need to get my kid a pair of fashionable-yet-shatterproof sunglasses and a pocket pinball game, but I can’t stand the thought of buying two separate items”? It happens to the best of us, but Sun Kids offers up a fine solution, and at the bargain price of 79 cents. You’re out of luck if your kids want anything other than white sunglasses or a game featuring what look like really awful soccer hooligans, but hey, at least you were able to purchase them together. Also, the package comes with a nickel’s worth of free advice: “DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE SUN.”
Maybe this just proves how out of touch we are with what the kids are doing, but none of us knew that fingerboarding was a thing. When we found these fingerboards at the dollar store, we assumed it was some dumb attempted trend that never took off—or a ridiculous attempt to market skateboarding to kids too small or wussy to actually climb on a board themselves—but it turns out that people actually spend time re-creating skateboard tricks with tiny little fake boards. And now you too can get in on the trend before it’s out of style. Or maybe you could make up your own miniature sport, like fingersurfing. Sounds gross, we know.
The “remote controlled” is in quotation marks for two reasons: First, this cheap plastic car isn’t wireless, so the controller is never going to be particularly remote. The cable connecting car and controller—a cable that looks to be made of paper, by the way—is about a foot long. Second, even with the not-included batteries installed, this car does not work. But there is a great reason to spend one dollar or less on this car, and that is for the packaging, which has the phrase “swift and violent” repeated over and over. It’s like a beautiful Christmas mantra: swift and violent, swift and violent. Oh, and that weird space between the “c” and the “o” in competition: That’s theirs. Consider it a Christmas bonus!