Kids: What are you going to do? Ignore them, and they make noise and attract the attention of the authorities. Give in to their every demand, and you'll be in the poorhouse before long. Fortunately, most kids are easily distracted and entertained by just about any crap you throw their way. As we do every year, The A.V. Club has scoured the bargain bins of some of our nation's less-reputable toy stores to provide you with some tips on this year's most thoughtless gift options.
Spy Gear Message Launcher ($5.98, marked down from $13.98)
Given that the purpose of this item is to transmit secret messages—written on tiny paper, which comes included—it's a high-profile failure on par with the stealth bomber. After scribbling a note (try something like "Assassinate the prime minister, stat!" or "Meet me by the Wii!"), the user loads it into a color-coded foam dart (glow-in-the-dark means "extreme warning!"), then launches it with zero accuracy. Naturally, a better use for this item would be the firing of more dangerous projectiles, though the instructions specifically prohibit that action. This "authentic" item is for spy use only, and apparently spies don't use weapons.
Pirates Of The Caribbean Motorized Prison Escape Jack Sparrow In Escape Coffin With Leg Bone Paddle ($2.48, from $9.98)
The title pretty much says it all, doesn't it? This toy apparently ties directly to a scene in Dead Man's Chest in which a tiny plastic Johnny Depp with scary snakes for hair and some sort of Native American headband pops out of a motorized wooden coffin with wheels, and sits bolt upright, frozen, until he's free. The wee boat-coffin (a horrible shade of grey) might make for a fun afternoon with a cat—it pops open, revealing Cap'n Jack, when it hits something, then drives around aimlessly, turning when it hits a wall. It's slightly hypnotizing, and for that alone, it might be worth $2.47.
First Fitness Lil' Dragon Karate ($6.98, from $14.99)
"Hey America!" this product seems to scream, "Your children are fat and lazy, and they can't figure out how to exercise on their own!" What better way to fool L'il Chubber than with a colorful plastic mat that looks like a video game? If they can get past the poisonous smell of the plastic, kids can learn—from a series of still drawings—some fightin' moves. But more important than that, they can learn how to turn a regular foot into a gigantic foot. Look at that kid's hoof! It's a monster.
Delicious Can ($.33)
The ol' snake-in-the-can is part of a grand tradition of humor—they say laughter is born of surprise, and when you're expecting salted nuts and are instead greeted by a popping spring-snake, you can't help but guffaw. (If you're, y'know, 60-plus.) But there's something very, very special about "Delicious Can," a Chinese version of the trick that doesn't exactly get the concept. The outside is decorated with the words "Special Fresh"! and photos of various fruits—none of which would easily fit inside a two-ounce can, nor probably come with a pink lid. But the real joy is inside: In length and girth, the fake snake is, umm, penis-sized and shaped. And the head is pink plastic. And it features a sort-of smiling face. And while the can is open, the snake remains firmly upright.
Clingy Darts ($.88)
Most magnetic-dart games provide a metal target for the projectiles to stick to, but this package is darts-only, because as the name implies, these aren't your typical darts. These are the kind of Styrofoam, magnet-tipped darts that greet you at the door, ask you about your day, and wonder aloud whether you need to go out with your friends tonight. "It would be so nice if you could stay home," they say. "We never talk any more. Please, we don't have a target, you're all we've got. Why are you being so hurtful?"
Lite-Up Sword With Battery ($.88)
The package touts this luminescent mini-weapon's "flexible glow action blade," which just means that if you jab it at your enemies, the paper-thin plastic will bow against their bellies, then most likely snap in two. The real attraction to this toy is the battery, which is featured just as prominently on the front of the box as the sword, and rests at the same dynamic angle. Oh, the hours of fun you'll have with this battery. First, of course, you'll power up your sword and wave it around in a darkened room for a minute or two. Then, months later, when the batteries go dead in your Discman or your remote control, you'll frantically search for the sword in order to pillage it for parts. Just like the warriors of old.
Chef Mario's Dining Disasters: Stretchghetti & Critters ($1)
So how exactly does a tiny dish filled with rubbery fake spaghetti and little plastic rats and roaches constitute a "toy?" How do you play with it, exactly? Do you ditch the "critters" and fling the "stretchghetti" around? Re-enact scenes from Ratatouille? And what should we make of the package's warning: "Do not leave stretchghetti on wood, fabric or other porous materials?" What alien civilization has foisted this abomination upon us, and how are they going to use it to control our young? One thing's for sure: Chef Mario's bound to lose a Michelin star over this.
Princess Shapes/Princess Colors Fun Books ($.97 each)
The craze for all things princess-y reaches the toddler set with these two board books that introduce simple words and colors via concepts that little princesses can understand. "Blue," like a ball gown. "Purple," like a dragon. "Oval," like a magic mirror. "Rectangle," like a… like a picture frame containing a portrait of a teddy bear wearing a cape and a crown. Man, being a princess is complicated.
Magic Beast Growing/Magic Grow Towelettes/Instant Playtime Bears ($1 each)
The progress of "expands when moistened" toy technology continues unabated. First up, the "Magic Beast Growing," which requires children to submerge a plastic cage in a glass of water so that the miniscule creature within can, in about three days' time, become a big, soggy creature. Next, the "Magic Grow Towelettes," which expand from a 1-inch disc to a 1-foot cloth—for those who have sticky fingers and don't mind waiting 10 minutes or so to wipe them off. Lastly, the makers of last year's Cheap Toy Roundup favorite "Instant Circus" have created another set of capsules that explode into shaped sponges. The "Instant Playtime Bears" set features such whimsical shapes as "Bear On A Unicycle" and "Bear With Saxophone." Sadly, there's no sponge that replicates the image of the front of the package: "Bear Making Violent Love To Capsule Man."
Tilt LCD Video Game: Baseball ($8)
Any similarity between the narrow, white, rectangular Tilt handheld game design and a Wii controller is… Well, it isn't merely intentional, it's the whole damn point. In theory, Tilt's "motion control" technology lets players swing the game around and make a microscopic batter sock a microscopic ball on a literally postage-stamp-sized screen. In practice, it's impossible for anyone to wave their hands back and forth and still follow the game's action, because when the light strikes the screen at a certain angle, the shadows of every potential LCD runner, batter, pitcher, and fielder clutter up the image. If you were to take your Tilt to a Wii party and stand in front of the TV, pretending to play, you'd get just as much out of it.
Win Everything Elite Troops ($1.99, from $3.99)
Half the fun of our annual look at the cheapest in cheap toys is the search for the most appallingly broken English instructions on all the cheap Chinese knock-offs. This year's winner (though according to the label, it was "Made in Chane") is certainly Win Everything Elite Troops, an enthusiastic plastic soldier foursome apparently meant to represent the American ideals of uncompromising combat victory (win everything!) and multicultural acceptance. "Top maintenance peace!" the package proclaims. "Come to own it together!" Apparently maintenance of peace is hazardous, though—one of these soldiers has a clumsy eyepatch, the black soldier's blackness seems to have melted off his inner arms and onto his clothes, and a third soldier's face is distinctly lopsided and smeary. They may be dangerous to kids, too, given the box suggestion: "When child play the toy, suggestion contain adult beside."
Beetle Barn Lifecycle Kit ($14.99, from $19.99)
Everybody's bored of ant farms by now, right? I mean, c'mon. Ants. What's up with those dull-ass things, huh? Well, until the marketing geniuses behind all the Simpsons merch finally get off their asses and start selling Mr. Burns' Tarantula Town, the kids of today can buy the Beetle Barn, a cute little plastic barn with pencil-eraser-sized "windows" and no transparent surfaces, so they can't actually observe their live beetles at play. What fun! The instructions walk kids through the beetle-raising process: First they send away for mealworms (as the packaging notes, "Send coupon to get your LIVE LARVAE!"), then they put them in the transparent "silo" and watch them pupate and hatch into bug form. Then they try not to squish them with the set's clumsy plastic tweezers as they transfer them to the plastic barn, which they can never open again without wondering whether a beetle or three has crawled up onto the removable lid, and is planning to drop, wriggling, into their laps or down their shirts, as soon as the top is lifted. Best part of the instructions: "The adults will breed by laying eggs and beginning the life cycle again. If you don't want another batch of mealworms and beetles, place the Barn and silos in the freezer for a few days, and then dispose of the contents." Hey kids, did you know this also works on that puppy, kitten, or small sibling that you're tired of?
Spider-Man 3 Bug Vacuum ($3.99, from $14.99)
Of course, 10 minutes after the kids become bored with their beetles and freezer them up real good, they'll probably also become bored with not having insect pets any more. Which is where having a bug vacuum comes in handy: Just send them out into the wild to harvest their own pets. (This also works on kittens and puppies, at least if the neighbors let their pets out without supervision.) Alternately, parents who really want the little tykes out of their hair can send them off to play with the suggestion "You know, if you managed to find and vacuum up your own radioactive spider, you'd gain super-powers and become totally cool and wind up saving Kirsten Dunst's lame ass all the time." That should keep 'em occupied for at least a couple of hours while the adults down a few more rounds of rummed-up eggnog.
Dream Life TV Plug-In Game ($14.99, from $49.99)
Every single aspect of this product is depressing. "Create the life you dream about!", it gushes. "Choose new lifestyle! Pick your fashion!" And best of all, "Make new friends!" Oh, really? The game is networked, like MySpace, so you can meet people with it? No, you're just interacting with some preprogrammed avatars who tell you you're cool. This game also lets you do all the things you can't do in real life, like go to school, shop at the mall, do chores around the house, and "create your best friend!" In other words, it's like a Z-grade version of The Sims that takes pity on you, tries to boost your flagging self-esteem, and doesn't ever pointedly remind you that your best friend is a creepily pixilated TV image. Too bad real life isn't interactive or customizable in any way, and there's no way to achieve any of your dreams there, huh?
Fantastic 4 Light-Up Flying Human Torch ($1.99, from $14.99)
"Johnny Storm lived his life on the edge—specializing in fast cars, pretty girls and extreme sports. Often walking the fine line between foolishness and fun, Johnny's reputation for risk-taking was nearly as legendary as his love for practical joking. Johnny had another, more serious side, too—as the best pilot and astronaut in the world. But no amount of skill could save Johnny from his fate as he piloted Reed's doomed space mission." And wound up in cheap-plastic-toy form, looking remarkably like what would come out of the wrong end of a Great Dane who sucked down a bunch of molten orange plastic. Except that a giant orange dog turd wouldn't have a huge burst of plastic flames running down the front of the chest like a stylized hairy remora. In theory, you're supposed to attach the Light-Up Flying Human Torch to your kid's ceiling and watch it zoom violently in circles, straining at the end of its tether. In practice, having this thing hanging overhead—what with its transparent orange skin, visible mechanical innards, sucking furry chest remora, and structural screw exactly where the wang should go—is likely to give children even worse nightmares than the prospect of sitting through Fantastic Four again.
Pirates Accessory Of Kit ($2.99, from $4.99)
You know what are fun? To playing pirate. With accessory of kit, children are have everything needed for pirate be. Is with sword, also plastic hook have, and eyepatch and gold ring for ears. To buy accessory of kit now! To buy it going you quick!
Natural World Elephant With Sound ($1.99, from $3.99)
This clumsy, cheap plastic elephant looks like clumsy, cheap plastic elephants the world over, with one important exception: the clumsy plastic drainpipe-cover-looking button-thing on its belly. All the Natural World animals have them. Press the zebra's button, and it produces a weird little pony whinny. Press the lion's or the tiger's, and it makes a grinding but sort of credible roaring noise. But elephants? According to this toy, they scream like a woman in agony. Was there a messy, fatal factory accident just as these were being made, or what? The A.V. Club tried the button on the only dinosaur in the box, but it was jammed stuck and wouldn't play its noise. We're really hoping that the dinosaur's original sound effect was of a panicked plant supervisor saying "Okay, just remember, no one saw anything, she didn't come to work today at all. Got it?"
Basic Fun Yu-Gi-Oh! Keychain ($1, from $8.99)
First lesson of Cheap Toy Roundup: If a toy says "Really works!" on the packaging in big, bright letters, it almost certainly doesn't. Second lesson: Most of the other boasts on toy packaging are also big fat lies. (Words to watch out for in particular: "fun," "safe," "child-proof," and "totally worth the $99.99 you're about to shell out in hopes of making your kid happy.") The Yu-Gi-Oh! keychain line is particularly cruel about dashing kids' hopes: It promises that when they press the button, the Duel Monster (think Pokémon, but a little more current) depicted will come to life. No, of course it doesn't, it just flips around to reveal a more detailed plastic bas-relief version. If it "Really works!", which of course it rarely does.
Electronic Mobile Phone ($1)
Man, kids really seem to love imitating adults. Hence the toy-store sections full of cheap little plastic kiddie versions of pots and pans, vacuum cleaners and scrub-brushes, and briefcases and cell phones, all so Junior can happily pretend to be doing something you yourself would really rather never do again. Namely, work. Well, at least if the kids want to imitate Mommy or Daddy trying to deal with irascible clients and after-hours work demands on the phone, you can minimize the irony by buying them the cheapest, shittiest fake phone imaginable. Say, this lump of plastic. "Each button haue their own function," brags the packaging. And it's true. Some of the buttons make irritating noises, while others "haue" their own function of doing nothing whatsoever. Just like those clients that won't stop calling you on your grown-up electronic mobile phone.
Walkie Talkie ($7.99, from $9.99)
Shouldn't cheap-ass fake cell phones have rendered cheap-ass fake walkie-talkies irrelevant by now? Actually, in theory, these walkie-talkies work, in spite of the decal standing in for a channel-display window, and in spite of the fact that they look like they were carved clumsily out of primal plastic by some klutzy Neanderthal artists. However, the packaging doesn't say "Really works!" anywhere, so chances are good that they really do function. What it says instead: "Simulating the true styles and making carefully push button to talk." Wow, it's like your secret spy gear came with its own secret special non-English code.
Dig A Glow Dinosaur ($1)
Why is this kit so amazingly cheap, when it comes with a little soft plastic hammer, a whisk brush, a scraping knife, and a pointy stabbity thing, in addition to the fist-size, rock-hard faux fossilized dinosaur egg? Probably because there isn't actually a "glow dinosaur" inside, whatever that is. It's probably just rock all the way through. But what better way to keep children occupied silently for weeks than giving them a rock, telling them there's totally a dinosaur in there, and then giving them some ultra-light plastic tools to dig for it with? This might be the meanest but most efficient child-occupying project of all time. Warning: toy not suitable for children ages 0-3, probably because those kids are too young to have learned about false hope yet.
Princess Bubbles Magic Wishes Talking Bubble Wand ($6.99, from $8.99)
Speaking of toys that lie to kids, here's one that seems particularly proud of its perfidy. It's a beaming, distinctly Disney-esque plastic mermaid-shaped bubble-blower with a little touch-activated sensor on its head. You're supposed to blow a bubble, make a wish (by which they clearly mean "Ask a question"), and then catch the bubble on the mermaid's magic '70s disco mandala headband, whereupon she'll answer your question with a canned phrase like "No way!" "Maybe!" or "Yes! Lucky you!" Right there on the packaging, a sweet little girl is asking if she'll get a pony, and Princess Pathological Liar is telling her "Absolutely Yes!" Well, great. It's like a Magic 8-Ball that gives kids a big mermaidy smile and looks them right in their shining, trust-filled eyes as it sets up unrealistic expectations that their evil, not-at-all-magical parents will have to destroy.
The Barbie Game: Queen Of The Prom ($14.89, from $23.99)
This reproduction of an actual Barbie board game from 1961 ("A fun game with real-life appeal for all girls," the box proclaims) is a quaint little hoot: The goal is to acquire a boyfriend, become club president, and buy a formal gown, all so you can be queen of the prom. You circle the board, babysitting, collecting your allowance, landing on spaces like "Soda fountain: Pay $1 if without Boyfriend," and going to areas like school and "on a date." (Sample "on a date" board spaces: "He criticizes your hair-do. Go to beauty shop," and "He talks about cars with dad. Wait here.") Ha ha! Remember the long-ago and faraway bad old days of 1961, when society was patronizing and reductive toward women, and treated them like cutesy-poo little bubble-brains who lived in a completely different, far more sheltered, far more limiting world than men?
Pink Poker Night: It's A Chick Thing ($14.99, from $19.99)
Oh. Wait. Well, fuck.
Rubber Dolphin ($.33)
Of all the weird and horrible items the Cheap Toy Round-upers have examined over the years, this may well be the most baffling one of all. It's a badly painted, visibly seamed little green rubber dolphin with a big clunky hunk of plastic wedged inside, and with a lanyard attached so you can wear it as a necklace. The toy looks like an industrial manufacturing accident, but there was a whole bin of them, so clearly lump-of-plastic-in-dolphin had some deep purpose. Careful A.V. Club laboratory experiments under controlled conditions revealed that if you squeeze the plastic lump just right, little colored lights on the plastic lump start flashing, making your rubber dolphin into suitable raveware. But while these laboratory experiments answered the soulless scientific questions we had about this little rubber creature, they were incapable of answering the larger philosophical questions it raised: namely, why? Why? For the love of God, why?