Last year, we were unable to continue the annual tradition of The A.V. Club’s Cheap Toy Roundup because our beloved regular source of questionable children’s gifts, Cut Rate Toys on Devon Avenue, closed up shop. Sure, we could have found cheap toys elsewhere, but our hearts just weren’t in it—we were physically capable of continuing the tradition, but not emotionally capable. Still, with the troubled economy and the ongoing need for careful budgeting, penny-pinching, and generally depriving our kids of the good things in life, we realized we had a duty to you, the readers, to soldier on in the wake of our loss. Especially once we realized what a glorious bounty of criminally cheap toys were to be found in the last bulwarks of our struggling consumer economy: dollar stores. So this year, two stalwart A.V. Club writers ransacked the finest (and creepiest, and filthiest) dollar stores our respective cities had to offer, in search of those elusive bargain-bin treasures that will bring bemused, disappointed looks to your children’s normally beaming faces this holiday season. Just tell them Santa was a miser this year.
What exactly is a robot shield in this context? Is it a shield that protects children against robot attack? A shield made from part of a deceased robot? A shield that is itself actually a complete robot? None of these possibilities seems particularly plausible, given this flimsy piece of plastic with its assortment of cruddy decals. Unless it’s from a future where the world is overrun with badly made, soft plastic robots, and turning their own profound lack of technology against them is our only hope.
Sure Fire Ball Shooter
This big red plastic pistol comes with four spheres, which load into the chamber and pop out reliably well once the trigger is pulled. But we know what you’re really wondering: Can you use this weapon to shoot someone in the testicles? Well, it’s right there in the name, isn’t it? Go nuts.
Jokes & Gags: Magic Knife
The package for this retractable-bladed dagger suggests you “trick your friends,” presumably by lunging at them with the knife clutched in your fist, only to reveal at the last moment that no, the glittery, purple-handled plastic weapon you’re holding isn’t actually real. Ha-ha! Joke’s on them. (Or joke’s on you if you brandish your magic knife at someone who’s packing a Sure Fire Ball Shooter.)
Fight Club: Don “Oneshot” Kong Action Figure
Never mind the fact that this bald, threatening-looking fighter has two left hands. Or that his vaguely tribal-patterned shorts feature eyeballs painted onto his groin. Or that he has giant silver screws sticking out of all his joints. Or that his Fu Manchu mustache is sloppily painted across his mouth instead of on the plastic-molded mustache ridge above his mouth. It isn’t even necessarily relevant that due to some sort of presumed molding error, he has an uncircumcised penis protruding from his right shoulder. What’s relevant is, there’s apparently a Fight Club line of cheap fighter figures now. Did anyone tell Brad Pitt? Does this mean we’re finally allowed to talk about fight club now?
This sad package—marked only “Fantasy Great!!”—contains a cheap plastic lady-doll wearing a miniskirt, loud sleeveless top, go-go boots, a golden tiara, and a polka-dot hair-tie. She comes equipped with a gigantic build-it-yourself bedlike thing. Judging from the rockers on the bed and the cartoony bunnies, chickies, babies, and bottles on its cardboard bottom, it’s meant as a crib… but it’s big enough for mom. So what exactly is the great!! fantasy here? Are kids meant to playact the process of a single teenage mom looking at her gigantic empty cradle and dreaming of the day when she’ll have a gigantic misshapen baby of her very own? Or is this the more adult great!! fantasy of an older individual who’d get some personal pleasure out of visiting his bleached-blonde ladyfriend in her cheap hooker garb, and making use of the adult-sized crib? Either way, this qualifies as a great! fantasy at absolute most.
Grow Pals: Princess
Step one: Drop 1-inch-tall plastic princess in glass of water. Step two: Wait three days. Step three: Remove moist, slimy, 2-inch-tall plastic princess from water. Step four: Wheeee?
Ultimate Ninja Elite
If there’s one thing that even a child knows about ninjas, it’s that they strike fast, they strike silently, and they wear soft black clothes so they can disappear into the night. That is, unless they’re the Ultimate Ninja Elite, who are so badass that they can stomp around stiffly in brightly colored metallic uniforms and still kill any sorry son-of-a-bitch so fast that he won’t know what hit him. Of course, the police may well figure it out when they find flecks of red, blue, and yellow paint on the floor, but by then the UNE will be long gone, back to their HQ to watch Power Rangers reruns, secure in their ninja-hood.
Wrestling Action Playset
Somewhere in China, in a plastics factory where endless Transformers knockoffs are molded, haphazardly painted, and sent out into the world as “Change-bot” and “Metamorf Robot,” someone apparently got a bootleg of Darren Aronofsky’s bitter, absorbing 2008 movie The Wrestler and decided that professional wrestling consists entirely of shiny costumes, improbably roided-up muscles, and crippling injury. That’s the only possible explanation for this “playset,” which consists entirely of a masked wrestler, a crutch, and a cast. Apparently there’s no actual wrestling in professional wrestling, just damage and long, sad periods of recovery. But hey, now your kids can reenact scenes from The Wrestler, like the one where an aging, battered Mickey Rourke gamely signs old paraphernalia alongside the other walking-wounded wrestling vets in a bleak meeting-hall basement.
As always, it wouldn’t be a Cheap Toy Roundup without at least one awkward import with packing that makes random-at-best stabs at the English language, then kicks it while it lies bleeding in the gutter. Music Phone is particularly enthusiastic about the butchery: The box is positively covered with approximations of familiar English toy-packaging phrases. “The cartoon shape, interesting function,” proclaims one pink bubble of text. The green bubble next to it answers “The kid studies musical teacher To the kid’s vivid education start from here!” Random asterisks suggest that phrases like “Correctly choose standard pronunciation, graceful tweedle” are footnotes, but to what? The fun continues on the side of the box: “There is the keep company with of phone of the cartoon music phone, I can study to more music every day, more fun.” Now that’s enthusiasm! And on the back, there are even helpful instructions for phone use: “Press The Animal Head Key, Will Send Out Each Wow.” Okay, clear enough… especially by comparison with further instruction: “While converting to look for function, the telephone will send out the interjection of animal or (the numeral read a sound, color name) When you press opposite in response to of key, the telephone will deliver OK voice. When you press wrong……” But be careful! The toy you’re actually looking at in the open-fronted box may not be the real color it appears to be! “Color and packaging of the product real object have a dissimilarity to please take real object color as quasi.” And as a further warning, this toy has apparently killed before: “Contain the small parts has already suffocate dangerous, not for children under 3 years.” No problem; those children under 3 years whom this phone has not already suffocate dangerous wouldn’t enjoy it as much as adults will, even if it does start vivid education in malapropisms.
Wolverine And The X-Men Sand Molds
Up until now, the longtime rivalry between the X-Men’s Wolverine and Cyclops has been fueled by the fact that both are men, with bodies and physical needs. But what if they only had heads? Moreover, what if they only had sand heads? Then maybe they wouldn’t bicker so much about who should be leading the team, and who’d make a better romantic partner for Jean Grey. They could finally meet and converse like brothers, without their petty jealousies or powers or… oh wait, Cyclops still has those eye-beams, right? Damn. Wolverine better hope that his healing factor extends to disembodied, sandy versions of himself.
Handy Hardware Tool Set: Adjustable Pipe Wrench, Wrench, Level
Any kid can bang away with a toy hammer or, um, screw away with a toy screwdriver, but the serious toddler construction crews know that to do the job right, you need a wrench that can handle different lengths of stacking rings, and a hunk of green plastic with a tiny BB inside to tell you whether your block tower is level. What, you’re just going to eyeball it? And risk a code violation?
Someone might want to tell the toy manufacturers in Greenbriar, Virginia that while whales, seals, dolphins, manatees, and so forth are mammals, they are very rarely bright pink and terrycloth-fuzzy. They also don’t get stoned out of their gourds nearly as often as rumors claim. Which doesn’t explain Sealife Snubbies, a line of stuffed sea animals that universally look baked, or possibly just world-weary past the point of recovery. They all have heavy, sad eyelids that were inevitably glued on haphazardly, giving them all a lopsided, brain-damaged look. And it certainly doesn’t help matters that the hydroencephalitic seal has a head bigger than its body and a hideously swollen dark-pink snout to match its drunk-and-miserable look. Maybe pollution and global warming have gotten these Snubbies down, and they’re just looking to kill the pain with a nightmare descent into booze and pills. Regardless, they’re pretty depressing—just the thing for Ritalin-slowed kids who need a little extra bringing down.
S.T.O.P. Vs. S.C.U.M.: Patriot / S.T.O.P. Vs. S.C.U.M.: Skull Hawk
Nary a day goes by without the headlines being dominated by the bloody, ongoing battle between the heroes of the Special Tactics Operative Patrol and the fiends of the Street Coalition Urban Militia. But have you ever wanted to know more about why Patriot, Reco, and Tank are at odds with Skull Hawk, Cyclops, and Lady Lead? Then ditch the action figures and read the back of their boxes, which feature a detailed backstory both on the organizations (“S.C.U.M.’s mission is total anarchy on a global scale… city by city they slice through urban lands, stealing and profiting from the chaos and terror that they bring”) and their members. (Patriot is an ex-Irish Army Ranger who “saw heavy action in the Armageddon Wars in the Middle East arena,” while Skull Hawk comes “from the German Goth Underground culture” and “worked as a hired mercenary during the Cartel Narco Wars and the European Final Solution.”) Ordinarily we’d raise an eyebrow at such blatant anti-S.C.U.M. propaganda, but honestly? From those descriptions, Skull Hawk sounds like he’d be more fun to hang around.
Digital Watch And Soldier Keychain
This gift box may be the oddest conglomeration of gifts ever packaged together. Not to engage in cheap, reductive, antiquated sexual stereotyping, but is there really a girl out there who wants a crudely painted soldier keychain, or a boy who wants a lavender-and-orange plastic watch featuring the cutesy fat piggies from Angry Birds? Maybe it’s meant as a brother-and-sister gift set. No matter who this is for, we know what it’s for, because the packaging informs us eight times over: It’s to paly with.
Captain Starr Pirate Ship
At first, the Captain Starr Pirate Ship set seems like a good deal: For a mere buck, you get four heavily armed pirates, plus some casks, a treasure chest, a barrel, some conjoined crates, and a pirate ship with sail. Except that the pirate ship is clearly a raft. First off, there’s no way that dinky little thing is going to hold Captain Starr and his booty (heh), let alone support his three smudgy, apparently post-apocalyptic radioactive-mutant pirate underlings. One of them seems to be a badly painted ninja, while another one sports a mohawk, a giant facial scar, leather pants, and a suspiciously futuristic gun. He looks way tougher than the grinning captain, whose peg leg and hook hand suggest he was never the luckiest or most skillful of fighters. It seems likely that no matter how beneficent the game of Let’s Play Pirate is, Captain Starr’s Tiny Blue Pirate Raft is about to have a new captain, and its former owner is going to end up floating face-down in some forgotten bay.
Glitter Girl Nails Set
Now the little lady in your life can put on fake lipstick, shove 10 fake plastic claws on her fingers, and paint them with fake polish, just like the teen divas do! The Glitter Girl Nails Set also comes with a little plastic fingernail clipper, and a tiny box of tissues to wipe away your daughter’s tears once she realizes that fake fingernails don’t grow back after you clip them.
Happy Time Buslike Vehicle
It’s hard to select the most charming thing about this big shiny silver bullet of a six-wheeled buslike thing. There’s the generic packaging, which simply proclaims “Toys.” There’s the gauze glued along the windows on the inside, suggesting that whoever’s traveling around in this train-bus took the time to decorate its many windows with some nice lace curtains. There’s the random art along its side, which includes a bunny, a walrus, a frog under a suspiciously small tree, a mouse getting rained on, a dancing crab, and for some reason, the words “Q Cool” and “6 Special.” Then there’s the text on the sides and top, which proclaims “Go!”, “Dream Peace,” “Happy Time,” and “Happiness world take the time mutually.” Or perhaps the most charming thing is the two teddy-bear drivers pictured on the front-window decal, which says “The happiness sets out.” Clearly, they’re off to spread happiness to the world mutually or something. Walruses and rained-on mice of the world, take note: happiness is taking the time to come to you in generic bus-train form.
Best-Lock Sherman Tank
You know you’re hitting the bottom of the toy barrel when the main selling point of a toy is that it’s compatible with the official licensed toys it’s copycatting and undercutting. This goes for cheap knockoff Barbie clothes and for action figures just the right size to hold G.I. Joe guns and fit in G.I. Joe vehicles, and it also apparently goes for knockoff Legos. The packaging of this Army-licensed Sherman tank proudly proclaims “Works with other brands,” while coyly avoiding an explanation of what those other *ahem Legos ahem* brands might be. Though it should be pretty clear from the two included soldiers, who look exactly like modern Lego men, except in drab khaki instead of cheerful yellow, and with clumsily painted mirrorshades and scowls that suggest they know they’re inferior, lightweight, flimsy versions of “other brands,” and are tired of hearing about it. We said move along, civilian.
I’m A Bulldozer
The best thing about this woefully generic board book, beyond the fact that it’s only three pages long—perfect for adults who hate reading to their kids, but feel wearily, resentfully obligated—is that it’s about a sentient bulldozer that’s essentially lording its power, mobility, and sense of purpose over a bunch of helpless, frightened sentient buildings. The first page says, “I am big and strong. People use me to level or clear things out of the way,” and features the bulldozer frowning distrustfully at a battered brick building, which looks back with obvious dismay, seeing its doom approach on rolling treads. On the second page, the bulldozer smiles evilly while pushing some rocks toward another unhappy-looking building. On the third, the sweating bulldozer smashes a wall behind a happier-looking house that apparently just wanted to roam free. Possible alternate title: Bulldozers Are Total Dicks.
Only if by “lovely pet” you mean “something vaguely animal-shaped that looks like a ragged hairball coughed up by a lovely pet.”