Saturday, March 12, 2011


By any measure, 2010 was a bad year for the videogame industry. Software sales, including games on all platforms, was down 6%, while hardware was off more than double that, down 13%. Still, to put it in perspective, even with those declines the industry took in more than $18 billion. That means that more money was spend on "Angry Birds" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops" than the total GDP of Paraguay.

With money like that being spent on diversions to be played on PC's, phones and game consoles, you might think that traditional toys were dead. But that's hardly the case: that industry saw its biggest sales increase in five years. In 2010, product sales rose by 2% to nearly $23 billion. No matter how you count it, that's an awful lot of blocks, balls and Barbies.

That's not to say that toy makers are content to sit still. Indeed, this past month the elves that work year round in Santa's workshop, or more likely farm their R&D out to the likes of Mattel, Hasbro and Playmobil, showed off their latest wares at the annual Toy Fair in New York City. Yes, there were traditional bikes and dolls in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes. But to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of today's kids, regardless of whether they are 6 or 36, they demonstrated they can go way beyond your Justin Bieber Action Figure (though it's true that this year there are both singing and non-singing models).

Take your basic Super-Soaker. Ever since this water-pistol-on-steroids made its appearance back in 1990, it's been the weapon of choice for serious water fights. But while the tank size has steadily increased, you still had to stop to pump it up once the pressure ran down. No more: the new "Thunderstorm" model is the first to have a battery-powered pump, so you can soak your "friends" without ever having to stop to reload.

And what fun is setting up a model race course if you can't ride along with it through those loop-the-loops and jumps? Problem solved with the new Hot Wheels Video Racer. Each of these 3 inch race cars has a camera embedded in the hood, a one-inch LCD on its lower chassis for instant playback and the ability to record 12 minutes of VGA-quality video. It also comes with a dongle to upload the footage to your computer, as well as a mount so you can lash it to your helmet when you go skateboarding, bike riding or skating. So now you can capture footage of those spectacular stunts and crashes, perfect for your insurance claim.

Just because you go to work doesn't mean you have to stop playing. The Desk Pets TankBot is a miniature robotic tank with an autonomous mode that relies on infrared sensors to see and avoid obstacles. That means it can search and destroy without making a mess of your workspace and knocking over your coffee. Even better, if you know your cubicle mate's weakest point of defense, you can steer the Bot there using the accompanying iPhone app, and attack him in mid-spreadsheet when he is least expecting it.

The TankBot cruises along at a few inches a second... good for surprise but not for adrenalin junkies. For that, you might want to turn to the SpinMaster Air Hogs Hyperactive. The fastest remote-controlled car of its size, this speed demon zips around at 20 miles per hour, which is the scale equivalent of a couple hundred MPH. And it has enough torque to spiral its way to the top of a 10-foot cylinder. Not too worry: if all that power is too much to handle, its built in rollbar makes sure it lands upright when it comes flying off the roof.

But if you need to prove brains over brawn, then you'll want to pick up the Radica MindFlex Duel. This brain-to-brain challenge offers up side-by-side tracks for you and your arch nemesis. You each strap on a headset with sensors, which reads your brain waves to levitate a ball and move it down an obstacle course. No, it's not science fiction: it converts Theta waves that come from concentrating into RF signals that control movement. It's a true battle of wits.

George Bernard Shaw famously pointed out that "Youth is wasted on the young." To be sure, these toys would be. So here's what you do: get it for your kid, then take it away and try it yourself. Then you can echo that anti-Shaw, Bart Simpson: "I don't know why I did it, I don't know why I enjoyed it, and I don't know why, but I'll do it again."


Marc Wollin of Bedford misses playing games with his kids. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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