Trapped in Time: A Review of 80s Vending Machine Toys

Here’s a weird thing I recently found at the flea market: a huge lot of vending-machine toys from the 1980s, still encased in the original plastic bubbles. The woman had a box that contained thousands of them. It was such an oddity that I knew I had to buy a few.

The girlfriend had accompanied me that day to the flea market, which was also an oddity, since she usually complains of itchiness after walking down the first aisle. But I liked her there, she’s good at spotting stuff, and now I had her to help me dig through this enormous box of twenty-five year old plastic bubbles, which were also coated in a layer of grime and dust. She’s so lucky!

I wanted to be sure to pick out an accurate array of not only what was represented in the box, but what also represented my childhood, my life, and in fact, 1980s America as a whole. Why was I assigning so much meaning and importance to a gigantic box of filthy vending machine toys? Oh, I don’t know. But it probably had to do with why I also bought this pack of sealed Voltron birthday party invitations:

Seriously. Why did I buy that? Well, for starters, they were only a quarter, and maybe I’ll sell them on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Or maybe I’ll just privately worship that font on the back of the card. Maybe I’ll invite eight elite and carefully-selected friends to an awesome party personally endorsed by Voltron. The possibilities are limitless.

There’s something a little sad about an unused pack of birthday party invitations. You know, hopefully it wasn’t a dead kid or something. Because that would be straight-up maudlin. I’m sure it was something like Voltron being a second-rate Transformers, and the kid straight-up flipped out when Mom brought home Voltron. I’m going to use the phrase “straight-up” at least one more time in today’s post because I’m finding it very useful.

But let’s get back to these vending toys. Vending toys are a lot different these days. For one, they cost two quarters now, which is a fact I’ll never fully accept. Another fact I’ll never fully accept: almonds are a member of the peach family. No freaking way. Also, the human stomach is capable of digesting itself. But I have no problem with that one.

Another thing I’ve noticed about today’s vending machine toys is that they’re actually a lot nicer. In the 1980s, vending toys were vaguely-defined pieces of plastic with questionable purpose. Today, they actually look like the things they’re meant to represent.

One thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to vending machine toys is that you’re not going to get the one you want. It has nothing to do with odds or how many of that particular toy are in the machine. It’s simply one of the universal laws of life. Other laws include: all Doritos taste exactly the same, the guy in line in front of you at Subway is going to take forever, and the ice cream flavor you picked will suck, and seriously, why’d you have to be all adventurous about it anyhow? Why not just go with the old standby, Cookies and Cream? Damn it.

Now, let’s remember some of the vending machine toys of the 1980s:


Oh god, the ubiquitous spinning top. I hated getting these. You put a quarter in hoping for that awesome dinosaur eraser, and what do you get instead? A top. A brown one. It’s not even a good color.

And then there’s the gun keychain, which initially seems acceptable, because hey, you can pretend to kill things. However, when you looked back at the awesome dinosaur eraser, you’d realize this was simply not good enough.

Okay, the moon man is decent. I have no qualms here.


Take your guesses. Mine are houseplant, monster, frog, snake.


An alternate title for these is “Even Less Fun Toys.” I have no idea what the round disc and tab things are. I have no idea how they work together or even fit together. And that mouse is even more useless.


Now these are great. I wish I’d spent more time digging through the box to find more of them. I think they’re pretty collectible, too. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the detail on them is pretty good, too.


As the girlfriend and I were digging through the box, between the two of us, we went a little crazy picking out these. We probably only needed one or two magnets, and yet we picked out five. I guess we were just enthralled by the 80s artwork. And honestly, which of these would you sacrifice to throw back in the box? That weight-lifting bear? I think not. The ninja tiger? Try again. The crown-wearing turtle? OKAY FINE I NEED THEM ALL.


Sweet. Vintage Simpsons stickers!


Even sweeter. TMNT stickers!


Okay, we went nuts with the stickers, too. The thing about stickers is they’re so exciting at first. Until you realize there’s absolutely no use for them. But I mean, these are vintage scratch-n-sniff stickers, so it’s not like you’re going to leave them in the box. The big question is, do they still smell? Yes and no. They do not smell like the intended lemonade or leather. They do however smell like somebody’s wet, moldy basement—where I now know they have been stored for the last twenty-five years. And if I could have one decision back in my life, it would be to not have stuck my nose right on that lemonade sticker and inhaled.

Overall, I think I did alright in my mission to represent the 1980s through a handful of dirty vending machine toys that came from a moldy basement. In fact, I was straight-up awesome at it, and if you don’t think so, you’re not invited to my Voltron party.

I also picked up a few other great items at the flea market that weekend as well. Hey, I’ll show you!

Spitballs! Whoa. Love how it comes with Jason and a generic victim. I also like how they’re labeled on either side for clarity. The package is pretty ratty-looking, but I think this was well worth the dollar spent. It’s just so fun and random.

Return of the Jedi lunchbox! I don’t go out of my way to collect lunchboxes, but they’re just so iconic and can look great on a shelf. Got this one for two bucks.

Vintage Sanyo boombox! Oh man, I love these things, and buy them pretty regularly. I usually end up selling them online, and since I’d sold my other three, I was hurting for a new one. I sort of leave it on the table and enjoy it for a few weeks before I sell it and hunt for a new one. This one actually has a working cassette player though, so I may just have to keep it.

Micro Machines Ship in a Bottle! I didn’t have anything Micro Machines related, and Micro Machines are pretty collectible, so I felt fine about picking this up for a buck.

Various figures! I love getting loose figures because they display better, and there’s no guilt about taking them out of their packaging. My favorite here is that robot troll. It’s Troll Bot, one of the Battle Trolls, a strange line of toys from the 1990s when trolls were so hot they tried to market them to boys. I have no idea how Battle Trolls fared. Any Battle Troll love out there?

Also here is Napoleon Bonafrog from TMNT, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Headbanger from Toxic Avenger, Skeletor, and a Cowboys of Moo-Mesa cow, which was like Ninja Turtles, only they were cows. I don’t know how this fared, either. Any love for The Cows love out there?

Then in the second row, there’s a robot, a moon man, Gumby, Skid the Kid, and some sort of caveman.

M.U.S.C.L.E. Figures! These are super sweet. I got the whole lot here for four bucks, which was a great deal, because online they generally go about a buck a piece.

Giant Game Boy! This is my favorite thing. I knew this was going to look awesome on my 80s video game toy shelf. It’s actually a case that holds the Game Boy and games. The woman selling it had the Game Boy and games in there, too, but some kid had went to town with a glitter pen on the Game Boy. I gotta give ’em credit; they totally made it FAB-U-LOUS, but it wasn’t for me. She had wanted $40 for the whole lot, so I asked if I could just buy the case. She gave it to me for three bucks!

And that’s all folks. Hey! Happy Fourth of July.

26 thoughts on “Trapped in Time: A Review of 80s Vending Machine Toys

  1. Wow. That’s an incredible haul for one weekend. I troll Value Village for months and only come up with a quarter of the awesomeness that’s contained there.

    The main reason, I’m leaving this comment though is to say I acutally used those very Voltron invitations for my birthday one year. It was well after Voltron was considered “cool” and I was probably at the age where playing with toys was considered “not cool” but I remember going to a party store with my mom and digging through a box of severly discounted party supplies (hats, plates, invites, tablecloths, etc) and buying a bunch of Voltron stuff (invites, plates, tablecloth, blah, blah, blah) because it was so cheap (pretty much what you paid, like a quarter each) so I had a bunch of 1985 Voltron stuff at my 12th Birthday that took place in 1995. It was retro enough then to be considered “cool”.

  2. P.S. Those yellow things, you stick the key like piece in the slot and then bend the “Key” piece back and the disc should fly….key word here is “should”

  3. I liked Voltron growing up — I felt like it was pretty legit. I liked Transformers, a lot too, though. And sadly, I watched the first season of Power Rangers when it was on TV even though I was sort of outside of the age range for its target audience.

    I’d love to check out these flea markets you go to. I am always on the lookout for some toys from my past, and obscure things, too — i have a laundry list of things that would probably make me happy to find.

  4. I remember the Micromachine Man more than the toys. Rememberifitdoesn’tsaymicromachinesit’snottherealthing!(tm)

  5. WOW this buy was great. My favorite would definitely be the stickers. I have no use for those useless things, but they were so pretty to look at. My favorite would have to be The Simpsons and TMNT ones. :0)

  6. Those Voltron invitations are awesome. My son has fallen in love with Voltron lately. Do you have any idea if they ever made a Halloween costume of him?

    1. I don’t think so, but if you google it, you find a lot of “cosplay” links… (one of the scariest words in the English language….)

  7. I’m super-jealous of the fake MUSCLE Men! Did you ever see the female version of them? I forget what they were called but I have a few of them still in the boxes. I even have that MUSCLE poster that showed all of the toys…I think I had to mail away for it. Awesome post…you have a lot more luck finding old stuff than I do these days!

  8. Holy Cow! Man, I miss a good flea market! We don’t have anything even close to that around here. Those vending machine toys are sweet, what a great find!!! The lunchbox is awesome, the Boom Box rocks, you can never go wrong with micro machines, wow man, you really scored!!!

  9. Man, I got that big Game Boy case brand new way back when. I still love and use it. A spot for extra batteries, power supply, headphones, a bunch of games AND it’s shaped like a giant Game Boy? Hell yes.

    I went Flea Marketing this weekend too. Wound up with a working Fame Gear with game for just 2 bucks. One of my top 5th deals ever.

  10. Re: Battle Trolls

    My brother bought one from a gay antique store only because it was labeled “Butch Leather Troll.”

  11. @Dennis and Pizza: The female M.U.S.C.L.E. figures were called “C.U.T.I.E.”, and are even rarer than their male counterparts.

    1. Yes, they were. I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of the name. I might just have some C.U.T.I.E. s around somewhere.

  12. That cartoon cow magnet looks like a knock-off of Heifer from Rocko’s Modern Life.

  13. The best part about the MicroMachines: BONUS License Plate! At Big Lots about, Idunno, 10 years ago (maybe more), they had Star Wars MicroMachines on clearance (for something like $1 each) and I bought every one they had (one of each). I still have them, unopened. Maybe someday they’ll be worth $2 each.

  14. That Skeletor is from the ill fated “New Adventures of He-Man” line, which even as a kid, I wanted nothing to do with. Futuristic He- Man? LAME.

  15. Awesome haul man! The unopened M.U.S.C.L.E.s are awesome. You even got the I too love that Game Boy carrying case. I saw one about a month ago at a used game store for 30 bucks, so I had to pass. Battle Trolls weren’t the only trolls marketed to boys. I have Vegar the Champion from the Troll Warriors line. I think Troll Warriors came out a year or two before the Battle Trolls. Trolls had to be insanely popular(I had a few), to market 2 different lines of figures to boys.

  16. Just found this after a Google search for 1980s vending capsule toys. I’m basically trying to see if I can find any kind of info about a toy I once got as a kid. I grew up within walking distance of Midway Shopping Center in St. Paul, MN, & the toy came from one of several vending machines at Rainbow Foods.
    What I do remember is the toy line was called “Parachuting Robots”. I haven’t found anything so far, despite numerous Google searches over the last few years. They were smallish (maybe 1.5 – 2″ tall) came in kit form (about 10 or 15 pieces) included some strings, a bandana size plastic parachute, some round paper type stickers to attach the strings to the chute, & a small instruction sheet.

    Once assembled, the robots looked as though the company had lifted design elements from other big toy lines from that era: Transformers, Gundam, Robotech, etc…

    My mother had bought 2 of these things for me one day while on a shopping trip, and being the dumb kid I was back then, I made the mistake of opening and putting the toys together in the car. Don’t get me wrong, the toys did assemble properly, no pieces were dropped or lost, it’s just that having to hang onto 2 parachute based toys during the car ride home led to a couple toys having their strings hopelessly tangled.

    Thx for the trip down memory lane with this blog post, & the accompanying photos.

    PS: My taste buds couldn’t disagree more with the Doritos comment.

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