20 years of tech toys: the gifts we all got in the 90s vs now

A lot has changed in the last 20 years, especially as technology goes. But one thing that remains the same is our need to get our friends and loved ones gifts around the holidays, and to receive them in turn.

With so many gifts on the horizon, it can be fun to think about just what we were all hoping to unbox in the 1990s compared to what we hope to unwrap now in 2017. It’s a good measure of the way gadgets and playthings in our lives change – and it might prevent us from getting over-excited this year about something that will seem like a joke 20 years from now.

So, ready yourself as we explore the past to remember what was the iPhone X equivalent of the 1990s – and blush a little at how badly we all wanted it.

Nintendo Virtual Boy vs PlayStation VR

Okay, maybe not a lot of us received the Nintendo Virtual Boy, but it was out there trying to be the hot new tech from Nintendo, boasting a gaming experience unlike the platforms seen before it. Instead, it amounted to little more than a minor stereoscopic 3D effect in one color for a handful of games, and head-tracking was nowhere in sight.

Jump forward two decades and we’ve got the PlayStation VR rocking the holiday gift scene with affordable prices especially paired with an affordable PS4 console (we know the Oculus and Vive are better examples of just how far VR has come, but PSVR is the mainstream choice due to its lower cost). After its popularity during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it’s safe to say that PSVR isn’t destined to fizzle out like the Virtual Boy.

Pagers vs Apple Watch

Cell phones were starting to gain a footing in the 1990s, but pagers were still abuzz, and the handy device allowed for communication on the go, especially for those were clever about devising codes with family and friends. Opening a present to find a pager in the 90s would have made just about anyone a little giddy.

Now, smartphones have made pagers all but useless. But, perhaps the more fitting replacement for pagers are smartwatches. Where pagers told us at a glance when we should go find a payphone to call someone back, smartwatches can deliver full communications and let us decide whether we’ll go to the great lengths of pulling out our smartphone, or let us just respond with a quick message straight through the watch itself. As hot as the Apple Watch is now, it’s safe to say that the pager has been supremely supplanted.

Talkboy vs a full suite of recording gear

Life was simpler in the 90s. Kids just wanted to recorder their brilliant notions onto a cassette tape. The Talkboy allowed that in all the style of a Macaulay Culkin. Any kid who enjoyed the Home Alone series would have been thrilled to unbox a Talkboy – and what kid didn’t like those movies?

Now, we’ve all got a lot more to record. Whether we're recording video games to stream to Twitch or hosting a YouTube channel, the gifts that make it happen are nowhere near as simple as a single Talkboy. We’re looking at a bundle of gear, from USB microphones like the popular Blue microphones and high-quality webcams to greenscreens and standalone gaming capture cards from Elgato.

Super Nintendo vs SNES Cassic

The Super Nintendo was the console to have for much of the 90s. It stepped things up big time from the original NES, adding more color, more depth, more buttons and much more comfortable controllers. As far as presents go, a popular gaming console is hard to beat.

Apparently even as technology changes, our tastes don’t appear to differ, especially when something comes with a huge dose of nostalgia. And, that has made the SNES Classic an incredibly popular gift for 2017. It offers pretty much the same experiences we got in the 90s, except the console itself is a lot smaller, making us feel like we’ve just grown that much more in the last 20-odd years, even if our skill in Yoshi’s Island hasn’t.

Tickle Me Elmo vs Hello Barbie

Elmo is a beloved muppet from Sesame Street, and he got a lot more beloved when he responded to tickles with recorded voice lines and vibration. Tickle Me Elmo was a gift people would fight over. It was frighteningly popular, and equally hard to get.

Now, toys don’t just respond with some recorded lines. Hello Barbie might not be the exact product kids are getting as gifts this year, but it’s a striking example of how toys are changing. Hello Barbie is able to connect to the internet, and use AI to converse with kids much like Siri can. Of course, this sort of technology around children is sparking about as much controversy as the short supply of Tickle Me Elmo did in the 90s.

Nerf Wildfire vs Nerf Rival Nemesis MXVII-10K Blaster

The Nerf Wildfire is a great example of a toy that would have been a delight to unbox in the late 90s. Why? Not just because it was a Nerf gun. The Nerf Wildfire, if pumped up enough, could quickly shoot off all of its 20 darts with fully automatic firing. In other words, you could destroy your friends who had slower Nerf Guns.

Two decades on, the Wildfire looks like a hulking mess compared to the insanely evolved Nerf guns making for top gift picks in 2017. The Nerf Rival Nemsis MXVII-10K Blaster is one of TechRadar’s favorites, and it shames the Wildfire of old with a magazine capacity of 100 shots and fully automatic fire without any pumping necessary thanks to battery power.

Doom vs Doom VFR

Doom was an impressively immersive first-person shooter when it slid onto the game scene in the early 90s. Running around and shooting monsters with an array of powerful weapons was gruesome and satisfying. Getting the game as a gift in the 90s would have been a joy for gamers who somehow didn’t already own the must-have game.

In 2017, we can see just how far the Doom series has come, with Doom VFR immersing players like never before. The redone VR version of 2016’s Doom game makes a great gift for any PSVR or HTC Vive owners looking to get their fill of ultra-violence against gnarly hordes of monsters from Hell.

Remote-controlled cars vs drones

In the 90s, it was enough for us if a simple radio signal could make a tiny car go back and forward and turn. Some RC cars had fancier features, like the ability to flip upside down, but a simple RC car was enough to make for a fun gift 20 years ago.

Now, RC cars are getting left in the dirt, literally. While cars stay on the ground, the popular gift of 2017 soars into the air. Drones take the same commands to go back and forward and turn around, but they also can go up and down, strafe side to side. And, that’s just their movement capabilities. Even inexpensive drones are loaded up with cameras for recording and first-person flying, never mind the video stabilizing gimbels some have and the insane control some have even in windy conditions.

Portable CD player vs Bluetooth speaker

Being able to take music everywhere we go is great, and portable CD players made it possible to bring a sizable collection of tunes around in the 90s. Even if we had to be careful about moving around to much because vibrations threw off the jams, we were all happy to open up a present and find a CD player inside.

This year, there are so many things that have replaced the CD player it’s hard to even pick. The Bluetooth speaker that is a popular addition for anyone’s gift list this year is a good fit though. Now, instead of letting us simply listen to our tunes on the go, it lets us blast music that we’re wirelessly transmitting from our phones, which are in turn likely wirelessly streaming those tunes from an endless horde of music we don’t even have to carry around with us to enjoy. Talk about a huge shift!

Mark Knapp

Over the last several years, Mark has been tasked as a writer, an editor, and a manager, interacting with published content from all angles. He is intimately familiar with the editorial process from the inception of an article idea, through the iterative process, past publishing, and down the road into performance analysis.