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January 19, 2011

2010 Wrap: Toys, Part 1

My experience of toys and games these days differs from that of the other categories of kids' entertainment. I manage to keep some semblance of track of the year's output of children's books and music and movies, but with toys I'm far less clued in. So this part of my 2010 wrap will be a bit broader than the others, with entries that definitely came out last year, entries that definitely didn't, and entries I'm not even sure about. (And I’m going to get finished with last year before the end of January, I swear!)

First off is an entry that decidedly did not come out last year, but that’s when we found it. Until my kids were old enough to be interested in them, I'd never quite gotten the appeal of customizable toys like Build-a-Bear and American Girl dolls. (But then, I am not a kid.) But this year, both my six-year-old and my two-year-old got robot fever, and then we stumbled over a place called RobotGalaxy. It's pretty much Build-a-Bear for machines: Kids create their own robots from various interchangeable parts, picking a head-and-torso core and various tool, shield, or weapon (yes, there are weapons, though they're expressed fairly broadly through shapes and lights) limbs. The staff helps children make their selections, gets them to give their creation a name, and then "activates" the robot in a little whistles-and-bells-laden chamber right out of Metropolis (but stripped of the sinister overtones, naturally).

The robots don't really do all that much—each arm or leg has a distinct function that's expressed via sounds and/or lights when you press its button, and each head speaks a few preprogrammed lines. There's also an online community you can connect the robot to via USB, with games and a little virtual world and such. But the price per robot (generally somewhere in the $50 to $75 range) is pretty steep for that. What I finally got about these customized-toy places, as I watched my son beam while he picked out his parts (including a female head-torso piece), is that a big part of what they're selling is the experience itself—the moments of free choice that don't present themselves too often to grade-school kids. The look on Dash's face as he went through the process was a mixture of pure delight and disbelief that this was even happening.

So while I can't really argue with anyone who says RobotGalaxy is overpriced based on the merits of the end product, I looked at the extra cost as thie price we paid for the show, as it were—a fee for Dash's glee, and our own warm feelings watching it. All those good vibes seemed to rub off on the robot herself, too—he plays with it far more than I would have expected for something with fairly limited features. (It would appear that the song-and-dance that accompanied its acquisition engaged his imagination pretty well.) Somewhat to my surprise (I can be pretty cheap), I haven't regretted the purchase, or the experience, at all.

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