RetroToy Patrol: Etch-A-Sketch Animator (1986)

Posted on by Dave

By David Mayne

As a child of the 80’s, it was hard to walk into a Toys-R-Us store and leave without wanting EVERYTHING on the shelves. Unlike now, video games hadn’t completely taken over yet, and a wide variety of awesome toys were flourishing in a pre-Xbox America. The 80’s were a great time for toys, when technology and old-school toys were finally meeting to become more than just building blocks and Lincoln Logs. I’m not talking about toys that required zero brain power to play with…so I guess the better way to put it is: toys took around six D batteries and did amazing things while still requiring an imagination! Back then, Hot Wheels were still covered in lead, and most action figures came with pieces you could accidently swallow, so in other words, it may have been the last decade of nanny-free toys. Submarines, airplanes, GI Joes, Transformers, and Construx were all good, but now they made sounds, lit up, and did other mechanical wonders that toys from decades past had not (save for the Erector Set’s motor, circa 1945, but really?). From LiteBrites to Legos; from He-Man to GoBots…the 1980’s were a good time to be a kid and play with real toys.’s RetroToy Patrol is going to head back to those far gone days of epic goodness, opening up the old toy chest from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and yes, reviewing them! Enjoy!

The original Etch-A Sketch was a no-brainer. Seriously, I’ve seen cats work the shit out of an Etch-A-Sketch, with fairly decent results. Meow.

Here’s how it works:  The inside glass “screen” is coated with a powder (usually aluminum) which gives the EaS its signature silver “blank” screen. When the artiste operates either the left (up,down) dial or the right (left,right) dial, a tiny stylus under the glass moves around, displacing the aluminum powder, leaving a dark line against the silver coating. To erase your fine work of exquisite line-art, you simply turn the EaS upside-down a few times, or as some seem to be compelled to do, shake the ever-living hell out of it. Either method serves to release tiny polystyrene beads which sort of “sweep” the powder evenly back over the glass. Some ask what the blackness is that shows through when the stylus is operated, and the answer is no…it’s not another dimension created by the Event Horizon. The black that you see is simply the darkness inside the unit, revealed when the stylus “slices” through the powder.

These things were nearly indestructible, and aside from the occasional bored hooligan purposefully puncturing or otherwise tampering with the EaS, it was guaranteed good to go for decades to come. Some say why re-invent the wheel, or mess with sliced bread, but when the Etch-A-Sketch Animator hit the scene in 1986, two things were certain: Mike Tyson would win his first World Championship title AND the Etch-A Sketch world would never be the same.

Gone was the now archaic aluminum powder, crude metal stylus, and the clunky red lunchbox design. Replacing them was a dot-matrix screen, a smidgen of onboard system “memory”, and a cool new grey housing that not only retained some of the overall EaS look, but moved the unit into the new era of slick electronic gadgetry. As I mentioned, the Animator had a sprinkling of system memory, meaning that you could draw up to 12 “frames”, and then animate them. Think: flip book. You could save your animation only until you decided to create a new one, as there wasn’t enough memory to store anything beyond the 12 frames. Yeah…this was especially rough, given that any one frame could take over an hour to create, and you could never permanently save your work before moving on to a new design. Then again, this was a different era, when patience and perseverance were commonplace, and hours spent on a task was met with satisfaction and sometimes reward. In this case…a running horse about to be killed by arrows. See below…

You wouldn’t think any incantation of an Etch-A-Sketch would make noise…but this one does. While not any type of music or melody, it’s an odd “screeching sound” that slightly changes pitch as you move the dials around in different directions. I’m not 100% sure what genius thought that this was a good idea, suffice to say that it gets insanely annoying after about 2 minutes. There is no volume control to turn it down, much less disable it completely, so unless you can manage to ignore it you’ll be running for the razors in no time. I can still remember playing with this thing after I was already supposed to be asleep at night, under the covers with a flashlight. It would have been ALL good, and I may have even become the next Walt Disney had it not been for my cover being constantly blown by the Animators screams! To top it all off, once you finished an animation sequence and hit the “Animate” button, the screeching noised would go off like some kind of horrific 4th of July fireworks show gone horribly awry. It must be experienced to be believed Amigos!

Other than the glaring problem concerning the awful screeching that the Animator makes, it’s a legit piece of mid-80’s toy tech. Inside the box you’ll find a handy instruction booklet that shows step by step pictures for creating several animations, including the memorable running cheetah. As I previously stated, it can take you a good part of the afternoon to do a complete animation, depending on your dexterity skills, but it’s strangely satisfying. I used my Animator for hours on end as a kid, and the nostalgia of turning it back on nowadays is unmatched.

Final Grade: B
+ Encourages patience, precision, and attention span!
+ Plenty of fun animations to copy from the instructions, plus your own imagination is the only limit.
– The screeching is horrendous

2 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Kay Vierra November 9, 2012 at 10:01 am -

    I remember as a girl wanting a Cabbage Patch doll every time I went in the stores with my dad (he wanted to look at the Hot Wheels), never came out with a Cabbage Patch Doll but he had the newest Hot Wheel for his collection and I had one too for mine.

    • Dave February 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm -

      If i come across any CP dolls, they’re yours! 😉

Leave A Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.