In September 2002, I put together an examination of the then-current crop of vending machine toys, drawing material from the many supermarkets, toy stores and candy shops around my neighborhood. And a K-Mart, but I never admitted it until now. We saw all sorts of classic egg-fillers, along with some newer chart-toppers like "Homies," but when it comes to vending machines, there's only one constant: the prizes are always changing.
It's been almost two years since X-E's last vending machine spectacular, so it's probably a good time to gather more quarters from under the couch cushions for another round of store-hopping on the hunt for cheap, crappy toys. If you're curious to see what can be bought with loose change and a twist of the wrist this season, read on. We've got everything from fruit-shaped gum to tiny guidos. AND NINJAS! HI-WHACK!!
Armed with a pocket of quarters and a knife just in case, we drove from one filthy place to another, constantly on the lookout for more Tom Servos. I can't say I'm terribly proud of our bounty -- we did the best we could in a ten mile radius, but I can't shake the feeling that we would've come home with a rubber turtle or a Dora tattoo had we only expanded that radius to fifteen. Now stop whatever you're doing and go berserk over this crazy amount of plastic eggs:
I went a little overboard -- there's too many prizes for me to run through and review each one; instead, you get the highlights served as half-truths and frequent references to Washington's chiseled side profile as seen on the quarters. While my dedication to the stores' vending machines has waned quite a bit over the years, this project wasn't without a strange appeal: the knowledge that I'd brought enough change with me to effectively buy one of every prize. You had to have a really twisted toothache to get away with that shit during childhood, and for the ends of owning it all, being seen photographing and inspecting every toy vending machine in town was well worth the shame. DR. MAD'S GLOB™: We've all played with vending machine slime at least once in our lives -- if vending machines have only a few staples, that little canister full of brightly colored goo is one of them. In justifying our attraction to the stuff, you'll hear everything from how cool it feels running through your fingers to how hysterical it is to pull a fake sneeze and blow blue snot all over an unsuspecting God blesser. Though everyone grows bored with toy slime within minutes, it remains the perennial #1 pick of vending machine prizes. Much like with M&Ms, kids had a breakdown of which slimes were more valuable according to their color -- yellow and orange are amongst the least desired, while red, green and blue slime eggs are universally cherished and only outmatched in style by the little seen but totally attainable black slime. Some prefer to collect several different slime colors at once, mashing them together like flour and egg to create some harebrained mutant slime of indiscernible color bearing the sweet scent of very stale rubber cement.
Those who seek to profit off toy slime frequently have trouble with the fact that they can't copyright their material. Slime is for everyone, and anyone can produce, package and sell it in any way they see fit. In previous years, the only way for these companies to separate themselves from competition was by giving their slime varieties weird names and goofy packaging -- hence Dr. Mad and Dr. Mad's gigantic left eye. Dr. Mad's Globs bring more to the table than just normal toy slime with a clever name; this slime has a gimmick. Allegedly able to turn different shades in sunlight, it's not the world's first color-changing slime, but it's the first color-changing slime I've seen at the local Shoprite. It's a distinction for which there are no trophies, but a resume point is a resume point is a resume point.
So, I gather all the icky shit and hold it up to the sun...nothing happens. I'm standing outside with fistfuls of faux afterbirth offered to the sun like a newborn in ancient jungletown, and it was all for nothing -- stuff didn't change color one bit. After leaving it against the screendoor for at least half an hour, I saw some extremely vague traces of green and red, but nothing I would've noticed if I wasn't hardcore inspecting it. Dr. Mad makes me Patient Sad with all his tricks.
Final Evaluation: Worth every penny. And just because I did this one final evaluation, don't go expecting them for the rest of the prizes. SUPERBALLS: Just as classic as toy slime but with an entirely different kind of play value, superballs deliver the biggest bounce on the planet. A well-aimed bean to the concrete can send one of the normal-sized superballs on a bouncing trip higher than your house, but this machine presents an even bigger glory: it's the super-sized superball, pretty much capable of ricocheting off a car and landing right on Venus. Arriving in all sorts of colors, some in earthy tones, others with purdy sparkles and little foil pinwheels trapped inside, super-sized superballs aren't necessarily good for any typical sporting activity, but the thrill of slamming this thing against a wall to see how much crap it can break and what city it'll eventually land still in is worth double the 75-cent admission price. Yeah, they're charging that much for these things nowadays. INFLATION SHUCKS.
Once, during my tween years, I taped a threatening note around a superball and sent it railing in a triple-bounce way down the street before running back into the house and giggling as if anyone who found a random, poorly penned death threat taped to a small pink ball would somehow assume it was meant for them. I still recommend this experiment regardless; you'll be amazed at how well the things bounce even when you've got looseleaf paper taped around 'em. I guess you don't really need to scribble a death threat to do this, but why skip the best part? Dear June, hey, you're gonna dieee.
Final Evaluation: Impossible to photograph in motion. Just you try it.
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HOMIES FIGGAZ: Yeah, Homies are still around in abundance, though mostly ignored. It wasn't too long ago that my nieces and nephews would make me drive them to baseball card shops so they could blow half their trust funds on Chubby Playah Jones w/ Alternate Navy Fatigues and Sherri the Street Ho. I don't know how many different characters exist in the line by now, but it's gotta be in the high hundreds if they're to the point of trying to pass off the Grim Reaper and Betty Boop as Homies originals. Their appeal should be obvious -- the toys were designed specifically for young collectors, the kind of kids who don't really care what they're into so long as there's a checklist and an ongoing internal struggle to have a bigger collection than their friends. Pogs, cartoony trading cards and those little three-legged dollhouse tables Domino's Pizza sticks into the middle of their pies also fall under this category. Sadly for da hood, Homies peaked a long time ago. They swore they ain't wouldn't gonna go out like that, but this is what they them did. Fortunately, their creators saw limitless potential in profiting off of other negative stereotypes, so when the homeboyz fell, it was all about John Gotti and Pauly Walnuts. Presenting...Palermos!
PALERMOS FIGURES: "Figurines You Cannot Refuse!" Hilarious. It's every cliche Italian character rolled into one immense series of cheap action figures, running the spicy meatball gamut from mobsters to apron-wearing housewives covered in sauce and beyond. On the flipside, some of the characters seem totally without background -- they've got firemen, mailmen and garbage haulers in the mix, and they're about as "usually Italian" as the guy who corrects my pronunciation of General Tso's chicken. The Palermos line doesn't feel anywhere near as creative or interesting as their elder cousins from Sizzouth Central, and I doubt they've caught on with kids on anywhere near the same level. It's a sad commentary when children prefer knife-toting drug dealers over gun-toting paisans who call the drug dealers despicable names. I don't know what I'm getting at but it sure sounds racist.
I picked up three of the figures -- they're all wearing oversized clothes and have faces full of attitude. Most of them are wearing very Homie-ish clothes; I guess the company felt that skin color was enough of a diversity point, and also a great way to re-release all of the unsold stock of Homies figures. They're dipping all the tiny heads in peach paint and making us pay for the same shit all over again. How criminal. And they're gonna do the same thing once they find the right shade of mahogany and an artist who knows how to carve Mexican eyes.
Final Evaluation: I'd like them better if they were chocolate. OCCULT JEWELRY: Vending machine sections usually provide a good assortment of cheap, crappy jewelry. These "Midnight Magic" charm necklaces actually are pretty high-end when compared to the usual aluminum rings and plastic watches. Playing into every child's internal love for Satan, the charms all bear a slight metaphysical slant, and are assuredly capable of making a kid win a dozen gluesticks from the big school raffle. A mixture of astrological signs, luck icons, turtles and women's purses, the enchanted charms each come on a necklace just long enough to fit around a child's ankle. Necks are out of contention unless you're trying to raise your daughter to be one of those wacky Egyptians who sleep with big gold Slinkies choking them out.
I plopped my quarters in and got the Happy Sun. Wasn't my first choice, wasn't my last. Good to have around in case pharmacists go insane and demand payment for medicine only in the form of shitty celestial fashion accessories. I'd mark codeine up by like 6000% and hock it to the old hag next door. Then I'd thank the pharmacist for going crazy. Then I'd probably buy better shoes. Wow, this Midnight Magic thing could work out really well assuming pharmacists go batty and that the old lady next door needs codeine. If not, screw this prize. Final Evaluation: Okay, now I'm ready for the prom. BEAUTIFUL JEWELRY: Ah, the unending assortment of gorgeous jewelry available through vending machines never ceases to amaze. Usually noted by the absurdly dishonest teaser cards with Rolex watches and diamond rings taped on, these machines are irresistible to all vending visitors searching for a quick fashion fix. So sudden and raging is our lust for the unattainable prizes shown on the cards that we often throw our quarters away before noticing that none of the prizes shown could physically fit in the prize capsules, a realization that helps us understand how "Why Me?" remains such a popular novelty phrase despite being pretty blahhh when you get right down to it.
Other jewelry machines offer no untruths as to their contents, showing the actual crappy dimestore rings right on the teaser cards. In this sight we can properly mark the machine's target demographic at a stern Under 5 / Female, a group so hell-bent on trying on jewelry that they'd wear dog shit and swear it was pretty. The machines aren't capable of disappointing you; you've seen the prizes and you're basically consigned to the fact that an egg full of something ugly is about to roll down the metal intestine. This type of vending machine seems to be the least frequently refurbished of 'em all, often containing prizes that've either degenerated back into the battery acid with which they were forged, or worse, stayed completely intact and robbed you of the chance to show off a mutated pile of toy jewelry battery acid. It's at points like these when we're forced to remember that a pack of Wrigley's Juicyfruit only costs a quarter. We have other, potentially better avenues to blow twenty-five cents.
Everything at left is shown nearly actual size; the only things I had trouble conveying in photos were how the rings were bendable and how they stank like tin foil peeled off the cookie sheet you made chicken on seven weeks back. The rings are boring, but the serpent pendant is at least intriguing for the way it was packaged in a vending machine topped with a pink teaser card and the phrase "Cool Accessories for Cool Chicks" shown visible in girly cursive. I never would've thought snake necklaces made of a metal so bad it can't even imitate pewter correctly would be considered hip by our fairer gender, but I've been pretty out of the loop ever since I found out what "agoraphobia" meant and thought it'd be neat to tell people I have it. BLINKY RING: Okay, now I'm MAD. So we've got these "Blinky Rings," allegedly able to maintain a steady glow via a small light installed in the ring setting. The teaser card shows one such ring glowing away happily, enlisting all who see it into a must-buy attitude. Kids who usually show no interest in shitty jewelry cannot possibly turn down a ring that lights up, and frankly, anything that lights up for fifty cents feels like a steal. So I plop in my quarters and get the capsule, and then repeat the process because two flashing Blinky Rings are better than one. When I got around to taking the pictures for this article, I saved the Blinky Rings for last to ensure myself a grand sendoff. But, but but but but. Blinky Ringies no worky. That's why I'm MAD.
They look sorta cool -- like the kind of ring a supervillain would use to either trap you in 24000 BC or freeze your blood on the spot. The top chamber presses down presumably to bring light, but the feature didn't work on either of the rings. What's more, any attempt on my part to inspect the mechanics caused the entire ring to more or less implode and fall apart into scattered bits of metal and plastic. Now, I'm 25, I can roll with the punches. A six-year-old who goes through this torment will either lose their mind or piss all over the vending machine. In closing, Blinky Rings make my fingers upset.
Final Evaluation: I should've been calling these things "Final Conclusions." I'm so dumb.TINY FOOTBALL HELMETS: I'm not into football and never have been, except for that first XFL game because I thought it'd be cool to see Jerry Lawler make double entrendres using football terms. Regardless, much like everyone else I knew during public school, I voraciously collected these stupid plastic football helmets. Knowing nothing about the teams, my favorites were determined only by proximity and by how pretty I thought certain helmets were. Added coups were found in locating action figures with heads sized just right to fit the helmets. Unfortunately, this particular machine threw in some slick fine print: "Football Helmets...& mugs."
Final Conclusion: I got a mug. Can't say I was aiming for a mug. Hate the mug. INFLATABLE BEACHBALLS: A prize of little value save for the fact that, when inflated, it's the largest thing you can retrieve from the vending machine section. To tell you the truth, I would've bought one if the pink lemonade gumball machine wasn't calling my name when I was down to my last quarter.
I doubt many kids would find immediate appeal in a small beachball, what with so many Catdog stickers and Chinese finger traps available, but who can say for sure? I haven't done any extensive surveys. Perhaps someday I should.
Final Conclusion: Yeah, "conclusion" has a better flow. LICENSED CRAP: "Licensed crap" refers to any vending machine toy, prize or trinket based on a popular kiddy franchise, such as Scooby Doo. Our pals from the Mystery Machine return for more attention with their new line of 3-D action puzzles, which honestly felt more like small rubber figures with detachable bases than anything that required thinking to put together. Licensed crap takes up a good 50% of the vending machine section these days, and to skirt any trouble with my employer, I won't complain about the number of machines devoted to Dora the Explore fingerpuppets. Even though it makes me die inside. Though only falling under my made-up "Licensed Crap" umbrella in a rudimentary way, this next item compensates for the vague relation by giving you free points at Chuck E. Cheese's! CHUCK E. CHEESE'S FIGURINES: Unbelievable. Chuck E. Cheese is known by all, but you'd never really peg the guy as an icon strong enough to warrant vending machine figurines. The rat's self-worth is overmagnified. The series includes eight Chuck E. Cheese figures, each in a different pose, always smiling, often skateboarding, sometimes with tail, other times not. God I hate the hip upgrade they made to the animatronic Chuck E. Cheese who scared the shit out of me as a kid; a fright that couldn't remove my love for giant robot mice who sang me songs as I ate their pizza. Now he looks like the mascot for a really cheap, generic variety of lollipops produced in a country nobody's ever heard of.
Luckily, I got the best figurine in the set, featuring a skating Chuck E. Cheese wearing a devious black shirt that makes him look like he's got deep dark secrets. Also notice the yellow coin -- that's a genuine Chuck E. Cheese 10-pointer; you can bring it to the restaurant and trade it in for a few spider rings. Or you can christen it as your official lucky coin and refuse to go bungee jumping unless it's tucked firmly in your underwear.
Final Conclusion: Scary monster mouse carries plague. That's a quote from that shitty version of Rampage they made for the N64. FOUR WHEELERS PULLBACK CARS: Pretty decent little auto bastards seem perfectly cheap at just fifty cents each, and they actually work pretty well. The little Volkswagens zip off into the sunset after you roll 'em back on a hard surface. I can't imagine many young boys who wouldn't name this as a top pick; if the fact that the cars actually drive themselves around for several moments isn't enough of a sell, there's also the whole satisfying risk factor involved with really wanting a red Pullback Car but having absolutely no guarantee that you won't end up with an awful purply grape. They say that at least one person in the world is watching an I Love Lucy rerun every second of every day. I say there's at least six small children hoping they'll "get a red one" every second of every day. Doesn't have to be a Pullback Car, but whether a kid's got their hand in a bag of gummy worms or a pile of crazy straws, rest assured, they're dreaming of red. YOU GOT FUCKED: The "Flashing Crystal Ball" machine was located outside the very same deli that sold me Fruity Bubble Gum Hi-C ten years past its expiration date, and I can't believe this didn't strike me as a tip-off. The Flashing Crystal Ball, a beautiful piece of star-shaped blue plastic swarming with lights, teases all who pass. The cynic in me doubted that I'd actually take home the machine's top prize, but I'd hoped for something at least a little more extravagant than the usual run of ear-shaped eraser tops and tiny bottles of edible nail polish. I inserted two quarters and turned the slimy knob, each twist mandating another twenty minutes of running hot water over my progressively stickier fingers. For a Flashing Crystal Ball, it would've been worth it. For a 1" skateboarding alien, NO.
I'm usually down with see-thru red aliens on skateboards, but when I'm expecting God's fortune teller to fall out of the machine complete with working batteries and multi-language tutorial sheet, there's some disappointment. I considered bringing the sour prize inside to complain, but the last time I voiced displeasure against this particular deli, the storeowners suddenly forgot English, made a bunch of duck noises and kept pointing to bags of sunflower seeds. Hmm. It would've been interesting to see if they always respond to complaints like that. Next time.
Final Conclusion: I keep chewing on my little red alien doll but the damn thing won't start tasting like strawberries. Why red then, huh? Why red?
I apologize in advance to those who can't afford to spend three hours reading about vending machine prizes, but we're only half done. To be honest, most of the stuff you'll actually give a shit about is lumped on the next page. I was just testing your loyalty with all of these pullback cars and non-working light-up rings. You've proven yourself worthy of seeing the cool stuff, young mantids. Did I mention that there's a Chicken Machine on the second page? A Chicken Machine! Plus more slime and gum and stuff.