WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- There's one question that should haunt every child of the 1980s: How are people supposed to feel any nostalgia for the 1980s when they've never gone away?
This is 2011. People born in 1990 can drink legally this year. Despite this, the American public will once again be subjected to Transformers continuing the same pattern robot-on-robot violence they began on television 26 years ago when Transformers: Dark of the Moon releases in theaters next week.
They'll be asked to sit through Colin Farrell, David Tennant and McLovin's 3-D interpretation of Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall's roles in the vampire-neighbor film Fright Night in August when the 1985 film gets a remake nobody asked for. They'll also be asked to pay $650 to $3,650 over MSRP for a used Chevy Camaro, which they may remember as the 1980s pizza delivery guy's ride of choice.
No corner of our culture is immune. Mole-eyed gamers claim they're up all night playing Call of Duty, but one of the Top 5 games of last year was New Super Mario Brothers Wii, which was just a 25th anniversary remix of Nintendo's original plumber-powered favorite. Pop music practically never left the decade, as evidenced by Katy Perry's eight-minute-long pastel-plastered featurette for "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" that dragged '80s sax god Kenny G, Perry's '80s teen pop predecessor Debbie Gibson and '80s teen movie mainstay Corey Feldman out of mothballs.
After more than 20 years of hearing the popular songs from that decade sampled, seeing popular films from that decade remade and watching fixtures such as the Rubik's Cube and Live Aid get rehashed, we at the TheStreet are proud to say it ends here and now. We've taken what we promise ourselves is the last look back through our Trapper Keeper full of '80s pop culture totems and identified five products that are never, ever coming back. Get that DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour if you'd like, but no amount of nostalgia is going to bring these items back from their purgatory of decades past:
'80s offender: McDonald's
Yes, that image you see above is none other that Jason Alexander -- Seinfeld's George Costanza -- performing a song-and-dance number before declaring a McDonald's (MCD) product "the best tasting lettuce-and-tomato hamburger... ever." Before DVRs, on-demand, Netflix (NFLX) , YouTube and every other service spared viewers from brain-deadening assaults such as these, McDonald's and other companies could just basically embarrass TV audiences into submission.
The item McDonald's and Mr. Alexander were selling in this instance was a giant Styrofoam container holding half a bun, lettuce, tomato, cheese, pickles and sauce on one side and the bun's other half and a burger in the other. Like a warm front and a cold front coming together, this "hot side/cold side" approach was supposed to create a perfect storm of flavor that you could get only from one of the most mass-produced fast-food products in the world.
Why it's not coming back
McDonald's figured out in 1990 what seems like common knowledge today: Excessive amounts of polystyrene are costly to produce and costly to the surrounding environment. Bringing the McDLT's original container back today, in a post-Fast-Food Nation and Super-Size Me world where McDonald's and its spokesclown are already under considerable scrutiny, would create a headache McDonald's just doesn't need.
Besides, why alienate customers by bringing back the packaging for a product that even your own company hates? McDonald's spent much of the 1990s trying to redo the McDLT, first as the seaweed-infused low-fat McLean Deluxe in 1991, then as the adult-only artisan bun-clad Arch Deluxe in 1996 and, finally, as the low-budget Big 'N' Tasty in 2000. The final incarnation was basically a McDLT smashed together with the cold side wilted and warm and the hot side only tepid at best. By the time the Big 'N' Tasty was unceremoniously dumped from the menu last year, burger chains including In 'N' Out Burger and Five Guys had already figured out how to keep fresh vegetable toppings cold and thick beef patties hot without creating a Styrofoam sarcophagus for either.
McDonald's, meanwhile, is too busy tinkering with chili and Buffalo-style dipping sauces for McNuggets to care about the next McDLT. Want lettuce and tomato on your burger? Pony up for a third-of-a-pound Angus Deluxe or take it walking.
'80s offender: Tonka
It doesn't always pay to be first, which is why the world won't be seeing the third installment of a Gobots movie franchise in July.
Tonka did just about everything it could to make sure Gobots, a transforming robot toy, beat the competing Transformers to market. Tonka bought the rights to the Gobots from Japan's Bandai and released toys in 1983, a year before Hasbro (HAS) would buy similar toy lines from Japan's Takara to create the Transformers line.
"I actually was with Western Publishing Co. at the time Gobots came out in 1984 and we had the license for color books and storybooks," says toy industry expert Richard Gottlieb, chief executive of USA Toy Experts, which publishes Global Toy News. "I remember it was very hot in the beginning, as I believe they came out before Transformers, but In the second year Transformers of course prevailed due to stronger promotion."
The problem was that Gobots were nowhere near as interesting, and Tonka routinely failed to make them so. Gobots had no character backgrounds and the ham-fisted, obvious terms Guardians and Renegades for the good guys and bad guys as well as names such as Dozer for the robot who became a bulldozer, Loco for the locomotive and Tank for ... wait for it ... tank. Transformers came with cool, proprietary names such as Autobots, Decepticons, Optimus Prime and Megatron and had boxes featuring a full biography of the character inside, a quote from the character and a scrambled list of "tech specs" that could only be decoded through the use of a piece of red plastic inside.
When Tonka decided to put the Gobots into Hanna-Barbera's Challenge of the Gobots animated miniseries in 1984, Hasbro countered by letting Sunbow and Marvel Comics (MVL) put The Transformers in a full series that same year. When those cartoon Gobots hit the big screen with Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords in 1986 with voiceovers by Margot Kidder, Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowall (who was everywhere in the '80s), Hasbro countered by teaming with 20th Century Fox (NWSA) and Sony Pictures (SNE) on The Transformers: The Movie that same year and getting Eric Idle, Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy and Casey Kasem to provide voices. Just for kicks, Hasbro signed Orson Welles to voice planet-sized bad guy Unicron in what would be his last film role ever and allowed the film's writers to kill off beloved characters, including Autobot leader Optimus Prime.
The Transformers nearly quadrupled the Gobots' box-office take and got an added lifeline from Marvel, which gave the Transformers a comic book series for the length of the toys' '80s run. The Gobots had no comic book, few followers and a reputation as a knockoff despite being the first such toy in the U.S.
Why they're not coming back
If none of that made a convincing argument for the Gobots' demise, the death of Tonka sure did. After waging robot warfare against Hasbro for the better part of the 1980s, Tonka was eventually bought out by it in 1991.
The Gobots trademarks have been sitting in a Hasbro sub-basement somewhere in Rhode Island collecting dust for the past 20 years as the Transformers have made $1.5 billion at the global box office in the past four. Occasionally some pop culture fanboy will make a Transformers joke at the Gobots' expense or make Guardian leader Leader-1 (yes, we know) look like an Optimus Prime wannabe, but Hasbro seems loath to transform the Gobots into anything other than '80s has-beens.
The Pontiac Fiero
'80s offender: General Motors (GM)
It was a two-seater, it had a mid-engine design that kept the motor between the front and rear axles like a Ferrari or Lamborghini and a chassis that made it a perfect fit for kits replicating the look of either of those Italian dream machines. Too bad it only had a four-cylinder engine when it arrived in 1984.
The Fiero looked '80s cheesy and was typical of the underpowered performance-ish cars of the era, but it was unappreciated in its time. From the plastic body panels that prevented dents and scratches but scared metal-bred gearheads to the seats with speakers installed in the headrests, the Fiero was thinking ahead while many of its other features were holding it behind.
The fuel crisis of the mid-'70s still had Detroit a little gun-shy about investing in sports cars, so Pontiac settled on a "sporty commuter" concept instead. The good news was that it got 40 miles to the gallon on the highway. The bad news was that the Fiero had no power steering, an insanely hot engine and a propensity for catching fire once that heat burned up much of the vehicle's oil, broke connecting rods and sprayed the remaining oil onto the engine or other toasty areas. Toyota's answer to the Fiero, the MR2, had similar problems but the publicity the Fiero was getting for its unorthodox features at the time also meant it was under a microscope once something went wrong.
"I'm old enough to remember when the Fiero was introduced, but I'm also old enough to remember the fires," says Brandy Schaffels, an analyst at automotive site TrueCar. "Everybody wanted to blame it on the design of the car and the position of the oil pan, and that contributed to it, but if you were driving a car like that, wouldn't you want to check your oil regularly enough to avoid such a rude awakening?"
General Motors and Pontiac eventually tweaked the Fiero, gave it a bigger V6 engine, made the body a little sleeker and sexier and improved the suspension, but it was all too late. By 1988, it was gone and the GM plant that produced it was shuttered.
Why it's not coming back
The easy answer is because Pontiac's not coming back. GM discontinued the Pontiac brand last year as part of its bankruptcy- and government-bailout-related restructuring and shows no signs of going back.
The other reason is that all of its best elements have been put to better use in other cars. The plastic body panels eventually made their way onto Saturn and can now be found on vehicles such as the Honda Element. Headrest speakers, meanwhile, found a home in the Honda S2000 sport coupe before becoming a common custom feature on the Mazda Miata. As for the engine, it's still done better by performance companies such as Lotus, Ferrari or Lamborghini, but Fieros have built a hard-core custom following that's not beyond dropping a new Camaro's 300-horsepower V6 into a tiny 25-year-old two-seater.
"The true performance enthusiasts loved it because it was mid-engine and that gave it a lower center of gravity and made it really fun to drive," Schaffels says. "There isn't anything else like it, but will they make another one? I haven't seen anything like that in the concepts that manufacturers have demonstrated."
'80s offender: Nintendo and Universal Pictures
The '80s were filled with films that were thinly veiled commercials. The entire premise of Mac and Me, for example, involved packing as many Skittles, Coca-Cola (KO) and McDonald's references into a movie as possible. That film had no stars and made no money, though, which made The Wizard's product-placing antics all the more egregious.
The Wizard featured then-Wonder Years star and current It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia director Fred Savage as the older brother of an autistic child who's a video game savant. When the little brother is placed in an institution, Savage and his friend (played by future Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis) bust him out. And then a bunch of other stuff happens. None of that, or the characters played by Beau Bridges, Christian Slater and Tobey Maguire, among others, are nearly as important as the wonderful products the audience sees them playing with along the way.
There's a whole contrived scene built around the game Rad Racer and a boy's obsessive love of '80s slang and a motion-control device called the Power Glove. There's yet another built around Nintendo's PlayChoice-10 arcade machines. The climax is not only set around nearly every attraction at Universal Studio's Hollywood, but in a final video game tournament showdown that revealed a then-unreleased Super Mario Brothers 3 to a captive American consumer base.
This on-screen issue of Nintendo Power raked in $14.3 million at the box office and still rates as one of the most shameless pieces of product-placement porn in film history.
Why it's not coming back
Years of film product placement tell us that movie audiences won't stop being marketed to anytime soon. It's just that the game has changed a bit.
The Super Mario Brothers, Street Fighter, Double Dragon, Tekken and Final Fantasy movies have shown audiences, filmmakers and video game companies alike that video game movies aren't always lucrative propositions. Director Uwe Boll has based an entire career on showing audiences just how bad video game movies can be by filming critically panned and largely unwatched movie versions of Infogrames' Alone in The Dark, Microsoft's In The Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Ripcord Games' Postal, Ubisoft's Far Cry and Majesco's BloodRayne. This man actually made a film version of Sega's House of the Dead, a game that involved only shooting at hordes of charging zombies with a light gun.
Even when these films are profitable, such as the Disney adaptation of Ubisoft's Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that made $335 million at the global box office last year, they are usually much more savvy about their partnerships. Prince of Persia, for example, partnered with Lego without a single building block appearing in the film.
Marvel's superhero films, meanwhile, work with marketing partners to make sure partnerships make sense. Marvel teams with 7-Eleven, Burger King (BKC) and Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) on every film, but a one-off partner such as Royal Purple Motor Oil, for example, was a great fit for Iron Man 2 because the film featured a race scene and needed an oil sponsor. If The Wizard was made today, the video games would be an element in a story about a boy and his autistic brother and not the reverse.
'80s offender: Midway, Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, etc.
Kids of the '80s remember when video games used to steal your money a quarter at a time instead of letting hackers take it all at once. That didn't necessarily make them better.
Whether gamers were just guiding Pac-Man around an infinite loop of mazes, pouring drafts with a tap-handle controller in Tapper or rolling the joystick into a ferocious uppercut in Street Fighter II, gamers were getting both a graphic and tactile experience that was poorly emulated anywhere else. The giant game cabinets, the sounds and the on-screen details were so important that home console makers such as Sega, Nintendo and SNK insisted on arcade versions of their games well after the '80s ended.
Walking into an arcade today is like taking a look at a 30-something's CD collection. It may be full of cool stuff that leaves you feeling nostalgic, but with few exceptions it clearly hasn't been maintained since the '90s. Dance Dance Revolution, Daytona USA and Virtua Cop machines sit frozen in time, while anything that could have been played on a 16-bit console looks like a museum exhibit. If it's not a stand-alone version of Big Buck Hunter or Golden Tee sitting in the corner of a bar somewhere, it's probably not getting played too often.
It's not just the arcades that are in peril, either. According to NPD Group, nearly 50% of all games downloaded from online sources are heading to smartphones or tablets. Console makers and developers are struggling to figure out how to get people to go to a store pay $50 for a game when games they get for $1 without moving from their seat keep them just as entertained.
Purists and old-timers say mobile devices and even home consoles can never fully emulate the arcade experience, and that a gamer really needs to feel and see an arcade machine to be a part of the game. They often say this while reading a newspaper or magazine or booking a vacation through a travel agent.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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