The Best Toys Of 2021

·12-min read
A selection of Transformers, Squishmallows, Pui Pui Molcars, kaiju, and spaceships making up Kotaku's 2021 toys of the year.
A selection of Transformers, Squishmallows, Pui Pui Molcars, kaiju, and spaceships making up Kotaku's 2021 toys of the year.


Where do we get these wonderful toys?

Thanks to the ongoing covid threat, 2021 was another banner year for sitting inside your house playing with lovely bits of colored plastic and cuddly plushies. That being the case, we thought we’d rustle up our picks for the best action figures, playsets, and building toys of the year, everything from transforming robots to mini stuffed animals, as well as at least one pooping turtle.

To be honest, this list is more my list than it is “our” list. As the oldest person currently on Kotaku’s staff, it’s my solemn duty to ensure that we, and by we I mean I, play with only the best children’s to–err, adult collectibles available. This is also why every other bit of media posted to my Twitter account is something like this:

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Let’s get to it, shall we?

Transformers Kingdom Titan Autobot Ark

An image of the Transformers toy Ark crashed into a faux volcano.
An image of the Transformers toy Ark crashed into a faux volcano.


And there it would stay for a million years.

Let’s get this ginormous robot out of the way so the rest of this year’s entries will fit. For nearly four decades, Transformers fans have been dreaming about the big orange spaceship that first brought the Autobots and Decepticons to Earth millions of years ago. For ages the Ark has been a half-disc-shaped spaceship, famously lodged in the side of a volcano. Now, thanks to the Transformers’ Kingdom line, the Ark has its own massive robot form.

You might want to stand back, this image is kind of big.

A photo of the 19-inch-tall Autobot Ark toy in robot form.
A photo of the 19-inch-tall Autobot Ark toy in robot form.


If only we could all have rocket engines in our shins.

Standing 19 inches tall and covered with cool details, the Ark’s robot form would have ended the conflict between the Autobots and Decepticons pretty damn quick had it existed in the original cartoon. This is a beast of a toy, so big that my original plan to photograph him for this year-end list was thwarted because I spend most of my time in a hospital bed and there was just not room for anything more than this head shot:

A close-up photo of the Transformers Ark robot's head.
A close-up photo of the Transformers Ark robot's head.


We’re going to need a bigger Covenant. You’ll get it in a minute.

Of course, with great size comes great pricing, which in this case is around $170. But hey, you can pull out his chest and transform it into a robot named Mainframe, which in turn transforms into Autobot computer Teletraan-1. Who can put a price on that sort of utility?

Hasbro can, and it’s still $170. Gonna put him back up on the top shelf and move on to smaller, mostly cheaper things.

PlayMonster’s Snap Ships

A promotional image for PlayMonster's Snap Ships showing spaceships, robots, and monsters doing battle.
A promotional image for PlayMonster's Snap Ships showing spaceships, robots, and monsters doing battle.


“Build to Battle” wins my best toy tagline award as well.

I’ve been playing with Snap Ships from PlayMonster since 2020, and I keep forgetting to tell people how good they are. They are so good. Snap Ships are part of a line of modular building toys you can use to put together all sorts of futuristic vehicles, from mechs and monsters to space fighters and cruisers. There’s a whole backstory involving an evil alien empire known as The Komplex and a human-lead alliance, The Forge, determined to resist the empire’s spread. The good guys are white and green, the bad guys are red and black, and both sides look super cool when assembled.

Two different Snap Ship sets side-by-side, one massive white and gray human ship, and the black and red cruiser of the evil aliens.
Two different Snap Ship sets side-by-side, one massive white and gray human ship, and the black and red cruiser of the evil aliens.


The good side stays good and the bad side stays bad.

The entire system is modular, so you can take ship parts from any set and combine them with any other parts, building your own personalized armada. The best thing about Snap Ships, aside from the cool designs, is that the sets are pretty inexpensive, ranging from $8 for smaller kits to $40 for the big mother…ships.

NECA Gargoyles Goliath

An image of NECA's highly-detailed Gargoyles Goliath action figure, purple with claws and wings and an angry face.
An image of NECA's highly-detailed Gargoyles Goliath action figure, purple with claws and wings and an angry face.


He was never quite this menacing in the cartoon.

Remember Gargoyles, the dark, mature, and complex Disney cartoon that was a contemporary of Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men? The one about the thousand-year-old stone statues that awaken in contemporary NYC and become the city’s protectors? That show had some amazing toys back in the day, but nothing as amazing as NECA’s new Goliath.

The obvious choice for the first figure in the Gargoyles line, Goliath is the leader of the infamous stoner group: massive, mighty, and just a little tragic. NECA’s highly detailed Goliath figure stands eight inches tall with an impressive wingspan to boot. Too scary for you? Swap out his face and hands and catch the stoic leader reading a good book.

 A less-scary photo of NECA's Gargoyles Goliath figure, reading a book.
A less-scary photo of NECA's Gargoyles Goliath figure, reading a book.


Who doesn’t love a good book?

Goliath is out now and runs about $35 or so at specialty toy stores. And don’t worry, he won’t be alone for long–Demona and Hudson figures are already in the works.

Lego Super Mario 64 Question Block

A photo of Lego's Mario 64 question block set with its three dioramas on display.
A photo of Lego's Mario 64 question block set with its three dioramas on display.


What’s in the box!?

There were so many good Lego sets released this year, from the inclusivity-celebrating Everyone Is Awesome collection of rainbow-colored minifigures to the outstanding Vintage Typewriter. From a pure gaming standpoint, however, nothing topped the incredibly intricate brick engineering of the Lego Super Mario 64 Question Block. On the outside, it’s a beautiful yellow cube with rivets and white question marks. Hidden inside are several small-scale scenes from the Nintendo 64 classic, including a tiny little version of Princess Peach’s castle.

A close-up photo of Princess Peach's castle from the Lego Mario 64 block.
A close-up photo of Princess Peach's castle from the Lego Mario 64 block.


Oh hey, it’s her pretty little head.

Not only is it filled with great gaming memories, but the set is also super fun to build. Watching the cube slowly take shape, fiddling with the little Mario bits. It took me a good weekend to put it all together (I’m getting slow), but it was a very good weekend indeed. Unfortunately, the $170 set is pretty hard to find right now. If you see one, snag it.

Transformers Studio Series ‘86 Movie Line

A close-up of Transformers Studio Series Wreck-Gar, featuring large erect chest guns.
A close-up of Transformers Studio Series Wreck-Gar, featuring large erect chest guns.


He’s happy to see us.

I’ve been avoiding Hasbro’s Studio Series figures for the past couple of years because they’ve mainly been about characters from the live-action movies, which I’m not too keen on. But this year’s ‘86 movie line, based on the original Transformers: The Movie animated feature, hit me right in the nostalgia gland.

The line features movie-accurate (or as accurate as Hasbro can get) versions of characters from the iconic film. Newcomers (at the time) like Hot Rod, Kup, and Nipples the Motorcycle (Wreck-Gar) are presented in movie-accurate colors, with little details pulled straight from the animation cels. As with other figures in the Studio Series, each comes packaged with a movie-inspired backdrop for photos and display.

A photo of Transformers Studio Series Slug and Hot Ride side-by-side, showing the Dinobot's massive size.
A photo of Transformers Studio Series Slug and Hot Ride side-by-side, showing the Dinobot's massive size.


I am so pleased with the size of this Dinobot my chest cannons are pointing in two directions.

Even better, the figures are in scale with one another. The original Dinobots were relatively small figures. The ‘86 Studio Series Hot Rod figure is six-and-a-half inches tall. Grimlock and Slug (aka Slag) are both eight-and-a-half inches in robot form, relatively towering over their fellow Autobots. Now all I need is a movie-accurate Optimus Prime corpse and I’ll be all set.

Titanic Creations Soul Wars Kaiju

A photo of Titanic Creations's Titanicus and Nosferadon figures, original kaiju with lots of cool details.
A photo of Titanic Creations's Titanicus and Nosferadon figures, original kaiju with lots of cool details.


His name is Titanicus, because the folks on the Titanic saw him and cussed.

Hooray for independent toymakers doing their own thing. Titanic Creations recently launched its Soul Wars series, a line of original kaiju creatures each with their own original backstory. For instance, Titanicus, who looks a bit like Godzilla with icebergs on his back. He first appeared in 1912 when he famously attacked the HMS Titanic. Experts in the kaiju sciences believe he was originally a superweapon created by the lost city of Atlantis.

A shot of Titanic Creations' Noferadon, a massive purple monster with wings and a long tail.
A shot of Titanic Creations' Noferadon, a massive purple monster with wings and a long tail.


Nosferadon, friend to children everywhere!

Then there’s Nosferadon, an alien monster who fell to Earth as an egg and befriended a young Jewish boy named Wolf in 1930s Germany. When Wolf’s parents were taken by German soldiers, Wolf and Nosferadon set off together to try and find them.

I love these figures. They are nice and big, both six inches tall and 12 inches long. They aren’t very articulated, but they’re quite detailed. And they come in these lovely simple boxes that contain just a plastic insert and the toy itself.

There are two more figures launching in the line early next year, including Griffixis, a birdlike kaiju who is the alien enemy of Nosferadon, and Skureaus, described as “the ultimate weapon of ancient Egypt.” I’m gonna collect the whole set.

Squishville

A photo of some of Jazware's Squishville sets, featuring tiny two-inch plushes and playsets.
A photo of some of Jazware's Squishville sets, featuring tiny two-inch plushes and playsets.


Hello there, my small squishy friends.

You may have heard of Squishmallows, the incredibly popular line of egg-shaped stuffed animals, plants, foodstuffs, and more from Jazwares. They come in various shapes and sizes, with prices ranging from a couple of bucks for tiny ones or $60 or so for the absolute units. They also take up a lot of room in my home, where my spouse has managed to collect over 100 of the damn things.

Enter Squishville, the new offshoot of Squishmallows featuring the same egg-shaped animals in more egg-appropriate sizes. These little cuties are two inches tall and come in packs of six for $15 or so. You can also buy little playsets for them to occupy, filled with furniture to play with and outfits to wear.

A selection of six fruit-based Squishville plushes, including watermelon, pineapple, pear, peach, strawberry, and orange.
A selection of six fruit-based Squishville plushes, including watermelon, pineapple, pear, peach, strawberry, and orange.


The small size means you can fit several in your mouth at once, kids!

Best of all, they don’t take up my entire living space. Our children can still move through the house without tripping over them, and my wheelchair readily runs them over instead of snagging them in its wheels.

52Toys’ Beastbox

Beastbox characters Thunderhoof and Demon Dart mint in sealed packages.
Beastbox characters Thunderhoof and Demon Dart mint in sealed packages.


There are boxes inside these boxes because they heard you liked boxes.

It’s about time I told you all about Beastbox. Created by a company called 52Toys (pronounced Five Two Toys), Beastbox is a line of robotic animals that transform into two-inch cubes. Yes, I know, that makes them technically the third transforming robot entry on this list, but these are not made by Hasbro and are very cool, so we’re doing this.

An assortment of Beastbox toys, robotic animals that transform into cubes.
An assortment of Beastbox toys, robotic animals that transform into cubes.


Fahey owns most of these. No you can’t play with them.

There are apes that transform into boxes. Also parrots, wolves, lions, sharks, monkies, owls, insects, dinosaurs, hippos, rhinos, and more, all changing from these highly detailed mechanical animals into these sleek little high-tech boxes.

A photo of a robotic Beastbox toy kangaroo next two a couple of stacked boxed figures.
A photo of a robotic Beastbox toy kangaroo next two a couple of stacked boxed figures.


Fahey’s latest three acquisitions, including the amazing robot kangaroo he calls Luke.

What makes them perfect for me, an obsessive collector of robot things, is that each character comes with a clear plastic box that is designed to interlock with other boxes. You can connect them side-to-side and top-to-bottom. You can build walls of these colorful plastic animal boxes. They don’t take up much room, and they generally cost around $20 to $30 apiece, so it’s easy to budget myself one a month, and then go over that budget. The only downside is these are imported, so you’ve either got to grab them from a specialty toy store or roll the dice on AliExpress.

Tomica Pui Pui Molcars

A photo of five Tomica Pui Pui Molcar vehicles, the Japanese eversion of Matchbox.
A photo of five Tomica Pui Pui Molcar vehicles, the Japanese eversion of Matchbox.


Just ignore the bit of red on my desk and focus on the guinea pig cars.

From the best anime series of 2021 comes the greatest ridiculously inexpensive imported toy cars of 2021. Pui Pui Molcar is a short-form stop-motion anime about a world where people drive around inside living guinea pigs. It’s ridiculously adorable. Since the series is from Japan and such quirky fare takes its time making its way to the West, I had to get my toy fix imported via the fine folks at Hobby Link Japan.

These five little cars are part of Takara Tomy’s Tomica toy car line, basically Japan’s answer to Matchbox. They are part of the Dream series, which features fanciful licensed designs. Each comes in a little box, perfect for storage and display.

A close-up of three Tomica Pui Pui Molcar vehicles staring at an odd red stain.
A close-up of three Tomica Pui Pui Molcar vehicles staring at an odd red stain.


Not at all sure what that is. Should they taste it?

What’s so lovely about the Pui Pui Molcar Tomica toys is they are heavy and die-cast, while the finish on the vehicles feels sort of soft. Not quite flocked and fuzzy, but the hint of a fur feel is there. They only cost like six bucks apiece, which is well inside my annual toy budget. Plus they each have a permanently surprised look, so you can pretend they are reacting to whatever that red thing is on my desk. What is that thing?

Little Live Pets Gotta Go Turdle

A photo of Gotta Go Turdle, a pink toy turtle that poops on its own clear toilet.
A photo of Gotta Go Turdle, a pink toy turtle that poops on its own clear toilet.


He’s so damn happy about pooping you guys.

You might be wondering why we’re looking at a pink, purple, and blue turtle sitting on a toilet. We are not. We are looking at a pink, purple, and blue TURDle, and it’s sitting on a transparent toilet, which is the best, most horrible sort of toilet imaginable. I shall now begin taking questions.

Q: What is the turtle’s name?

A: It is a TURDle, and its name is Shelbert.

Q: What does Shelbert eat?

A: Duh, pink Aqua Sand, like all turdles.

Q: What does Shelbert poop?

A: Just like humans, Shelbert poops exactly what he eats.

Q: Why is Shelbert’s neck so long?

A: To teach kids to use their pets’ necks as convenient carrying handles.

Q: Why is the toilet transparent?

A: Because all toilets should be.

No further questions, your honor.

As an adult whose children took years to potty train, I approve of any toy that helps remove some of the stigma from dropping a load of Aqua Sand into my clear acrylic toilet.


And that’s the toys that have kept me somewhat sane throughout this wacky year. Feel free to share your favorites in the comments. I’m always looking for recommendations. No seriously, always. It’s kind of a problem.

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