“Wee-tah-kah-wee-loo” (tell me a story) as we take a trip down memory lane to look at the furry and frightening world of Furbies. With their own bizarre language and the sinister idea they would one day rise up and go full Westworld on us all, these robotic owls were under every Christmas tree of the late ’90s.
Although the humble Furby looked like a cute addition to the family, there was something more to their glazed expression and ability to bite down on your finger when you least expected it. Coming hand in hand with the Furby was a flurry of myths and the unnerving fact they’d randomly wake up in the middle of the night to terrify you.
So, how did something so creepy become so popular, and where are millions of Furbies nowadays? Forget Tamagotchis, here’s whatever happened to Furbies.
One Small Step For Furby
When the Furby first appeared at 1998’s American International Toy Fair, few realised what this rocking robot was about to do to the world of toys. Although they were priced at a pretty hefty $35, Furbies flew off shelves to become the must-have toy of the year and unsurprisingly took the holiday season by storm.
Despite their cute exterior, early Furby descriptions dubbed them “cute, yet vaguely menacing”. As you can see from co-creator Caleb Chung’s very first Furby, it looks a little different to the one that made it into full-scale production
However, the finished product and its variety of different designs made Furbies a runaway success. 1.8 million were sold in 1998, but remembering they were only available in the final few months of the year, that makes the figure even more impressive. Tiger Electronics bagged an eye-watering 14 million Furby sales in 1999 and rounded off its first three years with over 40 million.
The idea was these cuddly critters were more than just another talking toy, thanks to promises Furbies could actually learn. I never managed to crack it (mainly because I couldn’t be arsed), but Furbies were supposed to evolve from their gibberish Furbish and start spouting English — or whatever language from the country you bought them.
This led to some pretty hilarious consequences. In 2000, one Wal-Mart store in Pennsylvania removed its entire stock when parents claimed Furbies has been teaching their kids swear words. According to CBC, the “hug me” phrase sounded like something a little more X-rated.
There was another problem considering you couldn’t turn Furbies off. The only way to shut these bickering robots up was to physically remove the batteries and effectively ‘kill’ them — something kids didn’t take too kindly to.
Sadly, it was a case of what comes up, must come down. Chung blamed an oversaturation of the market, and by the early ’00s, no one gave a flying Furby about the once adored toy.
I’ll Be Back
Tiger Electronics tried to keep a grip on the market with a number of adaptations. Chances are, if you’ve got a Friend of Furby still lying around, it’ll be worth a small fortune. Cashing in on pop culture, Friends of Furby included Gizmo (inspired by the movie Gremlins) a Star Wars Yoda variation, and a Furby modelled on E.T.
Aside from rumours of foul language, the American government also cracked down on Furbies over fears they posed a security risk. The NSA famously banned them from entering buildings amidst whispers they could listen to conversations. It was clear a revamp or redesign was needed as kids grew bored of their fluffy friends and started to toss them on the heap of misfit toys.
The first big change came in 2005 with the release of the Emoto-Tronic Furbies. These were effectively Furby 2.0 and a vast improvement on the original model. As well as being larger than their predecessors, Emoto-Tronic Furbies had a wider vocabulary, human voice recognition, and could communicate with other Emoto-Tronic Furbies for a number of annoying conversations.
The Emoto-Tronic Furbies also forced the original further into the depths of nostalgia by refusing to communicate with earlier versions. While the 2005 Furby was arguably bigger and better, it was much of the same as Furbies started to slip off shelves once again.
What Is Dead May Never Die
With more lives than the average cat, Furbies once again rose from the electronics graveyard in 2012. Hoping to bring those hamster-owls to a whole new generation, Hasbro relaunched the Furby line with a host of millennial additions like LCD eyes and a mobile app to take the bots on the move.
Think of them as the 2019 reboot of the Child’s Play franchise. In fact, 2012 Furbies could’ve been the basis for the latest iteration of Chucky. These chubby Furbies really amped up the owl characteristics of the original — with a pretty big twist.
Although the first generation of Furby could adjust its personality slightly, the 2012 reboot developed depending on how you treated it. Imagine an aggressive and parent-hating Furby if you kept chucking it in the cupboard.
Hasbro’s line expanded into the pint-sized Furby Party Rockers and 2013’s Furby Boom. Furby Boom had even more colour options and personalities, boasting a whole new iOS and Android app. As the most intelligent Furby yet, the Boom could remember its own name and other Furbies it had met.
The Future’s Furby
In more recent years, Furbies have found a new lease of life with 2016 Furby Connect. The suped-up version of the 2012 model is even more expressive and has an odd plastic joystick on its head.
Being able to connect to a whole world of “Furblings” through the app means Hasbro has dragged this relic into the 21st Century. However, unlike other versions, they only come with a single personality. You can still buy Furby Connect, but what about all those millions of Furbies from yesteryear?
The worry is these giant Furby graveyards will soon resurrect the once-forgotten beasts. These days, there are a number of crepy crazes when it comes to Furbies. Furby hacking is a big thing and involves anything from flaying their furry carcasses to installing your own computer programmes. Check out this horrifying choir of Furby zombies.
Elsewhere, we’ve already covered the weirdest subreddits out there and highlighted r/LongFurbies. Taking Furby dissection to the next level, there’s a subculture of Dr. Frankensteins that butcher their Furbies and turn them into elongated nightmares.
With each passing year, the number of Furbies continues to grow. Furbies aren’t just lurking in the back of your wardrobe though. Various museums and installations (including London’s V&A) have Furbies on display as an important part of toy history.
Even though Furby Connect sales continue to dwindle and the latest generation of Furby favourites joins its forgotten cousins, let’s not pretend the Furby won’t be making a comeback in the near future. Until then, head onto eBay and see what your 1998 version is worth nowadays. Chances are, you can fetch a pretty penny for those blabbering birds.
[Featured Image: Tiger Electronics/Hasbro]