The 1980s brought us the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Walkman, Transformers, and … adorable animal figurines? Looking back, the decision to launch Calico Critters—a line of wholesome mammal figures sporting 1950s-style outfits—in an era when toys increasingly lit up and plugged in seems like quite the gamble. But that’s exactly what Japanese gaming company Epoch did. And more than three decades later, it’s clear the bet paid off.
Soft and simple Calico Critters took the toy market by storm, spreading across the globe and racking up awards. Even all these years later, kids around the world play make-believe with the help of the iconic brand.
Like so many of the world’s favorite toys and games, Calico Critters hail from Japan. They made their debut in 1985, and before long, parent company Epoch began to export the brand. The Critters swiftly became a hit in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere. As they expanded their empire, Calico Critters won mountains of awards, including Toy of the Year for three consecutive years.
If you’re looking for Calico Critters anywhere outside the U.S. or Canada, you won’t get very far. In the rest of the world, the figures are known as Sylvanian Families.
The term “Sylvanian” is derived from the English word sylvan, an adjective used to describe things associated with the forest. The members of Sylvanian Families, appropriately, live in the “idyllic land of Sylvania,” an imaginary woods. In North America, meanwhile, the Critters call Calico Village home.
When you buy a Calico Critter, you don’t just get a blank slate. Critters come with jobs, hobbies, and character traits. Splashy Otter Mother is “always smiling,” for example, while her daughter Splashy Otter Baby Girl “loves looking at fish.”
The attention to detail is part of what makes Calico Critters so appealing to kids and parents alike. Calico Village is a fully functioning town, featuring flower shops, grocery markets, and even a department store.
Since their inception in the ’80s, the Calico Critters universe has expanded far beyond dogs and rabbits. Sure, there are still Labradors and cats, but shoppers now also have their choice of hedgehogs, alpacas, and kangaroos, to name a few. The expansion makes sense: In their 30-plus-year run, more than 120 million Calico Critters have been sold.
The emphasis on traditional, “never trendy” values hasn’t stopped Calico Critters from starring in their own Netflix show. One season is already streaming, with more on the way. The three-minute episodes feature riveting plotlines such as “Mrs. Sweetpea’s Birthday Party” (Parts 1 and 2) and “Busy! Having Fun Making Pizza.”
The Netflix series isn’t the Critters’ first foray onto the silver screen. All the way back in 1987, another animated program earned a 13-episode run.
That is, if they’re rare, swaddled with their original packaging, and in pristine condition. One seller asked for more than £1000 (around $1300) in exchange for a first-edition windmill house that hadn’t yet been taken out of the box. Meanwhile, character figures have raked in more than £500 (nearly $700) apiece.
Until January 2021, shoppers at the World Porters mall in Yokohama, Japan, could grab lunch at Sylvanian Families Kitchen, a full buffet that served up everything from pizza to dumplings. From floor (where full-sized dolls dined next to their human counterparts) to ceiling (where Critters surveyed their dominion from two hot air balloons), Calico Critters were everywhere. Diners who timed their visit right even got the chance to meet the Calico Critter mascot.
Though the restaurant has closed, Calico Critter fans can still visit other themed attractions. At Japan’s Sylvanian Park, for example, visitors can see life-sized Calico Critter houses and interact with a number of familiar furry faces. The beloved toys also feature in various pop-up events throughout the world.