The way Marblehead resident Bob Welch thinks about it, the creation of 2023 National Toy Hall of Fame nominee Bop It — perhaps his crowning achievement in his decades as a game designer — is like those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials, where chocolate and peanut butter collide serendipitously, and the mash-up is where the magic happens.
On one of his standard scouting missions, Welch’s Parker Brothers colleague and fellow Marblehead resident Tom Dusenberry met with inventor Dan Klitsner.
As Klitsner explained to the magazine Toy Book back in 2021, he had been tinkering with a line of toylike universal television remote controls as part of his freelance work for the electronics company Memorex. One of his concepts was the “channel bopper,” which would allow children to move up or down the dial by hitting opposite sides of the device with a hammer and pulling on the end of it to turn the TV on or off.
Parker Brothers could not quite see the market for the TV remote. However, when Welch caught wind of Klitsner’s technology, it occurred to him that it might marry up well with an idea he had been noodling to create a rhythmic call-and-response game.
Welch took Klitsner’s idea and turned it into what became known as the Bop It, which was first released in 1996 and, as of 2019, had sold over 30 million units worldwide.
For the uninitiated, Bop It — quite intentionally, according to Welch — is a device you hold in your hands like a musical instrument. Once a game is underway, a voice — Welch’s in the original Bop It — barks out one of three commands: “bop it,” meaning “press the large button”; “twist it,” with “it” being a lever; or “pull it,” meaning the handle on the other end.
Tension mounts as the beat accelerates and the commands come more quickly. Inevitably, the player makes the wrong move or responds too slowly, causing the device to emit a scream, which was Welch’s idea.
That scream might “drive parents crazy” after a while, Welch admits, but it is what kept the more important audience — kids — coming back for more.
“The fact that it is super fun to lose is one of the things that made it a big hit,” he says.
The Bop It was one of 12 finalists for the 2023 National Toy Hall of Fame announced last month. In celebration of the National Toy Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary, fans were given the opportunity to vote online to induct one of the “forgotten” five — the Susan Lucci of toys that earned repeated nominations but never quite got the nod from the national selection advisory committee. Those toys are the pogo stick, the Fisher-Price Corn Popper, My Little Pony, PEZ dispensers and Transformers.
Bop It is vying with 11 other toys for one of three tickets into the hall chosen the traditional way, by expert judges. The competition is fierce. The other toys up for consideration are baseball cards, Battleship, bingo, Cabbage Patch Kids, Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, Connect 4, the Ken doll, Little Tykes Cozy Coupe, Nerf toys, slime and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The lingering buzz from this summer’s blockbuster “Barbie” film may boost Ken’s candidacy, but will it be “Kenough” to put the toy over the top? Even if it is, can Bop-It snag one of the other spots? With the induction ceremony scheduled for Nov. 9, we will know the answers soon.
According to the Toy Hall of Fame’s website, the judging criteria are “icon-status,” “longevity,” “discovery,” meaning the toy fosters learning or creativity; and “innovation.”
Bop It backers can point to the variations of the original toy that have been spawned over the years, along with its purported benefits with hand-eye coordination, focus and attention, and sensory motor integration.
After being established in 1998 in a Salem, Oregon children’s museum, the National Toy Hall of Fame moved in 2002 to its permanent home, the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
Welch is a Rochester native, and the Bop It brought him an initial wave of fame, including a story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and segments on the local news, when sales first took off. Though he is not banking on it in Bop It’s first turn as a nominee, Welch says it would be a special thrill to return to Rochester as a conquering hero of sorts.
It was the chance to work at Parker Brothers, which had its manufacturing plant in Salem and headquarters in Beverly, that first brought Welch to Marblehead more than 30 years ago.
Over the years, Welch has worked on hundreds of card games, handheld electronics and other toys. He has helped create games with licensing tie-ins to well-known properties like “Winnie the Pooh” and “Jurassic Park,” which made them guaranteed big sellers. Welch worked with video games for about a decade, including on the popular “Rollercoaster Tycoon.”
But as a cultural phenomenon, nothing quite compares to Bop It, which has been referenced in an Adult Swim cartoon and spawned a “Saturday Night Live” parody. Very recently, Cody Ko, a YouTube star with over six million subscribers, brought Bop It back into the zeitgeist with a thumping dance track and accompanying video, just another twist in the toy’s extended history.
Professionally, Welch is “winding down a little bit,” doing some consulting but otherwise passing the baton to a younger generation of game designers.
But with his projects, Welch has brought more than his fair share of joy into the world and, particularly in the case of Bop It, has had that joy reflected back to him.
“It’s been a fun career,” he says.