It’s known to gamers as being one of the worst video game companies of all time:
Originally a toy company, LJN got into the video game business during the 80s.
Typically they published games based on movies such as ‘Jaws’ or ‘Back to the Future’
But they also had a few sports titles as well. Generally the quality was…
Many times the game had nothing to do with the actual license and various games suffered from glitches or poor game design
The infamy of LJN rose significantly with the internet comedy series ‘Angry Video Game Nerd’
starring James Rolfe. The show is about a nerd who provides commentary on the worst video games he can find
Several of Rolfe’s episodes revolve around LJN games, and he jokingly states the company stands for ‘Laughing Joking Numbnuts’.
But you also have shows like the LJN Defender where host Matt Ezero
dissects games made by LJN and tries to find the good in each of them. The legend of LJN grows within the gaming community,
but LJN was more than just a video game company.
And the story of their rise and fall is actually quite interesting.
So today on Gaming Historian, we’ll be looking at the history of LJN.
In Queens, New York,
1939, Jack Friedman was born.
Raised by a single mother, Jack had a love for classic toys such as yo-yos and diecast cars
He knew at a young age that he wanted to work with toys the rest of his life.
After World War II, the American economy continued to trend upward.
Soldiers returning from the War could get education with the GI bill
or easily get a small business loan to start a company. It was at this time many industries grew significantly
including the toy industry
In the 60s, Jack Friedman got a job as a sales representative for Norman J Lewis Associates,
a toy company based out of New York City.
Jack would travel the east coast selling stuffed animals and novelty toys to stores.
He loved the job, but Friedman wanted more
He had ambitions to start his own toy company. With a financial backing from his boss, Norman J Lewis,
Friedman formed the toy company ‘LJN’.
What did it stand for? It was simply his former boss’ initials backwards.
Friedman saw potential in pop culture with his toys, soon his company would focus heavily on licensed characters
and it became very successful. So what kind of toys did LJN make?
Well I’ve got my friend and toy expert Pixel Dan here to give us the details.
– Thanks Norm! Hey guys, Pixel Dan here. So LJN, while not one of the largest toy companies,
still produced many notable lines of action figures all throughout the 1980s.
Among those toy lines, we got some action figures from some of the most popular movies at the time,
like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,
E.T. and even Gremlins, a movie that probably shouldn’t have had a line of action figures considering
it is partially responsible for the PG-13 rating we now have today.
But aside from some of those big movies, LJN also gave us some of the smaller action figure lines
that were still very cool like Bionic 6 and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
But we definitely can’t talk about LJN’s toy lines without talking about some of their more popular lines such as
Any Pro Wrestling fan most likely remembers this toy line fondly as it was one of the very first lines of
action figures to give us some of our favorite WWF superstars in action figure form.
We got these large rubberized wrestlers so that we can recreate matches in our own living rooms.
And then of course there is arguably the most popular toy line that LJN produced: Thundercats.
Now, of course, anybody who is my age probably remembers the
Thundercats cartoon series and these action figures from LJN were the perfect companion piece
to recreate Lion-O’s adventures right there in our own homes.
Back to you, Norm.
– Okay… thanks Dan! By the mid-1980s, LJN was a very successful company which put them in the crosshairs of
much larger companies such as MCA, who is mostly known for owning Universal Films.
MCA was run by a man named Sid Sheinberg, the same guy who unsuccessfully sued Nintendo over Donkey Kong.
Sheinberg saw LJN as the perfect way to increase profits significantly.
Universal would make a movie, LJN could make the toy line, and both profits would go to MCA.
Not only that but LJN was beginning to make moves to enter the videogame industry which MCA had interest in as well.
In 1985, MCA officially acquired LJN for a total of $67m.
It was a huge success for Jack Friedman, but he wasn’t happy.
Friedman had to relocate to California after the acquisition, and he felt like he wasn’t in control anymore.
Two years later, in 1987, Jack Friedman left LJN.
As I mentioned earlier it was at this time LJN started getting into video games.
LJN even came out with a game console in 1987.
‘LJN Video Art’. Although, it was never meant to compete with the NES.
It was basically a paint program on your TV. Kids could color or draw pictures on the screen
Just like their toy lines they focused mostly on licensed entertainment. One thing to note is
LJN never actually developed any of these games, rather they simply published them.
Some companies that developed for LJN include Atlas and Rare.
But a few developers went totally uncredited which was somewhat common at the time.
But are these games really as bad as people say they are? Does LJN deserve its reputation?
Well I actually do own a few LJN games on the NES, so let’s take a look at a few.
Let’s start with Major League Baseball. This game actually has the license to all the Major League teams
but not the actual players. Still it’s nice I can play as my Kansas City Royals.
Sadly that’s the best part about this game. It’s super glitchy and it suffers from extreme
slowdown. In fact one time, I hit a two-run home run. It’s because the ball got stuck in the wall.
Next up, we’ve got Karate Kid, based on the hit movie series.
It’s a side-scrolling action game similar to Kung Fu. One common complaint in this game
is that when you get hit you get knocked back. It can make travelling through the stages somewhat difficult.
You also have several bonus stages where you have to catch flies with chopsticks, break ice or dodge a swinging hammer.
Overall the game is short and fairly easy.
Let’s move on to NFL. Again, the game has an official license, but doesn’t use the actual players.
Oh boy, this game is rough. It’s extremely slow, the controls are very confusing and play-calling is…
Well, I’m not really sure what play I’m calling. This game has a learning curve. Out of the box you really will have no idea
what’s going on. I’d stick to Tecmo Bowl.
Finally let’s take a look at T&C Surf Designs, based on a surfing apparel company of the same name. There are two modes to play:
Skateboarding or surfing. In skateboarding you have to dodge obstacles and make jumps to reach the end.
In surfing you have to stay on the board as long as possible. I actually kind of like T&C Surf Designs.
It’s colorful and fun to play with friends.
I wish I could show you Jaws because I actually really enjoy this game, but my copy no longer works.
Now those are only the LJN games that I own, but they did put out a bunch more.
So let’s move on. What happened next for LJN?
What goes up must come down. Believe it or not, the downfall of LJN was not because of the games they published,
but rather a line of toys they produced.
In 1986, LJN created a brand of toy water guns under the name ‘Entertech’.
Any kid growing up in the 1980s may remember these commercials.
– [commercial] The fight, the feel,
the sound, so real!
– [voiceover] These water guns were battery-powered and were known for looking extremely realistic. The toys were initially a success,
but their realistic look caused problems.
Reports around the country began popping up about children playing with realistic toy guns getting accidentally shot by police officers.
Not only that but criminals were using them in robberies. People were petitioning for the toys to be banned.
Several major cities across the country, including San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit,
signed a bill that banned the sale and use of realistic-looking toy guns.
LJN soon remade the guns in bright neon colors, but the damage had been done.
The public had lost interest in the toy and LJN profits plummeted.
Another line of toy guns from Entertech known as ‘Gotcha! The Sport!’ also resulted in losses.
These were, believe it or not, paintball guns marketed towards kids.
They were based on the comedy movie Gotcha from 1985.
LJN even released an NES game based on the toy line. However many units were returned to stores because they were faulty.
LJN lost $35m due to the returns.
MCA had had enough. In 1990 they sold LJN to Acclaim Entertainment for an undisclosed amount.
Acclaim quickly closed their toy division, and LJN became exclusively a video game publisher.
This allowed Acclaim to increase their output of games.
Nintendo had strict regulations on how many games a publisher could make for their system each year.
Eventually, Nintendo dropped this quality control rule and LJN completely folded into Acclaim in 1995.
The once successful toy company was suddenly no more.
The last known game from LJN was, oddly enough, a Dreamcast game known as ‘Spirit of Speed 1937’,
released 5 years after the company folded. There’s no information on why Acclaim decided to use the
LJN name to publish this game.
Maybe they wanted to keep themselves as far away from the title as possible.
Spirit of Speed1937 was rated the worst game of 2000 by Gamespot.
As for Jack Friedman, the original founder of LJN,
in 1990 he formed a new company known as Toy Headquarters, but many of you know it as THQ.
THQ made toys and video games
but eventually went to strictly video games in 1994. With the full-time switch to video games,
Friedman saw how much more advanced the game industry was becoming, and no longer felt comfortable running the company.
He soon left THQ. The following year he founded a new toy company, JAKKS Pacific.
The company is still around today and has licenses for many popular franchises, including Nintendo
and Star Wars.
Sadly, in 2010, Jack Friedman passed away at the age of 70 due to a rare blood disorder.
He was known for his smart business moves and
contributions to charity throughout his life. Said journalist Stephanie Finnegan, he had an ‘eye for talent’.
The next time you see that LJN rainbow on your game cartridge, maybe you’ll remember them for more than just their video games.
That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian. Thanks for watching!