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In the beginning, there was the NERF Ball, a polyurethane foam sphere that could be tossed around the living room without threatening mom's Hummel figurines. It was followed in the 1990s by a line of goofy, plastic NERF launchers that lobbed foam balls and arrows.
Flash-forward to today's NERF arsenal: The N-Strike Stampede ECS blaster, unveiled for the first time on July 15, looks for all the world like a colorful version of a Special Forces assault rifle. A shooter can steady the blaster on its bipod and swap in replaceable clips that each hold 18 foam "darts," which it spits out in rapid-fire, using battery power. An earlier NERF gun, the Longstrike CS-6, fires darts up to 35 feet. Its similarity to the real-life Russian Dragunov sniper rifle is uncanny.
NERF, the 41-year-old action unit of Hasbro (HAS), is just one of several toy companies engaged in an arms race to appeal to a clientele raised on video games. Mt. Laurel (N.J.)-based Buzz Bee Toys offers the motorized Automatic Tommy 20 that shoots 20 foam darts. Air Zone, a Toys "R" Us brand, has the Punisher Gatling Blaster, with a power trigger that can launch 30 darts in succession. "If it doesn't look cool, feel cool, the child doesn't want to play with it," says Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimetoPlayMag.com, a website that covers toys and family entertainment. "You have to compete in that arena."
Hasbro's overall sales in boy's products fell 34 percent in the second quarter of 2010, from the same period in 2009, mostly because of a lapse in sales following excitement in 2009 over the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies.
Paced by the N-Strike line—introduced in 2004 to capitalize on consumer interest in those Transformers and G.I. Joe fantasy toy lines—NERF sales evidently did not falter. Hasbro officials won't give out specific numbers, but say that NERF's sales have grown at a 30 percent compounded annual rate for the past four years. For his part, Silver estimates that the unit's sales have shot from $40 million to $150 million over the past five years.
"It's taking what they're seeing in movies and what they love and letting them have an active, fun, play experience with it," says Jonathan Berkowitz, NERF's global brand director. "We've become a lot more of an action sports brand for kids, for tweens and teens."
"NERF is a superstar," said Brian Goldner, Hasbro's president and chief executive officer, during a July 19 earnings call.
To emphasize the edginess of the brand, say company officials, NERF last year revived its 1990s slogan, "It's NERF or Nothin'!" Today, while some NERF lines still resemble the old-style blasters, the N-Strike line boasts some of the brand's biggest sellers. Last year's hit, the Raider Rapid Fire CS 35, featured a drum magazine with 35 foam darts and a pump-action handle to control the rate of fire. The Stampede, which will go on sale in the U.S. in early September, builds on that design with a removable shield to protect against opponents' darts and a bipod that can be converted into a handle.
The Stampede is "more complexly built than, I'm sure, most of the assault rifles [in] our military," quips Kyle VanHemert, 23, a reporter for the gadget blog Gizmodo. His post on the Stampede's introduction features a video of a blind-folded victim being pelted with a fusillade of darts. "It makes you wonder if kids would just be bored with the NERF guns of yesteryear," he says.
To hammer home the link with video gaming, Electronic Arts (ERTS) two years ago began selling the first of two NERF N-Strike games for the popular Nintendo (NTDOF) Wii player. The NERF N-Strike Elite game offers to deliver "a blend of covert operation elements with over-the-top blasting missions," according to the Nintendo website.
The movement toward a more military style of play concerns some. Toy guns increase children's gravitation toward violence, contends Diane Levin, founder of Somerville (Mass.)-based Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment. "If you look at a NERF gun from 10 years ago, you realize how much it's escalated," says Levin. "They used to look so different from real guns."
The N-Strike line has plenty of fans, too. The NERF fan page has acquired more than 25,000 supporters on Facebook since the company first appeared on the site in November 2009. Says NERF's Berkowitz: "The first thing I do when I come to work is check YouTube" (GOOG) to read what customers are saying and learn more about what they want.