Nerf Brand Values Stretched Thin for Licensed Products

You expect certain things from Nerf. You don't always get it.

Nerf Single Blockade
Nerf Single Blockade.

Hauck of Germany. Perpetual Play Group of Australia. Worlds Apart of the United Kingdom. You may not have heard of these companies, but if you're a fan of Nerf, the products they produce might be more familiar than you are aware--these are all companies who have been licensed to create and sell products bearing the Nerf brand name, which is owned by Hasbro of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The good news is that by partnering with companies that can produce things more cost-effectively than Hasbro ever could, we get to see more products released within the Nerf ecosystem.

And while some of licensed Nerf products are quite interesting, the bad news is that not every product bearing the Nerf name is worthy of the classic yellow and red logo. In fact, some of them are just plain bad. And that's all the more reason you need to know about them.

Nerf Single Blockade

The easily forgotten Nerf Single Blockade and it's brother, the Double Blockade, were made by a company called Worlds Apart. You can't buy them anymore, but when you could buy one, they costs $19.99. For that price, you got a thin, polyester “wall” roughly 40” wide by 28” in height. The barrier has a small hole to shoot through, and a dart-holding pocket on the back. A lightweight, plastic frame is intended to keep it open and upright. It's seemingly meant to be planted in the ground outdoors, and no form of base is provided for indoor deployment.

In use (yes, we actually bought one... with our own money, even), the blockade was surprisingly small--as in, smaller than your living room TV--with a poorly printed fabric loosely supported by a frame that refused to stay straight.

The blockade didn’t actually rip or tear or completely fall apart, but we only used it once because it was so small, and so much of a pain to keep upright and open. This unit is clearly a “made to a price, not a standard” item that wasn't worth the money even when new.

Nerf N-Strike Walkie Talkies

Now here's an infamous Nerf licensed "classic," of sorts.

At roughly $20.00 per pair, these N-Strike-branded, “1,000 foot range” Nerf walkie talkies might have seemed like a reasonably good purchase. But as we quickly discovered (yes, we bought a couple pairs of these, too), not everything with the “Nerf” name performs with the expected level of Nerf quality. Upon opening the package, we noticed that the headsets were largely constructed of hard plastic, with nary a trace of the trademark Nerf foam in sight (or feel). They have belt clips, but those are largely pointless because the handsets are too large and heavy to clip onto anything but an adult-size belt (remember, these were presumably marketed to children, since most adults would simply rely on cell phones or high quality units from Midland, etc.).

And while these units physically resemble walkie talkies from the 1980s, it turned out they performed that way, too. The walkie talkies emitted a constant hash of background noise so strong, it was difficult for us to hear each other, much less carry on a useful conversation. The range of the units might well be 1,000 feet as advertised, but using them at even 100 feet was so difficult, it wasn’t worth trying to find out.

Sure, it could be that these units were defective, but the fact that they perform exactly like similar-looking units from 30 years ago tells us they’re working as intended, to a specification that apparently hasn’t changed in decades.

And that’s the problem here—these units were clearly built to a price based on ancient technology (in an overseas factory run by Hasbro’s licensee, Sakar International), and not to a proper Nerf standard. In so doing, they lose any hint of being a true Nerf product in the way that most people would expect. They don’t perform well, they’re ergonomically challenged, they don’t utilize the ubiquitous Nerf foam, and they don’t even take their end-users (children) into consideration in form or function. At the original $19.99-24.99 asking price, they are a very poor value. And even at the discounted price of just $7.99 a pair we once saw over the holidays, they are still no bargain.

Nerf Zombie Strike Hammer Combat Kit

Here's a product made by Perpetual Play Group, a group that works more closely with the design team at Hasbro in Rhode Island than some licensees.

PPG is known for their foam-based melee weapons, (the idea being that you need to do something with the hand that's not busy holding a blaster), and this product is no exception. The Zombie Strike Z.E.D. Squad Hammer Combat Kit gets the “kit” part of its name from the fact that it includes not just a cool-looking foam hammer, but also a kind of “Bane meets Borderlands” faux gas mask. That’s a bit less of a “kit” than we would actually like (maybe if Perpetual Play Group had thrown in a Z-Bomb or an ammo pack, we would think the kit description to be more appropriate, but that would likely have raised the price, which we’ll soon see is already a concern). The hammer part of the Combat Kit is modeled in the same post-apocalyptic, battle-worn style as other Zombie Strike gear. It has the appearance of having been cobbled together using pieces of old iron pipes and connectors, wrapped with wire for a handle, and using an old brick for the head. The mask part of the kit is suitably creepy-looking, though it doesn’t have the same “made in an alley” feel as the hammer, and as such, seems a bit out-of-place. Both the hammer and the mask are made of Perpetual Play’s near-ubiquitous EVA foam, with the hammer using a plastic internal spine for stiffness, and the mask featuring dual elastic retention bands to keep it secured to your face.

In use for HvZ warfare, or simply for comical intimidation purposes, we found the hammer to be a lot of fun. It’s too soft and lightweight to actually hurt anyone, yet it still looks fearsome. In addition, we found it could be thrown much more easily than any other Nerf melee weapon to-date, given that the bulk of the hammer’s weight is found in the “brick” end. The T-shaped “pipe” at the bottom of the handle helps ensure the hammer doesn’t easily fall out-of-hand, though some may find that it hampers throws somewhat. Overall though, we really like the look, feel, and even the utility of the hammer, given that it can be used close-in, or as a makeshift projectile.

As for durability, that remains to be seen, but we didn’t have any issues in the year or so we’ve been playing around with it, apart from some minor paint flaking on the “wire grip” part of the handle.

The mask included with the Hammer Combat Kit is, unfortunately, a little underwhelming. It’s clearly sized for children, and although it has good details and modeling, the color palette doesn’t seem to fit the grunge vibe of other Zombie Strike pieces (particularly the hammer, crowbar, chainsaw, etc.), though the orange version looks a bit better in that regard than the blue one we had on-hand. We’re also unsure of how durable the mask will be over time, given that the elastic bands are only held in place via non-reinforced slits in the mask’s foam tabs. And, as might be expected, actually wearing the mask hinders one’s ability to breathe, so don’t expect to use it much during actual gameplay. Repainted as part of a cosplay costume, it could be cool. But overall, we’d have preferred the mask either be designed a bit more appropriately for a wider audience, or simply not be part of this “kit” at all.

So, we really like the hammer… it looks fantastic, it’s fun to wield, and it fits the Zombie Strike theme especially well–Perpetual Play Group has absolutely nailed the “what do I do with my free hand?” question with this piece, and we feel like it’s a very nice complement to the Zombie Strike line, as a whole--the time spent with the Nerf team at Hasbro is evident here. On the other hand, the mask feels like an afterthought, and it raises the price of the kit to a level that makes it less of an impulse purchase, particularly when $20 will still buy a pretty nice blaster. But in the end, we liked the Hammer Combat Kit well enough that we bought it with our own money. And while it’s a bit much to pay for any foam toy, we can at least say we’ve got probably the best pretend hammer money can buy.

Nerf Battle Racer

Here's a funny story about the Nerf Battle Racer made by Hauck of Germany. While being given a tour of the Nerf booth at Toy Fair 2016 by the VP of Hasbro's Nerf division, the VP stopped at one point and asked if we'd seen the new Nerf go-kart. That wouldn't have been an odd question, were it not for the fact that he, himself, seemed to have only just found out about it--and this was the top guy at Nerf. To put it more bluntly, it appeared (whether true or not) that the man who is in charge of all things Nerf barely even knew about the Nerf Battle Racer, much less had any involvement in its development.

That's not to say the Nerf Battle Racer is inherently bad. Consumer review are generally positive, so far, and though we didn't try it out ourselves (the weight limit is 110lbs., and I'm at about 180lbs.), if you want to see a semi-grown adult giving it a go, there's no shortage of YouTube coverage. Still, the coordination required to both drive and shoot at the same time seems only marginally worse than texting while driving. And remember, this is designed for younger kids, who aren't exactly known for being especially coordinated. Also, at a $250 retail price, the Nerf Battle Racer seems a bit expensively priced for something non-powered, and that most kids will probably jump right off as soon as the darts start flying. Perhaps it was just as well the Nerf blaster team didn't have a hand in this one.

Ball Cannon

If you weren't deterred at the idea of spending $250 on a Nerf-branded item with the Nerf Battle Racer, how about spending half-a-grand on one? That's what Fred Hafer Jr. of Wyomissing, PA, hopes fans of sports and fans of Nerf will be willing to invest in his $500 Nerf football launcher called the "Ball Cannon," a contraption that Hafer invented and built himself. Having spent 8 years perfecting a prototype, Hafer took his invention to Hasbro and was able to secure a license to link the Nerf brand name with his product. Units only began shipping on April 11, 2016, so we've not yet spent any time with one (and at $500 a piece, we don't exactly expect Hafer to be handing out review samples, either). Hafer claims the Ball Cannon is well-built, with durable materials and high-end electronics. And for the price, one would certainly hope so. At least the Ball Cannon allows the user to adjust the speed and distance the football is thrown, so kids and pros alike can get some use out of it. But we suspect there will be more colleges and high school football teams taking a look at this loosely Nerf-related machine than backyard Elways and Mannings. 

Licensing Doesn't Have to be a Bad Thing

We really like the idea of the Nerf brand being extended beyond blasters and balls. However, it has to be done right… and clearly, not all licensed products are right. In fact, some of them are borderline terrible—poorly made, under-performing, or simply not worth the price. And some are just so bizarrely left-field as to push the boundaries of what it means for a product to be "Nerf." But others—particularly the ones designed in conjunction with the core Nerf team at Hasbro—are definitely worth consideration. We only hope Hasbro understands how much the Nerf brand is truly worth, and seeks to guard how and where that name is used, while also working more closely with their partners to improve upon products they've allowed to carry the name. It's what fans of the decades old Nerf brand—and new Nerf consumers alike—truly deserve.