For 40 years, core of the Nerf experience has been shooting foam projectiles, preferably at close range, even more preferably at unsuspecting siblings. Nerf Nitro poses an unexpected but welcome question: What if those those projectiles were cars?
The answer looks delightful. Nerf Nitro, available this summer, comprises 48 tiny foam vehicles, along with multiple sets and accessories, that let you attempt amazing stunts on a micro-scale (similar to the Ricochet Racers of old). This entry into the car business is an exciting departure for an iconic toy brand, a variation on a familiar theme, and a chance to wreak some living room havoc.
On its face, there doesn’t seem to be much Nerf DNA in a toy car. Nitro, though, hews true to its heritage in some interesting ways. The cars are foam, though of a sturdier type than the traditional darts. And you still fire them from a blaster, albeit a modified version that angles sharply toward the floor for maximum horizontal velocity. Most of all, they’re meant to embody the Nerf spirit, full of freewheeling, trigger-squeezing fun.
There are five Nitro sets in all, each a variation on the same theme of “shoot car, do tricks.” They range from the $10 “Throttleshot Blitz” package, which includes a single-shot blaster, one car, and two obstacles—small plastic tire stacks you can aim your racer between or directly into, depending on your mood—to the $50 “Motofury Rapid Rally” set, which adds extras like a high-jump and long-jump ramps, nine total cars, and a dozen varying obstacles. The $40 DuelFury Demolition set includes a double-blaster, two “rings of fire” (read: plastic hoops), four cars, and eight obstacles. And so on! You can add six more cars to your arsenal for 10 bucks, or three for $6.
Part of the fun, though, isn’t limiting yourself to any given set. “It really is about unstructured play,” says Nerf marketing executive Michael Ritchie, who adds that the different pieces packed into each set should be considered a starting point. “Part of it is going to be allowing kids, and inspiring kids, to find things around the house to make their stuff bigger.”
That also presents opportunities for Nitro to stitch itself more securely to the fabric of Nerf. The company’s popularity has increasingly gotten a boost from an active YouTube community of trick shot artists and enthusiasts. (Here’s one trick shot video with 70 million views, for a taste.) If you can create that many GIFable moments with a foam dart gun, the thinking goes, imagine what you could do with a small army of speedy, fire-hoop-jumping foam cars?
“The essence is about active play, it’s about social play,” says Ritchie. “We feel like this is something where you could imagine kids setting up their own stunts, making their own videos.”
Nitro also helps fend off seasonal challenges traditional Nerf toys have. Blasters aren’t much of a blast indoors, whereas toy cars can vroom year round.
Then again, lots of toy cars already do. Nerf isn’t just broadening its boundaries, it’s entering a hard-fought race against everyone from stalwarts like Hot Wheels to high-tech newcomers like Anki Overdrive.
Ritchie concedes that it’s a competitive market, but also notes that it’s a $3 billion per year business. That means lots of opportunity, especially with a product that’s genuinely unique.
“We feel like the foam cars that we’ve created give a different performance than our competitors,” says Ritchie, who adds that by not being confined to a track—which can also be frustrating to assemble and store—Nitro relies on a kid’s imagination. “It’s all about setting up your own stunts, your own races, on whatever surface you decide.” Just maybe not the shag carpeting.
Whether that’s enough to convince a generation of motorheads to change lanes remains to be seen. For fans of foam projectiles, though, there’s something exciting about a whole new way to play.