Video games have come a long way since Nintendo released the Game Boy Color on Oct. 21, 1998 in the United States. Because the graphics have become so realistic, the latest edition of NBA 2K could be mistaken for a live broadcast. Games like Red Dead and The Last of Us provide cinematic experiences that rival our favorite films. And Fortnite has become so popular that brands like Nike and Balenciaga had to join in on the fun with their own virtual collaborations. But for kids who grew up in the ’90s and 2000s, flicking a switch on the side of Nintendo’s colorful, two-buttoned handheld and hearing that techy jingle as the “Game Boy” letters fill the screen provides a rush of nostalgia. Tia Chinai and Stefan Cohen, the creative duo better known as Krool Toys, are channeling this feeling with retro-inspired games of their own based on some of today’s most popular musicians and clothing brands.
“We want to be the Disney Imagineering team for music and fashion, just creating those magical moments for people,” Cohen tells Complex.
Since starting in 2019, Krool Toys has already crafted some magical moments. Artist Michael Lau, who has been called the “Godfather of Designer Toys,” partially inspired the new creative venture. Seeing his work in an art book encouraged the founders to use the medium to showcase their own ideas. They began creating one-of-one toys, such as mood rings for indie record label Cinematic Music Group in New York City that would be used for small promotional giveaways. Chinai worked in graphic design and Cohen was on the marketing team at the time. The reception to the toys was always overwhelmingly positive, enough so that they decided to dedicate more time to it. For the past year, Krool Toys has been their full-time job.
“We were just motivated by making stuff for artists or brands we really like and seeing if we can get their attention,” Cohen tells Complex. Other inspirations vary from creators like Kerwin Frost to children’s educational computer games from the ‘90s like Pajama Sam. “Usually artists would repost it and reach out to us. We knew we were on the right track even though we were kind of taking the artist’s name and likeness without their permission; they were all about it. It usually would turn into an official collaboration later on.”
Krool Toys’ first nostalgic creations included Cam’ron-inspired pink toy cars packaged like Hot Wheels and Xbox 360 box art mimicking Grand Theft Auto featuring YSL Records’ artist roster. Eventually, they would even work officially with YSL to produce tarot cards promoting Gunna’s Wunna in September 2020.
“I interned for 300 [Entertainment] around that time. We made these [tarot cards] and so I was like, ‘Oh, let me send it to the team just to see what they think.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, we’d love to release these officially as part of the album rollout,’” says Chinai. “That was our first official collaboration. So that was really exciting for us.”
The novelties were fun to look at and caught people’s attention, but they were strictly graphic-based in the beginning. The video game cases weren’t actually housing discs or cartridges. Eventually, that changed. Early iterations, like a purple Gameboy cartridge inspired by Eternal Atake, would play a video clip when you booted them up. But Chinai and Cohen really struck gold when they learned how to make their games playable. The first was a Pokemon-esque game for Lil Tecca’s Virgo World back in September 2020. A space-themed platformer for Future and Lil Uzi Vert’s Pluto x Baby Pluto made in collaboration with Uzi’s team in December 2020 was another installment that popularized Krool Toys’ refreshing approach to artist merch.
“As a fan of artists, you want more than just a T-shirt or a hoodie to put up in your apartment,” says Cohen. “We kind of just approached it that way. What would we want from our favorite artists?”
Cohen and Chinai learned how to make these games through watching hours of YouTube tutorials and scrolling Reddit threads. The pair handles the graphic design, programming, and musical score of each game with timelines varying from game to game. The Pluto x Baby Pluto cartridge took two weeks, while the I Know Nigo! game, which imitates the NES’ classic Duck Hunt only took about two days. Sometimes, the duo works faster to capitalize on the hype around an upcoming release.
They usually make between 10 and 50 physical copies and distribute them mainly via giveaways held on the Krool Toys Instagram page. Luckily for everyone else, Krool Toys also uploads playable Flash versions of the games onto its website—a blast from the past that mimics the kid-friendly Yahooligans home page from the 2000s.
As you might expect, many of these games go viral, thanks to their nostalgia-fueled execution. Krool Toys’ social media presence started out as a way for Chinai and Cohen to show their work off to their friends and followers, but now they’re being commissioned by record labels to create official products. The label usually provides the music, artwork, and creative direction for Krool Toys to brainstorm and interpret the source material as they deem fit. In April, Krool Toys made a two-level Game Boy game for SNOT’s Ethereal that was part of a promo package sent to friends and family. The box and gameplay were modeled after Mega Man, and four of the tracks from the album were even converted to MIDI files to score the experience. The following month, it worked with Market and Unjust Studio to create a one-of-a-kind portable Nintendo 64 and a remixed version of Super Mario 64. Krool Toys’ take on the classic 3D platformer featured Mario wearing a Market logo T-shirt in place of his signature overalls along with other tweaks like Market’s smiley basketballs replacing the stars that you collect at the end of each level. Krool Toys is meticulous.
“We pay close attention to really small details that most people might not notice, like the paper weight of the box itself, the glossy finish, the warning labels on the side, little barcodes inside the box, stuff like that,” says Cohen. “We think that makes our work stand out. It’s stuff that we would appreciate if we saw it ourselves.”
And Krool Toys doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Earlier this month, it revealed its latest game on Instagram: a meditation aid to go along with Raveena’s Asha’s Awakening that’s complete with artwork nodding to 2002 Game Boy Color release Shantae. It is also expanding beyond games into the action figure space. The Bag Heads figure, an unofficial project inspired by Telfar Clemens’ extremely popular brand, came with interchangeable orange and yellow Telfar Shopping Bags as heads. Another new hand-painted figure was modeled after rapper Coi Leray. The founders say they would love to work with Frost and Lyrical Lemonade’s Cole Bennett in the future. But Chinai and Cohen are mostly focused on building a world for their fans to tap into and connect with.
“We’re creating the Krool universe, Planet Krool, as we like to call it,” says Chinai. “It makes people happy and that makes us happy. We create toys. You want people to look at them and feel a sense of nostalgia but also just feel happy and forget everything that’s going on in the world.”