A brave new world of toys

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE American International Toy Fair in New York is one of the few places in the world where you'll see a dapper man in a business suit talking to a teddy bear, or hear a man say, ``Let's say I want to shoot one of my friends, you know, just playing around.'' It's a little like going to Disneyland, except you keep wondering all the time whether or not you'd like to buy little pieces of it.

At this stage some toys are prototypes. People will hand you a stuffed animal and say ``this will be squishier and there won't be these wires sticking out of the back of the neck.'' You get an odd blend of consumerism and sentimentality here, plus a kind of glitzy creativity of the corporate type. Nothing could be less like wandering hopelessly down the silent corridors of Child World looking for someone to tell you what is inside all those gaudy boxes. Here at any one time you are liable to have two or three people explaining things to you.

``By the time the kids are 6, they kind of lose interest in the preschool toys. They want regular toys - big kid toys,'' says Al Carosi of the Playskool/Hasbro/Milton Bradley toy conglomerate, laughing.

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We are looking at Playskool first. There are neat things like bibs with a bottle conveniently stashed in its fitted pouch, little jingly Jammie Pie doll-footlets for a baby's feet, clever kits for baby-guarding your house (locking toilets and clamping down lamps), and a small combo freezer-heater for dealing with infant formula while still in bed and semi-awake. ``We try to be very innovative in everything that we do,'' says Mr. Carosi.

The Funbrella, of orange and lavender beachball-type plastic, would be nice on a grayish day. To use it you pump the handle and the umbrella part inflates. ``The air fills the spokes and then kaboom,'' explains the demonstrator bouncily, showing how the finished product pops into shape. ``There are no metal spokes, no sharp edges,'' Carosi points out.

Nearby is a flashlight that can shine in three different colors and automatically goes off to save on batteries. And a bit further on a great construction system of white plastic tubes and gray hinges, that you can make life-sized, usable things with - easels, wheelbarrows, and chairs. ``Yesterday's lemonade stand can be today's seesaw and tomorrow's jungle gym,'' says the demonstrator.

On to Hasbro: ``Now we're into boogie; these are rock and roll toys,''said Carosi, segueing into a little boogieing himself as we entered the Moondreamers display area, decorated with stars hanging from the ceiling and curved purple clouds. The Moondreamers are sugary little maidens with star sunglasses and a lot of flowing turquoise and pink hair (long pink hair is big). They are heavily into tiny, plastic, pastel accessories that glow in the dark.

Many adults could feel for their arch enemy, who has more personality anyway: Evil Scowlene, a larger doll with mad wrinkly yellow eyes and green frizzy hair and a purple and green dress. ``She hasn't slept a day in her life. She's the mean dream queen, the ruler of Monstrous Middle. The good dreams come from Starry-up,'' explains the demonstrator.

Some dolls have careers now, but nothing that interferes with being beautiful and wearing a lot of great clothes. Jem, introduced last year, is a new Barbie-type doll - `` the first real challenger to Barbie in 30 years,'' according to the press release, and ``a woman of the '80s,'' according to Carosi. Jem is a record executive by day and a rock star by night, and she also supports an orphanage. ``It's out of the role of cooking, cleaning, and dating,'' he says. She and her fellow rockers wear miniskirts, glittery stockings, and punky colors and have interesting Mylar hair.

It's rather a relief to get away from lavender and turquoise and hair, heading over to the boys' toys. Slime is in now, in some circles. Boys can wear Slime Time wristwatches, in the form of bats, frogs, and snakes; particularly dramatic was the bat, of shiny sticky-looking black plastic.

Things that turn into other things are big too. The See-Mores, charming, small, plush dinosaurs, are ``not your everyday run-of-the-mill prehistoric beast,'' says the demonstrator, pushing Rex's claws in, pulling out wings, pushing up his hatand face, and making him into a more amiable looking animal altogether, though still a dinosaur. ``They never stop being a dinosaur,'' she explains.

Of course, anything to do with war is big. We walk into a beautiful red-lacquered room with a flickering lantern; on a handsome Oriental chest are posed tiny plastic Ninjas in fearsome positions, while a group ofJapanese executives nod in a pleased way at the commercial playing on a monitor.

We pass the Battle Beasts (soon to be complemented by comic books and a TV show), which are essentially a new incarnation of the old school-yard game of ``paper-scissors-rock,'' with war imagery added. Each 3-inch high Beast has a liquid crystal on the tummy; you rub it to see if your Beast is fire, wood, or water.

What would toymakers do without war? I ask a woman gazing at a handsome diorama of Beasts climbing around a tree trunk. ``They'd have to think of something else,'' she says.

Next comes Airlandia, where air is more precious than gold, where everything that is normally powered by electricity or gas is powered by air, and where the evil Tyrants of Wind have stolen the air from the common people. (Complex scenarios are big.)

All the accouterments of this toy - for instance the guns in the craggy, gray plastic mountain - are air-powered. ``I take no prisoners - Die!'' says the demonstrator, knocking down a row of tiny men with a blast from from his air gun.

On to the Transformer Monster Bots, some of which are good and some evil, according to the demonstrator (an Us-Them orientation is really big). ``The bad guys start as a creature,'' he explains, rolling a purple and green bot called Decepticon on the table. It looks sort of like a lobster.

He then introduces us to the Fortress Maximus, ``the largest Transformer made,'' an impressive 2-foot plastic structure of red, white, and blue. He says, ``Look at these colors and tell me these aren't the good guys.''

A quick stop at Milton Bradley where good old flat board games are being fancied up to be more like action games. I liked Fireball Island, which has a ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' motif. You can play out of turn (incorporating actions considered unsportsmanlike in other games is sort of big) and it has a eye-catching 3-D board portraying a craggy mountain with a black sneering idol guarding a red plastic jewel on top.

And then over to Mattel, which is on to something really, really big, the toy that has editorial writers in a rage, the furor of the year: Captain Power and Soldiers of the Future!!

Captain Power is ``TV-interactive.'' (Interactive with anything is big, but TV-interactive - you can't get bigger than that.) If somebody in the '50s had been trying to design a Toy of the Future they might have come up with this.

With other visitors, we crowd into a dark, high-tech enclosure, the Captain Power Briefing Room. A tall young man named Frank, in navy astro-military jumpsuit and gold sneakers, turns on a monitor showing what the Captain Power TV show (set to debut next September) would be like. Mostly actors in navy space suits crouch menacingly on the screen; the most exciting parts are when Lord Dread of the evil Bio Dread Empire comes on - he has a sort of jewelers eyepiece for one eye and is good at looking unpleasant and villainous. Another highlight: when it looked as if Captain Power was being electrocuted, but fortunately it turned out he was only revving up his power suit.

Frank holds up the Power On Energizer, a small toy, with a circle of light glowing yellow around the Captain Power figure, to show that it has been turned on by the video. Then we head over to some dramatically lit high-tech silver pedestals, each one bearing a small plastic figure: Captain Power and his sidekicks, who have regular-guy names like Hawk and Tank.

Then Frank demonstrates the XT7 blaster, which looks like kind of a cross between a plane and a gun. This is the TV interactive part. With this in hand you can help Captain Power battle Lord Dread personally. Nothing happens to the TV, but as signals are given off by the TV and you shoot back, points are added or subtracted on the meter inside your XT7.

Frank turns on another monitor, which shows pictures of a craggy, orange landscape, with a chunky little purple plane moving slowly over it. Occasionally the plane ejects a white blob, which a business-suited volunteer from the audience shoots at. ``It's a different sound when you make a hit and when you get hit,'' says Frank. ``When you get to 0 points, the figures eject out of the cockpit. It's not going to be obvious what the targets are.

``Let's see what you ended up with; four power points out of five. But most important, you didn't end up on the floor,'' he says.

When the TV isn't on, you can trade invisible volleys, registered on the meter, with your friends. Another volunteer shoots it out with Frank. ``Somebody's getting hit here,'' says Frank. His men eject: ``It was me!''

``I took lessons from Darth Vader,'' says the other man.

Everybody files out of the Briefing Room, and one man asks how the toy works. ``As far as I know it's magic,'' says Frank, straightfaced.

Another Toy of the Future, for little girls this time, is Coleco's Talking Cabbage Patch Doll, which is ``doll-interactive.'' In other words, if two little girls are in a supermarket, and they both have their Talking Cabbage Patch dolls turned on, when the dolls come within 10 feet of each other ``they can sense the presence of the other doll,'' according to Peter Giles of Coleco Industries.

The dolls also react to people, according to the demonstrator. They have sensors in their lips, cheeks, and hands. ``Turn her upside down and she'll say, `I don't like being upside down,''' she says.

The conversation springs from microchip technology, says Mr. Giles, and each doll is a little different: ``They have basically the same script, but there are slight differences to what they say that contribute to their uniqueness,'' he says.

We move on to the next room, dominated by Talking Wrinkles, a charming wrinkly faced stuffed dog. ``I want to play with you,'' says Wrinkles in an ingratiating but somewhat mechanical voice. ``He has many suggestions,'' laughs the demonstrator.

She shows how Wrinkles laughs if you press his belly button, says ``That's nice, do you want to play with me?'' if you hug him, and, if you give him his blue cloth bone, will chew on it with every appearance of hearty enjoyment. Then she says in a loud voice in Wrinkles' ear: ``Wrinkles, bad dog.''

``Was I a bad Wrinkles?'' asks Wrinkles.

In a totally different vein are some figures based on Rambo, ``with machine gun, of course,'' says the demonstrator. Rambo is the spitting image of Sylvester Stallone, and if you press his stomach, he flexes his pectorals. All the little figures have lots of weapons. His companion, the Chief, is adequately armed for every eventuality with rifle, revolver, and tomahawk.

We end at the Sylvania family: tiny rabbits, bears, raccoons, and so on, with their own nicely made little houses (Saturday morning cartoon starting in Sept. - total interchangeability between product, ad, and TV is big.)

``It started as a phenomenon in Japan,'' says Giles, referring to the Sylvanias. The furniture is well made: little bureau drawers pull out, little windows and skylights open, little kitchens have nice little pots and pans and rolling pins, and outfits are changeable. They are also inexpensive, according to Giles: ``The wedding couple is $8 retail.''

``We take technology from other industries - telecommunications, aerospace - and translate it into a children's product,'' says Don Kingsborough, CEO and chairman of Worlds of Wonder, amid the gray-pink elegance of the Worlds of Wonder showroom.

Asked if World of Wonder's Teddy Ruxpin and other interactive toys dampen a child's own imagination, Mr. Kingsborough says, ``There are no boundaries to imagination. As you learn more and interact more with toys they actually enhance your imagination.'' He says it's easier for an adult to figure out what's on a child's mind while they are both relating to a toy. ``When Teddy sings, the child dances. Teddy will tell a story, then the child will tell a story,'' he says.

The big story at World of Wonder this year is Julie, an almost uncanny doll. The mechanism in her is ``as powerful as 25 IBM PCs,'' according to the demonstrator. She explains that the child and the doll have to go through a training period, as the doll will only respond to one voice. After that, ``they're able to engage in intelligent conversation,'' she says.

It's based on key words; when a child uses the word ``hungry'' in a sentence Julie will say, ``Can I have something to eat?'' She has sensors for cold, heat, light, and motion; if the child picks her up she might say, ``Are we going somewhere?'' If she's taken outside, she might say `Brrr, it's cold.''

After this just about anything would be anti-climactic - even the handsome component system stereo TV and VCR in rounded red, gray, and blue plastic; or Teddy Ruxpin and his pal Octopede singing a cheery song in unison, or even two demonstrators playing a snappy version of ``The Saints Go Marchin In'' on the bubble saxophone, as a long trail of bubbles comes curling out of the horn.

But charming in a small way are the voice-activated ``Little Boppers'' - Kermit, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Teddy Ruxpin, Miss Piggy. The demonstrator, a man with curly hair and an earring, turns on his boom box, and Kermit and friends start jigging in a line. The demonstrator lays Miss Piggy on her back: ``Miss Piggy breakdancing,'' he says.

Things were relatively quiet over at Axlon, which has been sharing the negative editorial spotlight with Mattel's Captain Power because of its TV-interactive toy, the Tech Force.

As I arrive, Philip Quigley, vice president of marketing for Axlon, a thin, rugged-looking blond man, has just turned on some brisk music and is demonstrating the Tech Force for some buyers from Lechmere, an Northeast retailer. On a small stage, with a backdrop of craggy gray mountains lit orange and purple, are 16 Tech Force robots (called Progs, for programmable warrior).

The Progs whir slowly but purposefully forward, in formation. There are two kinds, the heroic, noble, orange plastic Progs and the evil, vicious, blue plastic Progs. It would have been interesting to see them respond to TV, however ``they're still writing the script,'' says Mr. Quigley.

When the TV program is not on, the Tech Force game can still be used. The Progs can be controlled via two consoles, which command eight Progs each. In addition to moving around they can ``stun'' each other for 10 seconds with infrared beams.

One thing I liked: the progs are shells that fit over a mobile base, and the base accepts Lego blocks. I could just picture all kinds of fantastic and colorful creations whirling about in unison. (By the way, these guys will work best on a floor or shortpile rug.)

The ultimate test of a toy is the marketplace, says Quigley. ``Kids are not dumb. Word of mouth sells toys, not advertisements. Once you get them out there, and the kids say that product is terrible, you won't sell anything.''

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