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The real toy story

Hot toys this holiday season run the gamut from anything wrestling to anything interactive

The early results are in, and it looks as if parents, at least, have bought into the Pokémon theme and mission: Gotta catch 'em all. Pokémon products have pulled way out in front as the best-selling Christmas gifts, from the card sets to a new third video game-Yellow, to set off the Blue and Red editions-and even candy-filled figures of the most popular pocket monsters.

There's little to say about this vapid fad-other than that we should take heart; after all, when's the last time you heard the words "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle"?

Another hot item this season (woe unto us) is WWF Wrestlemania 2000 for the Nintendo 64 (THQ, $30)-now the top-selling Nintendo title. Players control wrestlers such as Kane, the Rock, the Undertaker, and (bestselling author) Mankind, or create their own garish gladiators. The game is being ported to other platforms, and those other versions should be available in coming months. It seems to be fairly PG rated, more in keeping with the New, Improved WWF, toned down last week, after Coca-Cola pulled its advertising due to excessive sleaze. But there's still plenty of trash talk in the game.

Anything, in fact, with a wrestling theme is getting yanked off the shelves and smacked down into the shopping cart. There are 24-inch plush wrestling dolls that kids can pile-drive or hug (hmmm-wonder which is more popular?) as well as action figures galore. The strangest toys are the pro wrestler walkie-talkies: For $10, your kids can hold a nearly-nude Stone Cold Steve Austin up to their faces and talk into his stomach. Isn't anyone else creeped out by this?

And don't forget Barbie. The premium product this year, Millennium Princess Barbie (she comes as either a blonde or an African-American), retails for about $40. She's a collector's item (which means Mattel gives her better hair). She's dressed for a big New Year's date, so we can assume she's not worried about Y2K.

There are lower-rent Barbies available, too; Pilot Barbie is hot, as is the new Working Woman Barbie (Mattel, about $12 each). Will they be followed next year by Mommy Guilt Barbie, Glass Ceiling Barbie, and Prozac Barbie?

This year's Tickle Me phenomenon is Rock 'n' Roll Elmo (Mattel, $30). His screechy baby-talk is as annoying as ever, and he looks as if he's started dating biker chicks.

But Christmas cheer these days must be interactive-hence a new generation of Furbys called Furby Babies (Tiger Electronics, $30). They're cheaper and less complicated than their programmable brethren, but they're still mind-numbingly useless.

At the high end of interactive is the Aibo, the robot dog from Sony that is now fetching prices of $4,000 and higher in eBay auctions. (Sony's sold out, so this is about the only source for the mutts.) Aibo requires love and care-he's programmed to be nearly as demanding as a real dog-and he can learn tricks (which are stored on "memory sticks"). He's popular, but mainly with computer professionals who need to get out more.

One of this season's truly bad ideas is the Friend.Link, a $20 digital pager-thingy from Playmates Electronix. Kids can send text messages to each other, over short distances. Kids love them, but teachers are going to look back longingly on the days when the worst they had to worry about was Pokémon fever. That's because the devices are perfect for sending notes, even (or especially) at inopportune times. One boy who posted a review on the Toys website admitted, "Teachers don't like them because you can cheat on tests.... I got into trouble doing that."

Enough with the pans, here are some picks:

Chuck My Talkin' Truck (Tonka, $30) is also interactive: He honks, beeps, revs his engine, and best of all, comes to the child when called. Now, talking toys generally accomplish little beyond scaring kids. But Chuck's different; Tonka has made him out of a flexible plastic, so his face moves expressively as he talks. He's friendly and cheerful, though parents will wish Tonka had thought to add volume control.

Cranium (Cranium, $40) will soon be the icebreaker of choice among small group ministries; it takes the best parts of Trivial Pursuit, Scattergories, and half a dozen other games. Players might be required to spell a word backwards, impersonate a celebrity, or draw with their eyes closed-or answer increasingly difficult questions.