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TOYMAKERS REINVENT THE CLASSICS

Walk down the aisles of any toy store and you can't help noticing that the classics have undergone dramatic makeovers. Life, Operation and a host of popular board games are available on CD-Rom. With new mixes, Easy-Bake oven cooks no longer have to settle for plain white cake. Mr. Potato Head has gone interactive, with a talking spud that tells children more than 50 "knock, knock" jokes when they ask, "Who's there?"

At every turn, the classics have been re-invented.

As Ron Luchetta, assistant director of the Toys R Us Clarence store, puts it:

"Instead of the child saying 'vroom, vroom,' now you can buy a truck that does it for him."

Case in point: Tonka's "Chuck My Talkin' Truck" ($30), whose features including a moving dumper and an authentic-sounding horn.

Purists needn't be disheartened. In most cases, they can still purchase traditional toys without the updates. And even the revamped variations typically rely on the very qualities that made their predecessors timeless.

"Licensed themes are probably the strongest change in the classic toys," said Lucy Desautels at Clayton's. Some examples, she said, are a Jack-in-the-Box whose "Jack" is the popular Arthur and "Blue's Clues" Colorforms.

Other modernized classics include:

The Teddy Bear. In '98, the plush favorite gets a facelift. Programmed with 120 different sounds and phrases, and equipped with sensors in its sides, chin, tummy and back, e.Baby Bear ($20) responds to a child's actions. When e.Baby Bear says, "My tummy hurts," and the child rubs its stomach, e.Baby Bear may giggle or burp.

Twister. Believe it or not, you can now play the game without stepping on a dotted plastic mat. Totally Twister ($35) is a much more intimate version of its ancestor, a battery-operated cube whose colored panels instruct players how to position themselves ("Right elbow on Green.")

Balls. Here's something to drive Spot nuts. The three mechanical sound tubes in Wiggly Giggly Ball ($15) enable it to make crazy sounds when rolled and shaken. Parents magazine voted the green-striped ball one of the hot toys of '98.

Lego. Remember the simple square houses you used to build with those plastic interlocking pieces? Lego's Mindstorms, an autonomous microcomputer, can be programmed with a PC so children can build everything from a robotic arm to an intruder alarm ($200).

Cash registers. Farewell, "cha-ching." Press the picture of a coat on the Pay & Play register ($49) and a voice recites the price. There's even a credit card swipe on this one -- ideal for emerging shopaholics.

Banks. Here's a chilling thought: Preschoolers with cash cards. Savings Sound Bank ($20) is designed to look like an ATM machine. It automatically sorts and stacks real coins, makes electronic sounds and allows kids to "deposit" and "withdraw" money.

Globes. Using digital speech technology, the 12-inch Talking Globe Jr. ($100) asks questions and teaches hundreds of facts about geography. The "help" button provides clues for most questions.

Play-Doh. Its been more than 40 years since Play-Doh was discovered during an effort to develop wallpaper-cleaning compound. Among its food-theme playsets for '98 is the McDonaldland Happy Meal Playshop ($15). Kids can mold pretend hamburgers, fries, shakes and toys and pack them in a Happy Meal box.

Yo-yos. Wanna "Walk the dog" into the new millennium? Yomega ($12) features a centrifugal clutch that programs automatic returns and long spin times. With its fixed-axle system the Koosh Pro Yo ($10) also allows long spin times.

Model cars. Matchbox Real Talkin' Vehicles ($5) include police cars and ice cream trucks with a twist. When touched, they utter more than 15 different phrases.

Monopoly. Picture this in Ralph Wilson's stocking: An NFL version of Monopoly ($30) that allows players to buy football football franchises, then build them their own stadiums. Rather than street names, the board consists of football teams. (The Bills are located where States Avenue is found on a typical Monopoly board. The Denver Broncos are located at Park Place.) Miniature seating sections and stadiums replace houses and hotels.

G.I. Joe. The company recently introduced 20 new figures including George Washington ($50), Colin Powell ($50) and Bob Hope ($35). The Armed Forces figures ($15 each) consist of a U.S. Army National Guardsman, a Navy serviceman, a Marine Corps recruit and Air Force Crew Chief.

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