NEW YORK -- Parents crowded into toy stores as usual, but the lack of any bright stars this Christmas put a gloomy finish on an already dreary year for many toy manufacturers.

The problems that plagued the toy industry for much of 1987 have continued through the holiday season, and as one executive put it, "most people are glad the year is over."

Some of the biggest names in the business have announced cutbacks in production and layoffs in recent weeks to try to recover from a drop in sales.

"We happened to hit upon a year when many of these leading companies' sales were unattainable but their costs were pretty well booked," said Barry Rothberg, an analyst with the investment firm Mabon, Nugent & Co. "They spent money in anticipation of revenues that never materialized."

But many smaller companies have done better, Rothberg said.

"I don't think the industry is having a bad year per se," he said, adding that overall sales of toys could be about the same as last year's levels. "That's not disastrous," he said.

Nevertheless, some companies suffered setbacks. Worlds of Wonder Inc. of Fremont, Calif., said Monday it filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors. The company, maker of past hit toys such as Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag, cited generally sluggish market conditions this year as a key factor in its flagging condition.

Last week, Mattel Inc. said it had begun to limit fourth-quarter shipments to assure sales of products already out, and spokesman Spencer Boise said Monday that layoffs were expected at the Hawthorne, Calif., firm.

"The movement of products at retail was not sufficient to warrant further shipments," Boise said.

Mattel said it expects to show a loss for the year. So do Coleco Industries Inc. and Worlds of Wonder Inc., which also have laid off workers.

"The big companies are the ones ... that always have the most to gain by a good Christmas and always have the most to lose," said Rick Anguilla, editor of the trade publication Toy & Hobby World.

Toy company executives are quick to point out that the problems are industrywide.

"Our experience has been much the same as others," said Stephen Martin, the treasurer at Tonka Corp. in Minnetonka, Minn. "Most people are glad the year is over."

Some of the product lines that Tonka pinned many of its hopes on earlier this year fizzled, such as the Pound Puppies that were highly successful a year ago.

Other companies also saw big lines wither away. Hasbro Inc. had hoped to steal market share from Mattel's perennial favorite Barbie with its Jem fashion doll, but Jem has been forced to hit the road while Barbie reigns supreme in her 28th year.

However, Barbie's continued success has not been strong enough to turn Mattel around.

Matchbox Toys Ltd. faces a similar situation. The toymaker known for its tiny cars and trucks had a late entry with a Pee-Wee Herman talking doll that analysts said has disappeared from the shelves.

Pee-Wee was a success, but "as with most toy companies, it's been rather a bleak year and we're certainly in line with the general toy business trend," said Jim Walsh, Matchbox's director of marketing.

Martin, the Tonka spokesman, said his company also had good sellers, such as the Sega video game, and noted that some of the toys in the recently acquired Kenner-Parker Toys Inc., including the board game Monopoly and the Real Ghostbusters action figure line, were moving well.

The top toy of the season was a Japanese import, Nintendo Entertainment System, a video game that carried a price tag ranging up to $150.

Anguilla, the Toy & Hobby World editor, predicted Nintendo will do $700 million in business this year. That, he said, illustrated another problem facing the industry: A consumer's dollar can only go toward one toy at a time.

"In 1984, video game dollars did not exist," said Anguilla. This year, with video games anticipated to ring up $900 million in sales, "That {money} has to come from somewhere," he said.

One of those somewheres is male action figures, which were on the Christmas lists of many children in the past few years but which are now becoming passe. Mattel's male action figures, including its Masters of the Universe line, are among the products that have slipped, Boise said.

Anguilla was philosophical about 1987, noting that toys, like other industries, tend to run in cycles.

"You have to expect to have hits and misses," he said.

Most toys have a life span of three to five years, Barbie and staples like Hasbro's G.I. Joe notwithstanding, and given the fickle tastes of young consumers, a successful product line can turn sour almost overnight.

Hasbro, based in Pawtucket, R.I., says it will make a profit this year, but earnings will be down from 1986. Carosi said no layoffs were planned.