Barbie has shed her hard-rock image. Her band, "The Rockers," has been replaced by "The Sensations," a more wholesome singing group with the nostalgic look of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Barbie's chief rival in the hard-rock world -- the punk, 20-year-old Jem -- also has disappeared from the nightclub scene. In her place is Maxie, a fresh-faced, 16-year-old blond.

To the girls who play with these dolls, these are big changes.

But even more significant, they represent the shift now under way in the American toy industry.

Burned by unexpectedly sluggish sales of high-tech, high-priced toys, toy makers are going back to the basics.

With many major toy companies incurring large losses, manufacturers are returning to the lines that made them successful -- bringing back old toys and games while expanding existing lines that are proven moneymakers.

The talking dolls and animals, zapping guns and male action figures that dominated 1987 have been replaced by a host of old, safe favorites -- as evidenced by the thousands of toys that were on display last week at the annual Toy Fair in Manhattan.

Milton Bradley, for instance, has brought back the old favorite game of Hands Down; Mattel Inc. has revived what a company spokeswoman called "the new-old game" of Lie Detector. And good old Alfred E. Newman's Mad -- What Me Worry? game is being resuscitated by Parker Brothers.

At the same time, toy companies are offering a host of new items for younger children, whose numbers are growing rapidly. Tonka Corp., for instance, is hoping to parlay its success as a major toy truck maker for older children into an equally strong line for preschoolers by introducing several large, bright trucks and planes designed for smaller hands.

Meanwhile, Coleco Industries Inc. hopes to enter the toddler market by selling smaller Cabbage Patch Kids that will be easier for 2-year-olds to hold.

And Milton Bradley is hoping to turn its successful adult game Scruples into a children's favorite as well by making a special Scruples for Kids edition.

"The toy industry is headed back to a more conservative posture," said Richard E. Grey, president of Tyco Toys Inc. "There is less new product introduction and less high-tech, $100 toys," he said.

"We're going back to the basics," added Candace Irving, a spokeswoman for Mattel. "We have fewer lines. We've looked at our core business, where business has been good," such as the company's Barbie and Hot Wheels car and truck lines. "We're building on these core businesses and deleting other items that take away from them," such as last year's Spectra, the teen-age doll from space.

By returning to the simpler toys and eliminating many of the fancy electronics, toy makers also are lowering their prices.

For instance, Worlds of Wonder Inc. -- the financially troubled company that created the famous Teddy Ruxpin talking bear and last year's hit, Lazer Tag -- has broken its tradition of selling primarily high-priced toys by introducing a handful of new, low-technology toys.

One, called Skip Stick, is a modern-day version of a jump rope and sells for about $10. Another toy, selling for about $30, is Splatter Up, a wet version of baseball in which the pitcher "throws" the ball on a stream of water from a garden hose.

"We felt we needed to be more balanced out and get some lower-priced products," said chairman Donald D. Kingsborough.

That's not to say that high-tech toys will not be available this year. In fact, retailers who complained about the lack of exciting toys at this year's fair repeatedly pointed to two toys that excited them -- and neither fit the category of basic toys.

Scott Goode, owner of Lowen's toys in Bethesda, said he ordered only one toy at the Toy Fair, preferring instead to place the bulk of his orders over the next few weeks after he has had time to digest the thousands of items he has seen. His one order was Hit Stix, a portable electronic drum system.

"I was afraid that if I didn't order it now, it wouldn't be available later," Goode said.

Meanwhile, K mart toy buyer Charles Smith was excited by Mattel's electronic Wheel-of-Fortune game, which interacts with the popular nighttime television show. With the $70 electronic game, viewers will be able to compete with the television players.

"That's the toy I hear most mentioned in the halls," Smith said. "A lot of people are intrigued by that."

And of course, the video game business -- which was reborn last year thanks in large part to Nintendo -- is expected to continue to do a brisk business in 1988. Nintendo estimates that the video game business rang up $1.1 billion in sales in 1987 -- up from the 1985 low of $100 million. It estimates sales this year of nearly $2 billion.

Despite this prediction, however, there is no rush into the video game business. "Few are in the business because the last time the video-game binge went by, everyone jumped on and none survived," Grey said.

"For the most part, toy makers are playing it safe, spending more in developing and advertising toys they are more confident will sell," said one major retailer.

Numbers alone explain this caution. Toy sales last year held at the same level as in 1986, when $12.5 billion were sold. Even more alarming to manufacturers was that the volume of goods shipped fell 1.5 percent, to $8.2 billion from $8.3 billion the year before and $8.7 billion in 1985.

"The toy industry is stabilizing after 10 years of steady -- and sometimes spectacular -- growth," noted Robert Cooper, chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America Inc., which sponsors the Toy Fair.

Two particular problems plagued the industry last year, Cooper noted.

One was that there was no single blockbuster toy, such as Cabbage Patch dolls or Trivial Pursuit, to help draw consumers into stores.

The talking dolls and animals that were supposed to be superstars failed. The reason was simple, Cooper noted. "The bottom line is this: High-tech toys, like any other, must have intrinsic play value to be successful... . Companies with high-tech toys will have to look farther than technology itself to be successful."

The other major problem was that the ratings for Saturday morning cartoon shows dropped sharply. As a result, manufacturers no longer could count on drumming up business from these shows -- either through advertising or through the promotion of the products on the shows, which are often patterned after a line of products (such as the Pound Puppies or Masters of the Universe shows).

Partly because of these problems, sales in boy-action figures dropped by 36.5 percent last yer. Doll sales, meanwhile, decreased even more dramatically -- by 45 percent.

Together, these woes translated into very big trouble for American toy companies. The hardest hit was Worlds of Wonder, which is in the midst of a financial reorganization, having sought protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy law.

Meanwhile, other major chains, including Mattel, Coleco and Lewis Galoob Toys Inc., have tallied up large losses, and rumors were rife throughout the industry that Coleco might soon face the same fate as Worlds of Wonder. Coleco spokeswoman Barbara Wruck said that "was certainly not in the cards."

Hasbro Inc., the world's largest toy company, which also owns Playskool and Milton Bradley, reported a $48.2 million profit. But that was less than half the $99 million earned the year before.

Still, there were a few shining lights in the industry. Fisher Price, the world's largest producer of infant and preschool toys, said its operating income rose by 127 percent in the last six months of 1987 from the same period the year before, thanks in large part to the growing demand for infant and preschool toys.

Meanwhile, analysts expect Tyco Toys to announce at least a doubling in last year's profits of $3 million when it releases its financial results later this month. Analysts attribute the increase to Tyco's decision to stick to the basic toy industry and not dabble in the more risky and expensive high-tech toys.

Tyco's president, Grey, is more modest, attributing the company's good year to "partly luck. It was one of those years where almost everything turned out better than we thought. We had more than our share of right decisions and just didn't make a lot of expensive mistakes."

Even so, Tyco is making some changes to guard against failure in 1988. Among them is its decision to launch its new Dino-Riders line -- realistic dinosaurs that come with action figures and an assortment of battle gear, including laser guns and protective equipment -- this month instead of waiting until later in the year, as is the custom.

"The whole action-figure category is very promotional, and we're not experts," Grey said. "To minimize risk, we decided to get into the stores in January. If we get good retail movement in the first quarter, retailers will gain more confidence that it is a good item in the fall. And if it is not successful, we'll both know it and not build a whole year of inventory before it is too late."

Less profitable toy makers are being even more cautious.

For instance, Coleco -- having seen its sales of Cabbage Patch dolls drop from a high of $600 million a year, an industry record for any one product, to between $100 million and $200 million in 1987 -- has bought several other toy makers in an effort to diversify and not be so dependent on any single item.

"In years past, Coleco has had one or two items dominant," Wruck said. "We have recognized that is not really the way to proceed. The better strategy is to diversify."

At the same time, Coleco -- which had placed a big emphasis on the talking Cabbage Patch doll last year -- has no new electronic items this year. "We believe the trend is more towards basics, not electronics. The price points can be lower in basics," Wruck added.

To cut costs, Coleco also has adopted a new policy of dealing only with the largest toy retailers, which order hundreds of thousands of dollars of toys. Smaller stores will be forced to go through jobbers, which will serve as Coleco's middlemen.

Worlds of Wonder is even more cautious, bringing out few new product lines that aren't extensions of its existing high-technology products, such as its animated Teddy Ruxpin.

"We won't take as many chances on products as we did before," Kingsborough said. "When something is a little gray we hold off." For example, Kingsborough said the company had an interesting new robotics line -- making dolls and animals look real in their talking and acting motions -- that it would have liked to unveiled this year. "But we had to hold back."

Instead, the company is focusing on lower-priced items, such as Skip Stick and Splatter Up, which as summer toys also make the company less dependent on the Christmas season.

"If orders for these are positive, it opens tremendous horizons for Worlds of Wonders," Kingsborough said, noting that the results should be in during the next few months. "If not, it will add more pressure on WOW to be more conservative and look at other alternatives to being a free-standing company," he added. That may mean agreeing to be bought up by another company or taking on an outside investor who would acquire control of the company.

Despite the woes of Worlds of Wonders and other toy makers and the prediction that 1988 will once again produce no super toy, industry officials remain optimistic, predicting a 5 percent increase in sales this year.

Their optimism is based primarily on demographics. "There are over 45 million children in the United States, many of them living in two-career -- and sometimes two-household -- families," said Cooper. "They're a savvy, media-conscious segment. And the 9-to-12 age group alone has an estimated spending power in the neighborhood of $4.7 billion. Best of all, the biggest bulge in the postwar baby boom is in its mid- to late 20s and already producing new consumers for the toy industry."

In addition, Cooper said, "As evidenced by the sale of VCRs and microwave popcorn, more of us are staying at home. The so-called couch potato syndrome is good news for game manufacturers."

Even the lack of megahits this year is being hailed as a plus by toy industry executives.

"I think that's good, said William C. Killgallon, president of Ohio Art Co., the creator of Etch A Sketch.

A big hit "takes substantial volume away from other companies and ultimately leaves that company very vulnerable to bankrupcty" when the toy's popularity fades. "You name a company that has had a major megahit and I'll show you one on the verge of bankruptcy," Killgallon added.

Retailers agree. "We probably do better without a blockbuster," said Toys 'R Us chief financial officer Michael Goldstein. "We like a lot of exciting, interesting products and do better with a larger assortment."

Lowen's Goode agrees. "Stores like mine are not looking for the next hot item. It just creates shortages, price cutting and mass hysteria where customers are always bound to leave unhappy."