Color Christmas 1990 a lot like Christmas 1989 -- mostly turtle green, and a little red if your name's not Nintendo or Barbie.

"This year's going to be terrible and it was going to be terrible even before the recession and the Middle East crisis," says Larry Carlat, editor of Toy and Hobby World. "Coming out of Toy Fair last February, there were not a lot of great new products, just variations on the same themes and people trying to mine the same niches -- and it shows. There is no great new innovative toy that people are rushing to the stores and saying 'I have to have it!'

"They're buying the same stuff they bought last year -- Nintendo and variations. ... Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if you're a little boy. ... Barbie if you're a little girl. And after that there's a tremendous falloff. There's a few new things in there but for the most part -- yecch!"

The good news for the industry is that because Thanksgiving fell a week earlier this year, the selling season from now to Christmas is a week longer; today is historically the busiest retail day of the year, and the coming five-week season will account for as much as a third of the year's sales.

"There may be a few weeks of window-shopping as the consumer and the retailer get involved in a game of chicken," says David Leibowitz, toy analyst for American Securities, an investment banking firm. "The consumer waits until the retailer puts up a sign that says SALE, and the retailer delays as long as possible putting up the word SALE to try and keep his cash register going at full profit for as long as he can."

The bad news is that inventory is tight on both ends: Manufacturers and retailers have been extremely cautious, emphasizing products they know and are comfortable with, even though 5,000 new products were introduced at the industry's annual Toy Fair showcase, joining the 150,000 already in the pipeline.

Of course, until Cabbage Patch, Teddy Ruxpin and Nintendo arrived in the mid-'80s, few toys cost more than $60; since then, the price no longer has seemed to shock.

This year, the shock may be back, says Frank Reysen, editor of Plaything, a toy magazine. "As far as mass-market high-ticket items, the recession will probably have an impact there," he says.

On the other hand, he also recalls folks spending $500 for six-foot-high Paddington Bears. This sort of purchase, he says, is almost recession-proof. "Who buys them? Guilty fathers in high-income families with broken marriages."

Luckily for the industry, there are a few of those around Washington.

This year, girls, overlooked by just about everyone but Mattel Inc. and Barbie during the video and action figure boom of recent years, may be coming back into the picture.

"There's a feeling they've been neglected," says Reysen. "There seems to be a concerted effort with dolls and games, and items like Playmobil's Victorian Dollhouse {$130, and smaller and cheaper than Barbie's $450 Mansion}. The price points are not so off-putting anymore when you consider what you're paying for video games for the boys."

Toymakers, in general, are speaking with guarded optimism.

"Nothing suggests parents are going to cut down on buying Christmas toys for 2- to 11-year-olds, and that's the core of our business," says David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America. "They may focus on some of the lower-priced toys. If you have a Nintendo Entertainment System in your house, you're not about to buy a second one, or a Game Boy. I think there'll be lots of Turtles purchased, lots of $20 and $30 games and there'll be money to spend on more traditional things."

"Higher-priced items might feel the impact," says Carlat. "And preschool toys might feel it because there it's sort of a parental decision to buy the toy, where Barbie or a Turtle is a child's choice. If they say 'I want a Turtle, I want a Turtle,' you can't really turn them down."

"Where you feel the economic pinch is those times of year where you can get away with not being in the toy stores," says Sean McGowan, toy analyst for Gerard, Klauer Matison. "Toy purchases are not economic decisions; they're emotional, sometimes irrational, decisions. If a kid is badgering because he wants a particular Ninja Turtle or a New Kid or Go Go Pup, the parent's not going to say 'Well, let's wait a little bit because I'll get it cheaper.' The parent's going to worry about not getting it because of the disappointment."

As a result, most industry analysts are predicting a relatively flat Christmas, with sales going up as little as 3 percent of 1989's total of $13.4 billion (not counting the $5 billion from video games and accessories).

"The public, the media and the analysts sometimes believe a hot toy has to be new," Leibowitz complains. "But on Dec. 24, late at night, the fat guy with the beard who rides around with eight reindeer is going to harness up the sleigh and the children of America are not going to be denied."

Turtle Power The raucous reptiles are rolling in green -- more than 300 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys and products are expected to fuel a total retail performance of $1 billion this year, a figure that makes rival toy manufacturers equally green. The Turtle action figures alone will hit the $400 million mark, two-thirds of their category. Pretty good for a line that was turned down by every major toy company before finding a home at Playmates, which saw the line grow from sales of $23 million in 1988 to $115 million last year. Talk about climbing out of the sewer to the top of the toy heap!

"It's the No. 1 unit seller in America," says TMA's Miller. "Playmates fingered an area for toys that not many people have looked at and that is 6- to 8-year-old camp humor. It's not our humor level, but they've directed their product at it and done so in a very intelligent and, believe it or not, conservative way."

In fact, the Turtles, which cost $3.99 to $5.99, recently displaced Nintendo at the top of Plaything's year-end bestseller list, which is based less on money than sales action (Nintendo ruled the last three years). Even at that price, the ubiquitous Turtles are less a novelty item than a novelty culture.

"Some people say it's violent, but it's really self-mocking," says Reysen, pointing out that the hit Saturday cartoon show is emphasizing relationships and much of its violence has calmed down -- these are now kinder, gentler Ninja Turtles. "It's not as hard-edged as GI Joe or the Star Wars action figures, where the case could be made there's a little too much violent action."

Turtlemania may reach its zenith this holiday season, with the Fab Four originals -- Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo -- still leading the list of wannahaves. One of the hot new prospects: Turtle Claus, an 18-inch plush Raphael dressed as Santa (Playmates, $16.99). Since only 200,000 will be produced, Turtle Claus could become the Cabbage Patch doll of 1990 -- hard to find and much in demand.

Also on the hot list: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Subterranean Sewer Hockey table game (Remco, $69.95); "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie" ($19, with a sequel to the $100 million-grossing movie due in the spring); the Party Wagon and Pizza Thrower ($19.99 each); two new action figures -- Don the Undercover Turtle and Ralph the Space Cadet ($6.99); and, in December, the amphibs' second home-video game, "Turtles II" (Komani, $54.95).

Passion for Fashion

"There's only one Barbie and she's a franchise," says American Securities's Leibowitz. This year she will put close to $700 million into Mattel's coffers. "Barbie alone would rank in the Top 10 toy companies in the United States." At 31, she dominates the fashion doll category in much the same way Nintendo does the video game field. This is partly because the average little girl has 10 Barbie dolls and plays with them (off and on) for at least five years.

As usual, Barbie's right on top of things: She's military as Air Force Barbie (Army Barbie was introduced last year), but she's also civilian as Flight Time Barbie (both $12.99; the Barbie Flight Time Airplane is extra, of course). Also: Wedding Fantasy Barbie ($24.99) and the politically and ethnically enriched Summit Barbie ($19.99). Besides the $450 Mansion, there's the Wet 'n Wild theme park ($39.99), a Bob Mackie-designed gown and much else reflecting Mattel's willingness to spend its profits expanding the line in ever new and interesting ways.

The golden gal has some new boyfriends, though Mattel wouldn't like you to think of them that way. They come from rival Hasbro -- New Kids on the Block are named Jordan, Joe, Jon, Danny and Donny. They're hot, though no one knows how long that will last. After all, they're dependent on a lot of cross-merchandising tie-ins, from albums, tours, books, a Saturday morning television show and so on. They come in street clothes and concert gear, with the inevitable accessories, and they're precisely Barbie scale. There are five New Kids dolls ($13.99 each), and since they reflect each individual Kid's popularity, Joe and Jordan will be harder to find than Danny, though parents will be pressed to buy them all to satisfy the group's core constituency of girls 6 to 16.

{It's a stretch, but die-hard Madonna fans may want to seek out Kenner's Breathless Mahoney doll, or the playmate to that doll, Dick Tracy (both $29.99). The model shown at Toy Fair looked a lot more like Madonna, but this is as close as you're likely to get to playing with a plastic Boy Toy.}

Just 'cause Barbie's the Queen doesn't mean she has no competitors (she just has no competition). At Toy Fair, Matchbox introduced its Real Models line featuring Christie Brinkley, Beverly Johnson and Cheryl Tiegs ($15.99). According to Carlat, "the one question was 'Will little girls know who Beverly, Cheryl and Christie are, and will they care?' And they made their choice -- $680 million worth of Barbie this year."

Last year, dollar sales in the doll category went up 12.8 percent, with much of the credit going to such large dolls as Tyco's Oopsie Daisy ($39.99) and Mattel's P.J. Sparkles ($24.99) and Li'l Miss (Make Up and Dress Up, $19.99), Carlat says.

"So what always happens in the toy business when something is successful? Everyone comes on the bandwagon and they jump and jump until they kill it and that's what's going to happen with the doll category this year," Carlat says. "They're counter-programming because girls have been neglected. Well, they're not neglected this year -- there are 30 new doll introductions. Unfortunately 30 new dolls are not going to sell. Of the 30, there are five good ones and 25 failures -- what's the batting average there?"

Among analysts' picks:

Mattel's Magic Nursery dolls, which allow the child to discover the baby's gender at home ($24, and every 36th one gets a free twin). Each doll is slightly different: Hair can be blond, brown, long, short, curly or straight; skin can be dark or light; belly buttons can be innies or outies; ironically, they are anatomically gender-free -- the sex is determined by dipping the homecoming robe into water, and seeing if it turns blue or pink. Toy stores around the country have been reporting shortages since September, when the doll was introduced. {This is a clever variation on Cabbage Patch, which has been reintroduced by Hasbro five years after reaching peak sales of $600 million, dropping to less than $50 million two years ago. It's doing well and could hit the $100 million mark this year, according to Leibowitz.}

Tyco's My Pretty Ballerina ($39.99) comes with audiocassette, pink tutu, tights and laced ballet slippers and can do en pointe by itself, and arabesques or pirouettes with a little help from a little friend. (Look for more dancing dolls next year.) Also from Tyco, Baby Shivers ($37.99) and the teeny tiny Quints ($19.99).

Hasbro's Baby Uh-Oh ($21.99), whose diapers change colors when wet and who gets diaper rash.

Though Child's Play 2 has made more than $20 million at the box office, there are no plans for a real Chucky doll. Matchbox didn't do well with its Freddy Krueger doll a few years back and, says Carlat, "most major toy companies would be scared to take the heat with that."

Action Jackson In the action-figure race, everybody's chasing Turtles, but Turtles are proving to be mighty fast. While some lines are "maturing" (as in "that's getting old"), others are doing okay, including Kenner's Dark Knight (Batman), Playmates' Dick Tracy (the villains in particular), Mattel's Simpsons and, surprisingly, Hasbro's reintroduced World Wrestling Federation figures. Each of the 12 WWF figures has a special maneuver, which can be uncorked in the WWF Wrestling Ring, even against the rival NWA figures from Galoob (this NWA stands not for the L.A. rappers but the less strobe-lit National Wrestling Alliance).

Hasbro's GI Joe knows cycles: He was very much out of favor during the war in Vietnam, yet had some of his best years in the late '80s. "The current tensions will probably help Joe," says Leibowitz. "However, whenever the United States is directly involved in hostilities, war toys tend to do poorly." Here, as elsewhere, action-figure sales drive accessories sales and those who position Joe's massive collection of armaments in a sandbox should have no trouble imagining it's the Middle East.

As for the Simpsons ($5.99), while most observers think that they'll hold their own, Carlat remains skeptical of what's being hyped as one of the first multi-gender action figure lines. "What are kids going to do with them and what are the play patterns?" he asks. "What do little girls get out of it? And boys -- there's no good guys/bad guys except for Bart and Nelson the Bully. What are you going to have, Homer and Marge smashing each other over the head? What are kids going to do with that?"

"It's really more an adult show," Carlat adds, "despite all the T-shirts the kids are wearing." As anyone who has been in a retail outlet knows, Simpsons merchandise is as ubiquitous as the Turtles.

Games Given that, it should be no surprise that there's a board game, The Simpsons: Mystery of Life (Galoob, $12.99) or one for Fox's other oddball family sitcom, Married ... With Children (Galoob, $16.99). Both involve players assuming the role of various members of the Bundy and Simpson families (hey dude, how about a burp contest!).

Like everyone else, makers of board games suffered after the arrival of Genghis Nintendo, but according to Miller of the Toy Manufacturers of America, "I see smiles coming around the edge of the lips of folks at Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley" (the two major game companies who have rebounded thanks to the success of such games as Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary and, more recently, Scattergories).

"Trivial Pursuit was the exception that proves the rule that you don't have mega-hit board games," says Leibowitz. "You have staple board games that stay with us year after year after year such as Monopoly, Clue, the Game of Life."

If there's a trend, it's the development of Junior games, kid-oriented versions of popular games aimed at getting children hooked on board games early in the hopes that they will play them later. Reysen notes that games are being promoted as a familial experience that brings kids and adults together (away from the television set), as well as adults among themselves. Board games also cost less than video games, more people -- of all ages -- can play them and they're likely to have a longer shelf life.

"The manufacturers are definitely trying to broaden that market," says Reysen, pointing to the success of Monopoly Junior (Parker Brothers, $9.99) and Scattergories Junior (Milton Bradley, $12.99). There are also kid-oriented role-playing games like TSR's Fantasy Forest ($17.99, for 4- to 8-year-olds, it's based on the animated "Dungeons and Dragons" series) and The New Dungeon and Web of Gold ($17.99, for the 8-plus crowd).

"Almost all of the Junior games are doing well this year," says Carlat. "But what took them so long? How come they didn't mine this before?" He also points to girls' games like Careers (Parker Brothers, $13.99) and the teen-book-driven Sweet Valley High (Milton Bradley, $12.99). Milton Bradley also produces the new Electronic Mall Madness ($29.99), where young girls can shop till they drop with their own credit card and bank account while pursuing bargains.

Adults prefer games that test their knowledge and expertise, accounting for the success of Trivial Pursuit (and such extensions as the '80s game, the '60s game etc.) and its many pursuers. Local military types may also be interested in TSR's Red Storm Rising and Hunt for Red October (both $14.99).

Odds and Ends

If you've shopped at a toy store, you've probably seen those colorful fibrous balls called Kooshes, and more recently KooshKins and Woosh Koosh ($7 to $8 from OddzOn): These impulse items make for great stocking stuffers ... Hasbro's Go Go My Walking Pup ($39.99) walks, wags its tail and shakes its head ... Milton Bradley has three Berlin Wall Commemorative Puzzles ($2.25 each, for those who want to put it together again) ... Pressman has a new Domina Rally Neon Super Deluxe Set, with day-glo dominos to fall in pre-set tracks ($25) ... For those wanting to celebrate anniversaries, Pat the Bunny, with 5 million copies sold, is 50 years old; Silly Putty, available this year in neon colors, is 40; Etch a Sketch Magic Screen (Ohio Arts, $9.99) is 30; so is Milton Bradley's The Game of Life ($12) ... Power Alley Electronic Bowling (Marchon, $140) rated well in one recent kiddie survey; Leibowitz says "it's a well-conceived item. Whether the consumer is willing to pay the price and whether it delivers that many dollars worth of play value seems to be in dispute." That question, of course, applies to all toys.