NEW YORK -- Outside the Fifth Avenue Toy Center building on Monday, spirits were high -- the Toxic Crusaders brass band was syncopating, glow mops in hand. A clutch of Draculas were baring their teeth and grinning at the necks of passersby. While his buddies were away, possibly scouting the local pizza parlor, a lone Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mingled with the Incredible Hulk, Captain Planet, Raggedy Ann and the Nickelodeon Dragon.

But inside, where the 88th annual American International Toy Fair kicked off its two-week buy-athon with 6,000 new products displayed by 1,400 exhibitors to 20,000 potential buyers looking to restock depleted store shelves and empty warehouses -- spirits were sober. Something about a war.

Desert Storm invaded everything. It subdued the mood (death and dolls -- a bad mix), thinned the crowd (fear of flying) and affected the types of toys being sold -- though not the way you might think. Historically, war has never been good for war toys -- G.I. Joe suffered in sales throughout Vietnam -- and this year proved the rule.

With a few exceptions, the main battlefield, toy-wise, seemed to be on the environmental front, with Tiger's Captain Planet and the Planeteers and Playmate's Toxic Crusaders moving toward an action figure showdown with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who become champion environauts in their next film. Even Hasbro's G.I. Joe enlisted with a new line of Eco-Warriors to battle Cobra's contamination of the world's fragile ecological systems. Those Desert Storm-style camouflage outfits? Nothing revealing there -- Joe's been wearing them since 1982. But Playtime is re-dressing the electronic military apparatus of its G.I. Joe playthings in sand-colored camouflage, and renaming the gear Desert Brigade.

The prevailing sentiment was that in 1991, consumers and retailers alike will be spending less money more wisely; basics and core products at moderate prices will do well; retailers will be cautious bringing in "promotional" toys; and consumers may stay away from high-priced items -- even as industry giant Nintendo prepares to introduce its 16-bit system. Nintendo is not a TMA member, does not consider itself a toy, and doesn't show at Toy Fair, though TMA President David Miller huffily points out that "80 percent {of Nintendo's hardware and software} is sold through toy channels of distribution, and when it's imported it's classified as a toy -- they're in the toy business."

The bad news for these guys is that Nintendo is preparing to spend $135 million in advertising in 1991, more than most toy companies will take in. Marketing head Peter Main has outlined an international game plan, "United Nations of Nintendo," and new demographic target in America -- the 75% of kids turning eight this year who don't have a Nintendo system in their homes, and the 53 million American households that have neither children nor Nintendo.

Of the 6,000 allegedly new items unveiled here, many are really nothing more than extensions of successful lines, incestuous variations on familiar themes, outright imitations and maximizing of formats (board games beget junior games, which beget travel games, which beget video games -- there are even Nintendo versions of Monopoly and Scrabble this year). A similar number of introductions were made last year and successes were few and far between -- Go Go Pups, Magic Nursery, Quints, New Kids dolls, WWF Wrestling figures, Koosh Balls, Scattergories.

Which doesn't mean 6,000 prayers aren't fitfully riding out the next two weeks.

"The reason there is so much product is that even with all the research that's done, until the children play with a toy, until they talk about it to their friends, until the TV commercials excite others to buy, you can't know what works," says TMA's Miller. "If you knew what was going to be great or good here, it would be a miracle."

DOLLS: The Barbie Show Gets a New MC, Blacks Get Real, and a New Baby Gets in Hot Water Barbie, 32, is a miracle, year after year.

As usual, everyone's chasing behind Barbie's $700-million-a-year fashion train, the latest aspirants being Kenner's five Miss Americas and Lundby's Petra (who's been cutting into Barbie's European profits for 27 years but is just now debuting in America). However, notes Toy and Hobby World Editor Larry Carlatt, "everyone who's ever gone head-to-head with Barbie has always had their head handed to them."

Meanwhile mother Mattel brings out new lines -- Costume Ball Barbie, Hawaiian Fun Barbie, Benetton Barbie and a few more -- and laughs all the way to the piggybank. The big news in Barbieland was the daily Toy Fair live similuation wedding of best pal Midge and her boyfriend Allan, and the introduction of Barbie's new celebrity pal, M.C. Hammer. Carlatt's not sure how well the Hammer doll will do, but "making him a friend of Barbie certainly gives him an entry." The doll, with billowing gold lame' pants and other Hammerish outfits, gives Barbie a run in the glitz department.

Mattel also unveiled Shani, the first African American line from a major toy company. For once, here is a black doll that looks like a black doll, and not a white doll in dark plastic. Special attention is being paid to authentic facial features, ethnic hairstyles and varied skin tones, as well as to fashion. Almost every doll line at Toy Fair featured black variants, though most just used the same basic mold as white dolls. Other new Mattel dolls include Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, who can lose the hairy face and hunchback to become duke charming. Hasbro's New Kids on the Block fashion dolls were a big hit last year, and this year Hasbro unveiled bigger, soft, huggable Show Time Kids, as well as smaller, poseable action figures, for the teen idols' apparently insatiable fans. For clone-collectors, there's Galoob's Guys Next Door.

In the why-didn't-someone-think-of-this-before category, Playmates introduced WaterBabies, 12-inch dolls that can be filled with warm water. The doll, which thus acquires the heft and body temperature of a real baby, is soft, stays warm for a couple of hours (and can be rewarmed in a microwave) and, unlike a real baby, is leakproof. "It feels great," says Carlatt. It's also a good example of Toy Fair entrepeneurship: St. Louis banker Dan Lauer remembered his sisters playing in the '60s with water-filled ballons tied together and dressed in baby clothes. Three years ago, after all the major toy companies turned him down, Lauer set about manufacturing WaterBabies himself, introducing them last Christmas in St. Louis. Sales went through the roof and many of the companies that had turned Lauer down suddenly came a-courting. Look for this one to make a big splash.

Other hot concepts: Mattel's Li'l Miss Mermaid, who changes color in cold water, sings a mermaid song and still manages the dry look thanks to water-resistant hair; and Tonka's Cupcakes, which transform into small dolls when their frosted tops are removed and wrappers are pulled down into pretty dresses. "Finally, Transformers for girls," said an East Coast retailer after watching various Cupcakeland dessert treats turned into play sets (the Banana Split becomes a 22-piece bedroom set).

Galoob's Baby Face dolls are 10 strong, each with a different expression, all of which were being played out by six-year old Imani Parks, one of the Ford Agency child models cuddling them at Toy Fair's opening day. Asked if she and the two other pixies had to go to school later, Imani smiled and said: "We don't have to. We're working." Not surprisingly, Imani was taken with another new Galoob doll, Suzy Snapshot, who strikes a new pose whenever a camera flash activates a sensor in her necklace. Shouldn't she be called Madonna?

Other new action dolls include Hasbro's Baby Wanna Walk (with a little kick start, she crawls or walks all by herself) and Tyco's Little Oopsie Daisy, a miniature version of the top-selling bumble doll. The success of Tyco's My Pretty Ballerina has begotten Kenner's sound-activated Dancin' Dolly and Mattell's hand-held Tapsie, who kicks up a storm. Oddly enough, the M.C. Hammer doll doesn't do anything, even with a little boom box accessory.

Talking dolls abound: Tiger's All Better Amy is something of a hypochondriac ("my throat hurts!"), but loving care and a few medical instruments help her feel better. The Cabbage Patch Kids' My Own Baby will cry if it's picked up by anybody but its adoptive parent (thanks to a special transmitter locket).

On the animal front, Hasbro's success last year with Go Go My Walking Pup has inspired Yo Yo My Walking Kitty (with a leash!) and Tiger's Scamps (who yips and flops his ears as he's pushed, and turns cuddlesome when he's detached from his wheels). Hasbro also has My Lov'Ems, cuddly pups whose noses and ears wiggle when you "feed" them. Galoob has three furry Harrys -- but no Hendersons -- and the 24-inch version of the hairy series starpurrs, growls, laughs and talks a bit (a five-foot Harry, still three feet short of the real thing, can be special-ordered). Mattel's 101 Dalmatians (actually two adults and four pups) don't do much except look terribly cute waiting for the July re-release of the classic Disney film.

ACTION FIGURES: Ted Turner Plays Mother Nature, Genghis Khan Plays a Guitar, Everyone Plays Reptile Next to "Has Nintendo peaked?" a favorite Toy Fair topic was whether those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were headed back for the sewer. Playmate must not think so, because it's introducing 90 new Turtle figures and accessories -- more than doubling the population with various Sewer Sports All Stars, Rock 'n Roll Turtles and Head Droppin' Turtles (and all the attendant action vehicles and accessories). And the new TMNT film comes out in mid-March, which will beget more Turtlemania and more action for figures, which jumped 24 percent in dollar sales between 1989 and 1990.

In toyland, imitation is the sincerest form of marketing, and the majority of the new action figure lines are blatantly copying the whimsy and humor that pulled in 400 million greenbacks last year alone. That's enough to provoke Turtle variations, and while no one has yet captured the zany spirit that propels the Turtles, the Toxic Crusaders come close (they're also from Playmates). Hasbro's envy-with-green entry is Bucky O'Hare, wascally hero of the "Aniverse," subject of current comic books and a future animated-series star, and one of 1991's most heavily licensed new characters.

Mattel will eventually unveil a "Hook" line in conjunction with Steven Spielberg's musical film version of Peter Pan, but, possibly looking to defuse the hype factor, kept it under wraps at Toy Fair. As a result, the first line out of the water gates is Hasbro's Pirates of the Dark Water, tied to the upcoming Hanna-Barbera animated series. Another historical line: Kenner's Robin Hood, tied to the Kevin Costner film to be released this summer. For history buffs, Kenner also has a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure action figure line (the movie sequel should be out soon). Did we say historical? Well, where else can you get action figures for Genghis Khan, Abe Lincoln, Billy the Kid and the Grim Reaper (all playing rock-and-roll instruments)?

As previously noted, eco-action figures are in this year. Toxie and the Toxic Crusaders and Captain Planet and the Planeteers may be getting all the attention, but let's not forget Kenner's Swamp Thing, an earlier "hideously deformed" victim of a toxic accident, now a superhero, self proclaimed "Guardian of the Earth" and star of films and a syndicated television series. Even though G.I. Joe is getting with the program with Eco-Warriors, there's also plenty of new recruits and new weaponry on the fighting side of him (though every Hasbro employee will recite the company creed that "G.I. Joe is not a war toy, he's an action figure"). Like various additions to Hasbro's successful World Wrestling Federation line of figures, some new G.I. Joes talk -- except to pool reporters, of course.

Captain Planet is based on Turner Broadcasting's top rated animated series about an environmental hero fighting eco-villains, aided by Planeteers from the U.S.A., U.S.S.R., Asia, South America and Africa. At a Tuesday press conference, cable mogul Ted Turner said that had there been a sixth Planeteer, he would have been from the Arab world. "It's an international problem so we cretaed an international crew, all working together, all equal," said Turner, who bankrolled the series after becoming aware several years ago of the threats of global warming, pollution and other ecological disasters. Turner said he was looking for a way to reach youngsters immediately, while ecology and environmental programs are slowly added to grade school curricula.

Tiger uses recycled paper in its Captain Planet packaging, lists tips on conservation and recycling and is looking for a way to use recycled plastic. For now, though, action figures are not biodegradable. Which doesn't mean they can't be funny: That may be an advantage for Toxie, the Toxic Avenger and his Toxic Crusaders, who come out of the same Playmates camp as those Mutant Turtles. Their goal: to fight crime, corruption and chemicals (particularly glow-in-the-dark "toxic" ooze). Their weapons: mops, humor and spiritual kinship with the fellow-mutant Turtles. This line also goes the recycling route, packaging-wise.

The "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" television show now includes 30-second clips on how to clean up the environmment, and the Turtles' upcoming film is sort of environmentally themed (the Turtles seek their origins in "The Secret of the Ooze"). For those looking to do their own investigations, Tiger has an environmental test kit for kids (with tests for air and water quality and acid rain), and Tyco's Chemcraft line includes a new Ecology Science Lab with 10 tests, including radon, acid rain and pollen. Those who feel a need to hug the world can do just that with the soft-globe "Hugg-a-Planet, Earth" or "Geo-Hugg-a-Planet, Earth" (depicting mountain ranges, forests, deserts and the like). For space cadets, there's "Hugg-a-Planet, Mars" and for patriots, a correctly shaped "Hugg-America."

GAMES: Video Scrabble, Video Monopoly, and Other Versions of an Electric Spoon Games were essentially flat last year and there doesn't seem to be a new Trivial Pursuit on the horizon, though there are elements of that game in Galoob's 60 Seconds, which mixes TP with Beat the Clock. Tiger's Chauvinist Pigs is a battle for sexual supremacy based on what men and women know -- and don't know -- about themselves and each other.

For those with musical inclinations, the Games Gang's Songburst is a complete-the-lyric challenge based on '50s and '60s songs (the less help you need, the more you score), while Noteability offers new card packs featuring golden oldies and show and movie tunes. For non-musical quotes, there's GameMakers' Notable Quotables, where the object is to match celebrities and their clever quotes. Tyco introduced the National Enquirer Game, in which players must create wild, unbelievable headlines for various pictures, while Pressman came up with Tabloid Teasers, in which the object is to guess which headlines and stories are for real.

The odd new direction is video versions of board word games, like Nintendo's take on Monopoly (characters get dragged to jail, money showers them when they pass Go, a computer does all the banking), Trivial Pursuit (characters smile at correct answers, frown at the wrong ones) and Scrabble, whose Game Boy version has a built-in 40,000 word dictionary for verifications.

CARS: A Smash Hit Vehicles were down 13 percent last year, but there are some fun newcomers this year: Tonka's radio-controlled Turbo F.I.S.T. and Racing F.I.S.T., in which a special glove allows hand movements to control the action; Tyco's RC Fast Traxx, which has turbo treads to run over just about anything on or off road at great speeds; Mattel's Bigfoot, which revs, roars and crushes plastic car shells, just as the real Bigfoot did to real cars in the Mattel parking lot on Toy Fair's opening day; Kenner's Claw (in tough spots the wheels expand to reveal rotary claws); and Galoob's Macro Machines, particularly the Smash-Ups with their breaking glass and crunching fender sound effects.

ODDS AND ENDS: Rap Till You Drop, Eavesdrop Till You Drop For kids on the go: Tyco's Magic Copier, which allows them to draw on a screen, push a button and get an exact copy; V Tech's Data Wave, a data organizer and calculator for the busy 7-year-old; Tiger's M.C. Hammer Rap Master game, in which the challenge is to rhyme like the man (or dance like a fool until you can).

For Spies R Us types, Tyco has expanded its Spy-Tech (love those rearview glasses) while Nasta has FBI Jr. (a Pepsi bottle turns into a walkie-talkie, a Reese's cup into a working camera) and Playtime has its KGB line. The emphasis is on surveillance equipment, including listening tools that work up to 100 feet, which could be useful for picking up playground conversations.

WAR: What's It Good For? Absolutely Nothing. What few war items were at Toy Fair were hardly exploitive, though the media sure noticed them. For instance, TSR's "Line in the Sand," a new military strategy game that takes its name from President Bush's August declaration that "a line has been drawn in the sand against any Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia." The board game, which had been in development for a year before taking shape in the past six months, is based on actual political, economic and military events in the Persian Gulf region, and players -- representing leaders of any of 18 nations -- can pursue either diplomatic or military avenues in any of five scenarios. You need never fire a shot to win, but the options including chemical and nuclear weapons. TSR, known for its historic military simulations, got a substantial order from the military at Toy Fair, according to VP Justin McCormack.

The other beneficiary on the toy front was Revell/Monogram, the world's largest manufacturer of plastic model kits. Since the war began, there's been a run on eight of its detailed miniature models for planes active in the gulf, particularly the F-15C Eagle, the F-14 Tomcat, the A-10 Thunderbolt and the F-117A Stealth. "CNN, it's our advertising," said one Monogram salesman, quickly pointing out that these models had been available at hobby shops long before tensions boiled over in the gulf region.

The toy business, says magazine editor Carlatt, is "giant steps away from war toys. It's also very image-oriented, and the last thing {toy manufacturers} want to be associated with is people dying, so they won't touch this with a ten-foot pole." Nasta did introduce a Desert Brigade line, but it has no weapons, just communication and surveillance gear. There's also the timing: The war machine began building late in the year, so companies who might want to exploit it had little time to do so; it could be over before the cycle comes again, though TMA's Miller notes that "this is a resourceful industry and if someone perceives the opportunity, you can bring out a toy in a month or so."

"But people have too much good taste to do anything that would offend," says Miller, the toy industry group president, conceding that there may be "some smaller companies who are more opportunistic or whose taste level is not yours or mine. The good and the bad come out in all of us in these times of stress."