The winning formula
In the panel were Jane Markwell, with daughter Harriet (6) and son Tom (3); Vicky and Michael Law with Nick (10) and Jessica (8); Dee Paterson with Catherine (8) and twins Sophie and James (6); Sue Krajewski with Matthew (9) and Charlotte (8) and lastly Ellie Morris (5).
SONY PLAY STATION Pounds 249
FORMULA 1 Pounds 43.87
CRASH BANDICOOT Pounds 43.87
This led from the start and proved to be the one and only unqualified success across all age group.
The Formula 1 program was in constant use. For the uninitiated, which included all the girls and mums in the panel, the screen car is controlled by a sophisticated mouse with a number of buttons on it, which change speed, direction and so on. You can pick which race you want, then it's "Welcome to Imola for the 1995 Grand Prix", and off you go.
Above the roar of engines, while you crash into the perimeter fence and bounce across the grass verge, the one-and-only Murray Walker adds his own inimitable exclamations - "Oh, my word", "Oh my goodness", and so on. "Does it come with earphones?" asked Dee above the scream of tyres and revs. However, she was a lone voice of dissent. "It's really, really, good," said Matthew. "It's simple and easy to overtake. Wicked."
Crash Bandicoot's colour graphics are mesmerising, but the range of options is not much more elaborate than a Game Boy (the buttons make the bandicoot jump, whirl round, avoid obstacles, and so on). However, it was an easier introduction to the play station for the girls, some of whom had never used one before (and wouldn't have this time, unless the boys had been forcibly parted from the controls).
* Top toy for 7 out of 10 children
GAME BOY Pounds 44.99
WITH DONKEY KONG Pounds 17.97
Game Boys have been around for a number of years, but the Donkey Kong version was new to our panel and proved an unexpected hit, especially with the girls.
The program is hard to comment on, as it was nigh-on impossible to see with any clarity, but it seemed to involve a monkey and a bunch of bananas. This didn't stop any of the panel from poring over it for long periods. Michael Law commented: "This is fantastic for children in cars; you don't hear a peep from them all journey." This was popular from 6 years up.
* Top toy for 1
ACTION MAN'S 4x4 JEEP Pounds 28.97
ACTION MAN PLUS RAID (HIS DOG) Pounds 22.19
ACTION MAN'S HELIGUN MAXICOPTER Pounds 44.97
These are heavy-duty toys: large, life-like and, in the case of the Heligun, fearfully complicated to assemble (Dee spent at least 40 minutes wrestling with instructions like "push fit four rear tail bars to rear of fuselage").
Tom, the three-year-old, was the only member of the panel to take the 4x4 jeep for a test drive, and that was in an attempt to run over the dog. As Raid is more Hound of the Baskervilles than German Shepherd, this seemed appropriate. The jeep is huge, has a missile-launching cannon and a windscreen that flips down. The heligun excited more interest. Its rotor blades are fluorescent green, and whir realistically; it also has lights, electronic-sounding cannon fire, and missiles with a range of around six feet. The parents roundly condemned it as too heavy for a small child and potentially dangerous - the moving rotor blades got caught in hair and could end up in an eye.
"Unsatisfactory," said Jane Markwell. "Bits fall off it and the pump action is too hard for a child of five."
BATMAN PLUS BATMAN FOREVER BATMOBILE WITH LIGHT-UP CHASSIS AND LONG-RANGE MISSILE Pounds 24.39
The Batmobile was the most stylish, classy toy in the room. It was easy to operate, it worked and it didn't fall to pieces afterwards. Tom was its main fan and barely let go of it for two hours, but he seemed to be the only taker.
Batman himself was sadly superfluous.
* 610 NIKKO INVADER JEEP Pounds 44.99
REBOUND 4x4 JEEP (RADIO CONTROLLED) Pounds 57.99
These were noisy, intrusive - and enormous fun. Everyone played with them and loved them. "They look sturdy and you won't break them easily," said Jane Markwell. "But make sure you take them outside if you want your paintwork to remain in tact."
BABY EXPRESSIONS Pounds 38.99
In the search for ever more realistic baby dolls for maternal girls, Baby Expressions has been given a face which puckers up and an electronic wail which very swiftly set everyone's teeth on edge.
"I wouldn't have that in the house," said Sue Krajewski. "It would drive me completely berserk." No one else liked it much either. "It just goes blur, blur, blur; it doesn't do anything," said Jessica. Catherine stuck her fingers in its eyes. "I'm not holding that," she said. This joined Action Man and Batman in the no-hope saloon.
LEGO WESTERN FORT APACHE Pounds 43.74
Lego kept our panellists busy throughout the test, and by the end a respectable number of buildings, with sundry design features, had risen from the table top.
The enduring charm of Lego owes much to its simplicity and the endless satisfaction to be derived from building something recognisable. It is not trendy or cool, but on a tired and emotional post-Christmas afternoon it would be an absolute Godsend.
Popular with everyone except the very youngest.
KER PLUNK Pounds 10.67 A ghost from Christmas past? This game -"Pick up sticks by any other name," said Vicky Law - was also popular across the age range with one proviso: that the parents assembled it. As this involves sticking thin bits of wood through small holes, it can be a little trying, especially as over-zealous children can disassemble it in seconds. Having said that, everyone from three upwards had a go.
"I had to set it up for them," said Vicky, "And it's fiddly. But once there, I think it's got great appeal."
SONG BIRD BARBIE Pounds 13.94
NIBBLES Pounds 18.44
FEEDING FUN STABLE Pounds 23.49
The three youngest girls, Sophie, Ellie and Harriet, were enraptured by this combination of pastel plastic. "I like this," said Sophie decisively. "I want it for Christmas."
Nibbles is Barbie's pony. He has a long, flaxen mane of "real" hair and is able (thanks to a magnet) to pick up buckets and haybales with his nose. His stable boasts every convenience known to animal husbandry, including a water pump and hay chute, and all the accessories to be found in yards, such as brushes, tack, and even tools to muck out the stable.
"It's very fiddly to put together," remarked Jane Markwell, "and it's frustrating for adults because none of it seems to clip together easily or satisfactorily but this doesn't seem to bother the children at all."
The Song Bird Barbie couldn't compete with the attractions of her alter ego and was soon ditched.
* The three girls (5-6) gave this combo 1210 but it didn't score with any of the others. "The boys didn't even know it was in the room," said Sue Krajewski
* Top toy for 2
* Toys R Us now has 56 stores nationwide, stocked from floor to ceiling with toys, bikes, computers, software and even baby wares. What it lacks in period charm it makes up for in fast checkouts, excellent labelling and easy access. The aisles are huge, and the layout of all the products is accessible and inviting. Most importantly, it is cheap. Its Batman Forever Batmobile costs Pounds 24.39; the same toy costs a whopping Pounds 39.99 in Hamleys. Similar savings are to be made across its product range. Toys R Us, Brent Cross. Tel: 0181 209 0019
Additional reporting by Jane Markwell