There's a kind of hush over the toy departments of London's West End this Christmas. Not the kind of suspenseful hush you get as you wait for a shower of presents down the chimney, but a rather sad deflation, as if someone has let go of a balloon early.
It could be the spectre of recession that is putting the mockers on things, or perhaps it owes more to must-have fatigue. The must-have is a present which, by tradition, is also a can't-get. It can usually be relied upon to lend an Arthurian dimension to stocking-filling expeditions,when parents go off on long, fruitless searches for unobtainable quarry. Last year it was for Tamagotchis and Teletubbies, this year it will be for small mechanised furry things called Furbies (Selfridges, if you're lucky, Pounds 29.99).
Or maybe it is all due to 1998's distinctly retro feel. Take the top toy of the moment, the yo-yo. This has been around for decades but, rather like flares and Saturday Night Fever, someone in marketing has decided to give it a new spin. Mind you, the yo-yos of today have made great strides in toy evolution. If you thought it was simply a matter of two revolving bits of plastic and a long piece of string, wake up and walk the dog.
Selfridges has some wacky yo-yos: there's a fur-covered one and a "lava liquid" one (both Pounds 1.99), or the Yomega, which it is claimed has a brain, for Pounds 7.99. But if it's designer-label yo-yos you want, head for Hamleys.
Here, the Thunderstone Professional Yo-Yo (Pounds 9.99), with multi-colour laser, has pride of place in an eye-popping display. It has a heavy-weight precision four-ball clutch mechanism and comes with batteries.And if you don't know why you need either clutch or batteries, there is the helpful guide Splitting the Atom and Other Yo-Yo Stuff for Pounds 3.99,which should enlighten you.
It may be the year of the yo-yo, but Po and co still have enough pulling power to justify acres of space. Blood was spilt in search of Tubby merchandise last year, but nowadays all is peace and plenty on Home Hill. You can't move for battery-operated Noo Noos for Pounds 29.99 or Teletubbies Gardening Packs (come with flower seeds, plastic pots and watering can) for Pounds 9.99. And there are, of course, many versions of the fab four themselves.
Spice fare is not so much retro as woefully behind the times. No one in Toyland seems to have cottoned on to the fact that there are no longer five of them. Geri is there on all the T-shirts (Pounds 11.99), jigsaws (Pounds 1.99), rucksacks (Pounds 14.99), and fashion make-up (Pounds 8. 99) as though everything in Spice World was still sweetness and light. Still, if children can believe in Father Christmas they shouldn't have a problem with this minor technicality.
One normally rich source for Christmas-stocking fodder is the megamovie, especially if the megamovie is about a monster. This summer's Godzilla has spawned a smaller brood of baby reptiles with "tornado blast roars, with moving head and gnashing teeth" for Pounds 24.99; a jet to kill them with, complete with nine firing missiles and grappling rocket, costs Pounds 24.99.
One film which should have had the toy shelves groaning with doppelgAngers was last month's number one, Small Soldiers. This dark saga about a bunch of toy soldiers brought to life by a microchip would seem to have been a gift. But if the premise of the film is that toys can come to life, what is the point of manufacturing one that evidently won't? So there is a disappointingly inert Chip Hazard (head of the anarchic Commando Elite) for Pounds 16.99 and a slightly more animated "talking" archer "with punching action" for Pounds 49.99.
Away from the newcomers, you can still find some hardy perennials for under a tenner, like a crystal radio for Pounds 6.99 or a weather centre for Pounds 6.95. A crystal growing kit (surely a must for any new New Ager?) is Pounds 12.99. Any child after David Attenborough's job should be asking for The Complete Kit for Budding Field Scientists, which consists of a pocket shovel, magnifying glass, flexi-light, removable compass, canteen and binoculars. Marvellous fun, all for Pounds 16.99.
But in an otherwise lacklustre year there is, thankfully, one genuine Christmas cracker: Mindstorms. Lego continues to push back the boundaries of play and exploration by taking bricks and motors into the next dimension. With Mindstorms, children shouldn't worry about not getting an army of Small Soldiers, because they can make and programme their own. The set costs a whopping Pounds 160, but just look what you get with it: a micro-computer which acts as a brain, touch sensors, various motors, light sensor, infra-red transmitter and more than 700 individual bits and pieces,from cogs and wheels to blocks and wires. There's even a CD-Rom and a "constructopedia" to get you started. This has to be the must-have for the millennium.
All prices quoted here are from Hamleys in Regent Street, London, unless otherwise indicated