As Father Christmas prepares to harness the reindeer and load up the sled for the last time this century, what are the toys most likely to find their way down the nation's chimneys? In among the breathtakingly expensive consoles and the games to play on them, there are some unusually cheap and cheerful stocking fillers.
Star ratings **** best buy
*** bound to be popular
** five-minute wonder * rip-off
Lego Phantom MenaceFrom pound;7.99
For the second year running, Lego has managed to come up with something that will not only keep toy fashionistas happy (it's this year's model) it also stands a better than evens chance of outliving Boxing Day and the holiday longueurs beyond.
The company that last year brought us the groundbreaking Mindstorms, this year artfully proves that merchandising spin-offs need not necessarily mean shameless profiteering. Its Phantom Menace armada of fighters, pods and aerial combat vehicles starts very reasonably at pound;7.99 (Hamleys) for a droid fighter, then works up in size and complexity to the Sith Infiltrator (pound;29.99), a Gungan Sub (pound;49.99) and finally a megapack of three vehicles that allows you to build your own pods, and stage an intergalactic pod race (pound;79.99).
Furby Baby pound;24.99 **
Alien Baby From pound;1.99 ***
Anne Geddes Beanie Babiespound;7.99 **
Now here's a curious thing: around this time of year there's something of a baby boom. Well, that is what a nativity is for, I suppose, but this year there are three in the toy charts. First and perhaps most distressingly is the Baby Furby (eToys pound;24.99). The Furby, you may remember, is a chattering, battery-operated ball of fluff that was last year's must-have. This year its progeny promises to be even more animated and noisy with a hugely extended vocabulary and range of "communicative abilities". Time to circle the wagons.
By contrast, the Alien Baby (department stores pound;1.99) is serenely silent, if a little spooky. This peculiar object lies cocooned in an egg full of green slime and is one of the cheapest toys on offer this Christmas. It sits comfortably and inertly in the palm of the hand and how anyone manages to mistake it for a human foetus (which staff at Buckhurst Hill tube station did last month, apparently) is more than a little worrying.
It comes with extensive instructions, particularly about what to do with the slime. The more enterprising can twizzle this into all sorts of things such as a weeny alien hammock or a trampoline.
The last baby is one whose infancy, it is said, is in its final stages. The manufacturer of Beanie Babies has apparently decided to call it a day and will be churning out no more. The final incarnations of these ubiquitous and much sought-after teddy substitutes are based on the photographs of Anne Geddes (eToys pound;7.99).
Friends the Board Game pound;22.99 *
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
What makes a good board game? Well, for a start it must be visually and mentally engaging, potentially exciting and vaguely unpredictable. It should also allow all players a reasonable chance of winning. Past champions of the genre include Monopoly, Cluedo, Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. In what you could say is The One Where Life Imitates Art, there is now a board game based on an episode of US TV sitcom Friends. This was The One Where (if you are interested) the Girls Lose Their Apartment in a Game, not, it has be said, one that was noted for its skill, excitement or sense of purpose. I can't imagine who on Earth would admit to owning this, let alone play it in public. Chris Tarrant's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has also spawned its own board game. But at least this has some semblance of competition, if only of the pub-quiz variety. The fact that it doesn't bestow a million quid on the victor somehow diminishes its impact.
Pokemon Starter Packpound;4.98 Pokemon Trading Card Game pound;4.97 Pokemon Challengepound;12.94 Pokemon play matpound;3.99 Pokemon tattoospound;1.99 ***
How did we manage to get this far down a wish list and not mention theP-word? Perhaps because Pokemon hasn't taken hold in the UK in quite the same terrifying way that it has in the United States and Japan, but this is only a matter of time. Pokemon (short for pocket monster) has become a marketing phenomenon embracing a television cartoon series, computer games and innumerable toys. It is now the number one film in the US. It is a sort of cross between Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles with a dash of Alice in Wonderland thrown in for good measure.
There are 150 Pokemon creatures (good, bad and ugly), and children collect and trade cards in the hope of acquiring all of them, or play for hours on a Nintendo doing much the same thing.
Although not expensive in small batches (a Pokemon Starter Pack of cards costs pound;4.98 at eToys), if you have to acquire all 150 the cost starts to mount. The manufacturer has also limited the supply of some cards, making them virtually unobtainable. This can only end in tears, and in the US and Japan it often ends in actual bodily harm. One of the most comprehensive (and cheapest) selections of Pokemon kit available is on the Toyzone website.
www.eToys .co.uk ****
Y can now do all your Christmas shopping online, without the torture of getting entangled in thousands of other people and their horrible misbehaved children. The best site of all is eToys, a beautifully designed, easy-to-negotiate emporium offering everything from classic toys and suggested Christmas presents to gift wrapping and even birthday reminders. It has a section on toys under pound;20 and accompanying blurb telling you all you need to know about the individual toy you are investigating, from its particular attributes, to the batteries it needs or the age it is designed for. Next best is Toyzone - brilliant to look at, especially from a child's point of view because it has lots of gaudy, moving graphics and a message from clean-cut pop group Steps. Its toys also seem to be much cheaper than elsewhere.
Hamleys starts out looking very classy, but proves impossible to negotiate or search. Mind you, why would anyone shop online at Hamleys when the mark-up is so enormous? At least if you go to the store, it manages to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust and leave you feeling that Christmas shopping is not such a bad deal after all.