Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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Space Laser Fight, Boxing and Football, all designed by a Japanese firm called Bambino, have the cleverest electronic displays on the market this year. In the football game, two teams, their lighted figures clearly seen as if from above, pass, kick and evade tacklers on a field that measures about 1 in. by 3 in. In Space Laser Fight, as in Boxing, two tiny figures —moving pictographs about ¾ in. high that can crouch, jump and do battle—face each other and fight. The miniaturization is astonishing. Sound effects are imaginative and frequent; when a spaceman gets zapped (a pictograph showing smashed robot parts flashes on the screen), a descending scale of cheerful beeps is heard. The trouble with Bambino's products is that while the gadgetry is brilliant, the games themselves are not very interesting. The problem is not restricted to Bambino; an observer suspects that in many cases (Microvision and Speak & Spell are notable exceptions), the engineers who made the toys have had more fun than will the kids who get them.

Superstar 3000 is a not-so-cheap ($39.95) toy electric guitar with a sound synthesizer instead of strings and the ability to remember and play back tunes. The player presses touch-sensitive colored panels instead of frets; pressure at the top of the guitar neck produces a wah-wah or vibrato effect. But Superstar 3000 looks and feels like junk, and doesn't sound like much. Toy musical instruments have always been disappointing, and computer chips haven't changed things.

Vegas 21 is a pocket calculator that will add up your check stubs, or if that seems dreary, deal hands of blackjack. Punch in your stake—why be cheap? Try $50,000—and start betting. The odds, as in real life, favor the house, and two robots in camel's-hair overcoats come around to break your legs if you don't pay up.

Rom is a spaceman doll whose computer memory gives it a disappointingly narrow range of behavior. It breathes heavily (one of its better effects), buzzes, twitters and flashes its lighted eyes, and sounds ominous gongs, one for good and two for evil. The trouble with this Parker Bros, homunculus is that it looks as if it should be able to use its arms and legs like a true robot, and it can't. Rom will end up among the dust balls under the playroom sofa.

When hand-held computer toys and games first appeared on the market two years ago, retail sales climbed briskly to between $35 million and $40 million. This year's retail sales should be ten times greater (against total toy sales of about $5.5 billion). The great beep forward came when Milton Bradley noticed that adults were buying its innovative Simon —for themselves, and not just in the weeks before Christmas. The highly seasonal nature of toy buying has always been an industry bugaboo; after Christmas, retailers can get stuck with toys that won't sell.

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