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NEW YORK-Only one thing is certain in the toy industry this year: Action figures rule.

Never before have so many warriors, heroes, villains and masked avengers descended on toy land as those seen last week at the American International Toy Fair.

And this year, nearly every one is backed by a TV series, a film or a videogame, underscoring the fact that without such entertainment support, new action figure lines are as good as dead.

The contenders are vying for a piece of the huge sales action now enjoyed by Bandai America with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers figures, based on the Saban Entertainment TV series in its third year.

Although only a handful of the new entries will approach that success, industry experts say action figure sales this year will be unprecedented, and marketers are betting multimillion-dollar campaigns on the new lines.

Hasbro's Kenner division dominates the field for new action figures tied to films, as master toy licensee for Warner Bros.' June release of "Batman Forever," expected to be the summer's biggest draw among preteens. Grey Advertising handles.

"Batman will be the biggest toy event of the year. It's less like a third sequel and more like a whole new concept, much darker and moodier than Batman has ever been, with Val Kilmer [as Batman] and Jim Carrey [as the Riddler]," said Marc Rosenberg, director of promotions for Tiger Electronics, which has licenses to create handheld videogames for nearly all major films targeting kids this year.

Less certain of success are Kenner's action figures tied to the June release of Universal Pictures' "Waterworld" starring Kevin Costner. That film is already getting a thumbs-down from Hollywood insiders.

But solid sales are expected for Kenner's Mortal Kombat action figures and accessories shipping next month, tied to the arcade videogame release of Mortal Kombat III.

On their heels is a line of Kenner figures tied to the film "The Mask," out now on video, and figures based on the Paramount Pictures film "Congo," due in June and based on the best selling Michael Crichton novel.

Kenner continues production of action figures based on Saban's animated TV series "VR Troopers." Griffin Bacal and Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor also handle Kenner's advertising.

Another hot new action figure line, from Playmates, is Earthworm Jim, based on last year's popular videogame from Playmates Interactive. The quirky earthworm superhero gets an animated TV series this fall, and a movie is in the works, Playmates said.

Playmates' extensive line of "Star Trek"-theme action figures and accessories continues to grow; this fall, it will ship a full line of action figures tied to the "Star Trek: Voyager" TV series that took flight last month on new network UPN.

Three other action figure lines from Playmates, all backed by animated cartoon series and shipping this summer, are WildC.A.T.s, Ronin Warriors and Monster Force.

This year, Playmates also plans to establish a computer online presence through America Online, where fans can share product and collector information. Golin/Harris Communications, Los Angeles, is coordinating the company's online efforts; Sachs, Finlay is Playmates' ad agency.

Not to be outdone, Mattel is making a strong early season push with its imaginative new line of Street Sharks action figures, already selling briskly in stores since their introduction early this month. Foote, Cone & Belding and Ogilvy & Mather handle Mattel.

But Bandai America isn't making life easy for those who would challenge the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The company is turning up the heat with new characters and transformable accessories, plus a line of Power Rangers for Girls dolls. Due this summer is "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie," which is expected to give Bandai's toys another huge boost. Sachs, Finlay handles Bandai's advertising.

Bandai also has action figure toy lines tied to new Saban Entertainment TV series coming this year, including "Masked Rider," "Quest for the Dragon Star" and "Spin Fighters."

The syndicated animated TV series "The Tick" has inspired a line of action figures from Bandai, and a film due this year from Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Lewis Galoob Toys is also making waves with its new line of action figures based on Malibu Comics' Ultraverse series, and the Mutant League, monsters who play hockey and football. Both lines, backed by animated TV series, are hitting toy store shelves early this year. Galoob's agency is TSR, New York.

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