NEW YORK (AP) _ From classic dolls to video villains to the latest high-tech fantasy, toys galore vie for attention as toymakers throw their yearly show beginning Monday.

The antics during Toy Fair's 10-day New York run - including a bash for Popeye's 60th birthday and a glitzy gala to commemorate Barbie's 30th anniversary - belie the serious nature of this multibillion-dollar business.

The fair is the industry's annual exhibition, which draws buyers from stores nationwide eager for a glimpse of what might become the next big craze.

Having fun is what the toy business is all about so the manufacturers will be determined to cast their creations in the jolliest surroundings, making them appear irresistible.

Amid the razzle-dazzle displays set in a carnival atmosphere, toy industry analysts will be scouting for signs that manufacturers have correctly judged what customers will want and what parents will buy.

''There is no way a company can know in advance that they have a megahit,'' says David S. Leibowitz of American Securities Corp. ''On the contrary, megahits are the exception that prove the rule.''

Just predicting popularity, let alone identifying megahits, is difficult.

Take Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Visitors to Toy Fair last year reacted coolly to the 5-inch action figures. Children, however, were captivated by the turtle creatures, which were said to have formed after house pets fell into a sewer. By Christmas, they were one of the biggest selling toys and retailers regretted not having ordered more.

Coping with a blockbuster is no easy task as many companies have found out the hard way. Remember Cabbage Patch Kids and Coleco Industries Inc.?

Back in the mid-1980s when the dolls were at the top of the toy heap, stores everywhere had lists of customers waiting for them. As the trade legend goes, only several months later sales of Cabbage Patch dolls slumped and Coleco suffered.

Coleco's experience is cited by analysts as an example of how hard it is to manage the booms and busts so typical for toys. Coleco, struggling with debts, filed for protection from creditors last summer and is reorganizing itself under federal bankruptcy law.

(The Cabbage Patch clan, meanwhile, has made a comeback and earned an 18th- place ranking on the January Toy Hit Parade compiled by Toy and Hobby World magazine.)

Manufacturers in recent years have taken precautions against unfortunate consequences of periodic fads that sweep the industry.

One company credited with deftly handling a successful item is Nintendo of America, the U.S. division of the Japanese video giant Nintendo Co. Ltd.

Nintendo games have ignited an explosion in home video game sales in the past two years. Defying predictions of analysts who thought the fad would be dying by now, Nintendo cassettes are still aggressively sought and there seems to be abundant demand to drive sales this year.

Demand seems to be lasting because Nintendo has refrained from flooding the market with games and stimulates keen interest in new offerings, analysts say.

''There's a very fine line between satisfying all the demand that's out there and creating a glut of merchandise that causes deep discounting, causes people to lose interest and eventually cuts short the life expectancy of the product,'' said Paul Valentine, a Standard & Poor's Corp. toy industry analyst.

Strength in video games has held back sales growth of American toymakers, many of which approached 1988 as a recovery year after a dismal 1987 showing.

In many cases, the manufacturers orchestrated their rebounds by trimming product lines, focusing on core items with good records and offering toys with smaller price tags aimed at tweaking children's acquisitive instincts. The makers concluded that state-of-the-art big-ticket toys wouldn't be big sellers.

This year's toy story is expected to be a variation on 1988 themes.

Apart from a continuation of the video game phenomenon, collectibles, like last year's successful Micro Machines from Lewis Galoob Toys Inc., could be popular again this year. Galoob is coming out with other miniatures, including a railroad set that a few previewers found intriguing.

Dolls of all sorts will be at the fair. New ones will make their debut while old favorites, like Mattel's Barbie, will be touted as musts for little girls' toy chests. Mothers who nostalgically recall playing with dolls may be tempted by modern versions of Ideal Inc.'s Betsy Wetsy and Tiny Tears.

Some manufacturers hope to capitalize on the fascination with homemaking toys designed for preschoolers, as evidenced in the popularity of Fisher- Price's Fun With Food line.

More educational toys are coming out, especially electronic ones aimed at improving basic mathematics and reading skills. Texas Instruments Inc. says it is introducing the first such toy specifically for infants and toddlers, called Listen & Learn Farm Animals.

Douglas Thompson, president of Toy Manufacturers of America Inc., sponsor of the 86th annual American International Toy Fair, says another area of concentration will be toys and games that appeal to any age group.

This strategy apparently stems from what has been dubbed the ''cocooning'' trend in which families are staying home and joining in activities.

Manufacturers are counting on their creations to build up their balance sheets, but knowing children's capricious tastes, nothing is guaranteed.

''No one sets out to design and manufacture an unsuccessful toy,'' points out Walter Kirchberger of PaineWebber Inc. ''You really don't end up knowing if you have a hit until the public decides what they want to buy.''

End adv for weekend editions Feb 11-12.