DigiMon toy could be monster hit Game: Japan hopes American kids have a good appetite for a digital combat critter that needs to be fed.

December 19, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Forget Godzilla vs. Rodan. Japan's latest clash of the titans pits DigiMon against DigiMon in a fight toy-sellers hope will top the Tamagotchi craze.

Of course, that's partly because DigiMon is itself a sort of mutant Tamagotchi. Manufactured by Bandai, the folks responsible for Tamagotchi, DigiMon represents the next wave of virtual pets. They're interactive combat critters that can be connected with other DigiMons to engage in mortal combat -- virtual cockfights, if you will.

Isn't that just the cutest thing?

Well, no. But that's the point. Unlike the Tamagotchi and its ilk, which were designed to be tiny and adorable, there's nothing cute about DigiMon. The name is short for Digital Monster, and the tiny creatures look the part, growing up into tiny space demons, sea serpents and, yes, Godzilla-like dinosaurs.

Or at least that's how they're drawn. The DigiMon toy itself is basically a box, a 2- by 1 1/2 -inch rectangular key chain toy featuring an LCD screen and three control buttons. Unlike the egg-shaped Tamagotchi, DigiMon's plastic package is fitted out look like a tiny dungeon, with a lock on the door to keep the virtually ferocious critter at bay.

As with other virtual fauna, the DigiMons are hatched from eggs and "raised" by the owner. That means feeding them -- they eat what is supposed to be meat on the bone, but actually looks like a tiny shish kebab -- exercising them and cleaning up digital poop. At times, the DigiMon can be just as annoying as the Tamagotchi, beeping for attention with irritating insistence.

But the toy doesn't exactly encourage nurturing. Whereas Tamagotchi critters grow fat and unhealthy from too many "treats," the DigiMon actually thrives on the virtual vitamins that supplement its feed. In fact, its vitamin intake directly affects the little monster's "strength meter" readings, as does the sparring game it plays as a sort of electronic exercise. Remember, the whole idea is to make your DigiMon strong enough that it can whup the other kid's.

After two or three days of training, the DigiMon morphs into its "rookie" shape and is ready for fighting. But it can't fight alone -- it must be matched with another DigiMon.

The two toys hook up through a small docking connection on the side of the machine; once the "monster match" setting is engaged, the little demons go at it automatically.

A DigiMon fight is not quite as dramatic as the brawls Godzilla would get into around Tokyo. First the monsters roar their challenge, then the screen flashes a sort of death's head, and next thing you know, one of the buggers is crowing victory while the other cowers in defeat.

Each loss costs the critter some of its strength; lose too many times, and the DigiMon actually dies, though it's easy enough to hatch a new one and start the game again.

DigiMon already has done quite well in Japan, but then, monster-oriented toys, like the Gameboy game "Pocket Monsters," are all the rage over there. (Even after a recent episode in which a broadcast of the animated "Pocket Monsters" induced seizures in some viewers, children said they would remain loyal to the game.)

Although DigiMon's manufacturer, Bandai, expects the $14.99 toy to be big with boys, its Christmas prospects have been hurt by the fact that virtually none of the virtual monsters have made it into stores yet.

"They're trying to get the product in stores before Christmas," says a Bandai spokeswoman. "Some areas will have it, and others won't."

Count Baltimore among the areas that won't. No local toy store had DigiMon in stock, though Kay-Bee Toys in Columbia does stock a $17.99 DigiMon knock-off called Nano-fighters.

However, Toys "R" Us is pre-selling the DigiMon. Those who want to be the first on their block to own their own virtual fighting creatures can pay $14.99 for a DigiMon "dog tag" that is redeemable for the DigiMon when it does come in (the toys are expected in early January).

Some customers have indeed purchased the dog tags, but demand is hardly at Tamagotchi levels. Still, says one Toys "R" Us sales associate, what do you expect? "If kids haven't seen it yet, they can't get too excited about it."

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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