Passion For Pokemon

There's no end in sight to the toy craze from Japan. It has expanded from a video game to comic books, action figures, trading cards and, soon, a feature film.

April 04, 1999|By Robert Dominguez | Robert Dominguez,New York Daily News

Pokemons may look like cute, cuddly little monsters, but they can whup even Godzilla when it comes to sales. Since storming the U.S. toy industry last fall, all things Pokemon (pronounced poke-ee-mahn), the latest toy craze from Japan, have been emptying the wallets of pre-adolescent boys and girls (and their parents) nationwide.

Here's how big it is:

* Nintendo has sold 1.7 million of the Pokemon hand-held Gameboy video games (more than $45 million worth), making it the company's biggest seller ever. The company is releasing two new games in June: Pokemon Pinball for Gameboy and Pokemon Snap for Nintendo 64, which will allow players to snap video stills of the monsters.

* Action figures by toymaker Hasbro and a trading-card game are also big sellers, along with watches and knapsacks.

* "Pokemon," a weekly cartoon produced in Japan and seen here on the WB channel, is the highest-ranked kids' show in its 7 a.m. time slot.

* There's a Pokemon comic book, translated from the Japanese and published in America by Viz.

* The most popular Pokemon, the yellow, catlike character named Pikachu, has been spun off into a Furby-like toy that has sounds, lights and "speech."

* Hasbro has begun shipping its new line of bean-filled Pokemon plush dolls -- a la Beanie Babies -- to stores. This month one character will be "retired," with others to follow as new ones come out.

* A Pokemon film, "Mewtwo Strikes Back," is in the works in Japan for a U.S. release this year.

The appeal of Pokemon is based on a combination of successful toy trends of the recent past. It's virtual pets, Beanie Babies and intricate trading-card games such as "Magic: The Gathering," all rolled into one bizarro world of strange-looking little creatures with even stranger names, like Squirtle, Bulbasaur, Weedle, Kabuto and Jigglypuff.

"Kids love them because the characters are so colorful, they have great names, and there's a little bit of nurturing and role-playing going on," says Hasbro's Holly Ingram. "And hunting and finding these things translates into toy collecting."

The phenomenon began as a series of best-selling video games by Nintendo. Originally, Nintendo gave the game the English name "Pocket Monsters." But the Japanese have a fondness for shortening long names into three- or four-syllable nicknames. So "pokketo monsutasu" -- the Japanese rendering of "pocket monsters" -- got shortened to the much cuter "pokemon," and the name stuck.

The object of the game is relatively simple: A player assumes the roles of various human characters, then must search for, capture and train Pokemon monsters.

Each monster is based on natural elements, such as water or fire. Once trained, they can evolve into bigger, meaner and more powerful versions of their former selves. A player captures more monsters by pitting those he's trained against others.

After you've captured all 150 monsters, you're proclaimed "The World's Greatest Pokemon Trainer" -- a badge of honor in schoolyards across the country.

There is one major hurdle to overcome before achieving that lofty "World's Greatest" level -- there are two versions of the Gameboy cartridges, with only 139 characters that are unique to each.

That means either buying both cartridges -- at about $30 each -- or trading monsters with friends by connecting Gameboy consoles with a cable to capture all the characters.

Cumulative time spent playing the game is displayed, so a player -- or a concerned parent -- can see how long they've been at it.

Even though Pokemon has been around for three years, the marketing monster is still growing strong in Japan. A feature film based on the cartoon series was released there last summer, and last month a Japanese airliner was adorned with several of the characters.

Two new game cartridges will be introduced in Japan this fall featuring new characters. One, the Yellow cartridge, will be introduced here in September. (Currently, Americans can get only the Red and Blue cartridges.)

"Consumers have invested in the whole experience of it, so it's not a fad," says Nintendo's Perrin Kaplan. "It's several years old in Japan and it's grown by leaps and bounds. This is still a big deal."

POKEFANS

Joseph Jancasz

City: Reisterstown

Age: 11

Job: Student, Timber Green Elementary

Are you a Pokemaniac: Yes

Have played since: December

Favorite character: Chansey -- "The things coming off his head look neat."

Number of characters captured: 139 ("I've already gotten all 150 once, though.")

Why did you start playing: "My mom's friend let my brother borrow it, and it looked real cool, so I started to play it, too."

Total hours logged on: 20 hours, 49 minutes

Favorite Pokemon merchandise: "My giant Pidgeot figure. He speaks Japanese when you push the button."

Teresa Grenagle

City: Reisterstown

Age: 19

Job: Babbage's Software employee

Are you a Pokemaniac: Yes

Have played since: October

Favorite character: Squirtle -- "He's adorable and has turned out to be one of the stronger ones."

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