Pokemon packs them in

Craze: Young fans of Japanese monster characters flock to Towson Town Center to see the latest merchandise.

August 15, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Pokemon -- the latest craze of America's children -- invaded Towson Town Center yesterday. The mall didn't stand a chance.

More precisely, the shopping center was no match for the mythical Japanese monsters' thousands of devoted fans.

Speaking a language all their own, they came to catch up on the latest Pokemon news and buy the latest Pokemon merchandise. They came to trade Pokemon playing cards and square off with their hand-held Pokemon video games. And most of all, they gathered on every level of the mall to revel in all things Pokemon.

"It's like an amusement park here," said 12-year-old Charles VanDerpool, who will be an eighth-grader at Pikesville Middle School. "You can find any Pokemon stuff here you want."

For those who don't have children ages 6 to 14, the Pokemon phenomenon began about three years ago in Japan, when Nintendo Corp. introduced it as a Game Boy video game. (Pokemon is roughly translated from Japanese as "pocket monsters.")

Since then, it has become a top-selling video game in the United States, with 150 creatures; and produced a wide array of successful spinoffs -- clothing, trading cards, a television show and more.

Playing cards get snapped up as soon as they reach stores. "Pokemon" is one of America's top-rated television cartoons. There's even a much-anticipated movie, scheduled for release in November.

"The last two months have just been crazy trying to keep the merchandise in," said Peter Romero, district manager for the hobby and game store The Game Keeper. "As soon as word gets out that we have a new shipment, the line starts forming."

Pokemon: The tour

This weekend's event at Towson Town Center is part of a national tour to promote the card game. The Game Keeper -- a subsidiary of the cards' manufacturer, Wizards of the Coast -- brought the tour to the mall, and dozens of children and parents lined up outside the store all day to buy the latest merchandise.

"We just spent $22 here, because my son has most of the stuff, but I guess we've spent a total $200 or $300 so far on Pokemon," said Terrell Corder of Havre de Grace, who brought his 11-year-old son, Lance, to the shopping center.

Lance was wearing the standard uniform for Pokemon devotees yesterday -- a Pokemon T-shirt -- and he had his video game and collection of trading cards tucked in his backpack. He's even structured his life around the cartoon show, which airs weekdays at 7: 30 a.m.

"With Pokemon, I've never had any problem getting him up for school," Terrell Corder said. "He gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast and puts his school bag and instrument next to the front door, so he can watch the whole show without interruption. It's been great for us in the mornings."

Those who have to get to school before the end of the morning cartoon -- including 12-year-old Graham Andrews of Towson -- rely on the VCR so they don't miss their daily fix of Pokemon.

Crowds of thousands

When the national tour began in March at a Florida shopping center, company organizers expected to be introducing the cards to relatively small crowds of children. Instead, more than 5,000 children and their parents showed up on the first day of the tour in suburban Miami, and they've been flocking to malls since.

More than 55,000 attended a recent event at Mall of America in Minnesota, and Tyson's Corner Center in Northern Virginia was overrun last weekend by between 8,000 and 12,000 children -- each day.

To be sure, the early morning line of Pokemon fans was rivaled -- but not matched -- by a separate line of girls hoping to buy tickets to a Backstreet Boys concert.

But by midday, the Towson shopping center was overrun by Pokemon addicts -- as it is expected to be today from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

At "Pokemon Central," they could get their photos taken with a giant Pikachu game card -- the most popular Pokemon character. On the third floor, adult Pokemon trainers held 15-minute classes on how to play the game, while more experienced game players jockeyed for a chance to compete on nearby tables.

Trading cards

And anywhere there was free space, Pokemon card trading outposts seemed to spring up.

Billy Despeaux came to the mall to secure a complete set of cards by the time he turns 10. Since his Pokemon birthday party is today, he didn't have much time.

"I traded and traded until I got every rare card I needed," said Billy, who lives in Parkville. "I'm so happy I did it."

As for playing the card game, the rules seem too complex for anyone but children.

"I don't understand any of it," said Judy Crust, who brought her son and her son's friend from Lancaster County, Pa. "The kids heard about this on the Internet and begged me to drive them down. They like it so much that I couldn't say no."

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