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The New York Times
1999

Pokemon Mania

By SHARON R. KING

LANGHORNE, Pa. - Lisa Chapman and her two sons camped out in their car in the parking lot of the Oxford Valley Mall here on a recent Friday night so they could beat the crowd at the Pokemon Trading Card Game Tour the next morning. The line formed at 7 A.M., and by the time the event began four hours later, it had swelled to 4,000 children and their parents.

Many wore handmade Pokemon costumes in hopes of having their pictures taken for the official Pokemon site on the World Wide Web. Marie Summa, 12, of Beverly, N.J., sported a yellow hat with white felt horns and a T-shirt decorated with her favorite Pokemon characters. "She's been wearing that hat for three days," said her father, Thomas.

Similar mob-scenes are being repeated across the country. At the Woodbridge Mall in Woodbridge, N.J., many of the 13,000 people who showed up had to be turned away. The craze has invaded schools too, and several have banned Pokemon cards. "They were getting lost or misplaced and the kids were getting upset," said Richard P. Limato, principal of the Prospect Hill School, one of three elementary schools in Pelham, N.Y., that outlawed them last month.

Pokemon is actually a video game - the cards are just one of the spinoffs - and it is shaping up as one of the biggest ever produced by the Nintendo Corporation of Japan. Started in Nintendo's home market three years ago, Pokemon has grown into an international industry that includes comic books, plastic figurines, virtual pets, bean-bag toys, lunch boxes, T-shirts, a television cartoon show and compact disks, with sales so far of nearly $5 billion.

In, the United States, more than 2.5 million video games have been sold at about $28 each since Pokemon was introduced last September, more than any other hand-held Nintendo product in such a short span. At least 40 licensing deals have been struck, and revenues already exceed $200 million.

That makes it one of the hottest fads of the 1990's among the pre-teen-age set. The sale of Pokemon cartridges alone, for example, has totaled $70 million in just seven months. That compares with $107 million for Sesame Street's Tickle Me Elmo doll from mid-1996 through 1998; $83 million last year for the Teletubbies, the cuddly dolls from Britain, and $80 million for Tamogotchi, a virtual pet, over a 20-month period through December, according to the NPD Group, a research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

An ever-growing menagerie enchants children across the nation.

The rules of Pokemon, which the company says is properly pronounced PO-kay-man and which is short for "pocket monsters," are complex. Pallet Town is inhabited by 151 monsters - or Pokemons - with names like Raiku and Bulbasaur, and at the beginning of each game the player recruits and trains one of them to fight all the others. Each time a monster pops onto the screen the player determines which skills - fire, lightning, water, growling, and so forth- his comrade-in-arms may use.

The goal is to become a master Pokeman trainer by capturing all 151 monsters. Luckily, the player's initial Pokemon grows stronger with every victory and can evolve into an entirely new creature, with the fiery-red Charmander transmogrifying into the fire-breathing dragon Charizard, for example.

The passion that kids aged 5 through about 12 - mostly boys, but a lot of girls, too - feel for Pokemon defies easy explanation. Part of it has to do with the huge choice of monsters. "The pokes are so cute and the characters all do different things," said Tanbari Pianwi, a third grader at the John W. Ross School in Washington, D.C. Marcelo Santos, a fifth grader, focused on their battle-field skills. "Pug is stronger than any others," he said approvingly.

Sid Good, president of a marketing research firm in Cleveland, said the Pokemons combined two qualities that had always attracted children: magical powers and the need to be nurtured. For a generation raised on action-packed television shows, he added, it doesn't hurt that the game provides a lot of raw excitement.

"It's cool because it has different kinds of animals that have different powers," said Dustin Chapman, Ms. Chapman's 9-year-old son. He rattled off examples - "electric beats water, water beats stone, strength beats water and stone" - as his mother listened in obvious bewilderment.

Savvy marketing has also increased the game's popularity. Nintendo spent $20 million on publicity before it introduced Pokemon in the United States, four times its usual budget for new products, including a 15-minute free video it sent to one million kids. It dropped 1,000 stuffed Pikachus, a mouse-like star in the cartoon series, from the sky over Topeka, Kan. It dispatched 10 Volkswagen Beetles, painted to depict Pikachu, to show the cartoons on portable TV's at the malls and on the Main Streets of America. And after stops in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Illinois, it has taken its trading-card road show West, with events in Colorado and in Phoenix.

The reason for all the spending was Pokemon's unexpected triumph in Japan, where Nintendo has sold more than 12 million video game units, one million CD's and one billion trading cards. All Nippon Airways even painted the sides of some of its planes with Pokemon characters. "This is so far beyond anybody's original projections that there has to be more to it than a quirky niche concept," said Peter Main, a marketing executive for Nintendo of America In Redmond, Wash.

Even so, Nintendo anticipated a tough sell in the United States, especially after a strobe-lighting effect in one of its television cartoons caused a number of children in Japan to faint. (The lighting scene was later eliminated.) But more than 100 American television stations quickly signed on, and retailers ordered more than 500,000 game cartridges.

As children master the Pokemon video game, demand for the cards - which are used to play a board game but are also avidly traded - has rocketed. A starter set of 60 sells for about $8, with other packs costing from $3 to $10. Wizards of the Coast, the Renton, Wash., company that sells them under license, has begun rationing shipments.

Justin Carmical, a supervisor at a hobby shop in Colorado Springs, said the cards often disappeared from shelves within three hours of arriving, "We've timed it and we've placed bets" on when the last pack will go, Mr. Carmical said. Donald Johnston, who works at a toy store in Arlington, Va., said the allure of the game had spread to adults. "We get everyone from Pentagon guys who come in asking for the game to mothers with kids," Mr. Johnston said.

There seems to be no end to the Pokemon invasion. Last week, the Topps Company announced it had signed a deal to market a line of cards in North America as Wizards of the Coast has been doing since January, and to sell Pokemon lollipops in the entire Western Hemisphere. And last month, the Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation said it would feature the cartoon characters on 50 million packages of its Lunchables snacks.

Pokemon has also proved a surprise hit for Hasbro, which began selling miniature Pokemon figures, pokeballs and electronic figures late last year. It has introduced about 50 characters, and plans to phase in the others. The company has doubled its revenue projections for Pokemon this year to $50 million.

A lot of people think the Pokemon craze has gotten a bit out of hand. A small number of schools in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and Washington have barred either the cards, the hand-held game or both. Mr. Limato, the Pelham principal, said the cards were worse than just a distraction; the older children often made advantageous trades with younger students, who would then become upset. As for the game, he added, "We try to discourage solitary activities."

So do some parents, "I know about the game, but it is not allowed at home," said Yvonne Rayes, the mother of a 5-year-old. "I don't think action figures are good for kids. It is good to encourage kids to play with each other, not with a Game Boy."

Other parents voice less lofty objections. A woman named Linda from Yardley, Pa., who declined to give her last name, said she had just spent $300 on various Pokemon paraphernalia at a local Electronics Boutique for her two sons, aged 7 and 12, and "I don't want to ever shop for this stuff again."

She may have little choice. Nintendo will introduce two new games this year, Pokemon Pinball, for use in Game Boy players, and Pokemon Snap, for the Nintendo 64 player. New monsters will be introduced in a Yellow Game Boy cartridge to go along with the red and blue already available, and a Pokemon movie should hit United States shores this year.

When told of all that was yet to come. Linda laughed nervously. "I'll deal with it when it happens," she said.

Copyright © 2000 by The New York Times Company.


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