Can such cute critters be bad influences? How one misfit's quest turned into a global bonanza
By HOWARD CHUA-EOAN and TIM LARIMER
Monsters make for disquieting playmates. no matter how toylike and frivolous they may appear, monsters are unnatural and, in the end, deal in unresolved fear. But monsters also have a way with children. Consider the suspicious charms of the Pokémon creatures--Cubone, Gengar and Chansey, for example. Cubone (Karakara in Japanese, but that's another story) is a sort of bear cub with a skull over its head--or is the whole thing its actual head? Gengar is a ghostly purple ball with a devilishly cute smile, horns to match and a crocodile spine. Chansey is a vaguely dinosauric pinkish cloud. Their equally bizarre compatriots range in height from 30 cm (that would be a Pidgey) to 8.5 m (that's an Onix) and in weight from about a kilo (Diglett) to nearly a ton (Snorlax). Their fighting skills are as feral as ramming (that's Rhydon), as yucky as a tongue wrap (Lickitung--ugh!) or as childish as a tantrum (Primeape). There are more than 151 Pokémon species, and almost any child of 12 or younger, wired with a kid's propensity for order, can recite a substantial lineup, complete with arcane attributes and an individual monster's ability to evolve into higher forms. Welcome to the new Mesozoic. The check-out line forms to the far right.
Parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokémon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. What may be harder to survive is the relentlessness of Pokémonia, a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it, with children mesmerized into cataloging a menagerie of multiplicative monsters, with trading cards linked to games linked to television shows linked to toys linked to websites linked to candy linked back to where you started--a pestilential Ponzi scheme.
Pokémon The First Movie opened in North America last week; the box office for the first two days was $25 million in the U.S. alone. When it opened on Wednesday, thousands of children called in sick from school with the "Pokémon flu." Bill Bright, the Australian group buyer for Toy Kingdom, says his stores are finding it impossible to meet the demand for Pokémon products: "If you put a Pokémon license on brussels sprouts at the moment, you could sell brussels sprouts to kids." Large department stores in Mexico City keep running out of Pokémon dolls, forcing desperate parents to buy counterfeit versions from street vendors. By Christmas, Japan's Nintendo expects to sell 1 million electronic Pokémon games in Canada and 1.5 million in Europe.
The Pokémon trading-card craze is at the center of much of the controversy. Colm McNiallais, 11, of New York City is a good guide to the frenzy. Walking past kids looking to trade, he says, "We don't want them. They cheat." He gravitates toward others who have brought out binders filled with hundreds of cards. A dangerous thing, he says. Some of the stuff is rare, and who knows what other kids will do to get it. Colm has only the cards he is willing to trade. "Hey, you have a Magnemite!" someone squeals. "Oh, I need that Drowzee," says someone else. "Look at these holographic ones." The presence of an elusive Dragonite provokes gasps.
Some behavior has been delinquent. A six-year-old logged on to a Pokémon website and printed counterfeit copies of the cards to trade with gullible schoolmates. Other behavior can be criminal. Last week a nine-year-old boy on New York's Long Island stabbed an older schoolmate in a dispute over cards. A principal explained why her school, like many others, is banning Pokémon cards: "Children who don't have Pokémon cards feel left out. When children bring the cards into the lunchroom, they often spend time looking at the cards instead of eating lunch." A group of parents in New Jersey has sued the trading-card manufacturer for intentionally making some cards scarce to force children into buying more and more packs. "Racketeering!" the parents cry.
In other words, it's not the violent imagery that scares parents--they've lived with and tolerated intimations of horror for generations. In Grimm's Fairy Tales, what does the wolf do to Red Riding Hood's granny or the witch plan to do to Hansel? When kids collect dinosaurs, parents, blinded by science, simply shrug when their children yell in the museum, "Look, mom, that allosaurus is eating the brachiosaur's baby!" After that, what can be objectionable about the too-cute-to-live Pokémon named Jigglypuff, a ball of fluff whose greatest power--not to be scoffed at--is a stupefying lullaby?
But there is a problem: the key principle of the Pokéocracy is acquisitiveness. The more Pokémon you have, the greater power you possess (the slogan is gotta catch 'em all). And never underestimate a child's ability to master the Pokéarcana required to accumulate such power: the ease with which they slip into cunning and thuggery can stun a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer. Grownups aren't ready for their little innocents to be so precociously cutthroat. Is Pokémon payback for our get-rich-quick era--with our offspring led away like lemmings by Pied Poké-Pipers of greed? Or is there something inherent in childhood that Pokémonia simply reflects?
The answer may lie in the origins of the phenomenon. Despite the publicity generated by the trading cards, the heart of Pokémon is the handheld game. Start by picking up the palm-sized Nintendo Game Boy, insert the proper cartridge and switch it on. Soon, a creature with a lightning-bolt tail bounces through an animated sequence and pops a cute grin. You have just met Pikachu, the most popular of the Pokémon, a creature--part cherub and part thunder god--that is the most celebrated cartoon icon since Hello Kitty.
Seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the minuscule screen that is the porthole to Pokédom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It's a more difficult task for adults. But if you choose to play, you assume the role of a Pokémon trainer. Your goal is to travel the world collecting one of every Pokémon species. To acquire that collection, you need Pokémon to subdue Pokémon (they are then stored in handy containers called Pokéballs, hence the etymology of Pokémon, short for Pocket Monsters). The battles are mediated by the electronics of the Game Boy. But don't worry: Pokémon do not die. When they lose battles, they faint. And if that happens to your Pokémon, you can take it to the local Pokémon Center, a high-tech spa where it can be restored to "fighting fit."
All 151 Pokémon are scattered among three existing versions of the game: Pokémon Red, Pokémon Green and Pokémon Blue (Red, Blue and Yellow in the U.S.). You have to trade between versions (via a cable linking Game Boys) to complete the collection. Thus the quest for all Pokémon grows as the product line expands with new species. Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver will become available in Japan this month, promising more than 100 new species.
There is a limit to the role playing. You cannot really choose your identity: you are a 10-year-old boy. You can pick any name when you assume the role of the child--your own, your friend's, your neighbor's. But one particular selection is volunteered: Ash, the name of the hero in the Pokémon TV series. He walks down from his room and, seeing his mother (a father is nowhere to be found), tells her he is departing on a quest. She replies, "Right. All boys leave home some day."
Images © 1995, 1999 Nintendo/Creatures Inc./Game Freak Inc./1999 Pikachu Projects; moving images by Adam Connors
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