Beware of the Pokemania

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Illustration for TIME by David Cowles
courtesy: Hasbro, Nintendo, Tiger Electronics, Toy Island, Viz, Warner Bros., Wizards of the Coast

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The Pikachu crisis stirred a huge amount of attention and publicity, but the wrong kind. At that time, Tajiri's GameFreak and Kubo's publishing company were negotiating with skeptical executives at Nintendo America about introducing Pokemon to the U.S. CARTOON MONSTER ATTACKS KIDS was the first headline Americans read about Pokemon. It was not a good omen. There were others, however.

"Quite honestly, role-playing games, particularly for the Game Boy system, were never popular in the U.S.," says Gail Tilden, vice president of product acquisition and development at Nintendo of America. "We had a real concern that the role-playing nature of the game would be a hard sell for us." "The negotiations were not easy," says Kubo, who calls Tilden "the Dragon Mother of Nintendo." He explains, "She is a mother, and at first she didn't understand when we said Pokemon is good for children. In the end, though, it was good for us that a mother was in charge." Tilden says the seizures caused by the show concerned her, but "we knew it was isolated to that one episode." She adds, "It did not deter us from being excited. We were committed to taking a run at it."

Thus in the U.S., Nintendo had all the Pokemon pieces to play with--a fully extended product line of games, toys, comic books and cards to appeal to boys and girls from ages 4 to 15. Says Tilden: "We decided to make an all-out effort to repeat the phenomenon in the Western world." An additional part of the strategy, says Kubo, was to hide its "Japan-ness." Nintendo of America and its Japanese partners brought in Al Kahn, who developed the Cabbage Patch doll, to help with toy merchandising. "There's a little bit of magic in what Nintendo does," says Sussane Daniels, president of entertainment at the WB. "We wouldn't interfere with their methods. God bless them." But Nintendo did ask for changes to be made to the original Japanese show (which now has 130 episodes). "We tried not to have violence or sexual discrimination or religious scenes in the U.S.," says Kubo. Some graphic scenes involving punching were taken out. The names of the characters and monsters were Westernized: Satoshi became Ash, and Shigeru became Gary. And the Pokemon were given cleverly descriptive names. For example, of the three more popular Pokemon, Hitokage, a salamander with a ball of fire on its tail, became Charmander; Fushigidane, a dinosaur with a green garlic bulb on its back, became Bulbasaur; and Zenigame, a turtle who squirts water, became Squirtle. Others winked at familiar pop images: the martial-arts Pokemon Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee are tributes to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

And once again, the Pokemon swept a nation. "We've never seen anything like it," says Tilden. The products plugged into every kiddie angle: toys appeal to younger kids, who then move on to the cards and graduate to the various levels of video games. The TV show propagandizes each new creature with a tutorial called "Who's that Pokemon?" Most of the Pokemon growl their names repeatedly ("Squirtle, Squirtle, Squirtle"), so the children learn who's who quickly. The craze is also Gen Y Web-friendly: the most popular website for kids 12 years and younger is . It's all Pokemon, all the time. At least until the next craze.

Yet collecting Pokemon and pitting them against one another is not a new kind of quest, simply one tweaked with technology. In Asia, fathers and grandfathers still tell of growing up in the midst of World War II, of nights of not knowing what to do with yourself except sneak into the tall grass of the countryside to catch crickets, then take them home, cupped in your hand, to raise in the dark of matchboxes, training the insects for fights with the crickets of other boys who have been on the same nocturnal hunt. The more experience each cricket has had, the better a fighter it becomes--the tiny surrogate for the boy unable to fight in the war going on all around him. Pokemon is that kind of game. Except that there are many kinds of crickets, and all are potentially friendly monsters with fabulous powers. And nobody dies.

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