Beware of the Poke Mania

Can such cute critters be bad influences? How one misfit's quest turned into a global bonanza

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However, by the time Tajiri was done with Pokemon in 1996, Game Boy technology was yesterday's news. "No magazine or TV show was interested. They thought Game Boy was finished," says Masakazu Kubo, executive producer of the publishing company Shogakukan Inc. "No toymakers were interested either." Spiffier graphics and more intricate games were going to be available on CD-ROM for use on home computers, leaving the tiny images on Game Boy in the dust. "When I finished Pokemon," says Tajiri, "I thought Nintendo would reject it. I was like a baseball player sliding into second base knowing he's going to be out. But somehow, I was safe."

Nintendo released the game but did not expect much from it. However, while the big electronic companies were giving up on Game Boy, Japanese boys were not. For them the games in the old technology were still affordable; the flashier and high-tech new models were out of reach. Kubo's publishing company did the math and decided to back Pokemon, coming out with a line of comic books that included the first trading cards as giveaways. While best-selling games like Final Fantasy grabbed the top slot for a couple of dramatic months and then faded, Pokemon sales grew slowly and steadily--and they did not stop. Tajiri generated further word of mouth by designing a secret twist into the programming. Officially there were only 150 species of Pokemon. Unknown to Nintendo, Tajiri had put a 151st in the software: Mew, a major character in the film. "You had to acquire Mew by interacting," says Tajiri. "Without trading, you can never get Mew." The rumors started flying of a secret monster that only a few people had the key to unlock. More games sold.

With a hit on its hands, Nintendo decided to animate the game. The show, produced in anime style (see following story), quickly became the top-rated children's TV series in Japan, appealing to both girls and boys. Then came an unpleasant surprise. In December 1997, about 700 children had sudden and simultaneous seizures while watching the show. The specific episode involved a bomb attack on Pikachu and its pals. In a microsecond, animated flashes interacted with frenetically changing colors as Pikachu blinked out its lightning bolts across the screen. Apparently such combinations of light can induce seizures in some children. While the government investigated, the show shut down for four months, and the producers revised their animation strategies.

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.

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