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Beware of the Poke Mania

17 minute read
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 Pokemon creatures–Gengar, Cubone and Chansey, for example. The first is a ghostly purple ball with a devilishly cute smile, horns to match and a crocodile spine. The second is a sort of bear cub with a skull over its head–or is the whole thing its actual head? The third is a vaguely dinosauric pinkish cloud. Their equally bizarre compatriots range in height from a foot (that would be a Pidgey) to 28 ft. (that’s an Onix) and in weight from 2 lbs. (Diglett) to 1,914 lbs. (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 150 Pokemon species, and almost any child of 12 or younger, wired with a child’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 Pokemon 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 Pokemania, 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 (see foldout graphic). Smelling profits, America’s conglomerates have pokeyed up to cash in. Hasbro paid $325 million to market the toys. The WB network (owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) swept up exclusive rights to the top-rated animated TV series. Warner released the Pokemon movie (see review above), which opened on Wednesday last week and saw thousands of children calling in sick from school with the “Pokemon flu.” Warner ran out of the trading cards it was giving away to ticket buyers. Meanwhile, Burger Kings in California and Texas had toy shortages for their Pokemon giveaways, leaving scores of children in tears.

The four-to-12-year-old set can exhibit the most troubling fanaticism about Pokemon. Children have written hate e-mail to movie critics who have panned the film. After a screening and being mesmerized by Pokemon battle after Pokemon battle, an excited little boy told his father, “That movie makes me want to fight.” Not words parents want to hear.

The Pokemon trading-card craze is at the center of much of the controversy. Colm McNiallais, 11, of New York City is a good guide to frenzy. Passing 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 a elusive Dragonite provokes gasps.

Some behavior has been delinquent. A six-year-old logged on to a Pokemon 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, was banning Pokemon cards: “Children who don’t have Pokeman cards feel left out. When children bring the Pokeman 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 of Pokemon cards. “Racketeering!” the parents cry.

It’s not really the violence 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 Pokemon 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 Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness. The more Pokemon you have, the greater power you possess (the slogan is GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL). And never underestimate a child’s ability to master the Pokearcana 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 Pokemon payback for our get-rich-quick era–with our offspring led away like lemmings by Pied Poke-Pipers of greed? Or is there something inherent in childhood that Pokemania simply reflects?

The answer may lie in the origins of the phenomenon. Despite the publicity generated by the trading cards, the heart of Pokemon is a handheld game. Start by picking up a palm-size Nintendo Game Boy, insert the proper cartridge and switch it on. Soon, a creature with a lightning-bolt tail bounces through an animated sequence, pops a cute grin and yelps, “Pikachu!” You have met the most popular of the Pokemon, a creature–part cherub and part thunder god–that is the most famous mouse since Mickey and Mighty.

Seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the minuscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, 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 Pokemon trainer. Your goal is to travel the world collecting one of every Pokemon species. To acquire that collection, you need Pokemon to subdue Pokemon (they are then stored in handy containers called Pokeballs, hence the etymology of Pokemon, short for Pocket Monsters). The battles are mediated by the electronics of the Game Boy. But don’t worry: Pokemon do not die. When they lose battles, they faint. And if that happens to your Pokemon, you can take it to the local Pokemon Center, a high-tech spa where it can be restored to “fighting fit.”

There are 151 Pokemon scattered among three existing versions of the game: Pokemon Red, Pokemon Blue and Pokeman Yellow. You have to trade between versions (via a cable linking Game Boys) to complete the collection. Thus the quest for all Pokemon grows as the product line expands with new species. Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver will become available in the U.S. next year, with the promise of 260 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 Pokemon 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 someday.”

In Japan, where the Pokemon were born, Ash is called Satoshi; and Satoshi was made in the image of his creator, Satoshi Tajiri, a young outcast who, as a boy living just outside Tokyo, collected insects and other tiny creatures of field, pond and forest. In a nation of ultraconformists, he was a misfit who didn’t even dream of college. His father tried to get him a job as an electrical-utility repairman. He refused. No one expected him to go very far, even when he came up with the game after six trying years. But it is Tajiri’s obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque, that are at the core of the Pokemon phenomenon. His monsters are a child’s predilections. As the late, controversial child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, “The monster a child knows best and is most concerned with [is] the monster he feels or fears himself to be.”

Now 34, Tajiri is an unimposing man, his face composed of sharp angles. His hands and lips tremble as he talks in a soft, shy voice. His eyes are bloodshot; dark circles ripple beneath them. He often works for 24 hours straight, then sleeps for 12. Tajiri is the kind of person the Japanese call otaku, those who shut themselves in with video games or comic books or some other kind of ultraspecialization, away from the rest of society. “They know the difference between the real and virtual worlds, but they would rather be in a virtual world,” says Etienne Barral, a French journalist who spent years studying otaku. “They are always accumulating things. The more they have, the better they feel.” Thus the first and central rule of Pokemon: accumulate.

As a boy, Tajiri accumulated insects, especially beetles. Even now, he tells TIME, he is proud of the way he captured beetles, looking under rocks to find them sleeping. “Nobody else thought to do that,” he says. The son of a Nissan salesman and a housewife, Tajiri was raised in a Tokyo suburb in the late ’60s, before the city crept outward. “As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures.” In Pokemon the pocket monsters–many in the shape of caterpillars, moths and crabs–can be found anywhere: tall grass, caves, forests, rivers.

Tajiri preserved the world of his childhood in Pokemon. In the late ’70s, the rice fields gave way to shopping centers, and the ponds were paved over to make way for apartment buildings, highways and train lines. “A fish pond would become an arcade center,” he says. Pokemon, he says, is a way for children of a new generation to have a chance to collect insects and other creatures the way he did. For example, the Pokemon named Poliwhirl has a belly decorated with a little whirl–Tajiri’s memory of the transparent skin of a tadpole with its coiled innards visible beneath. “Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one thing,” says Tajiri. “Pokemon.”

Rolled together with his other passion: video games. Tajiri was raised on Space Invaders in the early days of the video-game revolution. He never went to college but studied electronics at a two-year technical school. He spent much of his time at arcades, perhaps the very ones that grew over the ponds of his childhood. “It was as sinful as shoplifting,” Tajiri says. “My parents cried that I had become a delinquent.” He was such a fanatic that one arcade gave him a Space Invaders machine to take home.

With a handful of fellow junkies (including his friend Ken Sugimori, who would eventually draw all the Pokemon), Tajiri began a magazine called GameFreak in 1982 to publicize tips and cheat codes of their favorite games. “Our conclusion was,” he says, “there weren’t too many good-quality games, so let’s make our own.” He took apart a Nintendo system to figure out how to make the games himself. Then, in 1991, he discovered Nintendo’s Game Boy and its prize feature: a cable that could link any two Game Boys together. “I imagined an insect moving back and forth across the cable. That’s what inspired me.” Tajiri had hit upon the basic idea that would make the Pokemon a marketing wonder. Collecting would lead to trading between handhelds–and eventually between collectors of cards and plastic battle figures.

Tajiri signed a contract with Nintendo, which was impressed enough by his previous attempts at game programming to want to develop his latest idea. But he couldn’t quite explain the concept to Nintendo, and the company couldn’t understand it fully. “At first Pokemon was just an idea, and nothing happened,” says Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius behind Nintendo’s previous best seller, Super Mario Brothers. Miyamoto became Tajiri’s mentor and counseled the younger man as he toiled on what would eventually be Pokemon. (Tajiri would pay ambivalent tribute to Miyamoto, giving the name Shigeru–Gary in the U.S.–to the snotty chief rival of Satoshi/Ash.)

During the six years it took Tajiri to finish Pokemon, GameFreak nearly went broke. For several months, he barely had enough money to pay his employees. Five people quit when he told them how dire the financial conditions were. Tajiri didn’t pay himself, but lived off his father. Perhaps the tensions were creative. Explaining his goal, Tajiri says, “The important thing was that the monsters had to be small and controllable. They came in a capsule, like a monster within yourself, like fear or anger.”

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.

“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 Pokemon.com 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.

–With reporting by Lisa McLaughlin/New York and Sachiko Sakamaki and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

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