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October-December 1997

Pokemon (Pocket Monster)

Japanese elementary and middle school kids are going wild over video-game characters called Pocket Monsters ("Pokemon" for short, pronounced "PO-KAY-MON"). Pokemon is a simple role-playing video game played on a Nintendo GameBoy machine. There are 151 kinds of monsters hidden in various places, and your job is to hunt for them, using a map that guides you on an adventurous journey through towns and forests and over oceans. When you find one, you capture and take care of it. Pokemon went on the market in February 1996, and over 6 million copies were sold in just 18 months.

Part of what makes this game so fun is the many different kinds of cute and weird monsters modeled from animals, bugs, and mythical beasts. But what kids really like about Pokemon is that you can connect several GameBoy machines with a cable and compete with your friends. You can even trade the monsters you've captured. Another attraction is the fun of watching the monsters "grow up." For example, you can watch an insect character go through the pupa stage and turn into a butterfly.

Pokemon strategy handbooks, which appeared along with the game software, are another popular item. A Pokemon comic strip followed soon after, and in April 1997 the animated version went on the air, attracting a large audience. Broadcasts of this program have been temporarily discontinued since December 1997, when several hundred Japanese children experienced convulsions and dizziness after watching the bright flashing lights on the program. Although the TV program is not currently being broadcast, a radio show called Pokemon Hour has been on the air since December. And this summer, the Pokemon characters will appear in their own movie.

The Pokemon characters have inspired many other products as well. Fans can now buy toys and stuffed animals, as well as stationery, based on the popular Pikachu and other characters. Pokemon characters can even be found on several kinds of food packages. As you might imagine, all of these products have become very popular.

In August 1997 East Japan Railway Co., one of Japan's major private railway companies, held a "Pokemon stamp rally" at 30 of its major train stations. At a stamp rally, people try to fill a booklet with stamped images of a certain theme by going through a series of checkpoints. Over 100,000 fans showed up at the Pokemon stamp rally to collect images of the video-game characters.

Photos: (Top) Pikachu, the most popular Pokemon character; (above) a GameBoy machine. (Nintendo)