WASHINGTON _ Hanny Hemaida, a 9-year-old in Evansville, Ind., is crazy about Pokemons. He has collected almost all of the Pokemon trading cards. He plays the video games. He watches the afternoon show on television. He even owns Pokemon videos.
“I just like how they look,” Hemaida said.
How they look is like a rainbow of mutated, miniature monsters: Lemon-yellow Zapdos, who favors Tweety-Bird on steroids. Orange-colored Charmander, a dinosaur with a flame on its tail. Grayish Mankey, a cotton puff with arms, legs and tail. So far, 151 Pokemons are registered in the “Pokedex,” the official Internet cast of characters.
And since they arrived from Japan last year, Pokemons have captivated thousands of American children like Hemaida, been banned from some schools and blossomed into a $1 billion-industry for their creator, Nintendo.
In Japan, Pokemons – short for “pocket monster” – were born as characters in a video game. In the U.S., the Pokemon craze includes cartoon series, games, trading cards, Pokemon-decorated bed linens, candy, clothes and countless web sites. In chat rooms and cyber “communities,” Pokemon fans exchange tips on collecting, caring for and training their little monsters. At one point, “Pokemon: the Official Handbook,” a guide to understanding the world of Pokemon, made it to the No. 2 spot on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
And on Nov. 12 comes the American release of “Pokemon: The First Movie.” It was among Japan's top-selling summer movies in 1998.
Pokemons are so popular they even appeal to merchandising pirates. U.S. Customs has seized about $14 million in phony Pokemon paraphernalia in busts in the last six months.
So, what's the fascination?
Pokemons are cute, yet powerful, say fans. Collecting them all is a challenge. Fans are also turned on to the task of training them for battle with other Pokemons.
Like many other fans, 8-year-old Michael Blose, of Memphis, Tenn., was drawn into the world of Pokemon hunting when he saw the afternoon cartoon that featured a group of characters searching for Pokemons. His fascination with the cartoon soon lead him to the video game.
“It's fun to play,” Blose said.
The Pokemon video games are played on Nintendo's hand-held system, Game Boy Color. In the game, players try to catch elusive Pokemons and train them for the Pokemon fights.
“It's fun having Pokemon battles with your friends,” said Robin Hackett, 10, of Arlington, Va. She also collects the Pokemon cards, which come in $3 packs of 11, because of the artwork on them. “They're kind of cool,” she said. “I like how the artists draw them.”
Charlie Chadderdom, 9, of Naples, Fla., is so wild about Pokemon that he even had a Pokemon birthday party recently. He also has about 400 Pokemon cards. And like Hackett, he likes the thrill of a Pokemon battle. “They're good at fighting,” Chadderdom said.
For its part, Nintendo of America credits Pokemon's popularity with bringing fans together.
Beth Llewelyn, a Nintendo spokesperson, recalled being in an airport one day and seeing two kids drawn to each other because they were both playing Pokemon. “There's a lot of talking; a lot of interaction,” Llewelyn said. “It's a very social activity.”
For some fans, the appeal is the search for the slippery Pokemons in the game. Others get hooked on the competitiveness.
“It's pretty addictive,” said Eddie Yi, 14, of Beverly Hills, Calif. Yi and a friend have already managed to collect all 151 Pokemons. Last year he even had his Game Boy and Pokemon game taken away from him at school. But, he doesn't disagree with the ban. Said Yi: “I think it's a good idea. When everyone brought those cards, all they did was look at cards.”
Many educators agree.
“It's just an utter distraction,” said Robert Shields, a fourth grade teacher at Hebron Elementary School in Evansville, Ind. But Shields also admitted that Pokemon can be used as a learning tool. He once used Pokemon-like cards to get his students to remember tree leaves.
Many schools have banned all things Pokemon. Others prohibit on-campus trading of the cards, which increase in value or set aside certain days when Pokemon is allowed. But sometimes Pokemon trading in schools lead to fights among students. Others say Pokemon cards divide students into haves and have-nots.
Hemaida, of Evansville, knows this first-hand. A friend once accused him of stealing one of his cards and the two haven't spoken since, he said. “We used to be friends,” he said. “But, now we're not friends anymore.”
But none of this has cooled his enthusiasm for Pokemon collecting. He's only caught 27 Pokemons in the video game, but he's close to getting all of the cards. Said Hemaida: “I need about 13 more.”