YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Pokemon': Battle of the Ages

The Japanese Phenom Is Countless Hours of Fun--if You're 9

October 26, 1998|AARON CURTISS

Far be it from me to argue with millions of kids in Japan, but I don't understand all the fuss over "Pokemon." Then again, the mania over bean-filled stuffed animals also baffles me, so maybe I'm just an idiot when it comes to what passes for popular culture.

The folks at Nintendo sure hope so. They're betting big that the quirky Game Boy title that sold a whopping 9 million cartridges in Japan is destined for similar success here in the United States. Preliminary sales suggest they're right. But Nintendo knows as well as anyone how fickle video game buyers can be.

Remember "Virtual Boy"? No? That's the point.

If "Pokemon" succeeds in this country, it will be because Nintendo's marketers drilled into one of the countless American compulsions, not because the game is all that great or fun to play. Like the Beanie Baby craze, "Pokemon" preys on the obsessive-compulsive hiding in all of us, asking players to spend countless hours tracking down digital monsters for no other purpose than to collect and catalog them all.

What fun.

When you get right down to it, "Pokemon" is nothing more than a high-tech hybrid of specimen collecting and cock fighting. Here's how it works:

Players assume the role of an 11-year-old boy who lives in a world inhabited by creatures called Pokemon. The goal is to capture and train all 150 varieties of Pokemon, which have names like Diglett, Pikachu and Jigglypuff--monikers so sweet they make the teeth ache.

To start, players get a free Pokemon from Professor Oak, the leading authority on the creatures. Mine was named Squirtle. He looked like a turtle. See how the naming system works? The killer pigeon is named Pidgey.

With Squirtle by my side, I went in search of as many of the others as I could find, wandering around terrain that would look familiar to anyone who's ever played a Game Boy adventure title. The screens scroll right and left, up and down--all in 8-bit black and white--as players talk to villagers and explore countryside.

Capturing another Pokemon basically means beating it into submission. But the great thing about being a Pokemon trainer is that you don't actually have to do any of the work. Just send a loyal creature in to fight for you--sort of like raising a cute puppy and then siccing him on the neighbor's cat. Over time, players build up a menagerie of Pokemon with different skills and strengths. The only strategy involved in the game is deciding which Pokemon to pit against another.

The fight sequences are turn-based and tedious. Players decide which attack they want a Pokemon to use and then wait for the results. When that gets old--as it quickly does--players can link Game Boys and play against someone else. And it's only by linking up with someone who has a different color Pokemon cartridge--they're either blue or red--that a player can hope to collect all 150 Pokemon.

Nice gimmick.

Unfortunately, that's about all there is to "Pokemon." It's a gimmick in search of a game.

It will no doubt be a smashing success.

'Pokemon' Rebuttal

Given my violent reaction to "Pokemon," I thought it prudent to seek out wiser counsel. So I gave the game to a 9-year-old friend, Kyle Boots.

His thoughts?

"I thought it was pretty good," he told me. "I like the creatures. They are really cute. . . . I think my favorite would be Pikachu." Kyle said he thought other kids his age would dig the game because "they all like cute little animals and they all like adventures. It's really hard to fight some of the leaders because they have really strong Pokemon."

Kyle enjoyed stockpiling Pokemon--he was up to 14 when I talked to him--and liked the challenge of tracking down hard-to-find creatures. "It's what made me want to keep playing," he said.

His only beefs with the game: "It should have a self-serve Pokemon center, because it talks everything out. That takes a lot of time. The other thing is that you don't have a choice if you want to fight or not with a trainer, even if your Pokemon aren't healed."

'Motocross Madness' and 'Urban Assault'

It probably kills a few Microsoft haters to read this, but the Redmond, Wash.-based software behemoth is getting quite adept at delivering a steady diet of tasty games.

Two of the latest: "Motocross Madness" and "Urban Assault"--a delightful pair that highlights the happy results when technology and tight play merge on the screen.

Of course, the price of admission to these beauties is a beastly machine. Don't even think about running either at any kind of acceptable rate without at least a Pentium II and a fat graphics card. Never mind what the box says about minimum system requirements.

"Motocross" lets players open the throttle on a bunch of beautifully rendered desert tracks. Sure, it's mindless. Sure, it's noisy. It's perfect. And it's far more environmentally friendly than flattening endangered tortoises under a knobby tire.

Los Angeles Times Articles