This never happened with space hoppers

The movie spin-off opens here soon, but in the US the lawsuits have started. Has the Pokemon super-hype turned sour? OLIVER SWANTON investigates

You can't have a fully fledged toy craze unless there's a hefty dose of "bad publicity", featuring angst-ridden parents fearing for the moral well-being, nay the sanity, of their darling offspring. Pokemon, the mother of all money-making machines ($6bn sales worldwide, and rising - fast), is no exception.

In the week that Pokemon the movie opened in America, taking more than any cartoon ever, a website, www.pokemonkills.com, has been launched by the parents of an American seven-year-old who died when he got one of the toys stuck in his throat.

It's only the latest incident in a surge of anti-Pokemon feeling. In California the game's makers have ended up in court after they were accused of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) law usually used to take down suspected Mafia mobsters. On Long Island, a nine-year-old has been charged with stabbing his 13-year old friend in the leg during a fight over Pokemon trading cards. In several states teens have been arrested for stealing the valuable collecting cards, which can change hands on the Internet for $100. Elementary schools all over the Big Country have "outlawed" the game.

Yet the irony is that Pokemon was billed as a parent-friendly street fighter. The aim of the original video game - the film version will open in Britain next year - is to collect and train Pokemon characters by fighting other trainers or wild monsters. But the cute-looking "monsters" like Wild Pidgey, which looks like a moderately angry pigeon, don't die when you beat them to pulp with your special skills, like bubble attack (remember this is parent-friendly) - they faint.

The genius of Pokemon is not that it's extremely addictive (it's been nicknamed Kiddie Crack), but that it's so much more than a video game. Pokemon truly is a phenomenon. It's a series of 151 collectable toys, trading cards, a television cartoon, a Hollywood film, sweets, even clothes. These are not simply spin-offs, they're exquisite money-making commercials for the game. The games (Nintendo has launched five so far) meanwhile are a constant product placement for the spin-offs. The synergy is perfect. Everything Nintendo and Hasbro have ever done has just been a dry run for this. Forget Tamagotchi and Furby, this is the real deal. And there's the rub. This, complain parents, is one toy craze too far.

Every year the newest toy craze is more and more intense. From Cabbage Patch dolls to Tickle Me Elmo, from Beanie Babies to Teletubbies, manufacturers, together with a relentless media, profiteering adults and increasingly sophisticated children, have forced the process into hyperdrive. Pokemon isn't a craze, it's a mania - and it's out of control.

As befits mania the "bad publicity" is extreme. In the latest furore a New York couple has filed a $100m negligence lawsuit against Hasbro and Toys `R' Us. Kevin and Adrienne Brazier filed their suit at Manhattan Federal Court over the death of their seven-year-old son, Robbie. He died on 10 January after a Pokemon Power Bouncer (an "ultra-clear" bouncy ball with a Pokemon character inside) got stuck in his throat. The Braziers believe Robbie, who was autistic, put the golf-ball-sized toy in his mouth to try and free the character inside (in the game and cartoon series monsters are captured in balls and later freed to fight). The packaging for the toy said the ball was safe for children aged four and over.

Hasbro and Toys `R' Us are denying culpability. In a statement they expressed sympathy for the Braziers, but said, "We remain confident about the Pokemon Power Bouncer Ball's design and manufacture. Approximately 8 million of these balls have been played with by children throughout the world without a similar incident."

If they win their case, the Braziers say they will use the money to warn parents about all "unsafe" toys. Their website has become a focus for concerned parents, and encourages them to "Boycott Hasbro and Pokemon!". Parents should think twice before purchasing Pokemon products, says the site. Many children have become obsessed with, if not addicted to, hoarding merchandising, it warns. Parents are encouraged to sign up, share "intelligence" and campaign together.

If you're thinking, only in America, think again. There's nothing we Brits like more than a backlash, and this one has started before Pokemon has even really arrived. The Early Learning Centre has already refused to stock Pokemon merchandise in its 217 stores. The firm had "no hesitation" in barring the toys, reported tabloid newspapers gleefully. Even otherwise serious commentators have not been able to resist the urge to muse lyrically on the darker side of Pokemon.

But bad publicity is just a prerequisite. Most American parents first became acquainted with Pokemon after hearing news that in Japan more than 700 children had been hospitalised after suffering seizures brought on by the strobing effects in the cartoon series. It didn't stop Nintendo and Hasbro taking more than $1bn in less than nine months and it won't stop them taking over Britain. The must-have toy this Christmas has never been in doubt and the backlash merely confirms it. Come New Year the noise of ringing cash tills will drown out even the most vocal critic.

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