POKE PHENOMENON Tiny Japanese monsters are the latest toy, game and pop-culture obsession

They look like tribbles with attitude, Gremlins with Transformer tendencies, Sanrio critters who played ball too close to a nuclear waste dump.

Known as Pocket Monsters in Japan, Pokemon is the collective name of group of fictional creatures that are taking over the imaginations and memory banks of boys and girls all over the country.

They began life as a Nintendo GameBoy toy two years ago. Since then, they have run amok, spawning a $4 billion industry in 18 months.

The obsessive attraction to Pokemon, aside from their chronic cuteness, lies in their details.

The Pokemon are an assembly of 150 little monsters, each with their own special powers. In the game and on the television show, kids try to collect as many wild Pokemon as possible. Players compete or trade with each other, and they can evolve from trainers to Pokemon Masters, which are major critter catchers.

Meanwhile, if you’re between the ages of 7 and 14, a lot of your time may be spent memorizing names, orders, powers and evolutionary forms of Pokemon species. Kids doodle their own versions of the simply drawn creatures, and collect posters, stickers and trading cards.

It’s Beanie Baby collecting on a complicated digital level, a combination of memorizing the presidents, the periodic table and the animal kingdom all in one.

Adults may not get it, but many kids are perfectly willing to accept the hazy Pokemon eco-martial mythology. Here’s an actual conversation between a parent who wants to understand the Pokemon craze and her child.

Parent: So, where do the Pokemon live?

Child: They’re all around us. And they live in the rain forests, in the fields.

Parent: Well, if you happened to stumble upon one of them, what would you do?

Child: You leave it alone and be in awe of its powers.

Parent: Why do you catch them?

Child: Oh, you just catch them to have them.

Parent: Do they eat?

Child: No, they don’t need to eat. They just have powers.

Insufficient memory

Girls as well as boys find Pokemon contagious, as evidenced by a recent trip to Toys ‘R’ Us in Pittsburg. Seven-year-old Amanda Reggi plans to buy the virtual pet Pikachu (the popular yellow creature who looks like a hamster-rabbit crossbreed) for her obsessed girlfriend. While the Albany resident shyly admits to watching it a couple of days a week, her mother Diana Reggi exposes the truth.

“A couple of days?” she exclaims, amused. “She likes watching it much more, every day for a couple of months.”

Despite watching the relentlessly cute characters every day with her 6-year-old brother Andrew, she says she’s not interested in memorizing 150 characters.

Fan Justin Lim of El Cerrito caught Pokemon fever when friends gave him a poster depicting all 150 monsters and trading cards.

Now Justin, 8, can name quite a few monsters and their order. While browsing through “A Bug’s Life” merchandise, he mentioned 17 monsters off the top of his head, but had a tougher time with an impromptu quiz on state names. He paused after California and New York, until his father, James Lim, urged, “Think of all the football games you watch.”

“Arizona, Miami San Francisco ” After given a reprieve, Justin went back to the shelves.

James Lim wasn’t aware of Pokemon’s existence until his son’s recent birthday party, where the boy received a bounty of Pokemon paraphernalia.

He recently took Justin in search of trading cards in Asian enclaves such as San Francisco’s Japantown and Richmond’s Pacific East Mall.

Initially, Lim balked at the price: $5 for just 10 trading cards.

“Why is it so expensive?” he asked rhetorically before promptly answering his own question.

“I guess it’s a craze.”

Here and gone

The demand has been fueled by Pokemon’s piecemeal distribution. It’s probably the top-selling video game at the Toys ‘R’ Us Pittsburg store, said employee Sherrie Blaine.

She received only 24 GameBoys in the first shipment. “I had 12 of each color (red and blue), and I got them by 11 o’clock and by 3 o’clock, they were all gone.” Since then, they’ve received constant shipments, the largest of which netted 18. The store sold out the first Pikachu virtual pet shipment of 42 by the next day, although a recent rack check found plenty of pixilated pets.

On the other hand, the tickets for the GameBoy cartridge in either shade were not even displayed. That didn’t stop people from stopping by the information center to ask for the elusive item. “These people are just panicked, ” Blaine says.

And the game was just the beginning. “It wasn’t just launching a video game, it was launching a brand, ” says Beth Llewelyn, public relations manager for Nintendo of America, who uses terms like “invasion” when speaking of the products.

Clothing spin-offs are already here. The American debut of toys such as the Power Bouncer and plush animals have just become available, and there are battle sets and electronic figures on the horizon. Savvy shoppers can find a more extensive collection of items, straight from Japan, at several Pacific East Mall stores.

Don’t expect the mania to become manageable any time soon. Although Eileen Tanner, a publicist for Nintendo, denies the existence of more species than the existing 150, Web sites like come.to/thepokecentre list a chart with 201 creatures, their American and Japanese names and their powers.

Llewelyn slyly promises more in the future. “There may not be just 150, ” she hints. “We’ll be feeding the frenzy.”

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times