So Long, Pokemon; Yu-Gi-Oh Is Coming


Two years after Pokemon swept across America--inundating homes with saccharine-cute yellow Pikachus, ensnaring children with endless supplies of trading cards and sending frazzled parents in search of sanctuary--the next Japanese craze is coming.

It’s called Yu-Gi-Oh, and if its rise in Japan is any guide, it could soon be sparking riots, lawsuits and financial crisis in America too.

“Hold on to your wallets,” moaned Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles child psychologist whose 16-year-old son, Anton, has collected more than $650 worth of Pokemon paraphernalia.


Over the last three years, Yu-Gi-Oh Duelmonsters cards and video games have taken Japan by storm, leaving a trail of hysteria that rivals some of the weirdest episodes from the Pokemon fad.

A Yu-Gi-Oh tournament two years ago in Tokyo drew 55,000 children and parents--15,000 more than expected--all clamoring to buy packs of limited-edition cards. They mobbed gates, surrounded the stadium and forced Konami Co., the Japanese firm behind the game, to call in riot police. At least two people were injured, and dozens more were treated in stadium clinics.

Just last week, the parents of an elementary school student filed suit in a Tokyo district court asking for $80,000 from another boy’s family after their son was threatened and robbed of more than 400 Yu-Gi-Oh cards last year by the older schoolmate.

The game is still a few months away from showing up on American store shelves, with the Yu-Gi-Oh video game available in time for Christmas shoppers and the usual tsunami of T-shirts, game cards, lunch boxes and other gear following early next year.

The chances of any game matching the phenomenal success of Pokemon, which generated about $4.5 billion in U.S. sales of card and video games, are small. But industry watchers say Yu-Gi-Oh, with its multimedia assault of cartoons, video games, cards and kid gear, stands the best chance yet of re-creating Pokemon mania.

Some American parents who helped finance Pokemon’s success, such as Mike Montalbano of New Milford, N.J., are already bracing for the worst.


Montalbano, a factory equipment salesman and father of two young Pokemon fanatics, said Yu-Gi-Oh will never get into his house.

“We spent all this money on cards for Pokemon, and I don’t want to start all over again,” he said firmly.

That sentiment, of course, is what generations of parents around the world have sworn--and recanted--about everything from BB guns to Barbie dolls.

Yu-Gi-Oh (pronounced yoo-ghee-oh), which roughly translates into “Game King,” began five years ago as a humble comic strip in a Japanese magazine called Shonen Jump. It has since grown into an all-encompassing way of life.

More than 3.5 billion Yu-Gi-Oh cards are now in circulation in Japan, along with 7 million video games, according to Konami. Yu-Gi-Oh cartoons air weekly on television, fueling sales of clothing, toys and other themed merchandise--some of which has begun appearing on online auction site EBay.

Konami has introduced about 3,000 different Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and Japanese collectors are gobbling them up at $1.25 for a pack of five cards.


Takafumi Tanaka, owner of Hobby Shop Takarabako in Yokohama, said many of his young customers buy entire 30-packet boxes at $37 hoping to acquire rare and highly prized cards. A super-rare Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon card presented to the winner of a national championship sold on Yahoo Japan’s auction site for $30,900.

Daisuke Inoue, a 9-year-old from Shimane prefecture on the Japan Sea, said he used to play Pokemon, in which players try to capture scores of cutesy “pocket monsters.” But now he and his friends have moved on to Yu-Gi-Oh, whose monsters are darker and require more strategy to tame.

“It’s just more fun, more cool,” he said.

The Yu-Gi-Oh comic strip revolves around a schoolboy named Yugi, who began playing a card game a few months after the strip was launched in 1996. In the story, one of Yugi’s classmates became so obsessed with the game that he kidnapped Yugi’s grandfather to steal a rare card in his collection.

After Yugi faced off against his classmate to save his grandfather, readers of the comic strip begged the magazine for the game. The first game cards hit the market in 1998--and the conflicts began soon after.

In Japan, Inoue is one of many kids who have been battling their parents over the seemingly endless expenditures on Yu-Gi-Oh.

“My mother won’t let me buy any more cards with my own money,” he said. “I have $80 I got as a New Year’s gift, but she told me, ‘No Yu-Gi-Oh.’ ”


The very thought of something potentially more appealing to kids than Pokemon is a staggering prospect for thousands of American parents still reeling from their experiences with Pokemon.

Though Pokemon fever peaked in late 1999, the franchise--created by Japanese video game maker Nintendo Co.--still produced $500 million in sales last year, said Jim Silver, publisher of the Toy Book, an industry magazine.

For 1 1/2 years, 15-year-old Edwin Ivanauskas played Pokemon at least two hours every school day and attended daylong tournaments on weekends.

Though he has outgrown Pokemon, he is the right age for Yu-Gi-Oh. But if he were to get hooked on another obsessive game, it would create a definite conflict in his household.

“I wish somebody dropped a bomb on the Pokemon headquarters,” said Edwin’s father, Ray Ivanauskas, a carpet installer in Salt Lake City. “I can’t tell you how much I spent on Pokemon.”

Takashi Oka, an analyst with Tsubasa Securities in Tokyo, believes Yu-Gi-Oh could be more successful than Pokemon with young Americans--provided the cartoon series catches on.


There is certainly precedent for Japanese fads crossing the Pacific. Before Pokemon, there were Tamagotchi digital pets and Hello Kitty school supplies.

Japanese TV series such as “Digimon” and “Sailor Moon” also have caught on with American children.

But just because a game is popular in Japan doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a hit in America.

Silver recalled the case of hyper-racers, battery-operated racing cars that were huge in Japan in the late 1980s but flopped in the U.S.

“Does Yu-Gi-Oh have all the elements that make up a successful property? Yes,” Silver said. “But does that guarantee success? No.”

The Yu-Gi-Oh mania may be a little more subdued in the U.S. because peer pressure could be less of a factor than it is in Japan’s conformist-oriented society, said Takahiro Machida, an employee at the Famicon-kun collectibles shop on the outskirts of Tokyo.


With more than 20,000 Yu-Gi-Oh cards in his personal collection, Machida took the job at Famicon-kun to improve his access to Yu-Gi-Oh cards and support his habit.

“I’m a maniac,” he admitted.

Barbara Schroeder, a Fox News reporter from Pacific Palisades, is determined not to let the same thing happen to her 9-year-old son, Gage.

After spending $600 on Pokemon equipment, she has reached her limit.

“One card was $80, and that’s when I cut it off,” she said.


Hisako Ueno in The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.