Character assault

Japanese vidgamers go beyond Pokemon

TOKYO — The Next Big Thing is gearing up in Japan.

After unleashing “Pokemon” on American children, Japanese videogame developers are busily readying an onslaught of new products for international consumption, including “Digital Monster,” or “Digimon,” from toymaker Bandai, and “Monster Farm,” based on a popular game by the same name for Sony’s PlayStation.

The country has always had a highly competitive and varied animation market: In a typical week in 1999, over 50 different animated shows aired on Japanese network television. What’s different now is the formidable clout that Japanese videogame developers have acquired.

“Pokemon,” at first a game for Nintendo’s GameBoy, got made into a TV series and then two movies. In Japan, over $1 billion in “Pokemon”-related licensed goods and other merchandise have been sold.

Soon, games will be released that boast high-quality animation comparable to the likes of “Toy Story.” Japanese hardware manufacturers continue to enjoy a stranglehold in the global videogame console market.

“Japanese makers have the de facto standard in the videogame hardware market, and tens of millions of dollars are spent on developing games that will succeed in the world market,” said Toru Yamada, a producer in the character-licensing department of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu.

“There have been successes with ‘Super Mario’ and ‘Donkey Kong,’ but what you will see now is an ever increasing array of impressive characters coming from the Japanese videogame market.”

Broad-based support

Yamada said the new Japanese products will be supported by a broad base of media; they will have characters international enough to cross borders; and they will be proven winners on Japanese television and in character-goods marketing.

Topping the list of the new games are a pair of animated products that use a monster theme.

One of the hottest properties is “Digital Monster,” or “Digimon,” from toy company Bandai — which unleashed “Tamagotchi” onto the world. In the game, players can capture and train over 200 different monsters and raise them in the same way they raised the virtual pet “Tamagotchi.”

Toei Animation has produced a TV series that started running on net Fuji TV in the spring. A 40-minute “Digimon” movie is planned for the spring.

Capturing more shelf space in local stores and at thousands of convenience stores in the country, “Digimon” goods have eclipsed “Pokemon” cards.

Fox Kids has been airing “Digimon” daily since the fall in the U.S. and also has Latin American rights.

Another monster product is “Monster Farm,” based on a popular game by the same name for Sony’s PlayStation. TMS Kyokuichi’s animated show is called “Monster Ranchers” in the U.S. and also airs on Fox Kids.

The game spurred a popular TV show that aired on the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS).

The game from Techmo allows users to pop their favorite music CD into a PlayStation; the computer program will then create monsters based on the music. The player can “raise” and “train” the monsters.

Network TBS tapped into videogame synergy again in April 1999 with a new animated series, “Power Stone,” which is a co-production with videogame software maker Capcom. Toon is based on a game by Capcom that was scheduled to hit the market in the U.S. and Europe toward the end of 1999.

Production company TMS also boasts one of the most popular and yet untapped animated products in Japan, “Detective Conan.”

Concern over violence

The show features a pint-size, prepubescent boy who matches wits with fiendish criminals. About 160 episodes have been shown on top-rated net NTV, while the program’s occasional dips into violence has scared off some potential buyers in some Western markets.

“Conan” has hit the silver screen three times in feature-length films, and each pic has ranked among the top 10 Japanese films for the year in terms of rentals. Born out of a highly popular comic book series, the little detective is also featured in a videogame for PlayStation.

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