It's A Pokemon Planet

LAURA THOMPSON ONCE HAD all she could do to get her 8-year-old, Spencer, out of bed before school every morning. Now the boy sets his alarm for 6:25, leaps out of bed a millisecond later and plops himself in front of the tube for the daily adventures of Pokemon. It's a 30-minute cartoon involving 150 characters who playfully battle with each other. (Sort of like a small version of the House of Representatives.) If this morning's Pokemon episode is a particularly good one, he'll watch it again at 7, even though he obviously knows what happens next. (Sort of like, well, the Senate.) ""It's not a lot of blood and guts,'' his mother says. ""It's about who wins today, and then they'll be back to fight tomorrow. And some of the characters are really nice.'' When Spencer gets home, there's no more Pokemon TV--but that's why there's Pokemon the Game Boy video cartridge! And he's yet to get started with Pokemon the trading-card game.

Sayonara, Super Mario. Goodnight, Power Rangers. Pokemon (pronounced POH-kay-mahn) is the newest game-and-video merchandising tsunami from Japan. Over there, in just four years, the Nintendo-owned creation has generated $4.5 billion in revenue--the TV show, video games, comic books, feature films, the sides of JAL planes, talking watches, fine cutlery! There are entire stores devoted to Pokemon. If Godzilla had a better agent, he'd have a cameo. Pokemon was introduced in the United States last fall and has become a phenomenon among boys between 6 and 14, and the parents who bankroll them. TV is free--and the syndicated American version of the cartoon is the No. 1-rated morning program in some cities--but other goodies are not. The two Game Boy color cartridges go for $29.99 apiece. Nintendo has sold 1.5 million of them. The collectible trading cards cost $8.99 for a ""starter set'' of 61; ""booster sets'' of 11 cost $2.99. Since late December, a Seattle company has sold 50 million cards, even after missing most of the holiday market. Coming soon: a collection of Hasbro stuffed animals.

""Pokemon'' means roughly ""pocket monster,'' though a lot of parents think it translates into ""Hey kids, buy this!'' In its various incarnations, Pokemon involves going on a journey to find little creatures with various powers and abilities who can be trained to take on new powers and abilities. And, of course, they fight on occasion. But Pokemon is harder to categorize than a fighting game like Mortal Kombat or adventure like the Legend of Zelda. The main mascot, Pikachu, is irresistibly cute, and none of the mischief-makers looks like a Leavenworth inmate. There are also elements of role-playing, strategizing and Beanie Baby collectibility. ""It's a unique combination,'' says Peter Main, a senior Nintendo executive who was initially skeptical about whether the game could flourish outside Japan. It's also a brilliant merchandising scheme, with an infinitely expandable product line. Even the number of baseball cards is limited by the trades George Steinbrenner can pile up in a season.

About the only downside of Pokemon's success has been . . . its success. Wizards of the Coast, which makes the trading cards, is now deluged with calls from children with obscure questions about oddly named monsters like Mewtwo. Serves the company right for having an 800 number for customer service. Elementary schools across the country have a bigger problem: the card trading is disrupting recess. ""I tell the kids they can trade them, but if a deal falls through, I don't provide arbitration,'' says Joseph Rodriguez, a principal in Westchester County, New York. (Nothing wrong with teaching about a free economy.) For America's hottest toy, these are just tiny issues. After all, in these complicated times, even Tinky Winky the Teletubby can face controversy. Pokemon creatures win there, too. They're gender-neutral.