Hulk Hogan stood on a stage in Bryant Park, sporting a bright red Pokémon tee. “I wonder what it would be like if I woke up one day and I wasn’t Hulk Hogan in yellow and red?” he posited. What if, he asked aloud, “I woke up and I was Pikachu?”
We were at the Pokémon Video Game National Championships, and Hogan—an appreciator of the non-violent children’s video game ever since his now-teenage son Nick started playing—was the celebrity host for the day, there to award the winners and announce upcoming product releases. The championships were only part of the recent Pokémon Party of the Decade, an all-day bash in Bryant Park to celebrate the company’s 10 lucrative years in the business. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon of Pikachu floated above the main Bryant Park green; kids lined up to explore the onsite video-game demos, to confer with card-game experts, and to download free characters on their Game Boy.
Hulk took the stage to observe the final round of the championships, aided by a perky Pokémon announcer and a lab-coat-wearing game expert who was going by the official-sounding name of “Professor John.” Two rounds of finalists, little and big kids in yellow t-shirts, played from Game Boys projected on a large video screen. In an oddly nondescript raw space that, from the looks of it, could have been an ancient Greek coliseum or a Costco warehouse, a flying Shamu battled it out with a madly spinning cactus with arms and one really fat bunny.
Twelve-year-old Samin Sayed, one of the winners, informed me later that he spends four hours a day playing Pokémon video games, so it was nice to know he wouldn’t just be getting a free toaster for his efforts. The little runt cashed in with a jacket, a cell phone, a jeweled Nintendo DS Lite, the next five Pokémon video games, and an all-expense-paid trip for four to Tokyo. Some blatant shilling of new Pokémon products followed—the big news, it seemed, was the fall DVD release of Pokémon: Lucario and the Mystery of Mew, in which Pikachu and pals actually speak. Adding voices to mostly mute characters is a bit of a gamble, so here’s hoping Pikachu doesn’t come off sounding like a doped up Care Bear.
After the awards, we trolled the long demo lines around the park, looking for a fan or two to explain why the Pokémon franchise remains so popular. Five-year-old Phineas, from Manhattan, was a little low on the soundbites today. “It’s his favorite TV show,” his mom exclaimed, as Phineas buried his head in her neck. “Do you want to tell them how you make up stories with Pikachu and the bunnies?” No, Phineas did not. “I play baseball!” he exclaimed, on an unrelated note.
“This is so weird, being interviewed for this” said one of the game’s older fans, an 18-year-old college student who would only speak to us if we didn’t use his name. “It’s just something for me to do besides schoolwork,” he remarked dismissively, wanting to download his free Pokémon characters in peace and quiet.
Near the front of the stage, the Hulk took questions from a group of well-prepared kiddie reporters from Newsday. “I changed my mind today,” he confessed, leaning down to answer one pint-sized reporter’s query. “My favorite Pokémon character was Machamp, because he has the big arms. But he has four of them, and that freaks me out.”
But who would be the toughest to bodyslam, we asked the Hulk?
“Pikachu,” he replied, his eyes warily moving towards the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon. “He’s huge.'”