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Why Are Kids Obsessed With Beyblades?

Contemporary collectible games seem to reinforce a culture that celebrates consumption for the sake of consumption, and ownership for the sake of ownership.

The emailed invitation had the solemnity and dash of a slap in the face with a duelist’s glove: “Beyblade Blowout,” it read. “My house. Be there. Saturday, 5-7 pm.” And that, in a sense, was what it was. The friend of my 8-year-old son Hudson had offered to host a sleepover-slash-smackdown at his place, featuring their school’s current “collectible creature” combat rage.

“Beyblade? What happened to Pokemon?” I asked. Hudson had, after all, invested more than a few birthday and Lunar New Year dollars in packs of Pokemon cards over the past few years, and now had a shoebox of them, most tucked lovingly into protective vinyl sleeves. I received an eyeroll in response.

“Daddy, Pokemon is just cards. These are real things that you can launch, and then they hit each other, and they have special powers, like fire and stuff,” he said, rattling off a list of names that sound alternately like indie bands or microbrews: Spiral Capricorn (I used to listen to them before they got famous!); Rock Leone (bottle or draft?); Twisted Tempo (uh, that one could go either way).

Despite the hipster-friendly names of the gamepieces, the actual game they’re used for is decidedly old-school. Beyblades are snub-nosed metal tops, modeled on beigoma, seashell-shaped spinning playthings that were originally invented in the 17th century, and that peaked in popularity sometime before World War II.

But Japan has always had a particular genius for mining the past to build the future — something I’ve often ascribed to the dual influence of Shinto and Buddhism, both of which deeply embed the idea that things never die, merely transform and reemerge. (Spiritual recycling, if you will.) Refreshed with colorful creature graphics, snap-on accessories and a ripcord-style high-speed launcher, and paired with a seizure-inducing cartoon series that’s best described as a 22-minute commercial interrupted by 30- and 60-second commercials, the battling tops have since spawned a burgeoning consumer fan base that generated $477 million last year for its global distributor, Hasbro.

That’s over 11 percent of the toy giant’s 2011 revenues, making Beyblade its second most lucrative brand — just behind robo-juggernaut Transformers, which generated $483 million in 2011 sales. Without the boost provided by the third installment of the blockbuster movie franchise, it’s likely that Beyblade would have placed first. And Beyblade is hardly spinning in place on the silver screen front itself: A live-action Hollywood adaptation of the toy franchise is currently under development from Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, the creators of the CGI smash Despicable Me.

The secret of Beyblade’s success is straightforward. A starter Bey costs $12 and up; serious players will have dozens, along with the “necessary” accessories — arenas, carrying cases, extra launcher-ripper combos. And when you start playing, things get serious fast.

Beyblade is active and three-dimensional in a world where too much play is panel-based point-and-click. It has a flat initial learning curve — my 4-year-old son Skyler can “rip” as efficiently as his older brother — but a surprising amount of sophistication as one advances, both in selecting and customizing tops and in launch technique and placement. And the spinning neon tops are unquestionably...hypnotic.

They’re also an intergenerational win-win. For kids, Beyblades combine the gotta-catch-’em-all addictiveness of Pokemon, the snap-and-tuck manipulability of Transformers and the rock-'em-sock-'em aggression of nearly everything aimed at the 8- to 13-year-old male demographic. For parents, meanwhile, they seem like nostalgic throwbacks to a simpler and sweeter era of childhood play — the world of hula hoops and hopscotch, marbles and yo-yos.

But beneath that innocent-seeming exterior lurk some troubling concepts, which make me uneasy about my enabler role in Hudson’s serial addiction to these collectible creature-combat games.

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