Toys: War of the Whirls

Beyblade fighting tops are set to invade the U.S.

Each day, Kodai Saito longs for school to end so he can go back to banging his whirling Beyblades tops off the walls of his suburban Tokyo home. "My favorite toy," says the seven-year-old blader. That's an understatement: The first grader has painstakingly assembled 25 of the armored tops for combat against his friends' 'blades. "[It's] better than staring at a home video game for hours on end," says his mom, Junko, 35. "Plus, the toys are cheap."

That twin appeal has created a juggernaut in Japan, where moms and their brood have been staging pre-dawn vigils at toy store entrances in order to snag the latest Beyblades delivery. No surprise, then, that manufacturer Takara Shuzo Co. is racing a pack of rivals to break into the huge U.S. market, a proven gold mine for a string of Japanese hits ranging from Power Rangers and Tamagotchi to Sailor Moon. With the once-omnipotent Pokemon doing a quick fade, toymakers everywhere want to fill the gaping opening for the next boys' toy bonanza.

That's where Beyblades' U.S. marketer, Hasbro Inc. (HAS ), comes in. It's now rolling out the multicolored gizmos with a blitz of TV ads and in-store stunts. It even plans a gaming league like one in Japan that managed to lure 6,500 kids to a contest at a Tokyo sumo-wrestling stadium. And a Canadian production company is readying a U.S. version of a Beyblades cartoon series that proved crucial in igniting the fad in Japan a year ago.

What's the appeal? Though named for simpler, 1960s-era spinners called bey-goma, the battling Beyblades are definitely not your father's top. Kids can snap together combinations of weight disks, weapon rings and other nefarious parts to create tops with the stamina or destructiveness to outlast rivals in battles waged in little plastic arenas. Adding to the appeal are Pokemon-like "spirits" that impart special powers. At $7, Beyblades seem inexpensive. But the highly collectible gadgets, together with all the launchers, arenas, and other gear a seven-year-old heart can desire, have the potential to put a family hundreds of dollars into the hole by the time the fad is over.

None of which has gone unnoticed by other toymakers, many of whom are working furiously to ready their own battling tops. "Not everything from Japan has done well in the U.S.," warns Amy L. Weltman, vice-president of marketing for ToyMax Inc. (TMAX ), which nevertheless will trot out light-emitting tops called Spinjas this summer. Trendmaster Inc. is extending its popular Rumble Robots into Rumble Rippers, with a gyroscope that enables the tops to take a licking and keep on spinning. And for its Cyclonians Eggbots, Bandai America Inc. is offering boys a simple edict: "Build 'em, bash 'em, spin 'em, smash 'em."

Will the vicious Eggbots beat out the more elaborate Beyblades? "No comparison," says Michael Riley, Bandai's vice-president of marketing. "We definitely kick their butt." Ouch! Counters Samantha Lomow, Hasbro's vice-president of boys' toys marketing: "We have the authentic brand." So there, Eggbots. Looks like a rock' em, sock' em battle is brewing in Toyland.

Corrections and Clarifications In "War of the whirls" (News: Analysis & Commentary, Feb. 25), the maker of Beyblade fighting tops should have been Japan's Takara Co., not Takara Shuzo Co., a major distiller.

By Gerry Khermouch in New York, with Chester Dawson in Tokyo

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