Hottest toys are the tops

  • Article by: JESSE MCKINLEY , New York Times
  • Updated: April 1, 2012 - 9:21 PM

Beyblades are a spinning sensation, with 30 million sold in U.S. since 2010.

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From left: John Luk Payne, 7, Eamon Moogan, 6, Jalen Lowe, 6, and Azaani Allen, 5, play Beyblade at Public School 261 in New York, Feb. 15, 2012. A Japanese phenomenon, Beyblade tops have erupted into American living rooms, with more than 30 million sold in the U.S. in the last 18 months.

Photo: Robert Wright, Associated Press - Nyt

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At a time when just about every toy has a screen, buttons and batteries, the must-have diversion among elementary school children is positively primitive: a top.

But not just any top. exotically named plastic-and-metal tops known as Beyblades.

A Japanese phenomenon, these tops have erupted into American living rooms, with more than 30 million sold in the United States in the past 18 months, an old-school onslaught that has left some parents finding Beys (as they are known) in every nook and cranny of the house.

Just ask Teresa Palagano, an editor in Tenafly, N.J., whose 7-year-old son, Jay, is an undeniable convert.

"We have Beyblade play dates, and a Beyblade stadium under the couch in the living room in case anyone wants to wander by and challenge him," she said, sounding frazzled. "It's funny till you're living it."

Tapping into an age-old childhood need to collect and compete, Beyblades are a surprisingly simple game: Just make sure your top spins longer than the other tops after battling and bumping in a shallow bowl called a Bey Stadium, or any other makeshift arena. And while there is a Beyblade-inspired game for handheld devices, one of the main appeals among the SpongeBob set seems to be that the Bey is something you can actually touch.

"It's real life," said John Luk Payne, a second-grader at Public School 261 in New York, where students successfully petitioned to add a Beyblade Mania club to their after-school programs. "It's not just looking at something."

The showdowns typically work this way: Two or more children load the tops into a special launcher, feed in a plastic rip cord and then send them flying into the stadium -- in every direction -- after screaming the ceremonial battle cry: "3, 2, 1, let it rip!"

Because such skirmishes usually last less than a minute, there's always time for another. And another. And another.

With more than 100 models -- including a few with remote controls and flashing lights -- Beyblades were the top-selling "battling" toys in the nation last year, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. Youngsters scramble to find rare imported models, swap them on schoolyard black markets and mix and match parts to create hybrid super-tops for battle.

Annie Talbot, a former actress in Palo Alto, Calif., said her 6-year-old son, Liam, had taken to customizing his tops and battling other kids at school or on pretty much any patch of available asphalt.

"At first, I didn't want to buy another item that was going to sit around the house," said Talbot, who likened the tops to a fancy dreidel. "But I do like that they usually do it outdoors."

Beyblades have sold more than 120 million tops worldwide, according to Hasbro, its U.S. distributor. That global frenzy came to a head recently when young competitors from 25 countries gathered in Toronto for the first Beyblade world championship.

Today's Beys take their name from a Japanese fighting top known as a bei-goma, and they are a rare case of a fad catching fire twice. Beyblades were first sold in the United States in 2002, in a simpler, mostly plastic form. In 2008, the brand was reintroduced in Japan with a variety of changeable parts -- energy rings and spin tracks and fusion wheels -- and more metal, which added heft and created a satisfying clanging noise when they collide.

The new Beys didn't reach U.S. shores until August 2010, coinciding with a new anime series on the Cartoon Network. With names that make them sound like heavy metal bands -- Poison Zurafa, Evil Befall, Thermal Lacerta -- and with different features, they have proven to be a potent collectible for children.

And a potent draw for parents looking for a relatively cheap -- usually less than $10 -- form of bribery.

The craze has some elementary school officials cracking down on classroom competitions, and the tantrums they can inspire, but others are embracing Beyblades as a teaching tool for a range of subjects, from astronomy to mythology.

Susanna Yurick, assistant director at the Honors Center at the City College of New York, said she was initially apprehensive about letting her 7-year old son, Niko, play with Beyblades. But she said she has been impressed by the "experiential lessons" the toy taught about physics. Her son now has a dozen Beyblades.

"Of course, maybe I'm just trying to find a silver lining," she said.

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