Bakugan: Contender to the Pokemon Throne?

"There it is!"

The three words electrifies the crowd. The children swarming in the front yard of the Denver suburban house run to the curb. They crane their necks, point, howl with excitement.

The one-ton truck eases its way through the last turn and straightens, a 42-foot trailer in tow.

As the truck rolls down the street past quiet homes and neat yards the excitement grows and the vehicle's detailed decorations begin to come into focus.

Carefully detailed creatures painted in neat rows line the entire hood of the truck. Swirls of color, a galaxy of stars spread from the hood down the sides of the truck and to its trailer.

The trailer, all 42 feet of it, is festooned with 8-foot-tall animated children, fasntastic creatures and images of steel multi-hued balls. But more important than the spectacle of a rolling cartoon, than the chug of the one-ton truck are the words written in fire and gold across the side of the truck: "Bakugan Brawlers"

Last year Bakugan was the it present for children 8 to 12. The holidays saw national sellouts of the toys, a combination of trading cards and marbles based on a Japanese cartoon. This year game developer Activision hopes to fuse the wild popularity of the toy with a video game and create a new franchise that could possibly one-day give Nintendo's Pokemon a run for its money.

"Pokmon have a head start on us, so it's not an apples to apples comparison," Activision spokesman Bill Linn said. "That said, the Bakugan toys have shown great strength in the marketplace in the States and continues to dominate in retail, so it's certainly on track to give Pokemon a run for its money."

"The two brands certainly share an audience amongst kids. What kid doesn't like monsters and battles?"

Pokemon, Nintendo's most popular game franchise after Mario, was initially created by Nintendo in the mid 90s as a video game and later spawned movies, cartoons and a collectible card game. Bakugan, though, started out as a cartoon and went on to spawn a card and toy game and finally a video game.

In Bakugan players place metal cards on a playing field and then take turns rolling the Bakugan balls toward them like marbles. When a ball rolls across a metal card, a magnet inside the plastic ball releases allowing the ball to spring open and reveal a creature.

"The game's popularity is really tied to its design," Linn said. "Bakugan blends the classic game of marbles, the collector card craze and a little bit of Transfomers into one activity. Any one of those would be fun, but when you combine all three, it adds a level of depth and interactivity that really appeals with kids."

Linn says the video game was created to appeal to fans of the card game and TV show.

"In story mode, kids to create their own character and play through a plot scripted by the writers of the animated show," he said. "It's like playing through a season of the cartoon, with you as the main character. In the battle arena, we've really brought the world to life through power ups and other special activities that make this much more than just rolling a ball."

It was important, Linn adds, for the video game to also capture the physicality of Bakugan.

The Wii version of the game, which is also coming to the DS, PS2, PS3 and Xbox 360, has players mimicking a throwing movement with the console's motion-detecting remote to toss a marble at the playfield. Once on the move, players can guide the Bakugan around the interactive field to pick up power-ups and then try to stop on the virtual cards. As in the physical game, when the ball hits the card it springs open.

"The play mechanic really gives the player a lot of control in battles," Linn said. "When throwing, they can have a standard, power or special throw that will affect how the ball enters the arena. Players can then control the ball by twisting the controller and tapping the B button. This gives the ball a nudge, but is not unlimited. And finally, when your opponent plays, you can shoot his ball and affect their trajectory.

"For the other platforms, we optimized the game to the controller. With Xbox 360, you can use both analog sticks. For the PS3, we use the Sixaxis control and the analog stick at the same time."

And Bakugan: Battle Brawlers, due out on Oct. 20, will be just the first video game built around the franchise.

To help promote the birth of this new video gaming franchise, Activision launched the Roll Across America Tour earlier this month.

The nationwide tour gives fans of the toy and show a chance to play the Wii and DS version of the game on flat screen panels mounted inside a 42-foot long trailer.

The Bakugan-decorated truck and trailer, which features four Wii connected to flatscreen televsions, two DS, a couch, track lighting and hardwood floors, will travel more than 4,500 miles this fall to promote the game.

During a stop in Colorado last week children and parents crowded inside the air-conditioned trailer taking turns playing the game for four hours. Many spent the entire four hours gaming.

Everyone, parents and children alike, seemed to enjoy the video game, staying around until the sun set and the stars in the sky almost equaled those painted on the truck.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.