Twenty years, that’s how long it’s been since the first Pokemon games, “Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green,” were released in Japan. From the moment of its initial release Pokemon proved to be a smash hit and stories about a pop culture phenomenon among Japanese school children began to reach Western shores. In the two years that it took Pokemon to go global there was much discussion within and without Nintendo over whether or not it could or if it even should. Game Freak, the developers behind Pokemon were a fairly small game studio with moderate successes under their belt.
They had started as a video game enthusiast magazine in the early 80s by writer Satoshi Tajiri and artist Ken Sugimori but by 1989 they had begun designing, programming and selling their own games. For western audiences, the most prominent game in their pre-Pokemon gameography was “Yoshi,” a late NES puzzle game for which they were not credited. Not only were they an obscure studio, but Pokemon was a role playing game, a genre that wouldn’t go mainstream in the west until the release of Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation, nearly two years after Pokemon’s Japanese debut. Previous mega-popular Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest had failed to spark much interest from audiences even when it was vigorously marketed by Nintendo of America. Game Freak had also moved on to developing the sequel titles, Pokemon Gold and Silver, and had no resources to spare for localization. To top all that off, the Gameboy was almost ten years old when Pokemon was finally brought over to Western territories. Many commentators believed the aging system’s best days and best games were long past and long ago released. All these factors may have confined Pokemon to be “big in Japan” but nowhere else. Fortunately, Nintendo’s then President Hiroshi Yamauchi made the call and wanted Pokemon’s success replicated elsewhere.
In the fall of 1998 Nintendo brought Pokemon to North America and supported the Gameboy game with a marketing push that was unprecedented at the time and since. It happened all at once, the anime, the video game, and the trading cards were all released in same four month period starting that September. It wasn’t a “surprise hit” anymore, it was a media and merchandising mega property that Nintendo had staked its fortune on. By the time Pokemon Gold and Silver came to North America in 2000, Pokemon had single-handedly rejuvenated the aged and ailing Gameboy platform, had two theatrical films under its belt, two seasons of the omnipresent anime, an extremely successful trading card game and several spin-off games selling millions of copies on both Gameboy and Nintendo 64. Pokemon was well underway to becoming a pillar of the millennial generation’s pop culture. It got so big that adults took notice, banning it from schools and wondering whether or not it was addicting their children or brainwashing them trough occult magic. Needless to say, it got really weird during the three or so years that Pokemania was in full swing.
I was ten when Pokemon reached North America and at the time I was obsessed with Beast Wars, the Transformers series that also happens to be celebrating its 20th this year. Like many, I learned of Pokemon at school from friends. The kid culture was already rife with rumours and speculation on things like a mysterious 151st Pokemon and how to get it. Like everyone around me I was hooked. I even began neglecting my Transformers, at least for awhile. I imagine my Optimus Primal felt a lot like Woody from Toy Story. My first real steps into Pokemon was through the anime. The mid to late 90s was a renaissance for anime outside of Japan. Western broadcasters were taking chances and localizing and promoting Japanese imports like Sailor Moon and Dragonball to great success. Pokemon rode that wave and made it even bigger to the point that many after school programming blocks were dominated solely by anime. By the time Pokemon Ruby and Pokemon Sapphire for Gameboy Advance was released internationally the Pokemon craze had died down significantly. The video games were still massive hits but the anime had long since lost its prime location in the after school block, the movies were going direct to video and the trading card game was less ubiquitous. Some commentators were quick to suggest that it was all a fad, like cabbage patch kids or virtual pets but at the time of writing this article Nintendo just announced that they had sold 200 million Pokemon games, 275 million if you include games outside of the main entries. Pokemon wasn’t “a fad,” it had merely stabilized into a constant undercurrent of the popular culture. For me, the Ruby and Sapphire generation was a lonely one. I was fifteen when it released and buying a Gameboy Advance SP along with a copy of Sapphire was my first rush of Pokemon nostalgia. Pokemon was officially something I associated with childhood but, unlike my peers, it was something I sill wanted to be a part of my life. I spent most of tenth grade trying to convince my friends to buy a copy and play with me to no avail. They had understandably moved on. When you get older you forget the unique difficulties of being a teenager. Beyond the natural process of becoming an adult there is the heightened performance of “adulthood” as a social construct. It’s expected and natural but something that I was never really good at. It would be fair to say that one of the most frightening things for any adolescent is to be thought of as a child. Pokemon’s association with childhood made many who had grown up on the first generation of the franchise to shy away from it. “You still play?” and “you’re in highschool” were things I heard often.
It wasn’t until 2007 that things changed significantly. By this time, those that grew up with Red and Blue were young adults. I’d just finished my first year of university and was fairly excited to get back into Pokemon. Nintendo had done an excellent job of marketing the new fourth generation, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, to older players but it wasn’t just that, my friends were also excited. Thinking back to those days reminds me of C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and fantasy author, who once wrote “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Today we’re on the verge of another generation of Pokemon as Pokemon Sun and Moon are scheduled to release by the end of the year. For the first time in the series’ history it will be translated into Chinese, officially bringing the franchise to an all new territory. Sun and Moon are part of what looks to be the biggest year the franchise has seen since 1998. Aside from the a new generation filled with new Pokemon, we were treated to upgraded ports of Red, Blue and Yellow on 3DS while Pokken Tournament, a fighting game developed by the studio that makes Tekken, just released on Wii U. Later this year will also see the debut of Pokemon GO for iOS and Android, a geolocation game all about catching and collecting Pokemon in the real world. In addition to all the new video games, Nintendo plans to re-release Pokemon trading cards spanning the game’s twenty year history. All of it has been backed by the biggest marketing push the franchise has had since 1998 starting with a prime time Super Bowl ad earlier this year.
Looking back on the first twenty years of Pokemon is like looking back on my life as a whole. That may sound ridiculous but it’s not. For many, Pokemon purely represents a cynical marketing juggernaut aimed at children, the reality is that it represents the bonding agent of my childhood and many others. I made and cultivated friendships that have stood the test of time over Pokemon battles and spent holidays and birthdays with family that participated in and encouraged my love of Pokemon and today those fond memories keep the series a part of my life. Even now, I can talk about Pokemon with anyone my age and we instantly have something in common, everyone “gets it.” The truth is that these are, at their core, excellent video games with a lot of endearing charm. Pokemon has stood the test of time because its creators cared about what they were creating and still care after all these years, just like the children who grew up and are now growing old playing what they made. So in the spirit of being “the very best that no one ever was,” I’ve decided to play Pokemon Yellow on the 3DS and finally “catch em’ all.” I got close while playing Pokemon Blue as a kid, 148 Pokemon owned, but it’s time to finish the job. Now, I know there’s a hell of a lot more than 151 nowadays but give a guy a break, I’m not as young as I used to be. In the immortal words of Gary M.F. Oak, “Well I better get going! I’ve got a lot to accomplish, pal! Smell ya later!”