February 27 marks the 20th anniversary of Pokémon Red and Green, the first Pokémon games ever to be released. Mega-fan Ethan Sills looks back at how a collection of outlandish Japanese creatures became a worldwide phenomenon.
March 2008. It’s late at night – well, late at night for a 13 year old, so probably around about 9 P.M. I’m sitting on the floor of my friend’s guest bedroom, dark green Game Boy in hand. This was the moment I’d been building towards. Weeks of training, hours spent defeating gyms, conquering Team Rocket, saving the world, it had all been heading towards this final step. The pixelated avatar steps through the sliding doors and up the corridor, heading towards the first door, behind which waits my opponent. This is it.
Armed with my faithful Charizard, the Pokémon who’d been with me the longest, joined by some randoms I picked in case he failed, I was finally ready to face the Elite Four. With a rush of courage and bravado, I move the avatar into the first room, like a gladiator going into battle, ready to become Champion.
I then proceed to lose, repeatedly.
This final attempt at glory came near the end of my first full length run through a Pokémon game and highlighted the theme of repeated failure that run throughout the course of my challenge. As I endured the final challenge of Pokémon LeafGreen – a lot of yelling and losing to the same five people multiple times over and over again for several hours – I had no idea this was just a precursor to what would, quite rapidly, become an unflinching obsession.
It’s a familiar story. For 20 years now, Pokémon has built a massive empire by getting fans hooked onto its product: it’s kind of like a drug, though I imagine this is a way more expensive hobby to maintain. And what an empire it’s built: 23 core games, 99 spin-off games, 18 movies, over 900 episodes of anime. There are reportedly 15 billion trading cards in existence. On the backs of its 722 leading monsters, Pokémon has firmly marked its place as the second highest grossing video game franchise of all time (losing out on the top spot only to Mario), and all its achievements are worth celebrating.
Yet Pokémon’s 20th anniversary is not something I ever thought I’d care about. When the franchise first reached New Zealand shores, it came amongst the onslaught of mass-marketable Japanese franchises that seemed all the rage in the late 90s and early 00s. As a kid, Pokémon was just one more brightly coloured television show amongst a crowded field: Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragonball Z, to name just a few.
While I watched and enjoyed the anime, my interest in the Pokémon world as a whole came mostly through my sisters. They played the games, they watched the show; as the youngest of three, with few opinions of my own, I simply followed along. The closest to obsessed I came was seeing Pokémon: The Movie 2000 twice in cinemas, as I went with one sister and then the other, but aside from building a pitifully small collection of soft toys I wasn’t a hardcore fan. At some point my sisters’ interest faded, and mine turned from the 151 Pokémon to the endless monsters that made up Yu-Gi-Oh.
Fast-forward to that March night in 2008. Despite not having watched or touched anything to do with Pokémon for about five or six years, I’d recently been pulled back into the universe via an old GameBoy borrowed from a friend who had started playing the games. Thus, I embarked on a quest into LeafGreen. I haven’t looked back.
In the eight years since, my interest in the games has gone from apathetic to obsessive. I proceeded from LeafGreen to Ruby, before moving onto the Nintendo DS: Diamond, Platinum, Heart Gold, White and White 2. I took the nostalgia train even further by buying the first two series on DVD, alongside the first three movies (the only three really worth watching – and even third one feels like someone was doing a ton of drugs when they came up with the plot). And it all started with just two weeks playing one game.
Despite all the time and energy I have put into these games, I actually have no idea why I started playing Pokémon again in the first place, or how I got hooked so quickly. A mix of boredom and nostalgia maybe, but that almost feels too simple – then again, so is Pokémon. If my friend had told me about a different game he’d started playing, I likely never would have returned to my childhood hobby. But would another franchise have the same hold on me? Few other series seem to inspire the same level of intense devotion the way Pokémon does.
It is odd that a series that has changed so little over 20 years has been as successful as Pokémon. Over six different versions of the core games, the plot has stayed basically the same: a young child leaves their single mother behind, enslaves wild animals, makes them fight other children’s pets for money, has to defend the world/universe from an evil organisation and defeats the toughest trainer. Game ends.
Continuous reinvention of the system seems to be the way Nintendo has kept this horse from dying. With each new bit of technology the company develops, even something as simple as the introduction of colour, comes a new Pokémon game to capitalise on the change and drive more sales. The move from GameBoy to Colour to Advance to Nintendo DS and now 3DS has been met with the release of a new Pokémon world: the same story, just with increasingly improved graphics.
The company is even looking beyond their own consoles to keep the franchise alive. Later this year will see the release of Pokémon GO!, the first game to be released on mobile. The move to mobile shows the company knows its audience and how to keep them interested, plus it’ll be a smarter fit for a game that will essentially be Pokémon in the real world. Pokémon GO! sounds amazing and I already know my life will be dictated by it within hours of its release.
Even with changes to the technology, the actual product always ends up the same. But its repetitiousness doesn’t seem to be stopping the Pokémon juggernaut. Sales for the various spin-off games they have attempted over the years pale in comparison to those core trios of games. And for nearly 19 years straight now, Ash and Pikachu have been the faces of the anime, with their 910th episode as leads airing in Japan last week. An attempt a few years ago to reinvent comic villains Jessie, James and Meowth into actual threats caused an uproar amongst fans, and their newfound seriousness was quickly abandoned and replaced with their classic slapstick.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Pokémon recently, but I still can’t put my finger on what has drawn me to these games, or why so much of my money has gone to more Pokémon-themed t-shirts than any one person really needs. Whatever it is that has brought me and countless others back time and time again, I don’t think it can be summed up in a few easy sentences. Pokémon can be repetitive, infuriating, and a basic waste of time – but, really, so are a lot of games. There isn’t much that sets Pokémon apart from a lot of other games out there – in Call of Duty, you run around shooting people; in Pokémon, you running around beating up wild animals for fun. There’s a sense of fun about Pokémon, a joy that can only be experienced while taking down eight gyms with a gang of sword-wielding otters, walking-forest turtles and self-cooking fire chickens by your side.
No matter what they have to do to keep Pokémon going, there really isn’t much that can stop it now. This is a franchise that managed to survive hospitalising 700 children – if accidentally causing mass seizures won’t kill a brand, I don’t know what would. To many, it will always be a silly children’s game, but it’s a silly children’s game that still makes around $2 billion a year. This is not just some outdated trend turned niche hobby: Pokémon is a phenomenon that will probably outlive us all.
So enjoy your birthday, Pokémon – here’s to plenty more years of trying to catch ‘em all.
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