February 27, 1996 – Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green hit the shelves in stores across Japan, soon to spark a worldwide media phenomenon.
20 years later, Pokémon is still here and, arguably, just as strong as it was then, with the games, anime, trading cards, and more still earning over a billion dollars every year.
Looking back on the early days of video games and the rise of Nintendo as a gaming superpower, it’s no surprise why this series became so successful, with a detailed and varied open world to discover, child-friendly themes of friendship and responsibility that still hold significance with an adult audience, and tightly-designed RPG and strategy elements that would keep gamers battling, training, and trying to catch them all for months on end. Additionally, the necessity of the Game Link Cable for catching all of the Pokémon in the game brought the series from simply being a private piece of entertainment to one that could be enjoyed by several people at a time as they traded Pokémon in order to expand their Pokédex and battled with their friends to see who could create the strongest team.
A good portion of my early childhood memories are associated with Pokémon, from training my very first partner, Cyndaquil, in Pokémon Crystal, to sharpening my mind and reflexes with Pokémon Puzzle Challenge, to battling with my friends in Pokémon Ruby and losing constantly because Earthquake hadn’t quite been balanced yet in the meta game. I logged more time in Ruby than any other video game I’ve ever played, with over 300 hours of fond memories to look back on, and while my interest in the franchise dipped slightly in high school, the freedom of my college environment inspired me to get back into it, leading to some of my favorite runs through the games that I’ve ever had with Soul Silver and Black 2. While I’ve unfortunately been a bit disconnected from the games recently on account of my lack of a 3DS, I still feel a strong bond with the series and occasionally boot up Emerald or Platinum to see what stories and adventures I could create next.
It wasn’t just the gameplay that kept me coming back, though.
If anything, the nearly incomparable frustration of having to reset the game after failing to catch Rayquaza for the 40th time in a row or getting railroaded by Whitney’s Miltank half a dozen times often made me so angry that I almost gave up. Rather, it was the world itself and its unending fountain of creativity, diversity, and mythology that kept me glued to this series and constantly trying to discover new hints and secrets on how the world within the game lives and functions.
Two of my favorite places within the Pokémon games are Ecruteak City in Gen 2 and the Canalave City library in Gen 4, the former for its palpable spiritual presence and the sense that this city is the spot of several major historical events in the past and more to take place in the future, and the latter for its dozens of in-game texts and readings about the creation myth of the Pokémon world itself, giving you the sense that there is something infinitely bigger than you within this world that you will eventually be confronted with. Even some of the side stories left a bigger impact on me than some of the anime or video games I consume today. I was absolutely terrified of Darkrai as a kid for his Freddy Krueger-style dream powers and his ominous design, but it’s also one of my favorite Pokémon ever for those exact same reasons.
While the games were great sources of entertainment to satisfy my quest for knowledge on Pokémon mythos, as well as crafting my own fanfiction-style stories about my individual parties, it was the anime that really got me hooked on this franchise. Kids’ WB and Cartoon Network were my go-to channels whenever I knew that an episode of Pokémon was on, and the travels of Ash, Pikachu and the rest of the gang were a huge highlight of my childhood.
I loved Ash’s headstrong determination and his constant attempts to grow, develop, and become a better person, even if I didn’t realize that that was why I liked him at the time.
He wasn’t perfect for sure; in fact, he was about as far from perfect as you can get, but that’s what separates him for the legendary legacies of Red, Gold, and the other protagonists from the video games. We got to grow up alongside Ash, and that allowed us to get so attached to him as a character. While I was a bit disappointed that he eventually stopped growing with me personally and jumped backwards to start with a whole new batch of fans when the sixth season started airing, I don’t really begrudge the writers for that, though as an adult I kind of respect the lead writer, Takeshi Shudo, for leaving the series when the fifth season had concluded, as though he felt that his own Pokémon journey had come to a close.
The rest of the characters are just as timeless as well.
I still consider Misty to be one of the greatest female anime characters of all time for breaking the mold of what a lead female character in a children’s series was expected to act like. Rather than be all girly or all tomboyish, Misty dominated both areas, becoming the perfect role model for young girls and showing them that they can literally be whoever they want to be. Brock is still a solid mentor figure, showing that even children of his age should be able to take on some responsibilities, and Pikachu proved to be more than just a cute mascot through his emotional complexity equivalent to any human character in the series. And, of course, I could never forget the bumbling antics of Team Rocket, with Jesse, James, and Meowth always being there for either a solid episode climax or a fun laugh to play us out on.
Back in their heyday, Pokémon movies were huge events that were hyped up for months on end and actually got debuted in theaters. Mewtwo Strikes Back, Pokémon 2000, and many more were some of my favorite VHS tapes to watch, with the first movie earning an impressive $85 million at the US box office. The moral underpinnings of the TV anime were hyper-condensed into the movies and provided valuable life lessons for children to grow up with: respect for the differences in others, the power of a single person’s action, love for one’s family, and so much more blanket these films that have become classics to those who enjoyed them in their youth.
While the video games and anime were definitely the primary focal points of the franchise, they certainly weren’t the only notable parts.
The official Trading Card Game was a massive success at its onset and still enjoys a large degree of prowess today, though my friends and I could never figure out how to play it the right way so we just made up our own rules (and I’ve cursed my cousin’s Arcanine ever since). Other figures and collectible merchandise are also as popular as ever. Every time I visit a local Wal-Mart, the checkout area is filled with plushies, trading card packs, and more for eager young trainers to get their hands on. Braxton “Skotein” Burks made a huge splash on iTunes with his Pokémon Reorchestrated soundtrack, rearranging the classic melodies of the original games into full-on orchestrations,
Even the most underrated and underexposed member of the franchise, the Pokémon Adventures manga, is still enjoying decent enough popularity for Viz Media to continue translating them for sale in the US, and, in my opinion, this manga contains the best stories that the Pokémon franchise has ever written. With its slightly more intense plot that melds the original story of the games with its own unique ideas, Adventures is one of the many hidden gems of this ever-expanding franchise.
Even the cultural impact of Pokémon has proven to be long-lasting and influential.
To this day, Pikachu remains a staple of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he still serves as a benchmark for cute animal sidekicks. Dozens of shows have referenced or parodied the series, from a simple “Electric Soldier Porygon” seizure reference in The Simpsons, to a bizarre brainwashing skit in South Park. We recently saw the very first Pokémon commercial to air during the Super Bowl, one of the most televised events on the planet. The sovereign state of Niue briefly ornamented its own official currency with several different Pokémon back in the early 2000s. Even presidential hopeful Herman Cain quoted Donna Summers’ “The Power of One” from Pokémon 2000 during his exit from the 2012 election. Pokémon has become an icon of media much in the same way as Star Wars or the Disney canon, something that is immediately recognizable and understandable on sight alone.
To me and millions of other people, Pokémon isn’t just a video game, or an anime, or a line of cute plushies.
It’s a millennial identity, one that speaks to our innate sense of adventure and wonder. It challenges us to push our expectations, make new friends, explore the unknown, and be the very best like no one ever was. It has transcended being a simple video game series and has become its own self-sustaining entity, both as a cornerstone of Nintendo’s core franchises and as a quintessential staple of children’s media.
From Red and Green to Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, from Indigo League to XYZ, and from Kanto to Kalos and beyond, the journey continues ever onward into the future, and I personally can’t wait to see the surprises that Nintendo and The Pokémon Company have in store for us in the years to come.