Catching Them All for 20 Years: A Pokemon Retrospective

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There’s something about this year in particular that is making me feel old. About a month ago I heard that this 2016 marked ten years since the IT Crowd had come out – which seemed impossible because even though it was a show I had gotten into from the start, I swore it hadn’t been that long since I was in high school laughing at the first British show that I had gotten into on my own (as opposed to my parents introducing me to it like Fawlty Towers). Then in an even bigger bombshell, I realised this year marked twenty years of Pokemon. In fact, Pikachu and the gang turn 20 this week.

Oh…

For what it’s worth, the games didn’t hit Australian shores until 1998, so I can breath easy knowing that much time hasn’t passed, but I think Pokemon is a particularly important cultural landmark for anyone who was born around the early 90s like I was. Many of the entertainment cornerstones for kids around that time; Mario, Batman, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the like, came into being before we were born. And while they were a part of our childhood, they were inherited. Pokemon to me stands as one of the first cultural powerhouses that I/we consumed from its inception. The other big property that stands out would be Power Rangers (which debuted in 93) which coincidently also owes much of its life to Japan.

There may not be a more successful 90s entertainment product than Pokemon either. The franchise currently makes $2 billion dollars (US) in revenue a year and the numbers are unlikely to slow anytime soon, with their most ambitious project – Pokemon Go – set to release later this year. It might have won the hearts of 90s kids like myself, but it hasn’t restricted itself to just one generation. Impressively the series is as popular with kids as it’s ever been. My two younger cousins, one in high school and the other in primary, are both big fans, and when I was lucky enough to go to the Pokemon Symphonic Evolutions Orchestra (there’s no way of saying that which doesn’t make me sound like a massive geek) the age demographics were all over the place, and I think I was the only one there who didn’t pull out their 3DS and play their game during intermission.

I can’t cite myself as a hardcore Poke-fan anymore: my fandom dissipated so that by the time the fourth generation of games (Diamond/Pearl) had come out I wasn’t playing. But when I was younger it was ‘the’ thing to be into. Beyond just the game was obviously the anime, but the trading card game was also a big deal at school – though it never got banned like it did in some places. It wasn’t hard to find a Pokemon conversation during Lunch, and you didn’t have to be seen as a ‘geek’ to be into it either, unlike other franchises. I’m a true gen-wunner a heart, though mechanically generation two (Gold/Silver) had a lot more going for it, but as a fan and a student of media, I can’t help but appreciate the immense cultural marks it has left across the globe.

There are several aspects about the franchise that stand out as impressive to me. Much of this comes from the game which then translates into other aspects of its media. The first is how fiercely gender neutral it is. Even beyond the fact that by Pokemon Crystal(2nd generation) you could choose a male or female avatar, the mechanics of the game is designed to appeal to a broad demographic. While the myth that gaming is a ‘male’ activity has long been busted and should be forgotten, Pokemon seems to appeal to either gender better than most.

Whether you long for adventure, the thrill of the hunt or to care for other living things, the games cater to all of that. While the game is ultimately centred around finishing the ‘story’, your personal focus can shift to the various subplots. Do you build Pokemon to win battles or beauty contests? Do you give them their own names? The choice is yours. And then there’s the Pokemon to consider. With so many out there it makes sense there would be plenty of variety, but even from the first generation it is clear that different Pokemon was designed to appeal to different potential players. For every Pokemon that is designed to look ‘cool’ and ‘menacing’ (Charizard), there is another that is ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ (Eevee). Even Pikachu’s public image jumps back and forth between this depending on if it’s attacking or relaxing. So no matter what style of Pocket Monster might appeal to you, the game has you covered. Two different people can play the same Pokemon game and end up with completely different ‘rosters’ and have gone about it in different ways. There aren’t a lot of games that let you do that and still get the same enjoyment out of the game. And from Pokemon Crystal you were able to play as a male or female avatar

Secondly, never underestimate the power of the slogan that you’ve got to ‘catch them all’ has. Collecting is at the heart of just about every geek, so wanting to collect all 151, or 721 as there are now (bloody hell there’s 721 of them now?) is a challenge that quickly consumes players young and old. Even if you didn’t have an all consuming desire to complete the Pokedex, it still meant the games had plenty of replayability beyond just the base story – which lets be honest follows the same core concept through all generations: grab a starter, collect the gym badges, stop an evil organisation, conquer the elite four and become a master trainer. And that’s ok, most gaming franchises do that, but it’s how you go about it that helps differentiate the Marios from the Sonics.

Even after twenty years the series and it’s main characters are iconic. Pikachu would be one of the most recognisable pop culture characters out there, even as we sit in the midst of the superhero takeover of Hollywood. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re in the East or West. Obviously it is still a big deal down here in Australia. The fact they can run several orchestral shows based on the music alone should tell you as much, let alone the hype that is there for any new release. Even at a smaller event like AICon (Tasmania’s pop culture convention, small by the standards of their mainland counterparts) you’ll see fans cosplaying as either Pokemon or Poke-trainers.

And then there’s Japan. While I was in Tokyo I realised just how important Pikachu and the gane still are. It’s virtually impossible not to see the yellow electric rodent, whether it’s his face plastered on billboards and food packaging, or if you stumble across the rather impressive Poke-Center stores that are decked out head to toe in merchandise (even if you’re not a fan they’re worth checking out). It’s not unreasonable to compare him to Mickey Mouse over there in terms of brand influence, and when you consider how long Mickey has been around for, it makes the global success of Pokemon even more impressive.

Pokemon has managed to speak to each generation that has grown since its release. And even if you move on from it there tends to be a part of it which holds on tight. And after twenty year it isn’t likely to slow down. Pokemon X and Y was met with positive reviews as well as commercial success, and even if it hadn’t the re-releases of older generation games continue to fill the best seller charts. And I can guarantee you that when Pokemon Go releases, it won’t just be the hardcore fans that line up to buy it. I suspect Nintendo know this too, given the advertising for it has leant heavily on the Pokemon from the first generation (for those who don’t know, ‘Go’ will be a mobile app/augmented reality game that lets you search for and collect Pokemon in the real world through your mobile. So literally if you go to the beach you’ll be told there’s a Squirtle nearby to catch, transferring the video game concept to a real world Where’s Wally). Don’t be surprised to see people in their mid twenties and thirties who haven’t picked up the base games in years running around the city with their phones out because there’s a Growlithe nearby that they don’t have. And don’t be surprised if one of those people ends up being me.

Oh, and if you were wondering, I was always picked Squirtle over Charmander and Bulbasaur

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