16 years ago, on my 18th birthday, I brought a present for myself consisting of Game Boy Pocket & a copy of Pokémon Blue. Fast forward 15 years to 2013 & my 33rd birthday, where I brought for myself a limited edition Pokémon 3DS XL & a copy of Pokémon X.
The years between those purchases have seen the release of 62 games over various Nintendo consoles (mainly handhelds with 23 games being the main franchise), over 800 anime episodes, 16 movies (one released a year), a popular Collectible Card Game & various manga incarnations. Not to mention every form of merchandise imaginable, from clothing to toys to cars & furniture.
All brought to the fore once again by Nintendo’s recent announcement that they shall be re-releasing the Generation III games in the main series, Ruby & Sapphire, for the 3DS in November of this year.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past 17 years, Pokémon is one of Japanese greatest pieces of branded marketing & corporate Soft Power as well as one of the most popular multimedia franchises the world has ever seen.
Very few of us have not been exposed to the nauseating cuteness of the franchise mascot Pikachu or have heard some acapella version of one of its many themes posted online. It is a phenomenon that has well surpassed your average zeitgeist & doubtless it will continue on for many years to come. Or for how long it remains profitable.
Yet what has turned a fairly simple handheld RPG about collecting different monsters into a media & cultural juggernaut?
Well, many academics, critics & fans have written about that but I’m going to ignore them in favour of my own personal journey & experiences with the Pokémon franchise. Because it’s my blog & I can write what I bloody well please.
Like many people my age, I first heard about Pokémon from the urban legend where the anime had caused a series of seizures during the screening of an episode. This led to all sorts of prefabricated outrage out the dangers of children’s cartoons but it also meant that lots of people in the West were eager to watch it but it was added to the list of episodes that were either banned or altered when purchased by 4Kids Entertainment for Western distribution.
To break it down, Pokémon is a portmanteau of the words Pocket & Monster (Poketto in Japanese), which are the titular creatures that you collect in the game. There are over 720 of the little buggers now; the number growing with each new generation released. Each Pokémon has certain elemental or type affinities -like Grass, Fire, Water, Electric, Flying, Fighting, et cetera, sometimes have two types at once -such as Venusaur’s Grass/Poison type or Geodude’s Rock/Ground type. Each type has a strengths & weakness against other types, giving the game play a Rock, Paper, Scissors approach, where you can gain advantage & bulldoze through opponents by having the right types & attack types or similar getting your team handed to you because you choose poorly. The series combines dungeon crawler/exploration style RPG elements with a collecting game play, as you capture wild Pokémon to add to your team & fill out your Pokédex. Each battle gains your creatures experience points, which helps them level up to gain new abilities &, in some cases, new forms as they evolve once they reach a certain level (or have something else affect them like a stone or similar item).
Despite this lack of seizure inducing animation, the games were still due out in the West & come 1998, I had eagerly saved up my money for a slightly improved Game Boy Pocket & a copy of Pokémon Blue. Unlike in Japan, we in the West only got two version of the game at first Red & Blue, where as they had Red & Green (1996) at first & then an enhanced version of Blue in 1997. Plot & game play wise, the games were identical but the mantra of the series form the beginning (other then the marketing phrase “gotta catch’em all!“) was all about trading & sharing with other players (then via the Game Boy Trade Cable).
Supposedly, the games creator Tajiri Satoshi game up with the idea for the series by basing it around the Japanese children’s hobby of catching & releasing bugs (especially beetles) & this is an element that is the core foundation of the series.
Starting with 151 Pokémon (including the special event only monster Mew), each game had a different set that you were allowed to collect plus some evolutions that you could only obtain through trading, so you were actively encouraged to find friends with different versions & trade with them.
Or do what I did & buy different versions of the game & use your old Game Boy to swap pokémon across so that you can come close to completing your collection.
Anyway, these first few games combined with the anime series were popular enough that Nintendo released Pokémon Yellow (1998), which featured their electric mascot character Pikachu as your primary monster (actually follows you around & emotes during certain events) to help promote their new Game Boy Colour system. I ended up getting the game along with the limited edition Pokémon edition GBC, possibly in a bundle, I can’t remember.
The first three games (including Yellow) were all very basic affairs of choose one of three starter Pokémon (Bulbasaur, Charmander or Squirtle), battle your rival (whom most people named rude things), collect different Pokémon, battle other trainers, gain experience & evolve most of your monsters who can evolve, defeat gym leaders for badges which grant special bonuses & eventually go up against the Elite 4 in order to become the Pokémon Master.
Yellow mixed up the formula a bit by adding things related more to the anime, such as battles with Jessie & James from Team Rocket as well as making some of the sprites match up more with the anime depictions.
Blue began my habit of always picking Water Type starters (Squirtle & his evolutions was pretty awesome). I was a dedicated player, collecting as many monsters as I could, smashing Gym Leaders & beating my Fated Rival to become Pokémon Master! Unfortunately I messed up & used the Master Ball on one of the legendary birds instead of Mewtwo but I rectified that when I picked up a 2nd hand copy of Red a couple of years later.
I also got Yellow when it available & found it more challenging then Red/Blue but that was mainly because of Jessie & James popping up when you’ve already battled hard & didn’t have much left in terms of health or PP.
The next main games, after the fun & strangely addictive Pokémon Stadium (2000) (which was great because you got bonus starter Pokémon for beating various cups & could play the normal game on your TV), were Gold & Silver. I opted for Silver because of Lugia on the cover & prefer silver over the colour of gold.
Personally, Silver is still one of my favourites in the series because there was so much to do. More so after you beat the gym leaders & Elite 4 you go back to the Kanto Region (from the 1st games) where you battle all the Gym Leaders & Elite 4 there until you come to the Pokémon Master (technically you from the last games), lonely upon his high mountain. You also had 3 new starters (I naturally went with Totodile, who is still my favourite starter) & new ways to evolve your monsters -including keeping an eye on their happiness (which couldn’t be measured in game for some reason, you had to see a NPC to tell you) as well as 100 new monsters to collect. The game just felt so much bigger then Red/Blue/Yellow -dare I say that it felt epic?- & with such a huge game map to explore you truly felt as though you were getting your money’s worth with it.
When they brought Crystal out (an expansion for Gold/Silver) a little later I didn’t bother with it. Was kind of moving away from handheld stuff for some reason.
Which is why I was late to getting to Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire.
Instead of getting one of the many Game Boy Advances, I instead opted for the original Nintendo DS (a mistake but wanted Mario Kart as a free bundle) & got Sapphire (yes, sticking with the trend of blue over red because blue rocks as a colour!).
Unfortunately I found Sapphire a bit boring.
Nothing had really evolved in terms of gameplay.
Sure, there were more very cool Pokémon to collect but you still had a plethora of the earlier ones plaguing the game. Plus some of the new evolutions & evolving methods were fairly tricky to get around, meaning that you needed a strategy guide to get your head around it all.
The story also hadn’t changed one iota.
You play a mute who everyone says is destined to save the world. You battle Team [Insert Name Here] who wants to steal all the pokémon/destroy some aspect of the environment/control time & space/free all the pokémon/kill every living thing on the planet -which no one else seems to fussed to do anything about strangely enough. You encounter legendary pokémon that you capture & exploit & you beat the Elite 4 & your Fated Rival.
That’s EVERY main Pokémon game plot in a nutshell.
Sapphire stuck to it without variation, just adding a few more bells & whistles to the blundering edifice of the franchise. It vexed me, despite how fun I still found the core gameplay. I honestly just couldn’t bring myself to finish it, so its still sitting in my pile of shame.
Naturally, as soon as the follow up Diamond/Pearl was available, I made sure that I had it on the first day of release.
Unfortunately I suffered through the same doldrums of repetitive gameplay & lack of any interesting plot &/or motivation & wave after wave of previous Gen monsters to wade through before you found the new & interesting ones specific to that generate.
There were a ton more bells & whistles add for distraction but at least a lot of secrets to find & clever little things added to the series to give it more life.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for me & I eventually got bored. Mainly because I got stuck trying to get through Victory Road to the Elite 4, which was a painful grind.
So, four years later, when Black/White arrived, I also picked it up first day of release.
I am nothing if not a sucker for punishment.
Naturally, I went with Black & choose Piplup as my starter.
I genuinely appreciated all the changes that they made to the formula. Add new character dynamics with your friends/rivals, new evolution styles, new types & so on. Plus fancy shiny graphics outside of battle but inside it was just the same old static sprites.
It wasn’t a breath of fresh air but it was a breeze blowing some of the staleness away.
Unfortunately it just wasn’t enough & I soon grew tired of it all. When Black/White 2 was announced I didn’t bother to get one but that was genuinely more to do with how much they cost (& still cost) then not wanting to continue my obsession with the series. It was basically too much like Black/White, so wasn’t really needed to be purchased.
So, that brings up to the present Generation (Gen VI): X/Y (with Z due out next year or so)
I got X first day of release as well as a limited edition Pokémon Y 3DS XL (all red with pictures on it).
With this game they had changed up plenty of the formula to make it more interesting & far more accessible for a new generation of player. Overall, it’s far easier, with a lot of the random challenge difficulty toned down, as are the gym battles. This isn’t a negative in my book but does mean that you can utterly steamroll through the game with a handful of pokémon whom you’ve grinded up well enough. Same as when you get the mega-evolution ability. Using it on something like Blaziken (that you got as a special early purchase bonus) will mean that you can destroy many opponents (unless they are high level Psychic &/or Water types).
They also mix up the new & older Gen monsters a bit better but still vexing to have all the old ones & barely get a glimpse of the newbies. Most of the new ones aren’t incredible but many are interesting in their types & evolutions. Inkay is a perfect example because it reverses any status affects thrown at it (turning negation effects like Growl into a status buff) & you have to evolve it into Malamar by turning your 3DS upside once it hits level 30. Such a gimmick I’d usually find bothersome because there would be no way you could figure it out by yourself but once you’re told about it seems perfectly naturally to evolve it in such a manner.
Unfortunately Inkay/Malamar is the only new monster of this type to evolve in such a fashion but you have the much touted Sylveon, the mascot for the new Fairy Type, who needs Affection (different from Happiness) to evolve from its basic Eevee form. To do this, you need to spoilt an Evee in the Pokémon-Amie distraction thingie by feeding & petting it & then level it up once it’s acquired a Fairy Type move (which is part of the normal levelling progression luckily). This is very fiddly but since there are so few new Fairy Types in this game, it’s necessary if you want that branch of Eevee evolution.
My other favourite new ‘mon at the moment is Helioptile/Heliolisk because he has an ability called Dry Skin, which means he absorbs any Water Type attacks & even rain from moves like Rain Dance to heal at the end of each round. Combine that with his Parabolic Charge move, which drains HP from whomever it hits. Turning him into a sunny loving vampire lizard! Unfortunate due to being an Electric/Normal type hybrid, it has some annoying weakness to Fighting Type attacks.
One drawback to having so many ‘mon to catch & discover as well as all the types there are, unless you have a handy chart to hand, it’s easy to forget what beats what. More so with the recent additions to the series such as Dark (Evil) & Fairy.
They also tried to spice up the story a bit by adding more side characters for your PC to interact with but they aren’t really fleshed out & don’t play much into the plot. Most of them really don’t have a place with one of them appearing towards the end of the game before you’re hit by a massive (& very, very dark) back story to the region that you are exploring.
Unfortunately, the plot still is just what I mentioned a dozen or so paragraphs back. That is definitely something that I hope that they improve upon in the next non-remake game. I don’t want some epic opus or exploration upon the human/pokémon condition but a little more rounding of character, plot & background plus a sense of choice & personal agency wouldn’t really go amiss.
I’m still yet to finish my version of X, despite the main thread of the game being so much shorter & relatively easier then previous Generations but will get around to it eventually. Of course I started with a Froakie but foolishly chose Squirtle for my 2nd starter out of habit because Charizard Mega Evolution X does look pretty boss .
There are also plenty of secrets within the game as well as updates to add more ‘mon & moves that will get me to keep playing. Am basically up to Victory Road but don’t have as much time to play as I would like.
Am still not sure if I’ll end up getting the re-releases of Ruby/Sapphire (entitled Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire) but other people seem genuinely excited by the news (mainly because people have been making memes out remakes for a few years now, pretty much since the Gold/Silver remakes of a few years ago). I’ll probably end up getting them because of the new features they’ll out into the games.
I do hope that they continue with positive progression as the main series continues into the future. I personally would prefer to see an utter clean break with the franchise. Where the next main game ONLY has new pokémon in it & you unlock all the previous ‘mons post game or via trading. That way you can focus on all that is new without getting bothered by all the old mooks who keep getting in your way as you wade through long grass & caves.
Fans are still demanding a Wii U based MMO style game but that honestly would be hard to control, especially if it allows for imports from the handheld versions. Something akin to an MMO Stadium game would work well, with level caps & all that & being able to link your 3DS to your Wii U so you can just use the ‘mon you have already on your system without fiddling around too much.
Outside of the main series, I haven’t really played many of the other recent Pokémon games.
I used to be hopeless addicted to Pokémon Snap despite it being exceptionally simplistic & lacking in any true form of gameplay. This is also a game screaming out for a sequel & seeing one on the Wii U would indeed be most epic!
The other non-main games don’t truly interest me because they often aren’t very good & don’t have the same kind of attention grabbing, life-draining play that the main handheld series does.
I also don’t get into the whole weird things surround the main games.
Such as breeding for natures, EV training and competitive battles at real life tournaments & such.
Also! I’ve been playing for 17 years & I’ve never seen a bloody shiny ‘mon the entire Pikachu-loving time!
Speaking of the fan community: Pokémon still attracts a massive & diverse online fan community. Ranging from art & stories to the ever popular memes, such as the Cheezburger Network channel Pokémemes. Of course there are communities on 4Chan & Reddit dedicated to Pokémon related stuff but I’m honestly not brave enough to endure some of the horrors that people post there these days. & naturally there is a plethora of Rule 34 related items because, as the rule doth state: “if it exists, there will be porn”.
Yet, despite my bagging of it, the fan communities are what keep the entire Pokémon franchise popular after all these years.
They are the perfect example of the invested/dedicated consumer phenomenon because they add back to the culture/community surrounding the franchise. Moving it from a mere game & extended merchandise to a truly global cultural force.
Everything has been related to Pokémon at some point.
Entire stores within Japan exist just to sell related products. Battle tournaments are now global, attracting huge prize purses as well as attention. Not to mention that every new (main) game announced always garners huge amounts of attention -from both media & the fans/consumers.
& of course the anime series & its associated movies are continuing regardless of all other trends within the media. At over 800 episodes & 16 movies, it is one of the longest running anime series ever! & it keeps to a pretty basic formula too, so it’s easy to keep making.
Ash Katchem (stupid pun but he’s known as Satoshi in the Japanese version) & his companion Pikachu travel various regions with their pals (always one female & usually with Brock or another male companion), battling their Fated (regional) Rivals, foiling Team Rockets’ plans, bonding with different people & pokémon, learning life lessons, fighting gym leaders, et cetera et cetera.
Each new series sees Ash & Pikachu leave behind his previous team (mainly so they can get the latest ones for the latest games), Pikachu somehow loses his power which means he & Ash lose to their new rival, they encounter a legendary ‘mon somewhere within the 1st or so ep & Ash finds new friends to travel with which are always a loudmouth girl who is tsundere towards him & a male companion who explains everything.
Ash also never ever becomes a Pokémon Master or wins the huge tournaments (might be a few exceptions) because he’s always go to keep travelling to get the newest series rolling.
I honestly haven’t watched it in years. Mainly because the dubbing & translation are so bloody awful! Not to mention the censorship (which I already did actually). My niece still digs it as far as I recall but she’s becoming an invested gamer, more so after I got her a copy of Diamond 2nd hand for her 4 years ago.
Which pretty much proves how the franchise cross generations.
Hell, I’ve got friends who gave their original Red/Blue version to their kids to play (when they weren’t keeping them for themselves) & actually play each new game with their kids (it’s a great way to monitor what they do play as well as engage with them properly).
I do think that I’ll still continue to collect the games as I grow older. Even pick up a few pieces of merch here & there (mainly cute figures if I can).
I honestly don’t think that Pokémon is going to go away for a long long time.
I just don’t want to be trying to hunt 10,000 of the little buggers when I’m 90.