The Little Mouse that Could
If I tell you way that back on 1995, one of the biggest companies on Earth (Nintendo) put all its resources into an obscure game inspired by catching bugs (bugs!) and starring a mouse (a mouse!) in a fledgling game console whose technology was outdated (the original Gameboy) and whose battle system was basically rock-paper-scissors, you would not believe me.
Bugs and mice are disgusting, no? Who wants to catch bugs and mice for fun?
And yet, 23 years later and counting, Pokémon is a worldwide phenomenon and a billion-dollar industry by itself. Just this year we saw the successful Hollywood film Detective Pikachu, the rare videogame film which was a hit with critics and moviegoers.
Who would have thought a little black and white game (or green and black?) would become a gaming mainstay?
Eight generations, over 800 pocket monsters later, and thousands of games and peripheral merchandise, the Pokémon brand is stronger and has survived several controversies, including the accusation of Satanism. (It seems every mega-popular property is considered satanic–look at Harry Potter.)
The first time I heard of Pokémon was an article on Wizard magazine (remember Wizard?) proclaiming it the next big thing. They were correct.
Then there was the whole controversy about the 685 children in Japan who experienced seizures while watching the infamous episode 38 of the original anime on December 16, 1997, also made Western news.
Still, none of those controversies or limitations could prepare the West to Japan’s hottest export.
Today, in celebration of the recent release of generation eight (Pokémon Sword and Shield) let us take a look at what makes Pokémon popular over two decades later.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Pokémon is that it promotes animal abuse and that its battle system is akin to glorified cockfighting. Nothing further from the truth.
Granted, when you explain the basic premise of Pokémon it seems messed up. You are a pre-teen or teen running away from home (with your mom’s blessing) around wild areas without adult supervision and picking fights with strangers.
Moreover, you capture living beings, put them inside a ball you carry in your pocket and make them fight other living beings for experience points. The ultimate goal is to become the league’s champion.
Okay, it does sound like animal abuse and quite creepy. Still, remember, Johto, Kanto, Hoenn, Unova et all are not real places. They are fantasy settings.
Furthermore, the real themes and moral lessons of pokémon are friendship, cooperation, and self-improvement.
You are not enslaving these animals to work for you, you are befriending them, feeding, caring, healing, and training them. You are domesticating them and giving them a home and a purpose.
The game actually emphasizes creating a rapport with your pokémon party. The more affinity and affection they feel for you, the more likely they are to obey you and protect you. They are your pets, friends, and guardians.
And besides, the Vatican itself said there is nothing immoral about Pokémon.
The Pokémon Brand
Pikachu, Charmander, Squirtle, Eevee, Gengar, Jigglypuff, Magikarp, Bulbasaur, Meowth, and all the rest are as recognizable worldwide as Mickey Mouse and Spiderman. How did it happen?
First, you got a multimedia property. It is not just videogames. There is the anime, the manga, the trading card game, the movies, the toys, the clothing line, the collectibles, and assorted merchandise.
Second, there is the variety. With over 850 pokémon and 18 different types (dark, water, grass, ghost, fairy, steel, ice, etc.) there has to be one for every taste. Yes, even the ugliest, most obscure pokémon is someone’s favorite.
Third, there is a sense of discovery (and collectible mentality). It is in their catchphrase, “gotta catch them all”.
For example, when you open a card packet, you do not know which card you would get. And you want to collect them all. You wandered through wild areas trying to discover rare pokémon. The game encourages exploration and experimentation, like finding what effects each berry will have on your pokémon.
Fourth, there is the social aspect. People play Pokémon to connect with others. Whether is trading for rare pokémon or battling, playing with friends is the game’s main purpose.
Fifth, the Pokémon brand resonates with different generations because it remains fresh (new monsters, new games, new regions, new rivals, etc.) while keeping what works (rock-paper-scissors turn-based combat).
In fact, you could argue Pokémon is the game who saved turn-based combat from oblivion (although the Fire Emblem series and other games still use it).
What Makes Pokémon Endure?
There are a certain charm and joy to playing, watching, collecting and reading Pokémon. It starts with its unique art direction. Colorful, cool, cute, with a hint of danger (remember, these creatures are monsters with superpowers).
Other reasons Pokémon remain popular are:
It encourages cooperation – for example, it is impossible to complete a national Pokédex without trading with other players.
the sheer joy of training and evolving – like when you take a level 3 creature and through hours of grind and training your useless Magikarp evolves into the powerful dragon Gyarados.
the battles – Pokémon battles are interesting because having a higher level and more powerful pokémon does not mean you will win. Skill can beat strength with care and preparation.
the plot – people make fun of pokémon’s plot been essentially the same through all games and iterations, but the formula works. Who does not want to be the very best? Beat your rival? Become the champion? If it ain’t broke…
the game design – The game mechanics are so easy to learn, even a five-year-old can play. And yet, there are lots of intricacies to keep the dads playing too without feeling stupid.
Finally, what is pokémon but an interactive adventure full of wish-fulfillment? A way to reconnect with our childhood, to bond with virtual pets, and win badges.
In conclusion, mice are disgusting, ghosts are scary, and bugs with pincers are terrifying. Except when they are Pikachu, Gengar, and Scizor. Then they are our beloved friends. And friendship among humans and pokémon is what Pokémon is truly about and what keeps us returning to it.
Reader, what is your favorite Pokémon game? Favorite generation? Favorite starter? Do you collect pokémon? Share in the comments.