On February 27, 2016, Pokemon turn 20 years old. Over the years, we have seen the franchise explode into a billion-dollar, all-encompassing phenomenon, with a TV show, trading card game, movies, books, spin-off games, and more merchandise than you can shake a big stick at. At this year’s EVO fighting game touranment, Pokemon will feature in three out of the nine games on offer. It’s hard to believe that Pikachu and the gang have been around for so long, influencing so much in the world of video games and anime. Come with us now on a journey to see where Pokemon came from, and where it is heading.
It all started with bugs. Believe it or not, bug collecting was, and still is, an incredibly popular pastime among Japanese youngsters. Satoshi Tajiri, the father of Pokemon, was one of these youngsters, and spent his childhood in rural Japan collecting beetles, butterflies, caterpillars and more. His friends gave him the nickname “Dr. Bug”, and he had dreams of becoming an entomologist. As his hometown became more and more urbanized, Taijiri saw the insect population steadily decline. His vision for Pokemon was to allow a new generation of children to experience the simple joy of insect collecting in an increasingly urban world.
To that end, Satoshi (the Japanese language name for Red/Ash Ketchum) was imagined to be Taijiri as a child, and Shigeru (Blue/Gary Oak) as Taijiri’s long-time friend, role model, and mentor at Nintendo: Shigeru Miyamoto.Together with artist Ken Sugimori, and a team of less than ten people, Taijiri created the designs for the first 151 Pokemon, which at the time, he assumed would be the only 151 Pokemon.
He also had grandiose ideas for the Game Boy’s link cable, which until then had only ever been used competitively: pitting two players of a particular game against one another. His concept of using the cables to trade was something completely new to the video game industry, and has become one of, if not the defining trait of the Pokemon series.
Some suits at Nintendo came up with the idea of splitting the game into two separate versions to promote this new feature, and the games were released as Pocket Monsters Red and Green in Japan on February 27, 1996. Despite being released quite late into the Game Boy’s life (the handheld was originally released in 1989) the games sold incredibly well, prompting a graphical overhaul (Pocket Monsters Blue) that launched that very same year in October.
The infamous 151st Pokemon “Mew,” which spawned so many urban legends was initially put into the game as an internal prank “unobtainable” Pokemon. His popularity caused him to be officially distributed by Nintendo – birthing another long-standing Pokemon tradition.
Just a year later, the monster collecting game’s success led to an anime, following the adventures of a stylized Ash Ketchum and his faithful companion: Pikachu. Yep, it wasn’t until the anime that Pikachu started to become the official face of Pokemon, and the little yellow rat was so incredibly popular that a “Special Pikachu Version” of the original game: Pokemon Yellow, was rushed out in 1998. 1998 was also when Red and Blue were released in the United States, bringing the craze to the English-speaking world. The anime came westward in the same year, meaning that American kids had both the games and the anime at the same time, ensuring that they were quite thoroughly ensnared.
Around this time, the Pokemon Trading Card Game also appeared up. Pokemon, with its heavy focus on trading, was a no-brainer for a card game, and was actually published by TCG veteran Wizards of the Coast when it first came to the states. Needless to say the card game took off just as well (if not better) than the video games, and is still going quite strong to this day.
Pokemon Red, Blue and Yellow set the format for the Pokemon video games for years to come. Pokemon Gold and Silver came around in 1999, adding 100 new Pokemon, and a new region to explore, but keeping the main idea of the game the same: collect eight gym badges, defeat the elite four and the champion, and thwart the evil gang trying to take over the world. Just like Yellow before it, a third version, Crystal, was released a year later.
By the time Ruby and Sapphire for the GameBoy Advance came around, Pokemon was already a global phenomenon. Following the anime, books, toys, movies, and entire stores dedicated to Pokemon merchandise began to pop up. When Diamond and Pearl hit for the DS in 2006, all of those elementary school kids that grew up on Pokemon were now in college, and remakes of Red and Blue on the GBA, and Gold and Silver for the DS were built around capitalizing on that nostalgia. Pokemon was now a thing for people of all ages, and all walks of life.
The franchise became so popular that it spawned tributes, knock-offs and spoofs. Video games like Monster Hunter and Yo-Kai Watch were inspired by its collection heavy, trading-focused gameplay, and anime like Naruto and One Piece drew from its “young boy takes on the world” story.
Pikachu became not just the mascot of the franchise, but the mascot of Japan.
When Black and White were released in 2010, they actually broke a few long-standing Pokemon conventions. First up, they were the first time a second Pokemon generation had been released on the same platform: every main series game up until this point had only come with a new Nintendo handheld. Secondly, rather than the traditional “third game” a couple of years later, Black 2 and White 2 were released in 2012 as “pseudo-sequels”.
We’re now into Generation VI with Pokemon X and Y (and the Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire remakes) on the 3DS, and Pokemon has advanced beyond Tajiri’s wildest dreams. Players can now wirelessly trade Pokemon with people all around the world, Nintendo can distribute event Pokemon with ease, and the number of Pokemon has ballooned into the 700s. X and Y also brought the 2D sprites of past games into the fully fledged world of 3D, making the battles of the creatures more accurately mimic the scenes we see in the anime and our minds. While Pokemon certainly is a very iterative series, with every new generation we are given new features, and a refinement of a formula that has brought smiles to kids faces for twenty years.
Which brings us to today, and what the future of Pokemon holds. Most obviously, fans are still eagerly awaiting the release of a “third version” of X and Y. Will it be like Black and White before it, and be X 2 and Y 2, or, as rumors are suggesting, will we be going back to tradition with the release of Pokemon Z? We don’t know yet, but it seems highly likely we will see news (or even the release) of this new Pokemon game by the end of the year.
Then there is Pokemon GO, Nintendo’s ambitious new mobile initiative which turns everyone with a smartphone into a Pokemon Trainer. Will the future of Pokemon play out entirely on smart devices, or will we see “Generation VII” released with whatever handheld Nintendo is planning after the 3DS? All we know for sure is that Pokemon has been around for a heck of a long time, and it certainly has no plans on slowing its roll.
Expect to see Pikachu’s face on lunchboxes for many years to come.