Way back in 1996, Nintendo published a game that would almost single-handedly secure the company’s well being for the next decade, seeing it through the failures of the N64 and GameCube. That game was Pocket Monsters, or Pokémon as it is more commonly known. It boosted the fortunes of the then-flagging, monochrome Game Boy system and paved the way for trading cards, animated movies, merchandise and – of course – a series of million-selling videogames.
Incredibly, that franchise is still going as strong as ever and with the recent release of Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver on the DS, it shows no sign of slowing down.
The real question is what makes this series so compelling? How has Nintendo been able to keep things fresh after more then a decade of seemingly identical sequels and often questionable spin-offs?
To fully explain this phenomenon, we’d need thousands of words but the enduring attraction of Pokémon can be effortlessly summed up by the tag-line which has accompanied the franchise from day one: “Gotta catch ’em all.”
The concept of collecting items has been a cornerstone of videogaming for decades but Pokémon was one of the first games to base its entire gameplay hook around such a simple notion. The allure of getting the complete set of Pokémon was incredible and when tied to a portable system which could be carried around easily, it became dangerously addictive.
To make things even more compelling, this gameplay was married with an RPG-style battle system and the ability to explore an impressively proportioned game world. In fact, for many younger gamers Pokémon immersed them in the RPG genre almost subliminally; it would be the first game they’d ever play of this type.
While the recipe for success was clearly evident in that in an original release one would have expected the format to have grown stale over time; in fact, the exact opposite is true, with each subsequent sequel garnering just as much praise and attention from hardcore fans.
It’s these devoted followers that have arguably kept the series going; gamers now well into their twenties continue to line up for each new release, just as keen to collect every single monster as they were back in 1998. In fact, a cursory glance around the internet reveals that many players are even older, and many highly respected developers count themselves as hopelessly addicted Poké-freaks.
Nintendo is well aware that Pokémon carries with it a certain prestige. Here in the UK, the company’s television adverts feature a female gamer reminiscing about playing the first Pokémon game over ten years ago; the ad even goes as far as to display the original release on a Game Boy Color. The message is clear: This game took over your life when you were a teenager and it is just as likely to ensnare you today even though you have a job, a family and a mortgage. The technology may have advanced, but good old-fashioned gameplay is still very much in demand.
Time will tell if Nintendo can keep Pokémania going for another ten years, but with the rapturous reception received by the latest DS installments, it looks certain to continue confounding industry experts for some time to come.
Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.