Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, once wrote: “Too much success is not an advantage. Do not tinkle like jade, or clatter like stone chimes.”
Lao Tzu’s words speak directly to the essence of Pokémon. There is such a thing as too much success, and Pokémon has it. This is the Tao of Pikachu.
Pokémon is, along with Mario and possibly Tomb Raider, one of the few gaming franchises that just about everybody knows – it’s not exactly the first game that comes to mind when one thinks of overlooked gems. In its various incarnations, it has sold well over 100 million games, second only to the Mario series, and is far and away the most successful mobile game of all time.
And yet, for all its sales, when they draw up the all-time greatest game lists, Pokémon doesn’t rate. Not a single game on the list appears on the latest IGN Reader’s Top 100 games list, a list that features, among other highlights, Smackdown vs Raw 2006 and two separate Ratchet and Clank games.
If it does show up, it’s always an afterthought: No. 70 in 2005 and No. 72 in 2003 in the IGN Editor’s lists, behind such luminaries as NCAA Football 2003 and Rayman 2. Not that The Escapist itself fares any better – this is the 74th issue of The Escapist and the first time Pokémon has been more than a passing reference.
The problem lies in the Tao of Pikachu. Pokémon became so much more than a game. It became one of those ludicrous kids’ phenomena, a Tickle-Me Harry Potter that inspired media hype and religious hate across all boundaries and creeds, that its soul – one man’s dream encapsulated in a Game Boy cart – was forgotten.
Forgotten, not just by the general public but, shamefully, by those who call themselves gamers. It became so associated with children that we gamers, a group as concerned with our image as a roomful of pimply teenage Goths wearing last year’s fashions, ostracized it.
Compared with Harry Potter, the multi-billion kids’ franchise that succeeded it, the reaction to Pokémon is put into stark contrast. Despite its massive success, indeed oftentimes even because of it, adult fans who enjoyed the books have stuck with it. They proudly state that they enjoy children’s literature; at worst, they half-hide their reading behind the “adult” covers.
Pokémon, by comparison, is sniffed over; it’s that thing kids play. We’ll be over here, running down hookers in Grand Theft Auto because, you know, that’s what maturity is.
Gaming loses. Again.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles …
As the Pokémon tsunami engulfed the West, the great mouth of popular culture swallowed up a little game, originally created to let city-born kids experience the same joy its creator experienced collecting bugs in a then-rural part of Tokyo.
A game that was originally about kids collecting and trading together, a game in which no blood was spilled, no wardrobes malfunctioned and which emphasized loyalty and friendship became associated with schoolyard stabbings over trading cards, litigious accusations about racketeering and animal rights whining.
You can only imagine how Satoshi Tajiri, the game-loving creator of Pokémon, must have felt as his labor of love became not just ignored by serious gamers, but a lightning rod for mentalists, both amateur and professional.
Tajiri is a genuine otaku done good, a bug-loving computer geek who played Space Invaders so much the arcade gave it to him to take it home; who rose from making his own fanzines on photocopiers to finding himself rich beyond his wildest dreams. And he remains a true nerd: The first question asked by Time, one of the few Western outlets to gain interview access to the reclusive Tajiri, was, “Are you OK? You look pretty tired.”
By the time the money-making machine was done with it, Tajiri’s little game was all but forgotten. The trading cards, the cartoon series, the movies – and the hysteria, the epilepsy, the accidental “swastikas,” the supposed racism, the bad journalism and the downright sickening lies – all combined to overshadow the essence of Pokémon: a simple, charming little game, one that changed the course of the entire game industry.
… Must Begin From the First Step
Would Nintendo now be sitting once again on the precipice of market domination were it not for the billions Satoshi Tajiri gave them? Consider when Pokémon was first released in Japan, as Pocket Monsters Red and Green: February 1996, four months before the release of the Nintendo 64.
The Game Boy, a seven-year-old piece of technology, was on its way out. After a solid launch, the software-starved N64 would soon fall behind Sony’s flashy new PlayStation brand and remain there for a decade.
Pokémon‘s success was vital both to Nintendo and to portable gaming. This was the dominant era of graphical flash – when if it wasn’t in three dimensions, it wasn’t worth playing.
The secret of Pokémon‘s success is well known: the ingenious decision to release two copies of the game, each with different Pokémon to collect, tapped into the collecting impulse hard-wired into every schoolboy’s brain. From there, all Japan fell for Pokémon.
The elementary schoolkid word of mouth that led to its success in Japan can be seen more recently in Sega’s Mushi King, a decidedly less cute form of insect battling game. Yet Pokémon remains superior, its combination of cuteness and fighting making it appealing both to boys and girls.
That appeal is carefully crafted. The main quest, a boy setting off to discover the world, is refreshingly free from evil armies, stolen kid sisters or any of the other stereotypes that dog most RPGs when it comes to “setting off on a quest time.” It straddles that perfect line between reality and fantasy, the kind of thing that could happen to a small boy in a world seen just a little bit sideways, filled with the exotic.
Most Western game companies can’t design a single cute character on which to base a game – and although they hardly try much anymore, Pokémon was released in the heyday of second-rate scribbles like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro and Gex.
Pokémon, in contrast, had 150; and one of them was Pikachu, a Hello Kitty for a new generation, the kind of iconic character that will probably still linger in the media 50 years from now when the Game Boy is not even a memory. Pikachu’s rise to stardom was never part of the plan – that was a work of genius by the creators of the anime – and goes to show just how much care each part of the game was given.
Just as in the later Nintendogs, it is the sense of loyalty and friendship engendered in these fuzzy, pixelated creatures that makes people love the game. As sappy as it sounds, I can still remember the names I gave to first generation Pokémon, although I played it almost eight years ago. I still recall the sense of entirely irrational but very real pride I felt from watching my cleverly named Bulbasaur, Sauron, grow into a fearsome Venasaur.
And that’s not even to mention the carefully-crafted combat system, the revolution of trading between players that became a key feature of the DS and the influence it had in making RPGs one of the mainstays of Western gaming.
In terms of innovation, influence, soul and sheer old-fashioned playability, those little red, green and blue Pokémon carts had far more than the vast majority of today’s multi-million dollar blockbusters.
Above all, it’s the connection to our heartstrings, that sense of freedom and the feeling of adventure that makes Pokémon a cut above its rivals; and for all its cash-ins, a truly deserved success.
So put aside your snobbish maturity, your that’s-for-kids attitude and your image fears. Pokémon is a series that ranks at the very top of what this industry can do in terms of influence, design and sheer fun. It is a game that you owe yourself to play and a franchise that deserves your respect.
As for Nintendo, with every spin-off from Pokémon Colosseum to the recent Pokémon XD failing to capture the heart and charm of the original, perhaps a different quote from Lao Tzu might be more appropriate:
“One must know when to stop. Knowing when to stop averts trouble.”
The first step of Gearoid Reidy’s thousand-mile journey began in Japan and continues into China. It is irregularly chronicled at www.gearoidreidy.com.