For a socially anxious 10-year-old, moving middle schools was just about the scariest thing imaginable. But it would have been a whole lot scarier without Pokémon.
If I hadn’t spent the summer trying to finish the 2004 GBA game Pokémon FireRed, I probably wouldn’t have been able to earn myself a spot at the lunch table during my first day. And if I hadn’t known how to wake up that snoozing Snorlax blocking the player’s road to Lavender Town, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to interact with my new classmates as if they were old friends.
Like countless children growing up in the nineties and early 2000s, Pokémon defined my childhood and stayed with me after I became an adult. “I had the games, the magazines, the toys, even the bedding,” says Luke, whose shift from a confused but curious kid describing Bulbasaur as ‘a frog with a cabbage on its back’ to full-blown game addict pretty much took place overnight. “It was all I could talk about,” he confesses in his blog. “All I wanted to do with my spare time.”
Pokémon turns 25 this year. In the time that passed since the franchise was created, humanity has spent more money on Pikachu than it has on Mario, Batman, and Harry Potter, combined. But where does this obsession come from, and why won’t it go away? Nostalgia is one answer that often pops up in discussions, but it only explains why we keep on playing as world-weary adults, not why we got hooked when we were still starry-eyed youngsters.
Humanity has spent more money on Pikachu than it has on Mario, Batman, and Harry Potter, combined.
The need for friendship offers another easy explanation, one that definitely seems to ring true in my case. If it wasn’t for the bond that Pokémon cemented between me and my classmates, I doubt we’d now be spending our weekends on Zoom sharing strategies for nuzlockes, and cheering like madmen when our level 11 Pidgey manages to pull off enough sand-attacks to go in for the kill on Brock’s stupid Onix.
But if I primarily play Pokémon to connect with others, how would I explain the time my 10-year-old self refused to leave our house for a whole summer, just to beat one of the games… or the time I passed up on a playdate because my playmate wouldn’t trade me their Deoxys... or the time I spent my birthday party gushing over the shining Gyarados card that my friends gave me instead of playing with them in the backyard?
Whenever Pokémon was involved, it felt like the wider world — and everyone in it — did not exist. Funnily enough, you might say the same about Satoshi Tajiri, the franchise’s creator. Born in a town that has since become a densely populated Tokyo suburb, he spent his youth doing what any Pokémon trainer does: wandering through forests, fields, rivers, and rice paddies in search of creatures to capture, collect and study. Though his passion bewildered schoolmates and upset parents, Tajiri did not mind; he was having too good of a time to notice.
Back then, he dreamed not of becoming a game designer but an entomologist. “Insects fascinated me,” he told TIME magazine. “Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. The more I searched, the more I found. I put a stone under a tree, because I knew that beetles like to sleep underneath. The next morning, I would find them there. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.”
It was this excitement Tajiri wanted people to experience when playing Pokémon. While not everyone enjoys stuffing their pockets with beetles, the impulse to collect is universal — and may well have been the secret to Pokémon’s success. “In a world where nothing is ever complete or finished or enough, there is something very satisfying about catching them all,” Dr. Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist and onetime Pokémon trainer who now works with a non-profit mental health organization aimed at gamers, told me over Zoom.
“In a world where nothing is ever complete or finished or enough, there is something very satisfying about catching them all.”
Different individuals collect for different reasons, and the main series Pokémon games have something for every type of player. Perfectionists focus on building the ultimate team. Completionists chase all the available monsters. Depending on their taste, they can either catch cute pets such as Togepi and Pikachu, or fearsome beasts like Charizard and Tyranitar. Some play because they desire to be the greatest. Others, like Tajiri, because they simply love the game.
Needless to say, developer GameFreak and publisher Nintendo designed the Pokémon games to take advantage of our collector’s instinct as much as possible. Since day one, each generation has consisted of two versions of the same game. These versions, ranging from Red and Green to Sun and Moon, are identical save for one detail: neither contains all species of Pokémon necessary to complete the Pokédex. If a player wants to complete it, they’ll have to trade or buy the other copy.
To say the developers struck gold would be an understatement. Their winning format spawned numerous copycats, from Digimon to Medabots. When the Yu-Gi-Oh manga started out, the card game Duel Monsters was only meant to appear in a single chapter, but ended up becoming the core of the series when its author figured it could ride on Pokémon’s coattails. He was right: the Dark Magician and Blue-Eyes White Dragon are now Pikachu’s biggest competitors.
In many ways, the Pokémon Trading Card Game is even better at manipulating our emotions than the video games are. Rare cards can be bought for staggering prices or — with a bit of luck — pulled from a cheap but randomly assorted booster pack. At the pinnacle of their popularity, playgrounds turned into trade floors. Children acted out the prisoner’s dilemma years before they took AP Micro. Upperclassmen scammed gullible fourth-graders into trading their priceless Charmander for a worthless Wurmple. Pokémon could start fights and end friendships.
That is how many of us think of the franchise today. But to Tajiri, his brainchild represents something else as well. “When you’re a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you haven’t been before,” he said during the same interview with TIME. “That’s like Pokémon.”
Because of the technological limitations of ‘90s hardware, the joy of exploring a living, breathing ecosystem was forced to take a backseat to the compulsion to collect shiny objects. Even so, adventure did play a key role in the sales pitch for Pokémon GO, a 2016 augmented reality game for mobile phones which tried to pull the fantasy of going outside and catching Pokémon out of the virtual world and into our own.
Themes of adventure and harmony with nature were also thoroughly explored in the first few seasons of the Pokémon anime, written by the Japanese screenwriter Takeshi Shudo. Shudo’s task was a daunting one: he had to turn the largely plotless first-gen games into a story that could sustain potentially hundreds of episodes. In order to do that, he had to think long and hard about what the franchise was all about.
He had to turn the largely plotless first-gen games into a story that could sustain potentially hundreds of episodes.
The conclusion Shudo reached, and explained at length in a series of recently translated blog posts, was “coexistence” between people and Pokémon. It was represented by the relationship between Ash — named Satoshi in the Japanese dub, after Satoshi Tajiri — and Pikachu, a monster that refuses to be kept inside a Pokéball and, at first, won’t obey Ash’s commands when they are in the middle of a battle. It is not until Ash begins treating Pikachu as his companion rather than some kind of collector’s item that the duo starts to actually win fights.
On the other side of this equation is Team Rocket, an evil organization that treats Pokémon as a means to an end and, as a result, loses time after time. (Interestingly, at one point during development of the games, the player character actually wielded a whip to keep their Pokémon in check. Once they were changed from a master into a trainer and the Pokémon from slaves into pets, those whips were handed down to Team Rocket goons instead.)
In the anime, Shudo’s ideas are difficult to ignore. They’re a lot more subdued in the games, but can still be sensed by many players who are forced to care for their Pokémon if they want to succeed. In the words of Caroline O’Donoghue, a journalist writing for The Guardian, it’s the guilt you feel when you replace the Pidgeot you caught back on the very first route “because he can’t take you to the Indigo Plateau,” as well as the “sense of urgency when you and your team emerge, limping and faint, from another endless cave of poisonous Zubats.”
The story of the Pokémon franchise is one of unprecedented, enduring success, but it doesn’t necessarily come with a happy ending. The forests, fields, rivers, and rice paddies that Tajiri explored as a kid have since been destroyed and replaced by grocery stores and office buildings. For kids growing up in the city, playing Pokémon might be their best shot at experiencing the feelings its creator felt when he was their age.
Like Tajiri, I was also raised in a suburb that used to be rural but isn’t anymore. Every time I come back, I find another part of the woods was leveled to make room for yet another block of starter homes. The green meadow that surrounded my house has been buried underneath asphalt roads and cement sidewalks. As much as I treasure my childhood, I do wish I had spent less time playing Pokémon and more time playing outside when there still was an outside to play in.
As for Shudo, he died of a stroke in 2010. Many suspect his untimely death may have been hastened by the reliance on alcohol and painkillers he developed while writing the Pokémon anime and its movie spin-offs. A poet who was in it for the art rather than the money, Shudo wanted to create a story with big themes that kids and their parents could enjoy together. Unfortunately, that’s a lot to ask when you’re a cog in a multi-billion dollar industry and global enterprise.
The more the anime’s popularity increased, the tighter its production schedule became. And the tighter its schedule, the more formulaic the episodes. It if were up to Shudo, he would have liked to write a narrative with real consequences, a story in which Ash — the 10-year-old with 20 years of experience — would have actually matured. But, Shudo wrote, “I’m not capable of writing episodes like that in a moment’s notice.” Shudo’s inability to steer the anime in a different, more authentic direction was a catalyst for his multiple breakdowns.
Despite the fact that the Pokémon franchise no longer resembles the vision of its two principal architects, it’s still growing strong and shows no signs of stopping.
Despite the fact that the Pokémon franchise no longer resembles the vision of its two principal architects, it’s still growing strong and shows no signs of stopping. While the first-gen Pokémon games remain the highest-grossing of the bunch, Sword and Shield got pretty close with 18 million copies sold — no small feat considering they’ve only been around for about two years, not decades.
The trading card game is enjoying an even bigger renaissance. “Everything is bought out,” one Reddit moderator and professional card rater told Den of Geek last week, listing multiple causes. Many of the kids that bought cards back in the nineties have since turned into grown-ups. No longer restricted by allowances, they now devote a sizable chunk of their income to their hobby. Millennials, invigorated by the GameStop phenomenon and enabled by stimulus checks, have started viewing $300,000 1st edition cards as attractive investments.
Meanwhile, longtime fans can take comfort knowing that the franchise hasn’t forgotten its roots completely. A trailer for an upcoming game titled Pokémon Legends: Arceus, posted by the Pokémon Company in honor of the brand’s 25th birthday, abandoned the nostalgic but outdated 8-bit tiles of the early games for what promises to be a truly immersive sandbox adventure.
It was enough to bring many viewers — myself included — to the brink of tears. Not because I’m excited to catch ‘em all — though part of me still is and always will be — but because it reminded me that it’s only going to be a matter of time before technology advances to the point that the Pokémon franchise will be able to deliver on Tajiri’s initial promise: Allowing players to explore the world and befriend its creatures.