Pokémon: A Game, Culture and Movement

Pokemon has transcended the digital and media realm to become a tangible entity that people cherish. From the games, trading cards, anime and now its very own day…we all live in a Pokémon world.

Pokémon. A name 20 years ago that not many people knew. A vision that, when first discussed, no one quite understood. A video game that no one believed would sell.

Over 20 years ago, Satoshi Tajiri had an idea inspired by the collection of bugs and the Nintendo’s link cable for the Gameboy. An idea that was originally called Capsule Monsters, which almost bankrupted a company, lead to a movement that changed the world of video games. This is the tale of the phenomenon known as Pokémon.

The History

classic pokemon
Get him, Bulba!

In Japan on February 27th, 1996, Pokémon Red and Green were released for the Gameboy. But prior to that it was faced with many challenges. Tajiri founded GameFreak in 1982, which started off as a simple video game magazine with tips and cheat codes for popular games at the time. After looking at the state of video games over the years, he declared, “…there [aren’t] too many good-quality games, so let’s make our own.”

Eventually, Tajiri converted GameFreak into a small studio and signed a contract with Nintendo. His great idea was a game called Capsule Monsters, where children went around collecting small and playable monsters that represented the monsters inside of you. When first pitched to Nintendo, no one back the idea but Shigeru Miyamoto had faith in Tajiri and his game, eventually convincing Nintendo to back the project.

After a six year long development process Tajiri finished his vision at a heavy price. GameFreak nearly went bankrupt trying to make Capsule Monsters. Tajiri ran out of money and five people on his small development team left. Tajiri worked many nights without pay and had to live off of his father’s money. Once Capsule Monsters — now called Pocket Monsters — was completed, the Gameboy was old news and an unpopular system. Many assumed Pokémon would be a bust and die with the Gameboy, yet it didn’t. Month after month it sold more and more copies. There was even a point where the game was outselling Gameboys. With next to zero promotion and advertisement Pokémon became a sensation on word of mouth alone.

Kubo’s publishing company noticed this trend early on and decided to capitalize upon it. The company backed Pokémon and published a line of comic books that included the first Pokémon cards as giveaway prizes. Nintendo, now with a hit on their hands, decided to license an anime based on the franchise. From uncertainty to what became an unstoppable force, it was clear that Pokémon was a rolling stone.

The Culture

Pokemon C
Pokémon merchandise…everywhere.

There’s a certain quality that sets Pokémon apart from other gaming franchises. Like most games, Pokémon can be an escape from reality where people go to have grand adventures. But unlike most games Pokémon puts a great emphasis on the player’s personal journey and combines it with physical human interactions. The earliest games spoke to a generation of gamers who were discovering the game’s vast world and working together to catch, train, and trade monsters in an attempted to collect them all.

Most games at the time took players to places that only existed in their dreams, but Pokémon was humble in this regard. It wasn’t about saving the world from an impossible foe or gaining mystical powers to best your enemies; it was very grounded in reality. So much so that anyone whoever took the time to play through a game believed that one day, they could literally wake up, put on a hat, and start their journey. It was an indescribable euphoria that blanketed the planet. It was something meant to be enjoyed socially.

The anime and trading card game were also extremely popular in creating there own micro-cultures, making the brand a triple threat. From fashion to décor, there was nothing Pokémon couldn’t sell. The trading cards became so popular that they were banned in most schools in North America. Young kids, adolescent teens, and even adults were trading and hunting for the rarest of cards in an era before major Internet marketplaces came to light. The anime had audiences hooked with the adventures of Ash and Pikachu and pushed merchandise off of the selves. Even for people who had never played the game, Pokémon was a hit with many national and worldwide events and tours. Such an example was in New York City on November 16th, 2001, where a Pokémon Center was opened in Times Square thus solidifying the power of the creatures that captivated its audience globally.

Pokemon A

Much like the power of the original Pokémon title, future installments sold at a constant rate which never dared to slow down. Increasing the sales of the Gameboy Color, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, and the Nintendo 3DS, each new iteration of Pokémon saw a spike in Nintendo handheld sales. The care and respect that Tajiri, The Pokémon Company, and Nintendo gave Pokémon created magic and made it the second best selling game franchise of all time to date.

The overall popularity of Pokémon saw a dip in the latter half of the 2000s only to reach new heights at the turn of the decade. New generations of trainers were inspired by the thing so many gamers fell in love with in the 90s, while simultaneously bringing trainers from the original era a return trip to their favorite pocket monsters. It was a converging point of adults and children coming together as equals to be the very best that no one ever was.

The Movement

P world cup

Most popular brands and IPs reach the point where its business is to simply cash in on its own success. Eventually, the hype dies down and the brand becomes a novelty relic of the past. What happened with Pokémon was the opposite, however. Companies saw the potential in the brand and used Pokémon to sell merchandise. But instead of dying down it became more elaborate with time. Rare coffee mugs are impressive, yet that paled in comparison to a Pokémon themed jumbo jet.

Pokémon has had such a cultural impact on the world that the most popular of the creatures became the mascots for Japan’s 2014 World Cup team. From features in Time magazine to being recognized by world leaders, its popularity continued to grow and grow past unexpected heights. The brand even had a Super Bowl advertisement that showcased people from around the world — from different backgrounds — coming together simply to “train.” The commercial was not ment to sell the product or brand, but to inspire millions.

train on

Look at how far the brand has come. It even has its own official worldwide “Pokémon Day” which by no coincidence is today, Saturday February 27th, 2016.

There are many major events taking place across the globe and online to commemorate 20 years of trying to catch ‘em all. Even celebrities will be holding their own parties for the celebration. Who would have ever thought?

When you look back on all the lives Pokémon has touched in one way or another, it’s astounding to see what its been able to accomplish in only two decades. Transcending the digital and media realm, Pokémon has changed lives. And there’s no denying that.

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