Pokemon is so huge that it’s become a household name, even among people who have never played the games. It’s a cultural phenomenon on par with Super Mario, even though far fewer people have played it.
This is in no small part because of the media marketing strategy that the series is known for. There’s a lot of interesting research out there about its “media triangle,” that is, the games interface with the anime, which interfaces with the real-life trading card game. Pokemon has boatloads of merchandise, spin-offs, and, yes, rip-offs inspired by it.
So, the games must all be masterpieces, right?
Well, yes and no.
Before I go on a tirade, I should talk about my experience with Pokemon as a franchise. I’ve only ever really played one game: Pokemon X, released in 2013. It was soon after I bought my Nintendo 3DS, and I found it more interesting looking than earlier games. So I bought it soon after release, and I got into it.
I really got into it.
Playing X, I suddenly understood all the positive things people have said about the series. Picking your starter and growing with them through the entire game. Meeting all the gym leaders and experiencing their different personalities. Battling rivals and comparing your progress to theirs. Discovering new Pokemon around every corner. It was like being a little kid in a world of possibilities, and it reminded me of my days watching the anime and wishing I could be in that world.
In total, I played the game for over 330 hours. I did everything from the Battle Chateau to legendary battles to shiny hunting (hatched a shiny Honedge, I was real proud). I bought all the insanely expensive clothing. Most importantly, I completed the Kalos Pokedex. Through hours of grinding and trading, I obtained all 718 Pokemon in the game. I literally “caught ’em all.”
All in all, I had a great time, and I remember the game fondly. But as strange as it sounds, I hardly remember it as a great game. I remember it more as a journey, and an experience. My favorite part of that experience wasn’t battling, instead it was trading. By the end of my time with it, I’d done dozens of trades and only about three actual battles. The rest of it was in-game battles, and I was pretty overpowered by the end of the game so I never felt much of a sense of climax.
Now I know that the meat of the gameplay is battling, and boy is there a lot of meat there. You have to consider type advantages, Choice Scarves, Stealth Rocks, and so on. It’s so extremely complicated at high levels. And I can’t deny that it’s intricately crafted, but personally, it’s not what drew me to the game.
Yet, I’m a huge Pokemon fan. Half of my friends are huge fans of the series. So what is it specifically about Pokemon that has such a universal draw?
The key lies in the famous slogan of the franchise. “Gotta catch ’em all.”
My favorite part of Pokemon is not really the gameplay as much as the creatures themselves. New ones are created with each new generation of games, and although I’ve only ever played the one game, I love seeing the new Pokemon and how their designs reflect the overall aesthetics of the game’s world. As silly as some of the Pokemon are, each one is unique. Even Smeargle, who is virtually useless is battle, is so lovable because of its strangeness and personality. Sure, Pikachu is the iconic mascot, but I’d rather have a plush doll of Smeargle.
That’s why I think the anime series is so brilliant as well. Sure, as a long-time viewer I think it’s kind of lame that Ash is the eternally young main protagonist. But it does now what it did well back at the turn of the century: it enriches the world of Pokemon. In a lot of ways, it paints a cooler picture than what we see in the individual games. All the characters, plotlines, and voice acting are campy and sometimes absurd, but because each episode usually focuses on specific Pokemon, it creates a memory for when the viewer finds them in a game, or on a trading card.
For example, I watched the anime a lot when I was little — most of it was the original Kanto series, but I vaguely remember seeing some of the episodes in the Johto region. That’s why getting Totodile, Chikorita, and Cyndaquil had special value for me in Pokemon X. I had memories of seeing them in action about ten years prior, and suddenly they were real again.
This is what I’m talking about when I talk about the genius media presence of Pokemon. It’s the perfect example of a game franchise that goes beyond games into popular culture. Pokemon GO is another great example: it played less on being a game than being a cool social trend in the mobile age. The appeal of each of the hundreds of monsters makes the fandom of Pokemon extremely compelling. It’s why I still buy Pokemon toys after not playing it for years. It’s why I hope that, even far into the future, Nintendo keeps finding ways to bring the fun and magic of Pokemon into the hearts of people across the world.