On the 27th of February, 1996, Game Freak released Pokemon Red and Green in Japan for the Game Boy. Inspired by creator Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood memories of collecting bugs, he wanted to make a game where children could still experience exploring, collecting and befriending creatures. The game was a huge success in Japan, and though it took two and a half years to be released in the United States, the games spawned a franchise that would endure for the next two decades, spawning comics, games, television, trading card games, and even a live stage show. (No, really. There was a live Pokemon stage show. It toured the United States in 2000.)
This month, Pokemon will turn 20. Many of us played the games as children, traded cards and creatures, we knew the theme song for the anime as well as we knew anything else. (Try it. Tell someone today in their mid twenties that you want to be the very best, and see if they start humming.) We have watched the franchise grow and evolve alongside ourselves. Pokemon has become more than a game, or an anime, or a series of trading cards. It’s a cultural milestone. All Nippon Airways has a Pokemon jet, and there was a traveling theme park in Nagoya and Taipei. Characters have appeared on everything from Pop Tarts to South Park. Pikachu has been featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the yellow mascot of the series is a household name.
This year, Pokemon even has a Super Bowl ad, reminding the world what they felt when they first picked up the game, “I can do that.” Because anything you see, you can do. The ad recaptures some of the hope, and companionship, that Pokemon has to offer.
Pokemon arrived in the states in 1998, when I was in grade school, and it immediately took over the world as I knew it. The anime was on after school cartoon blocks, everyone I knew was talking about the games, trading caught Pokemon between Red and Blue versions. This was before the internet was prevalent, so I only ever heard rumors of the Japan only Green, what we in America were missing out on. And rumors abounded. Secret evolutions, how to get Mew, stories about haunted houses and abandoned trucks and Lavender town were swapped on playgrounds before there were forums. Friendships were made and broken over link cables. You could wake up, get out of your Pokemon themed bedding, dress in a Pokemon t-shirt, eat your Pokemon themed Pop Tart or cereal for breakfast while watching the Pokemon anime, and take your Pokemon backpack to school with your Pokemon binders, lunchbox, notebook, pencils, and play the trading card game or trade your Pokemon on the play yard. There is no comparison today to the sheer cultural prevalence of Pokemon in the early years.
In a way, it’s interesting to see something so many of us grew up with celebrate two decades. It’s a visceral reminder of how old we have grown. And how much we have grown up. The main games have made it through four generations of handheld consoles, grown up with their fans (though I note Ash Ketchum has not aged a day since the late nineties) and built whole communities both on and off-line. There have been Pokemon weddings, graduation parties, too many birthdays to count. Twitch Plays Pokemon spawned memes, studies, academic papers and imitators alike. After they defeated the Elite Four and the League Champion through crowds and community effort, despite the chaos and anarchy, they pulled through. Twitch then watched a goldfish play Pokemon Red by way of its swimming pattern mapped to button presses.
Strange though it may be, it’s something to be celebrated, two decades of collecting monsters, controversies, celebrations of community and friendship and connecting. Even if the anniversary reminds me that there are people walking this earth today who have never lived in a world without Pokemon.