I am twenty-five years old and a Pokemon nut.
And I’m not ashamed to say that (much).
For myself (and millions of other players world-wide) it’s been a healthy (or, rather, unhealthy) chunk of our life since the first 150 assorted fighting critters burst onto English screens almost twelve years ago. Play me the trainer battle jingle from, for example, Pokemon LeafGreen and I’ll tell you how it reminds me of those long days indoors at University (social life, what’s that?). Show me a picture of penguin pokemon Piplup and I’ll tell you my fond memories of first stepping into the Sinnoh region, whilst sat in the cinema staff room on a lunch-break. Give me the name Milotic and I’ll tell you how many times my Kingdra came up against my mate’s aforementioned pink serpent (those two were mortal enemies by the end).
The point is, we all remember when poke-mania hit the world at the end of the Nineties: there wasn’t a school playground in the UK where someone wasn’t prepared to rush you for that elusive Charizard card. Though publicly the craze gently dissipated, for many of us it never went away. New games were a new chapter, a chance to ritually recite all the names, statistics, strengths and weaknesses of all whole legion of new creatures. The fad lived on.
Having committed so much of those precious teenage and young-adult years to pokemon already, I leapt on the opportunity to chronicle the franchise’s success story: where it all began, how it took the world by storm and where it’s yet to go.
So, like a trainer about to set out on his epic journey, let’s pop on those caps, grab ourselves our starter pokemon and head out into the first patch of long grass…
IN THE BEGINNING…
The genesis of Pokemon all comes down to one little-known games developer known as GameFreak and a man by the name of Satoshi Tajiri. It’s the mid-Nineties. Inspired by his childhood hobby of collecting insects, Tajiri sought to create a game which would allow players to experience the similar sense of wonder he’d once enjoyed himself. It’s said that the real brainwave came with the scarcely used ‘trade link cable’ for the Nintendo Game Boy, through which he had the image of bugs crawling between systems (creepy, yes, but inspired nonetheless). It was in conceptualising the trading aspect that the fledgling ‘Pokemon’ (abbreviated from the Japanese title ‘Pocket Monsters’) really came into being: a game which would bring players together through both battle and the highly marketable need to ‘Catch ‘Em All’. Though the Game Boy was, at the time, a console suffering a slow decline in sales, Tajiri insisted that it was the only platform that would truly embrace the ‘social’ apsect of his games.
It wasn’t a bad idea, by any stretch.
In 1996, ‘Pokemon Red Version‘ and ‘Pokemon Green Version‘ for Nintendo Game Boy went on sale in Japan. Two versions of the game made it so that players would find it impossible to catch all 150 monsters without a copy of both games or, preferably, a mate willing to trade.
The premise was simple: you played a ‘Pokemon Trainer’, a ten-year-old kid set on collecting ‘Pokemon’ to battle against other trainers. The instrument of capture was the pokeball, ‘mon had the ability to ‘evolve’ into bigger, badder fighters with experience (or through special items or trading) and the objective was to trounce the region’s eight ‘Gym Leaders’, all the while thwarting the evil plans of Team Rocket. Through collecting the ‘Gym Badges’, trainers secured themselves an audience with Elite Four and a shot at the title of ‘Champion’.
The games were a colossal success, boosting Game Boy sales and giving Nintendo just the pretty pennies (or yen) it needed to strike a blow against Sony and it’s recently released ‘Playstation’. By 1997, Game Boy sales were up to a gargantuan 64.4 million units worldwide. So big were the games’ success, that a special ‘Blue Version‘ of the game was released in Japan shortly after, with improved sprites and in-game graphics. It was this version of the game which, in 1998 for the USA and 1999 for the EU, would be ported as ‘Pokemon Red Version‘ and ‘Pokemon Blue Version‘ for International players.
This is the part of the story which most all of us will remember, whether we were avid players or not. These were the years of a poke-demic, a time where you couldn’t walk down a street without seeing electric mouse Pikachu’s yellow mug on a poster, t-shirt, billboard or backpack at least six times a day. I myself was a fresh-faced boy of thirteen, my game of choice was Blue version and my starter was a Squirtle. Evolving it into Wartortle was the equivalent of an early Christmas. For a week I ate nothing but Burger King, just to collect the toys. If you’d asked me what I’d like to be when I grew up, I’d say Mewtwo (I realise that most thirteen year olds are more mature than this, but bear with me). I, like so many others, was hooked like a Magikarp to the tantalising bait of an old fishing rod.
Nintendo had struck gold. From those humble Game Boy cartridges came an animated series, films, trading cards (remember the days where people actually attacked one another for these?), manga comics… well, just about anything that you could imagine, really. And in the games deaprtment? Well, Nintendo no longer had to worry about a slow trip to game-Hell. Nintendo 64 sales shot sky high with the release of Pokemon Stadium–a chance for avid trainers to see their trained monsters battle out in glorious 3D–and Pokemon Snap–a track-based photgraphy game, which saw you throwing fruit at your favourite ‘mon in a hope they’d pose for a fancy shot. Pikachu secured himself a spot alongside Mario and co in Super Smash Bros, the trading card game even made it as a game for the new Game Boy Color and series enthusiasts were given the chance to start their adventure with the yellow mouse in Pokemon Yellow Version: a special edition third counterpart to Red and Blue.
Tajiri and Game Freak had deduced a winning formula, no doubt about it. Though the era of global ‘Poke-madness’ was to die down by the end of the Nineties, it would be their role-playing games which would continue to bear the torch for well over another decade, seconding themselves only to Mario as the most successful game franchise of all time.
ON TO JOHTO!
The year 2000 saw the start of a new millenium: the ‘Bug’ never happened and civilisation didn’t collapse overnight. I remember being very relieved about this, as their was a Totodile with my name on it just around the corner. Yes, to celebrate the continuation of humanity (presumably), Game Freak unleashed its much anticipated ‘second generation’ of Pokemon. Of course, with so many of the creatures existing now it’s hard to remember a time when ‘new pokemon’ was that big a deal. But it was. Huge, even.
The release of Pokemon Gold Version and Pokemon Silver Version for the Gameboy Color (or, as we here in the UK would love to spell it: ‘colour’) saw the introduction of no less that one hundred new pokemon (including that fantastic Totodile I was just talking about) and the new region of Johto to traipse their merry way around, along with eight new gym leaders and a newly-revived Team Rocket to take down. Hailed by many, even to this day, as the best games in the series, Gold and Silver took all the original qualities of the first two games (it even featured the original ‘Kanto’ region for you to conquer once clearing Johto) and amplified it with new features: a day/night feature which corresponded to actual time (you’d have to go out after dark if you wanted owl pokemon Hoot-Hoot), improved interface, full colour display and the introduction of two new types–Dark and Steel–specifically for kicking in those near-unstoppable psychic types.
The game’s proudly exceeded the success of their predecessors: in their first week in the USA, 1.4 million copies of Gold and Silver flew off the shelves and secured them as the fastest selling games of all time.
With the release of the new generation came a wave of Johto-inspired spin-offs, including Pokemon Stadium 2 on the N64, Pokemon Puzzle Challenge on the Game Boy Color and, later, the introduction of more Pokemon characters (notably Mewtwo and Pichu) in Super Smash Bros Melee for Nintendo’s new Gamecube console (a project which, it can be speculated, came about largely on the back of Nintendo’s pay-packet after the first Pokemon ‘generation’.
As with Pokemon Yellow in the first generation, a special edition ‘third game’ was released a year after Pokemon Gold and Silver: Pokemon Crystal Version, which featured, for the first time, Pokemon sprites which jigged about on entering battle. It was a good time.
So confident were Nintendo in Pokemon’s selling power, in fact, that they launched the Pokemon Mini handheld games console in 2002, along with ten games to play. None of them, however, was anywhere near the brilliance of the ‘main-series’ titles and, to this day, the console remains but a phantom in the gaming timeline. Remembered, but not missed.
THE ADVANCE YEARS
After two incredible generations, two-hundred-and-fifty pokemon and a profit margin so large you can see it from space, Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri graciously bowed out of directing the game series and took up the seat of executive producer. The baton was handed to Junichi Masuda, previously composer on previous Pokemon titles (and the man we have to thank for the wild-pokemon dittys we just can’t get out of our heads). Along with long-time art director and ‘mon designer Ken Sugimori, Masuda became directly involved with many of the creature designs and names, continuing to do so for the generations yet to come.
And his excitement seemed to shine through. With the release of Pokemon Ruby Version and Pokemon Sapphire Version on the Gameboy Advance in 2002, a new one hundred and thiry-five beasts joined the ranks, bumping the total to a whopping 386 (including a shark pokemon which, to my surprise shared the name of a ‘mon I’d invented in my school days: Sharpedo… yes, it’s a wonder that either myself or Nintendo stuck on that name). The new games took place in the somewhat exotic Hoenn region and introduced double-battles for the first time (a chance for two of your pokemon to take on two enemies at once). It also introduced pokemon ‘abilities’ and Pokemon Contests for gamers who couldn’t stand seeing their new pets being beaten to a pulp.
Honouring the tried-and-tested formula of its predecessors—three starter pokemon, eight gym leaders, an Elite Four, an evil ‘organisation’ to battle (this time in the form of either land-luvvers Team Magma or salty sea dogs Team Aqua; both priority-impaired)—Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire didn’t exactly break new ground. It lacked the day/night feature of Gold and Silver and, most irritatingly of all, the changes in hardware meant that players couldn’t trade their favourite beasts from any of the old games.
Not that it mattered to Pokemon fans, myself included. We’d grown accustomed to ‘the old ways’. The games received outstanding critical acclaim and became the best-selling Gameboy Advance games with 13 million units shifted worldwide. However, compare this to Pokemon Gold and Silver’s 14 million and Pokemon Red and Blue’s 27 million and it was obvious that popularity was starting to wane (though, debatably, the sales were high enough for it not to matter).
The third generation saw a flurry of spin-offs; including Pokemon Emerald Version (which saw the return of ‘twitching’ sprite entrances and the introduction of the ‘Battle Frontier’ facility), Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team and Blue Rescue Team and Pokemon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire for Gameboy Advance, Pokemon Ranger on Nintendo DS and console RPG’s/stadium-series-sequels Pokemon Colosseum and Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness on the Gamecube.
Most notable of all the releases however, were the Advance re-boots of the classic Red and Blue games: Pokemon Fire Red Version and Pokemon Leaf Green Version (named after the ‘Green Version’ of the original Japanese release). Players were allowed to retrace their steps around Kanto with all the new game mechanics, access to second and third generation pokemon (upon completion) and the brand-new Sevii Islands.
The fad may be but a memory of the previous decade but, regardless of what the analysts were saying, Pokemon was still continuing to hack its way through gaming records. The next glorious generation would happen. No one was surprised.
Another 107 Pokemon (that’s 493 for those still counting), a new region (Sinnoh), a new evil gang (Team Galactic) and a new handheld console (the Nintendo DS) later and, with Junichi Masuda once again at the helm, Game Freak unleashed Pokemon Diamond Version and Pokemon Pearl Version in Japan in 2006. Among the games’ new features were the welcome return of the day/night feature of Gold and Silver, the classification of all individual pokemon moves as either ‘physical’, ‘special’ or ‘status’ regardless of type (a change which set the world of hardcore competitive battling alight) and, most notably of all, the introduction of Nintendo Wi-Fi connectivity. Satoshi Tajiri’s original vision of tiny monsters crawling along that trade-link cable had finally gone global, with players able to trade and battle their new fighting machines worldwide. Of course, battling was limited by the requirement of another player’s ‘Friend Code’ to engage and the dream of global pokemon tournaments online was to be one saved for another generation (the next, in fact).
Unfortunately, in spite these new touches, the games were criticised by many as adding very little to the formula; less of a step forward from Ruby and Sapphire than many had been hoping. However, the connectivity of the ‘Global Trade Station’ feature and the attractive blend of 2D and 3D environments were enough to garner respectable praise. Besides, after playing the game for three generations already, what dedicated pokemon trainer was going to argue with some ‘more of the same’?
Apparently not a single one. Despite the prophecies of analysts, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl shifted over a million more copies than Ruby and Sapphire in its first year and almost three million more than Fire Red and Leaf Green. A series on the decline? Apparently not.
Pokemon Platinum Version was the third edition to Diamond and Pearl, reintroducing Emerald’s Battle Frontier feature with new facilities and new ‘Frontier Brains’ to annihilate with your bad-arse Empoleon or fiery Infernape, and the DS played host to a flurry of other Pokemon sequels; including Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time & Explorers of Darkness, the sister-game Explorers of Sky, Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia and Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs.
Console wise, Pikachu and co. were joined by the ‘three-for-the-price-of-one’ Pokemon Trainer character and Anubis-wannabe Lucario in Super Smash Bros. Brawl on Nintendo Wii. There was, of course, Genius Sonority’s ironically named Pokemon Battle Revolution, also on Wii… Supposedly a follow-up to the ‘Stadium’ and ‘Colosseum’ series, PBR was generally slated by critics, having sacrificed all the RPG elements of the Gamecube games and being a virtually useless buy altogether if you didn’t already own Diamond, Pearl or Platinum. Sure, it also included Wi-Fi connectivity, though a lack of tournament play and repetitive ‘random match-ups’ made the game, for many, a bigger stinker than a Weezing on a broccoli and burritos diet. Myself included, in case the disappointment wasn’t apparent.
The world of online Pokemon gaming was not, however, to remain a thing of fantasy. The next and most recent generation was on the horizon… and it was to be the biggest shake-up in the series since Gold and Silver.
Speaking of which, the fourth generation did end on a very high-note indeed: following on the trend started by Fire Red and Leaf Green, Pokemon Heart Gold Version and Pokemon Soul Silver Version were released in 2010 on the DS, one year before the onset of the fifth generation. Remakes of what many considered to be the strongest entries in the series, they proved commercial and critical hotcakes. However, as IGN’s Craig Harris put it, the games felt more ‘like a gap filler to make the wait for a new Pokemon game just a little more bearable’.
He might not have been far off the mark, especially when those next games were Pokemon Black Version and Pokemon White Version…
A NEW BEGINNING?
Even with the release of the Nintendo 3DS in Spring 2011, Game Freak opted to release Pokemon Black and White on the good ol’ DS (with DSi-enhanced features). Considering the 3DS’s reputation for strained-eyes, headaches and miniscule battery-life, this could have been a subtle act of brilliance… a fitting send off to the DS for its years of gaming service.
Don’t let the fact that the fifth generation has begun on the same console as the last fool you though. Black and White were Game Freak’s equivalent of ‘shaking things up’. How, you may be asking? Eight gym leaders present? Check. Elite Four and reigning Champion? Check. Whole new region? New York inspired Unova, check. Evil Organisation? ‘Pokemon liberating’ Team Plasma, check. All your old favourite pokemon? Huh, what’s this?
That’s correct, old-school trainers could not gain access to the existing 493 pokemon until AFTER beating the game. That meant it was just you and 153 brand new faces to get familiar with, no short cuts here. Why was this a stroke of brilliance, you may also ask? Because, genuinely, it made the whole thing feel brand-new again. The classic formula was all there, but the unfamiliar territory (what pokemon are on this route? What’s this strange zebra pokemon? What type is it? What the hell is it going to do to me? Am I about to get my arse handed to me?) re-created that feeling of innocence and wonder we all experienced the first time we left Pallet Town and bumped into a level 2 Pidgey.
What’s more the game seemed to have matured somewhat from its predecessors: the protagonists were notably older and there was a heavier focus on story and theme. Team Plasma, in particular, proved to be the most interesting antagonists since mafia-inspired Team Rocket and its Slowpoke Tail racketeering, highlighting the sort of ideas posted by Animal-Rights activists in our own world. Is training pokemon morally right? Should the little monsters be freed rather than made to battle each other for sport (that’s a rhetorical question by the way, the games clearly state they love it; which is a good thing for what little ethics we pokemon trainers have). This focus on story gave Pokemon Black and White players a distraction from the usual ‘Gym Badge’ campaign.
The titles also offered a stack of new gameplay elements, more so than the fourth generation had offered up. Pokemon sprites were no longer static, twitching and bouncing throughout battle with animated anticipation. Seasons were introduced; changing the Unova region’s aesthetics on a monthly basis, giving players access to special seasonal areas and events and even changing the formes of pokemon Deerling and its evolved form Sawsbuck. Three-on-three ‘Triple Battles’ and ‘Rotational Battles’ were added to spice up competitive play (there’s nothing quite like six pokemon doing battle on the field). The addition of ‘phenomena’ in the wilds also allowed players to encounter rare pokemon through subtle changes in the environment; a ripple in the water, a rustle of grass…
Best of all, however, was the mastery of the Nintendo Wi-fi connectivity. Through the Pokemon Global Link, players could compete for regional and international rankings, participate in organised tournaments or acquire new pokemon and content through the ‘Dream-World’ facility. Gamers could also enter another player’s game locally through the use of the ‘Entralink’, completing missions to win joint prizes. It was everything we’d hoped from Diamond and Pearl and more. The pokemon franchise was finally online for real: as it was destined to be from the very start.
By April 2011, 11.5 million copies had already been pushed worldwide, potentially putting in the running as the fastest (possibly even, eventually, the highest) earning pokemon title since Gold and Silver. A series on the way out? Not for a heartbeat.
The games succeeded at breathing new life into the franchise, without taking any sharp U-turns in gameplay. As a pokemon nut myself, I must admit I’ve yet to grow tired of the rituals: picking my starter from the standard grass, fire or water type, earning myself another eight badges to my name, stomping down the regional champion… much like a Sonic the Hedgehog player expects to encounter Dr Robotnik after every stage, I’ve grown accustomed to the ‘traits’ of a poke-adventure.
With that in mind we come to the present. Still in the early days of the fifth generation. The patterns are there for all to see; so, what can we expect next? A Pokemon Grey Version? 3DS Remakes of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire? A Wii-U based Pokemon battler like Stadium or Colosseum (hopefully not like Battle Revolution)? A sixth generation? Seventh? Tenth?
One thing’s certain, no matter how little or much the basic formula of pokemon games changes in the coming years, it doesn’t look to be dying out any time soon. And as long as it sells, new generations (and species of pokemon) will keep coming.
And I’ll still be playing (though it’ll likely be less cool when I’m seventy).