One of the joys of working in a museum collection is seeing the variety of objects that come into the museum. In 2022, my weekly round of photography brought me in contact with a mix of Pokémon plush figures. But photographing some classic Pokémon wasn’t my only interaction with the franchise. I spent February 2022 exploring the open world of Pokémon Legends: Arceus. In December, I completed my Pokédex in Pokémon Scarlet. I continued to procrastinate on several planned Pokémon cosplays. I moved my Growlithe Funko Pop into my new office and hung my Eevee poster on the wall.
Long before 2022, Pokémon was a significant part of my life. My recent project of digitizing my family photos unsurfaced an image of the first Pikachu I got when I was five years old. The more I looked, the more Pokémon posters, toys, and games popped up in photos throughout my childhood.
The franchise has a foothold not only in my photos but also my memories. I vividly remember seeing Pokémon: The Movie 2000 in theaters. I watched the TV show at daycare. I played a game in every mainline generation of Pokémon video games throughout my life. I downloaded dubstep versions of Pokémon songs on my iPod. As a teen, I was introduced to the cosplay community and anime conventions via Pokémon. Pokémon collectables now decorate my adult home. On the surface, it may seem odd for a franchise like Pokémon to be a through-line in my life, but I actually think it makes a lot of sense.
Though it began in Japan, the Pokémon phenomenon quickly crossed the Pacific to North America with Pokémon Red and Blue in 1998. From those first games, the franchise has blossomed into more than 1,000 kinds of Pokémon, more than 35 core games, dozens of spin-off games, a hit mobile game, more than 1,000 episodes of anime, multiple movies, one of the top selling trading card games, manga series, toy lines, and much, much more. Those first Japanese releases of Pokémon Red and Green hold a well-deserved place in the World Video Game Hall of Fame. As a four-year-old in 1998, I suspect I was right where I needed to be for Pokémon to capture my imagination from the start, and I know I’m not the only one who was hooked. I was recently transcribing an oral history recorded by CEO of Talofa Games Jenny Xu and interviewer Racquel Gonzalez. In the interview, Xu reflected, “I just remember my friends and I would also pretend to be Pokémon characters on the playground and chase each other [and] be like, ‘I’m Charizard. I’m going to attack you.’” There was something about these unique creatures that captured a generation’s imagination.
There are many elements that contribute to Pokémon’s success and my own connection with it. Pokémon games, both digital and tabletop, have consistently drawn players of all ages. With family-friendly content, it has been an easy franchise to introduce to children and to share between children and adults. I remember volunteering at a summer camp while in high school.
My high school friends and I had spent the end of the year inventing our own Pokémon and trainers, likely on the coattails of the recently released Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver. The games had filled the high school halls with the special Pokéwalkers that allowed players to use the pedometer to level up Pokémon from their game. As a camp counselor, I connected with my young charges through this mutual love of Pokémon. They quickly joined in the fun of inventing their own Pokémon on paper and sidewalks.
With multiple paths of entry, Pokémon attracts some as gamers, others as card collectors, or as families looking for a TV show to watch together. I remember when Pokémon Go was first released and both old and new fans, sometime entire communities, took to their neighborhood streets to catch Pokémon. There are a lot of directions from which to approach Pokémon, allowing for a multi-faceted community of fans.
As a fan primarily through the core video games, I can say that Pokémon has also managed to balance innovation with its successful formula. If you were to put Pokémon Blue side-by-side with the 2022 release Pokémon Scarlet, the games would appear drastically different. However, if you look at the entire timeline of games, a consistent pattern of play exists alongside the series’ evolution over time. Each game experimented or added something new. Examples include Pokémon breeding in Pokémon Gold and Silver, secret bases and Pokémon contests in Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, the underground in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, 3-D graphics in Pokémon X and Y, and the open world Wild Area in Pokémon Sword and Shield. But even with these additions, experiments, and changes, consistent features remain, like gyms and the Pokémon league, Pokémon battles, the professor, filling the Pokédex, Pokémon evolution, a team of bad guys, familiar items like potions and Pokéballs, and a grand adventure to become the best Pokémon trainer possible. Pokémon has always kept to its core in that way and, as a result, each new game feels a bit like coming home again. When the start-up music hits, it’s time to set real life aside for a bit and return to that place that has drawn you back with each new generation of games.
So here is to all the others who discovered Pokémon, whether in the 90s or now, and haven’t turned back. Your adventure awaits; go catch ‘em all!