I’ve been thinking a lot about Pokémon lately. It started when I watched The Nostalgia Critic’s takedown of Pokémon: The First Movie, and pretty soon I realized what it was that made it the cultural entity that it was.
So here’s the deal: Pokémon was originally a game for Game Boy. It had first come out in Japan in the mid-1990s before showing up in America in 1997. By the time the game had crossed the pacific, a TV show had come out based on the game, and a set of collectible trading cards based on the show. In Japan, the phenomenon had slowly built over a couple of years, but in America, all of these things came at once, and it created a massive phenomenon. It was an honest-to-god craze; the biggest thing since Star Wars.
What made Pokémon so fun to play is that it was big. The world of the video game was enormous, and there was a competetive angle: how fast could you and your friends collect all 150 species of Pokémon in the game? The Pokémon themselves were like animals with magical powers, who people caught and trained to fight each other, which is weird, but hey, it’s a video game.
The television show was a little more dubious. The main character, Ash, was originally an avatar for the kid playing the game, so the Ash on television had no personality beyond wanting to be a Pokémon master. The story was heavily serialized and slightly soap-opera-ish, although the creators of the show occasionally had some fun with the concept.
But the show was only enjoyable to people playing the game. Only they could follow along and be interested, because in a sense they were watching themselves. Plus, the Pokémon were pretty cute.
Here’s the thing: most adults at the time didn’t realize that Pokémon originated as a video game. In fact, when I told my mother I was writing this, she didn’t even remember that there was a video game. One could only look at the images on Kids WB! and think what the hell is this and why do my kids love it? Why are there a bunch of adolescents roaming around a fictionalized version of metropolitan Tokyo collecting animals so they can fight each other like pitbulls when they should be in school? Why does everything in this world revolve around this pastime? And what can I do to stop Mikey from saying “pika-pika” all the fucking time!?
The answer, it turned out, was Wizards. Harry Potter arrived in America at the same time as Pokémon, but gradually eclipsed it in popularity. It had a few advantages. One, it had actual characters. Pokémon took place in a big world, but that world was also pretty shallow. It was an okay game, maybe even a good game, but didn’t invite the kind of lasting obsession that other pop-cultural artifacts did. Harry Potter built on preexisting works like Roald Dahl and Star Wars, so kids were able to get into it without much trouble.
Second, Harry Potter’s tone evolved as its characters– and audience– grew up. Adults can still play Pokémon today; I know some who do; but there are few grown men or women who would sit down today and watch the anime series when we have Mad Men, The Americans, or Game of Thrones. And yes, the anime series is still on, now in it’s seventeenth season. By allowing itself to mature, Harry Potter was also able to last in the public consciousness, and it was palatable to parents as well as kids, which Pokémon patently wasn’t.
Third, Harry Potter took a while to become as popular as it ended up being. When I got Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on my eighth birthday, I was wary of the book. I’d never heard of it. It took a couple of years to build up in the public consciousness, and JK Rowling was very protective of her property, so it was never the multimedia/merchandising orgy that Pokémon was. It’s true that Harry Potter was flawed, but only in minor ways that were common to fantasy, and it was a huge departure from the kind of kids’ stories being told at the time, which were mostly sci-fi. It even had a predetermined ending, which was extremely rare in any medium of the time.
After only three years, the Pokémon craze was done. Kids still watched it, but they also had a lot more pop phenomena to choose from. My best friend at the time was Chris Macquarrie. We met during the height of Pokémania, but we eventually moved on to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Lost, among other things. So did everyone else. And despite the renewed interest in all things ’90s, I haven’t seen any attempts, aside from those of my RA at SF State, to revive interest in Pokémon. I guess we know why.