Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What's the deal with Pokemon?

I'm occasionally asked (Okay not occasionally, like once a year, but whatever) why Pokemon was so popular, and how it could still be popular today. Well...

Let's try answering this.

So, what is a Pokemon?
A Pokeball, one of the most confusing plot devices ever. 
Pokemon are creatures of various shapes and sizes that can control elemental forces, like fire and water, as well as supernatural elements like psychic and ghost energy. These creatures populate a world where they and humans live in "harmony". In this world people called Pokemon trainers capture Pokemon in devices called Pokeballs (Don't ask how it works, most of the technology in this franchise is a soft science nightmare) where they are then pitted against other Pokemon in a no-holds-barred battle royal until one is knocked unconscious, or in the case of a wild Pokemon until the free Pokemon is brought to the brink of consciousness where it is then captured and used in other battles. Honestly, at this point I've always been surprised that PITA didn't openly protest Nintendo when this thing came out. What did get protested though was the fact that once the Pokemon train to a certain point they "evolve", a word that infuriated conservative Christians. The controversy calmed down once authorities like the Pope declared that the depiction of evolution was in no way related to Charles Darwin or in any way against anyone's holy teachings.

That's right, the Pope was involved with the Pokemon phenomenon.

Which brings us to the Pokemon craze that hit in the late 90s and into today. To properly look at this we need to look at it in three parts: The video games, the TV series and the trading card game. From these three came everything else Pokemon created, from feature films to Pikachu underwear.

Pokemon Blue: It and Pokemon Red sold over 9.85
million copies in the US in 1998.
The whole thing started with a video game from Japan. In it the player becomes a Pokemon trainer, exploring the world and pitting small animals against each other. In the Pokemon world the trainer will face their Pokemon against other trainers, collect badges from certified trainers who can give out badges, compete in a massive tournament against four other masters of animal fighting and then be crowned the best Pokemon trainer ever. The rest of the game is trying to collect all the Pokemon in the world, and herein lies the genius of the game. See, Pokemon games come out in pairs, usually by color like red and blue, and certain Pokemon are only found on certain games, so if you want them all and aren't using a Game Shark you have to trade with other people playing the game. Before this cooperative play in video games was almost unheard of. Early versions of the Warcraft games could do teams, but few ever played on teams, and games with duos like Sonic and Tails and Mario and Luigi worked together but almost never interacted with each other. Here people had to work together, trading tips and ideas to get the best Pokemon. Of course they could fight each other, but that almost became secondary to the trading.

They're have been nearly a dozen versions of the original Pokemon game since its conception, and each generation released at least 100 new Pokemon bringing their total up to over 600 as of the end of this year. With this the trading and collecting has both improved and yet in some cases become unnecessarily complicated. Used to be to evolve your Pokemon you either put it in enough gladiator matches that it levels up, expose it to mysterious radiation from different colored rocks till it evolves, then presumably gets a tumor, or trade it to someone and hope they're not a jerk and give it back. These days some can't evolve unless they like you, they're holding a certain item, at a certain time of day, and you're in a certain location. I wish I was kidding. Some you have to breed in order to get their offspring (Again, where is PITA in this world?) while others have two or three forms so once you get one form you have to catch another one and start the entire process over again.

Needless to say that while the games still have a strong following, they've dropped in popularity over the years, and I'll explain why later.

Foil Charizard was once the game's most
valuable card-it sold for thousands at
the time.
Next we have the card game. It's basically the same as the video game with bits taken from Magic the Gathering to make gameplay workable. It's one of those things that's easy to learn but hard to master, but the trading, fighting and collecting aspects are all in tact. This game became so huge though that some cards were selling online for thousands of dollars, and game stores would even be robbed for their stashes of rare Pokemon cards. There's even an episode of Judge Judy regarding a law suit against a game store for selling a kid Pokemon cards with money he stole out of his mother's purse. People went nuts for these things. After a while (And after I got out of it) the game went downhill and even eventually was discontinued by Wizards of the Coast, but was later picked back up by Nintendo. The game is still popular, but the fanaticism has definitely died down.

Last but not least was the TV series, which has spawned nearly a dozen films. Now the main character in the Pokemon video games never spoke, that way the kids can imprint themselves in the game easier. So in order to make the TV series they had to add personality and dialogue, and since the main character traveled alone, they also needed to add sidekicks.

Meet Ash, Misty, and Brock.

Brock, Ash and Misty. Ash of course looks confused
and scared.
Ash Ketchum is probably one of the most obnoxious characters to ever grace TV. He's a 10 year old kid out to become the world's greatest Pokemon trainer, something he approaches with all the dignity and restraint a tiger on cocaine does to a lamb. He's over excited, an idiot, headstrong, an idiot, obsessive, an idiot. Did I mention he's an idiot? His companions aren't bad. Misty and Brock are actually in the game as trainers you have to compete in order to get their badges, but they had to flesh out personalities for them too. Brock is girl crazy but level headed and kind, and Misty is headstrong, ambitious, but smart and also kind. They seem to follow Ash out of an obligation one would have when you see a friend's kid at the store all by themselves. You're really not sure if they're mature enough to be out on their own.

I know a lot of people who remember the shows main antagonists fondly. Team Rocket's Jessie and James are bent on capturing Ash's Pokemon for some stupid reason, and they do so by using the most stupid elaborate contraptions and costumes you could think of. I remember episodes where Ash and the gang were doing some thing about friendship or love and boring me to tears and these people showed up to save the day with a giant robot. They're classic over-the-top cartoon villains you can't help but love.
But who cares about any of these people when we all know the real star of the show:
Needs no introduction.


This adorable little electric rat became the mascot of the entire Pokemon franchise after the show got big. Ash starts with him in his journey, something that's different from in the game, and they actually remade the first game into a version where you could start with Pikachu and you could see him follow you around. I've talked on this critter before so what I'll say now is that Pokemon would probably have been big without him but Pikachu is definitely the last piece to make this thing into a near cult experience.

So with all that being said, what was the big appeal? Honestly, Pokemon was just shameless fun. The collecting in the game and cards have the same connection any collection does, the combat was fun for the video game enthusiasts, and even the show, when they wrestled Ash off camera did have the occasional good action and some entertaining scenes.

So then why isn't it still so popular?

Honestly, this is an example of what happens when you have something amazing but don't ever do anything with it. The games died out when they became more about extra nonsense to do with your Pokemon then collect and fight them, and now they seem to be trying to get back to basics. The card game had too much nonsense at one point, hence why Nintendo had to take it back, but the damage was done and the game has yet to be as popular as it once was, and the TV series....

Well it never changed.

And that's the problem.

A Pokemon battle. I have no context outside of that. 
When Harry Potter was coming out, the books grew with its audience. By the 7th book the writing was on par for someone in college. Pokemon never got out of the 2nd to 8th grade mindset, so when the fans got older they eventually just outgrew Pokemon, and with all the innovations and quality crashes new fans just didn't hop on board. Pokemon still has a steady fanbase, but it'll never see the numbers or enthusiasm it once had again.

This is my last thought: A lot of parents didn't like Pokemon because they knew it would eventually die out, and its always been questioned weather or not such fandom over a product is good or not. Honestly, I don't see the harm in it. Being into stupid fun stuff when you're a kid is part of being a kid, and the adults they become have something to look back on and laugh at. I got out of Pokemon when I decided I had outgrown it, no hard feelings against Nintendo or anyone else, I was just done. So while fads come and go, I'm glad I got to be part of this one.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha. I was obsessed with Pokemon. I have no regrets about it either. I look back on it in all of it's sillyness and just smile. I'll even still draw the characters and stuff. Heck, I could see me picking up the video games again.

    The only reason I wouldn't is because playing the games would only want me to go off and reboot Pokemon all reimagined. It didn't ever grow out of its own mindset like you said.