Stuffed toys in the Yokohama Pokémon Centre
Arts & Media Culture

The phenomenon that caught them all

Pokémon took the world by storm in the 1990s. For my generation, no other cultural phenomenon has come close to its influence. Pokémon GO, riding on a wave of nostalgia, has proved its endurance.

IN 2014, I was in Tokyo for two weeks visiting my brother. Japan is a country slightly cautious of tourists, and we received plenty of guarded looks from the locals in the street and on the subway. Only a very few people would come up to us to talk or to test out their English. One of these people was a little boy of about seven or eight who, at the entrance of the Pokémon Centre in Yokohama, bounded up to me and asked with a joyful grin ‘Do you like Pokémon?’ He then proceeded to name all his favourites, in a conversation eerily reminiscent of one from an actual Pokémon game.

Pokémon has always been popular in Japan, despite declining overall sales and a somewhat stale format. The long-running anime is still ongoing, and Game Freak is planning to add another slew of characters to the franchise – now entering its seventh generation. The little boy from Yokohama was not yet born when Pokémon first appeared in 1996, but his enthusiasm speaks to its enduring success.

In the last month, Pokémon has hardly been out of the news. The virtual reality game Pokémon GO has given millions of Millennials the chance to live out their childhood fantasies and catch Pokémon in the real world. Stories of trespassing, fatwas, and dead bodies have emerged, but the main reaction has been an intense outpouring of nostalgia. My brother told me that on the day of Pokémon GO’s Japanese release, his local railway station was packed with people of all ages – he even saw a member of the Yakuza searching for Pokémon.

Of those born between 1988 and 1995, few did not own a copy of Pokémon Red, Blue or Yellow, or watch the cartoon on Saturday mornings; on the day of Pokémon GO’s UK release it came as no surprise to see so many people of all shapes and sizes with their eyes fixed to their phones, roaming around town in search of Pokémon.

My brother told me that on the day of Pokémon GO’s Japanese release, he even saw a member of the Yakuza searching for Pokémon.

It’s no secret as to what made Pokémon so popular when it first found its way to the United Kingdom in 1999. Its simple concept, travelling the world collecting creatures and engaging in rock-paper-scissors style battles against other trainers, appeals to a broad spectrum. Add to that a litany of cute, colourful characters – particularly the franchise’s mascot Pikachu – and you have a recipe for global success.

The first games, Red and Blue, were full of glitches and programming errors (for example, an episode of the anime revolved around Ash Ketchum finding a Ghost-type Pokémon to defeat a Psychic-type trainer, but in the game, Ghosts were erroneously programmed to have no effect against Psychics), but even these added to the experience; in the age before widespread internet guides, everyone had heard their own rumours about secret strategies for finding Mew, often propagated by older brothers with bad information.

Subsequent generations could never live up to the glories of the first. Among the hardcore of Pokémon fans, those myopic few that claim the original 151 to be the franchise’s peak of the franchise are denigrated as ‘genwunners’ – i.e. generation one. It is true that the creatures’ designs have to some extent declined in quality (a sentient ice cream being one of the worst offenders), but they have also become more varied and imaginative. The only fault of Trubbish and Vanniluxe is that they came after fans of the originals had grown up. I’m sure that the little boy in Yokohama has no qualms with the designs of generation five and six.

Pokémon GO’s success comes because it tapped into the enduring nostalgia for the first generation; it gave young people on the verge of the real world a chance to dip into those halcyon days when they followed the adventures of Ash and Pikachu on TV, and sat with their friends trying to activate the Missingno glitch on their Gameboys.

The new games, Sun and Moon, set for release at the end of the year, are unlikely to receive more than a token boost in sales from Pokémon GO. The franchise still has a devoted core of fans, and younger children still play new editions in their droves, but Game Freak and Nintendo have little truly new to offer. The truth is that, though Pokémon may never again command such love as it did in the late ’90s, those original 151 will be forever imprinted in the minds of millions of Millennials. Oh, and the little boy in Yokohama’s favourites were ‘Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle!’ Perhaps the originals really are the best?

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