Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Pokémon Red and Blue (or Red and Green in native Japan), the first video games in a series that would really take over the world.
The phenomenon that began in 1996 took a long time to build. It was two years before the games were released in the United States and more than three years before European kids like me could play them. But when Pokémon got here, it was an explosion of pop culture already done, with a series of television, trading cards, and endless merchandise coming from Japan alongside these strange, compelling, and extraordinary Game Boy games. Hardly anyone under the age of 11 in 1999 escaped the gravitational pull of Pokémon.
I was exactly the right age to take me to the first wave of Pokémania, which means my 25th birthday celebrations make me feel old. I prayed to my parents for years for a Game Boy, specifically to play Pokémon. My first experiences with Pokémon were reading it in my Nintendo magazines, publishing a version of it in my imagination that was the best video game of all time.
What I discovered instead when my parents gave it to me and bought me and my brother a Game Boy Color was a rudimentary-looking and strangely captivating game that resulted in both math and collecting and fight monsters. Pokémon had millions of children doing algebra voluntarily, mentally calculating type advantages, movement sets, and evolution statistics, studying number tables in our guides before deciding the composition of our teams.
The story of Pokémon is a classic children’s fantasy, reproduced in more or less the same way for a quarter of a century, stories about children who go out into the world and make their mark. Adults in the Pokémon universe are in the background, like Professor Oak or your mother, supportive and affectionate but barely present. Pokémon worlds are what kids call traits, like Narnia and Harry Potter, and that’s part of what makes them so captivating at the right age. At age 11, I loved accumulating knowledge of endless arcane Pokémon: the name of the monsters, their types, attacks, at what level they evolved, because it was like knowing a secret language unknown to adults.
Today’s children, by the millions, still experience this emotion. It is easy to assume that Pokémon reached its peak in 2000, when it first entered pop culture, but that it maintained its popularity over the decades. Sword and Shield, Nintendo Switch’s latest games, sold 20 million copies, even in 1999 gold and silver.
Unlike Zelda, my other Nintendo childhood obsession, Pokémon hasn’t really grown with me. Lots of adults play Pokémon (some make a living, on YouTube or Twitch), but for me, no later Pokémon game recovered the wonder of these rudimentary, monochrome Game Boy worlds, no matter how beautiful and easy to play that they became. . After about ten years without picking up a Pokémon game, I briefly consumed black and white again in my 20s, when I made frequent trips to Japan and worked in an office where battles and noon trades were common, but I don’t. I don’t think I could name one of the new monsters they introduced. For me, the Pokédex will always stop at 151.
And yet, Pokémon is a big part of my cultural awareness, as it is for my entire generation of games, and our fondness for it endures, as evidenced by the fact that I just spent a really absurd amount of money. on a custom-made Charizard T-shirt. , in homage to my first Pokémon. When Pokémon Go arrived in 2016, it wasn’t kids who most often found me wandering the streets looking for virtual monsters to catch their phones: they were millennials, like me, in the late 20s or 30s. youngsters have the same bond with Pokémon and later game regions as I do with Kanto. When Nintendo announced a couple of new games set in Sinnoh, from the 2006 Diamond and Pearl, it was the Gen Z elders who ignited Twitter with charm. Whatever Pokémon game you play at this awesome age, this is what becomes part of your personal nostalgic tapestry.
One wonderful thing about Pokémon in 2021 is that they have now successfully become cross generations. The first children with Pikachu snacks are parents. The Pokémon Company clearly knows this, releasing nostalgic remakes of older games that allowed younger children to play alongside their parents, such as Let’s Go Pikachu, a clever and accessible mashup of Red and Blue and Go (my son , who was only two years old) at the time, hated, sadly, in our house was known as “No No Pikachu”). When I covered the Pokémon World Championships in Washington in 2014, I met many amazing parents whose pride in their prodigies in the junior division Pokémon warmed my heart.
Pokémon makes no sense unless you play it as a kid. The last time I was in a pub with my parents team, I had to break an anecdote about going on a date to a Pokémon center in Japan to explain, through cries of uncontrolled and bewildered laughter, what a Pokémon Center. (It’s a place where totally fun and normal people are going to get together for business and battles, okay !?)
But for those of us who grew up with it, Pokémon will always be a small part of who we are. Twenty-five years later, he is well on his way to joining Disney in the annals of timeless children’s fiction.