How Pokemon Survived ’90s Pokemania

A popular phenomenon in the '90s, Pokemon is still going strong today. Joe looks at how the gaming franchise has thrived...

Depending on your age, Pokémania means one of two things. If you were a child growing up in the ’90s, like me, it was the best time of your life; a secret world of collecting and battling creatures that was just for people your age, and everyone your age was into it. Life-long friendships were made over trading at the local game shop or at break time in school, and you rushed home to catch the anime on TV – even if you’d seen the episode countless times before, you needed to learn the PokéRap off by heart to prove your musical talents. If you were a parent during this time, it meant very much the opposite: your children speaking in a strange language to each other – you think it may be Japanese, but could easily be gibberish – and only returning to coherent communication to demand your hard-earned money for anything and everything emblazoned with a Pikachu.

Like all good fads, and there were many at that time (Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Beyblade, Power Rangers, DragonBall Z, Sailor Moon we kids had it so good in those days), Pokémania became a thing of the past. The bigger the fad, the bigger the backlash, and this franchise had it particularly bad. The releases of Ruby and Sapphire were met with harsh criticism for how they handled backwards compatibility (more on that later), being repetitive and worst of all: being a “kids game.” I know personally, that moving into secondary school it was socially unacceptable to still be into Pokémon, especially with the rise of Grand Theft Auto and Halo.

That being said, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire were the best selling games on the Game Boy Advance, followed by Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen and, you guessed it, Pokémon Emerald. On the Nintendo DS, three of the top ten best-selling games were again Pokémon, and similarly, last year’s X and Y have become the best-sellers on 3DS – and they’ve not been out a whole year yet. Although the fad element has disappeared, Pokémon is clearly still a massive franchise – the second biggest selling after Mario, according to Wikipedia. The question is, why is it still going so strong, especially when the other massive franchises from that (wonderful) time period have faded into obscurity? Let’s try and see why… 

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Let’s get the basics out of the way first: these are solid games marketed well. Like many Nintendo franchises, Pokémon is pretty neutral in its gender and age appeal – sure there are bright colours, light narratives and bouncy melodies, but beneath the surface there is a deep game for older gamers to sink their teeth into. Back in the days of Red and Blue the strategies for Pokémon battling may not have gone past abusing elemental weaknesses with your most powerful moves and the odd status effect (when it worked) but now the mechanics are as intricate as any “hardcore” RPG. Watch any competitive battling video online and you’ll see tactics ranging from entry hazards, stalling, skill swapping, choice items and predicting switch-outs amongst other things.

These Pokémon in the competitive battling circuit will have been trained to perfection, with stats that don’t matter in the main story, like IVs, EVs and natures, becoming incredibly important. A lot of people take Pokémon battling seriously, with each new generation tweaking the metagame to keep it fresh and streamlining the online play to make battling far more accessible. The marketing campaign for X and Y showed an awareness of people’s interest in what new features would be introduced to overhaul the competitive aspect of the games, with the Super Training mode and especially Mega evolutions. The latter in particular allowed the advertising to work another angle: nostalgia. Nintendo made a conscious effort to appeal to players of the original games – the advertising screamed, “here are your old favourite Pokémon; rendered in full 3D graphics on a handheld, and they’ve got powerful new transformations – look, Charizard and Mewtwo even have two each!” It’s a marked change from when Black and White were being promoted in Britain in 2011 through a series of videos starring One Direction.

In the most un-Den Of Geek segue ever, Harry Styles actually sums up one of Pokémon‘s biggest strengths: “For me, it’s all about like, the collecting side of it. You fill the PokéDex, if there’s kind of a few you haven’t got yet, it’s like all about just getting those. Just, you kind of, develop, almost like, a relationship with Pokémon”. 

Eloquently put I’m sure you’ll agree, but he does have a valid point: people like to collect things – from stickers of football players, stamps, Lego, cinema or train tickets, Star Wars Tazos from crisp packets (if you want to be old-school) to my uncle happily spending hundreds of pounds on Scalextric – its addictive. As it currently stands, there over 700 Pokémon to collect, in a variety of different ways. Add to that some Pokémon have multiple forms, and all of the Pokémon and forms have an ultra-rare alternate-coloured “shiny” version, you could be here a long while if you want to catch ’em all nowadays.

With Pokémon, it’s not just about collecting them though, as Mr Styles (who probably deserves a co-writer credit at this point) said above, but forming bonds with the creatures as well. The plots of the games are what they are, but the stories are the ones you make with your Pokémon. Choosing your first starter and seeing them evolve, barely scraping a win against a gym leader with your under levelled monster you just use for cutting trees and breaking rocks, or sweeping the Elite Four with that legendary beast that kept running away until your fortieth Ultra ball finally snagged it. And these experiences you have with your monsters aren’t just limited to one game either.

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A lot of the backlash Ruby and Sapphire received was because they were incompatible with the games that came before, but in moving to the Advance generation Game Freak reworked the coding in a way still used today. This almost reboot of the series was a gamble, but despite the fallout over loss of compatibility, in the long term this may be the franchise’s greatest strength in bringing people back time and again. All those Pokémon you caught aren’t restricted to one cartridge and those hundreds of hours investment don’t go to waste. It’s not just any Blastoise kicking ass and taking names online, in fancy graphics with a new mega form; it’s the one you’ve owned since 2004. 

The switch to this new system allowed Nintendo to do something pretty cheeky, and start a cycle of alternating new generations and remakes. Ruby and Sapphire only allowed you to catch 200 Pokémon in the game, but all the rest were there in the data – you just needed the other games to get them again. With the remakes of the original games – and the GameCube spinoffs Colosseum and XD: Gale Of Darkness, and ‘director’s cut’ Emerald; Nintendo and Game Freak essentially sold us the monsters locked out of Ruby and Sapphire again, drip by drip.

It worked. Imagine if every Pokémon up to that point had been easily available in the first two Advance games – who knows where the series would be right now? The cycle of new generations and remakes works in multiple ways: firstly, its taps into the nostalgia for the older gamers, giving us the experience of playing the classics again but with the updated mechanics and monsters that may have passed on. For players who have hopped into the bandwagon at the start of a newer generation, they get to see the games older fans go on about, but without having to buy an older system and lose out on features they are used to in the newer titles.

Perhaps why people keep coming back to Pokémon is that the main series, in a sense, is one long journey. Each new game is like picking up the next book of Game Of Thrones; they’re new chapters in a continuing journey – your journey with your Pokémon, migrating from one game to the next. In comparison, the other crazes at the time – Yu-Gi-Oh! and Digimon – would jump from one scenario and type of gameplay to another. There was little linearity. For example, the PSone Yu-Gi-Oh! game, Forbidden Memories, didn’t follow the rules of the real-life or anime card games very well, but at least its original plot was kind of similar to the show. 

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Its PS2 “follow up,” Duelists Of The Roses, combined the card game with a chess board, and transplanted the characters into the events of the Wars of the Roses. Just… what? Now, Pokémon has had quirky experiments such as these, like the recent Conquest title, but these are clearly spin-offs that never reach the height of the main series.

With solid foundations being built on with every instalment, you know what you’re getting with a main series Pokémon game. When the next Digimon World looks nothing at all like the one you’re used to, it’s a lot easier to jump ship. Also, it’s more than likely a factor in the sliding popularity of Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh! is that the games weren’t actually very good…

Although we are focusing on games here, its an interesting side note that the anime for all three of these franchises follow suit. Pokémon keeps on going with Ash and Pikachu and replacing the characters around them, so you can still dip in at any time without an obvious “jumping off” point, whilst Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh! went the Power Rangers route: shaking up their casts and even universes every few years.

Whilst Pokémon may not be the bane of classrooms the world over anymore, the series is still immensely popular because of all these reasons listed above and more. It’s not just because people buy these games by the bucketload though – the fans are also properly passionate. If no one is interested in Pokémon anymore, then someone forgot to tell the internet. The online fanbase is huge; whole websites are dedicated to the competitive battling scene, with detailed strategies and even free battle simulators. 

PokéTubers like TheJWittz have over a million subscribers and make content delving into the mysteries of the lore, offering behind the scenes glimpses and retrospectives. Like any good fandom there are tons of (sometimes questionable) fan art and memes, the latter of which the sometimes odd logic of the Pokémon world lends itself very well to.

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Back in the ‘real world’ there’s even an annual official Pokémon World Championship, for players of the main series and trading card game. This years one finished last month, and Time magazine ran a lovely piece about it, and how Pokémon brings people together.

That sums it up really: any franchise needs a strong community of supporters to survive, but Pokémon in particular was designed to create communities through shared goals and friendly competition, and as it evolves with each generation, has made sure to keep the old fans along for the ride as well as appealing to new ones.

Will the steam run out eventually? Who knows. X and Y have proved to be something of a renaissance for the series, and the remakes of Ruby and Sapphire could bring the most underrated entries their moment in the spotlight. We’ll have to see what comes after, but its hard to believe Pokémon is going to fade away anytime soon. The yellow mouse and his 700-odd pals have proved they’ve got staying power.

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