Pokémon is 20 year old. On February 27, 1996, the original Pokémon games – Red and Green – launched in Japan creating a world wide phenomenon that nobody could have predicted. The capturing, collecting and trading of these tiny beasts expanded past the Game Boy onto every shelf of your favorite toy store. Now, even 20 years later, it’s not possible to go through your day without experiencing at least one Pokémon reference in pop-culture.
In America, Pokémon Red and Blue launched must later than our Japanese neighbors – on September 28, 1998. Like many Japanese games of the day, it was never supposed to launch outside of Japan, but one country couldn’t contain the phenomenon.
My very first Pokémon game was Pokémon Red Version, because my favorite color is red – a very six year-old excuse. That was back when we didn’t have easy access to the World Wide Web, so I had no idea which version had better exclusive Pokémon or which Pokémon I wanted to start with or even what a Pokémon really was! I saw commercials features the little devils, saw my older brother was super excited about it and knew I had to get my hands on it. Even just from opening its packaging I was in awe of how awesome this new world was. Adhering to its name, it came in a bright red cartridge and had an awesome dragon on the front! Before I even started playing it I spent a long time just staring at the cart and the majestic dragon (who I’d later know as Charizard) that sat on the cover, leering off into the distance, looking over an enormous adventure that I’d soon be a part of.
I have no idea who my first starter was. I’d like to think it was Charmander since Charizard is my all-time favorite Pokémon now, but I believe I went with Squirtle. I’ve lost a lot of knowledge from my first few play-throughs of Pokémon Red, but what I do know is I kept restarting and restarting every time I couldn’t beat an area. I didn’t have a good grasp on RPG grinding back then, but I do remember getting as far as catching Articuno before I renewed the adventure once more. Again, I’d like to think I actually did beat the Elite Four and make it to the Hall of Fame, but I was only six so my tolerance for doing the same thing over and over was very high.
As I grew, Pokémon grew with me. A year later, Game Freak released Pokémon Yellow, not a sequel to Red and Blue, but a rethinking of it. All the monster were the same, however with the popularity of the Pokémon anime, Game Freak decided to add familiar characters to their hit games like your character looking more like Ash and starting with a uncooperative Pikachu who you have to win over as you adventure with it. Instead of starting with Charmader, Squirtle or Bulbasaur, you are given them as gift, much like Ash gets them in the show. And of course, the most annoying part of every god damn Pokémon episode, Jesse and James joined the game universe to get stepped on by you and your Pikachu. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Between the time Pokémon launched its first game and the second generation of Pokémon released in 1999 (2000 for North America), there was already merchandise on merchandise of Pokémon related stuff piling up in kids’ bedrooms – nothing as popular as the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Who knew insignificant pieces of cardboard who end up being so popular with kids and SOOOO expensive for their parents. The cartoon was no joke either. Kids around the globe woke up early every Saturday to see what adventure Ash, Misty and Brock had to get into that week and what Pokémon were getting caught. For me it was a struggle. I had basketball every Saturday morning, right when new Pokémon episode aired. It was a frantic scene searching through dozens of video tapes to find one with enough space on it to record my beloved show. Back in those days, if you missed it the airing of a new episode, you never knew when you’d be able to see it again. There was no Internet – you couldn’t simple find new episodes online, no on demand menu where you could catch it at your leisure and there was certainly no DVR where I could set it to record a month before the episode actually aired and not thing twice about it. I had to find a blank video tape, stick it in my VCR, record EVERYTHING that showed on WB’s Saturday morning lineup and hope to Jesus it didn’t stop recording due to some malfunction. Those were desperate time, truly the Dark Ages.
This Fall, Pokémon Sun and Moon release starting the seventh generation of Pokémon. It’s something I think I’ve been taking for granted my whole life since it’s pretty much been around my entire life. Pokémon is special and not just for little kids. Like many trends, it connects people; brings people together from worlds away. People who have nothing in common share a common tongue when talking about playing Pokémon and collecting Pokémon and trading Pokémon. For as much as people think video games are a solitary, lonely hobby, Pokémon is a shining example of why and how games are some of the most social experiences anyone can have.