Pokémon is 20 years old this year and has been out in the US for 18 years. When a game series has been out this long, we are required by the game’s writers code to reflect on it. I have been playing the series for these 18 long years against my better judgement. So why don’t we go through each of the mainline games and reflect back on them. This article will be one part analysis and two parts my pointless opinions.
Pokémon Red and Blue
The game that started it all. Released in 1996 in Japan and 1998 in the US, these games were a huge hit. What was interesting is that for us in the US, the anime actually came out before the game did. Even better was that Nintendo released a video to promote the series. The video highlighted Ash’s family, friends and teacher as they talked about the Pokémon product. To an easily susceptible child, this was really cool and made me interested in Pokémon.
But perhaps a major reason the games were a success was how it captured children’s imaginations. The game featured a young boy staking out and capturing fake creatures that became your partners. In the US, virtual pets had existed for some time. Pokémon took this concept to a whole new level. No longer was this little pet some keychain electronic. It was a full game. You could train your pet. You grew with your pet. It was an experience that hadn’t been replicated. Moreover, unlike series like Digimon, Pokémon existed in a world akin to ours. They felt natural.
Sales for the game are difficult to track down. One report, done by Columbia University, but both Japanese sales and US sales at over 8 million. VGchartz estimates that the game has sold over 30 million. Needless to say, this game was a success.
At the start of the new millennium, the sequels of the original games were released into the world: Pokémon Gold and Silver. These games are still the best of the Pokémon games. They took everything from the first game and made it better. 100 new Pokémon. Two new types. A new region. A big blue experience bar. Heck, you could even go back to Kanto from the original games. No other Pokémon game has had as much endgame content as these two. The games improved on the original games in almost every way. There isn’t much else to say about these games beyond the fact that they were good. This is how a sequel is done.
Ruby and Sapphire are interesting games because they signaled a unique shift in the series from the last two games.
Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire was the first game where the majority of the Pokémon were not in the game. Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire added a regional Pokédex. This was a Pokédex which only contained 200 Pokémon –those you found within that game or the region.
In fact, in order to “Catch ‘em all” you had to buy the different games. You had to purchase Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen in order to catch every Pokémon. Before, it was only legendary Pokémon and the starter Pokémon you had to trade for, but now you need to transfer Pokémon from multiple different games in order to fill your collection.
The games have received a fair share of criticism including the vast amount of water in the region and the excessive use of trumpets used in the game’s music. That said, Ruby and Sapphire are a personal favorite of mine. Hoenn had a lot of different regions such as the volcano, the route covered in ash, the highlands with its tall grass and the vast ocean. For me, I enjoyed the adventure, and I think that what makes Pokémon fun.
What Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire created was a trend where each Pokémon game tries to fix the problem of the previous games. The problem with Ruby and Sapphire was that they were that they limited the number of Pokémon you could capture in a single game. So Pokémon Diamond and Pearl allowed you to catch almost any Pokémon . As Serebii.net states “Pokémon Diamond & Pearl have the highest amount of Pokémon in any game between them. With 445 Pokémon obtainable in one way or another without backwards trading.” There were only 48 Pokémon that were unobtainable (all of them being starters and legendary Pokémon ). This time, you did not need to purchase a suite of other games to get all the Pokémon . However, it came with it its own mess of problems.
First, although you could capture almost any Pokémon , the game had its own regional Pokédex. The regional Pokédex had only 150 Pokémon available in this Pokedex (not including Manaphy). This Pokédex was also limiting when playing the game. For instance, there were only 5 Fire Pokémon within the region. The region also had a plethora of Grass, Bug and Water Pokémon , limiting the types of Pokémon available when playing the main game. In order to actually get Pokémon outside the regional Pokédex, the player has to jump through numerous hoops. First, the player had to complete the game, then they had to see all Pokémon in the region. This includes some legendary and rare Pokémon. This forces the player to play a particular way in order to see all the Pokémon.
Perhaps even worse was the overabundance of evolution and “baby” Pokémon (which are Pokémon that are earlier evolution of an older Pokémon). These Pokémon have existed in previous games; however, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl added 24 Pokémon who were either an evolution or an earlier form, which is about 25 percent of the new Pokémon added into this game (see here). Criticisms of the new Pokémon’s designs , so Diamond and Pearl took the older Pokémon and gave them one of these world-class designs. It may be why there has only been one such evolution since Diamond and Pearl.
Despite my criticism, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl sold 17.63 million and is the 5th best selling Nintendo game on the Nintendo DS. The game also outsold Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire which sold 16.22 million. While the sales may be due to large install may be one reasons, I believe the game’s online functionality was a big reason for its success. Much like Super Smash Bros, Pokémon is a series where fans were eager to have online capability. Who wouldn’t want to trade and battle over the internet. The game introduce the Global Trade System (GTS) and allowed for posting Pokémon online for trade. It’s was a big addition and may have been a reason for why the game did so well.
Pokémon Black and White
Towards the end of the DS life, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company released Pokémon Black and White. Much like solving the problem of the old game, Black and White went a different course by only having new Pokémon. Given the fact that the series has backed off from “baby” Pokémon and evolution and the next game only featured new Pokémon, I expect the direction was heavily influenced by the follies of Diamond and Pearl. That said, according to the development team in an Iwata Ask interview, the team indicated that the game was so different as it was trying to differentiate itself from Diamond and Pearl since both games would be on the same system.
The change, while dynamic, was met with praise from critics. The Escapist said “Pokémon Black and White is as close to a “reboot” as the franchise has ever seen, but it doesn’t reinvent what doesn’t need reinventing”. Jonathan Holmes said the game was his favorite Pokémon game. Nevertheless, Game Freak went back to using old Pokémon the sequel Pokémon Black 2 and White 2. Interestingly, this game was done, in part, to buck the trend of having third-version which begun with Pokémon Yellow on the Gameboy. During the Iwata Ask interview, when asked why they didn’t make a “Gray” version CEO of the Pokémon Company Tsunekazu Ishihara replied “Yeah. But lots of players were expecting us to follow the same pattern, so for the first time we decided to try adding a “2” for a pleasant surprise.” It was an early start of what appears to be the company’s recent move to mix up the Pokémon formula
Pokémon X and Y are the most recent Pokémon games released for the 3DS. These games were the first to use 3D graphics and were released simultaneously on October 23, 2013. The game also featured the brand new Fairy-type and Mega Evolution, which were temporary evolutions for older Pokémon.
From my perspective, Pokémon X and Y were not very forgiving to players who liked to use new Pokémon. This game featured only 72 new Pokémon, and the Mega Evolutions were limited to the older Pokémon. Moreover, a sizable portion of the new Pokémon were Fairy-types. The game rewarded players who picked old Pokémon as they had powerful Mega Evolutions. Nevertheless, the game received high marks from critics, receiving an 87 on Metacritic.
The Series Decline
Each game in the series received positive praise from critics and fans alike; nevertheless, sales of the game have declined since the release of Pokémon Diamond/Pearl. So what’s the problem? The most obvious answer seems to be series fatigue. The games have generally the same structure. You get a starter Pokémon, travel to take out the 8 gyms, fight the “Team” and become the champion. Compare this to a game like Super Mario Bros or Sonic the Hedgehog. The goal is to reach the flagpole or to reach the signpost. In each game, you have new jumps and new challenges. While the structure is constant, the journey changes vastly with each game. Pokémon ’s structure is more rigorous. Each game plays very similarly. This may be why Pokémon Sun and Moon are trying to change the formula so much. The game has an entirely different structure. You no longer go to gyms, but complete trials on the four major islands. There are still some similarities carried over from the other games, but it appears Game Freak is trying to shake up the formula.
Sun and Moon and the Future of Pokémon
I spoke previously on the Pokémon Go phenomenon and how it is more than just another fad. Based on NPD numbers for July, I wasn’t too far off. Sales of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire increased by 80 percent and sales of Pokémon X and Y increased by 200 percent. The former president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata spoke about how Nintendo‘s mobile initiative was about driving consumers towards Nintendo products. With Pokémon Go, that definitely seems to be the case. And, as I mentioned in my previous article, Pokémon is a strong brand and the numbers show it. Given July’s numbers, it appears that Pokémon Sun and Moon may very well buck the trend.
Why It’s a Success
Pokémon has been around for a while, and it will likely be around for another 20 years. I fully expect my future children will be playing the game just as we did when we were young. There is just something about Pokémon that makes it work. There is a lot to be said for why the series has continued for so long. As Kyle Bosman pointed out on his show, The Final Bosman, there is a sense of permanence with Pokémon that make them feel more like real creatures than like data.
The University of Colombia also proposed why the games were so successful. “Therefore, Pokémon ‘s success indicates that the purchase decisions of Japanese and American customers — children in particular — are contingent upon the game system, which is ultimately the essence of entertainment, rather than the supplementary audiovisual effects.” So perhaps Pokémon is successful because it’s just a good game.