Happy 20th birthday, Pokémon!
That’s pretty scary, frankly. But indeed, on February 27, 1996, Pokémon Red and Green made their debut on Nintendo’s Game Boy in Japan. When the games hit the U.S. in 1998, the Green was switched to Blue and it immediately took over a generation of kids’ lives.
Since then, the franchise has grown into an international juggernaut spanning trading card games and movies to a 5-story tall balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Pokémon, which is a portmanteau of “pocket monster,” is the brainchild of Japanese game designer Satoshi Tajiri. In a 1999 interview, Tajiri explained that he partially based Pokémon on his childhood love of collecting insects, which is why players encounter Pokémon in tall grass. While the series and its characters now occupy a space in the world’s collective consciousness, Tajiri and publisher Nintendo never once dreamed the original games would become so popular.
But they certainly are, and as part of the iconic franchise’s 20th anniversary celebration, Pokémon’s publisher announced two new games, Pokémon Sun and Moon. Nintendo is also rereleasing the original Pokémon Red and Blue for the 3DS handheld.
And if you don’t get Red, you’re a fool, because Charizard is amazing. Look at that big bastard!
I still remember the first time my Charmeleon evolved into Charizard while I was playing Pokémon Red in my 6th-grade science class. It was at that moment, when I finally laid my eyes on what is still the most terrifying Pokémon on the planet, that I realized how much I loved the ridiculously quirky series about children pitting sentient monsters against each other for colorful badges. That also happened to be the moment I found out how much 6th-grade science teachers hate when their students play video games in class.
Pokémon’s cultural takeover might have started with two video games, but it quickly branched out. The incredibly popular Pokémon cartoon helped kids of a certain age (me) bond with the pocket monsters, plus it gave us the franchise’s mascot, everyone’s favorite high-voltage ball of cuteness, Pikachu.
Pokémon became so popular in such short order that the franchise managed to score the cover of Time Magazine in 1999.
After Red and Blue, we got the special Yellow edition (with Pikachu on the cover), followed by Gold and Silver in 1999 and Crystal in 2000.
More than 15 Pokémon titles would be released in the core game series through 2014, including Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the later of which is currently in my 3DS ready to go for my commute home tonight.
While Pokémon is best known for its handheld games, the series has ventured onto other platforms. While Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap for the Nintendo 64 aren’t as well known, to Pokénerds, they’re quirky and beloved.
And in March, Nintendo will bring its Pokkén Tournament for the Wii U to the U.S. A mix of Pokémon and the Tekken fighting game series, Pokkén lets you battle against opponents as individual Pokémon. If I’m being completely transparent, it’s the main reason my girlfriend and I bought a Wii U.
So what’s the appeal of a franchise like Pokémon? Well, the initial games were incredibly easy to get into, but difficult to master. I mean, there were a total of 151 Pokémon to collect. That’s a lot of stuff to find.
And while catching them all was hard in itself, learning all of their best moves was even harder. On top of that, each successive game introduces even more Pokémon to the mix. Eventually, wanting to collect every Pokémon becomes an obsession. Not that I know firsthand, your honor.
They’re also cute. Really cute. So cute, they make you want to retch. Cute and addictive? No wonder Pokemon is still going strong.
Heck, a Pokémon Trading Card Game card is currently available on eBay for the low, low price of … $100,000. And you know what? Someone is probably going to buy that thing. The Pokémon Company even holds an annual Pokémon Trading Card Game tournament, bringing together a massive gathering of Pokémon fans. This year the big show is being held in San Francisco, and it’s guaranteed to draw thousands of fans from around the world.
So yeah, Pokémon is 20. And while that makes me feel old — I started playing it when I was 13 and am now 30— it gives me hope that I’ll eventually be able to watch my own kids play a series that I’ve enjoyed for so long. And hopefully, they’ll catch ‘em all.