It’s been fifteen years since Pokemon was first released. It introduced a veritable ecosystem of elemental critters, and soon became a phenomenon. It began on the Gameboy as Pocket Monsters, and Pokemon has become not only a force in videogames, but a titan of trading-cards, anime and film. But it is the traditional videogame release fans crave most; Red and Blue. Gold and Silver. Ruby and Sapphire. Diamond and Pearl. Recently, Nintendo announced Black and White, the sixth edition, which promises to deliver a radical overhaul to the series.
But why is the Pokemon formula so endearing? In fifteen years, it's barely evolved beyond the established framework. So why does it continue to be a financial and critical success?
Pokemon began life in the mind of Satoshi Tajiri, who as a child used to collect insects, a popular Japanese hobby. Originally titled Pocket Monsters, Pokemon was split into two versions, Red and Green, essentially the same game, but for a few specific Pokemon unique to each version. Pocket Monsters envisioned a world where elemental creatures, known as Pokemon, can be caught and trained to battle other Pokemon. As a trainer, the player must ascend the ranks, battling gym-leaders to collect badges, in preparation for the ultimate showdown with the Elite Four.
When you begin a Pokemon game, be it the original Red and Blue or the most recent Diamond and Pearl, you're given the choice of picking one of three 'starters', Pokemon you'll begin your journey and ultimately end it with. Pokemon are elemental, belonging to a specific 'type', and each 'type' is either strong or weak against another. For instance, Fire is effective against Grass, but weak against Water. The starter Pokemon occupy these three types, and depending on what Pokemon you choose, your rival, who you'll battle throughout the game, will choose the Pokemon yours is weakest against.
I Choose You!
This set-up, of choosing your starter Pokemon and embarking on your journey, has remained unchanged throughout the Pokemon series. If you compare the opening of Pearl to Red, it's almost identical, sans differences in story and layout. And it's not just the structure that's failed to evolve, it's the overall gameplay itself. Battles in Pokemon are turn-based affairs. You have the option to pick a move for your Pokemon to perform, use an item from your bag, switch your existing Pokemon with another, or flee. Over the years, the system has been refined, the visuals improved, but the 'Fight-Bag-Pokemon-Run' screen is untouched.
Collecting Pokemon and training them is the core of the game. You'll be able to catch Pokemon by running in long-grass, exploring dark caves or surfing on the sea. These random encounters are a divisive aspect of the series. It's fun to begin with, especially the first time around, as you stumble around, unaware, only for dramatic music to blare from your Gameboy and the view to segue from an over-the-top perspective to a battle-screen. But then it happens again, and again, and again. Cue groans and a repressed urge to smash Gameboy.
However, this is a hallmark of the Pokemon series. It's how you level up your roster, and it's how you'll catch most of them, too. But what's failed to happen is a natural evolution to this mechanic. You can choose to employ Repel, an item that protects you from wild Pokemon for a certain number of steps. But you can't, for instance, choose to avoid encountering wild Pokemon altogether. For the most part, it's simply unavoidable. You have to cross that patch of grass to reach that cave, and in that cave you'll have no choice but to encounter wild Pokemon yet again.
The system itself hasn't been refined at all. Most wild Pokemon you run into are common, and while this is supposed to foster a sense of wonder and adventure when you search a specific area for a rare Pokemon, too often you run into these run-of-the-mill critters, and too often you grow weary. What if you could choose to set traps for specific Pokemon? Or attract one with a specific item you're holding? Nothing like this has happened to the series since its inception, all those years ago.
Gotta' Catch 'Em All!
So what is it about Pokemon that so many of us find endearing and addictive? Despite its rigid design and unwavering rules, Pokemon is all about rewarding the player's hard-work. Most Pokemon, when they reach a certain level, 'evolve' into a stronger version. To evolve your Pokemon, you must train them, either by battling wild Pokemon or challenging rival trainers and gym-leaders. Pokemon grow stronger with each level, earn new moves and enhance your chances of succeeding in each battle.
Variety is also a staple of the Pokemon formula. Originally, the number of Pokemon was 150, but this has since exploded into almost 500! It's something of a double-edged sword, as for every Tyranitar, there's a Skitty or Whismur. This bloating of the formula led to an increase in 'types, which Pokemon continues to handle rather well, but results in something of a headache when playing. Although it's obvious what fans want, as with every new release, all eyes turn to the new roster of Pokemon, not to the bullet-point list of improved mechanics.
The series' catchphrase, "Gotta Catch 'Em All!", is yet another reason why Pokemon is successful. In the videogames, it's the challenge of catching as many Pokemon as you can, from the ho-hum to the oh-wow! Nintendo employ very cunning marketing strategies to generate interest and stir the excitement-pot, like handing out codes for an otherwise unobtainable Pokemon at special events. The inclusion of 'legendary' Pokemon, a pair of mythic creatures unique to either version of each release, only adds to fans' magpie-like desire to collect everything.
The Pokemon Formula
Whatever the reason for Pokemon's success, it's doubtful the formula will ever really change. Information on Black and White is being drip-fed to the media as we speak, and so far, the only changes seem to be a 3D-gameworld and vague, nebulous claims of "more changes". Pokemon is more than a series of videogames and trading-cards. It's a brand, an icon. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't recognise Pikachu's rose-cheeked smile.
The original Red and Blue sold almost twenty million copies, and with each release, the series' continues to tighten its grip on the market, and the world. The anime is hugely popular, and despite the waning quality of the films, they continue to make money, and thus continue to be made. With the number of Pokemon reaching the 500 mark, it won't be long before your average Pokemon guide requires an encyclopedia.