15 years is a long time. In that time, over 15 billion Pokémon cards have been produced, each new iteration of the game naturally spawning a plethora of new shiny cards that now punch just as high as the offerings of Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. There are now 649 different kinds of Pokémon thanks to the Black and White reboot. It used to be a matter of pride that I knew exactly which critters kicked ass...now I'm completely adrift! On top of that, the TV show is well into its fourteenth season, there have been thirteen movies (a fourteenth is out this year). Pokémon is bigger than The Simpsons. It's official.
But why? Why has cartoonish cockfighting captured the imagination of so many people - young and old - the world over? As the Black and White versions of the game pass a million sales this week, we go hunting for some answers.
Let's start with the game. Over the years Game Freak have done their very best to try and milk all that they can form the series with a never-ending production line of games that tweak little things here and there but are essentially identical. And, in fairness, the enormous Pokémon katamari that has trundled across the years picking up everything in its path has irritated a lot of people. But one of the most enduring aspects of the game is that there's room for everyone.
In a world where we're constantly (mis)using terms such as hardcore and casual, Pokémon has neatly sidestepped such debates by offering something to part-timers and marathon gamers at the same time. The game's structure, when compared to other RPGs, can seem rather simplistic. You don't have to worry about dialogue options or huge amounts of resource micro-management or character customisation. In many ways it's a perfect entry point in to the genre for first-timers, something that has no doubt helped to contribute to the series' childlsh persona.
But it also offers an enormous amount - particularly now - for those in it for the long all. Pokémon is a completionist's wet dream (or possibly nightmare). Just when you think that you've caught them all...another hundred come along at once. The grinding necessary, the battle strategies - both elementally simple, yet incredibly rich and deep, the limited arsenal at your disposal makes for some hard choices. And the AI is no slouch...if it finds a weakness, if you've forgotten to take your Venusaur out of the attack when Moltres comes flapping in, expect to be spammed with fire. The computer's in it to win it too.
Game Freak have also recognised that sometimes, once you beat the final boss, you don't want the game to end. Just look at Pokémon Gold and Silver. You bust your way through the Johto region, take down the Elite Four and are crowned Pokémon Champion...and then the game suddenly levels up and takes you for a trot around Kanto where there are another 8 badges waiting to be won. In terms of money spent vs. gameplay time, Pokémon has consistently offered outstanding value for money.
But beyond that, outside of gaming, the world of Pokémon has held enormous appeal too. Part of the reason behind that is surely the innocence inherent in the series. There are no suicide bombers, nuclear submarines and crazy genocidal dictators here. Instead, Pokémon taps into what I shall call Kitten Syndrome - the act of looking at a kitten and feeling an overwhelming amount of positive feeling that can be summed up with 'Awwwww'.
Botched psychology aside, the series focuses on a simple evil - cruelty to cute innocent animals. You look at Pikachu and you don't see a yellow rat (if you did you'd scream and try and kill it, most probably), you see an animal companion closer to a friend and a pet. Our reaction to Team Rocket is underlined by the furious reaction to the woman who put the cat in a bin. Game Freak have just been very clever and exploited that a little. it's hugely transparent, but we're ok with it.
No one dies in the world of Pokémon, they just faint and recovery takes all of five seconds in the right hands. It's all very civilised, there are no guns, knives, knuckle-dusters or midnight meetings with a piece of 2x4...instead it's a case of Pokeballs at dawn. The losers even tip you when they leave. There's nothing hugely forced about it all and, whilst it can be nice to sit in a game world that is constantly existing even when you're not there, the freedom and leisure available to the player in Pokémon, a freedom that allows you to take time out of your schedule and just go catch some more creatures, is a direct result of having cities, towns, rivals and friends who have nothing better to do than wait for you. It's really quite soothing.
Another big part of the world of Pokémon which makes it universal is that, unlike so many games that have a visible penis swinging between their legs, the Pokémon series rather renders gender somewhat irrelevant. Misty, May and Dawn have become just as noticeable as Ash and Brock. The game never really treats it as an issue, particularly not with regard to you as a protagonist, it welcomes all.
It's reflected in the community too. Leap onto Xbox LIVE and fire up a game of Halo and you'll occasionally witness one of gaming's key demographics at it's worst. There are often games where it's all just boisterous banter, but there are some that turn nasty too. Pokémon provides a completely different social experience that's not predicated on a male power fantasy, but rather one regardless of what sex you are. You've just got to be the best, nothing else really matters, and everyone can relate to that.
And that's the main point really: Pokémon has something to offer to everybody, and makes no bones about trying to be easily accessible. Asked earlier in the month to comment upon the appeal of the long running series in ONM, GF's Ken Sugimori had this to say:
'It's easy to understand and diverse. The characters which are now used in the TV shows or movies are based on the characters for the videogame. [Depending on its] feature, ability or shape, if you look at that Pokémon you get an idea of what kind of Pokémon it is.
'It could be colour. If it's green, it's something related to grass. And that's what's easy to understand.
'There are more than 500 Pokémon right now. They're not created by one person. They're actually created by more than 30 people. Each one has a personal feeling or attachment to the specific Pokémon he or she created.
'There are a mixture of cool Pokémon and cute Pokémon. That makes it easy for the audience to pick their favourite Pokémon. [There are] always some Pokémon you like. That's the reason it's very popular and the reason it's liked all over the world.'
Sure there are gripes and negatives about the series. Yes, until the recent release of Black and White you could argue that Pokemon had become a slightly obese cultural phenomenon, grown fat and bloated off of its own success, perhaps having lost some of the magic that made it so special simply through overegging it bit...and by 'a bit' we mean 'an enormous amount'. But there have always been nifty tweaks to the formula with every iteration, and we keep coming back. When it comes to the game, there's nothing depressing about it, if you get stuck you can just wander off and go level up a little bit more, or battle a friend and try to evolve one or two of the critters sitting on Bill's computer. Pokémon represents an innocence of spirit, a free and friendly joy that's infectious and addictive. And, when the massacre fatigue has set in from the latest Call of Duty title, it's there to stick that smile back on your face with its bright colours. It's even endorsed by the Vatican.
Well done Game Freak, you cynical, lovely, glorious bastards!