Dear Straight Dope:
My 5-year-old son is mesmerized by Pokémon — he lives, breathes and talks about them all day long. I know this isn't uncommon, as shown by all the toys and gimmicks that revolve around Pokémon. My question is, given the Japanese origin of the game, are Japanese children as transfixed by Pokémon as American kids are?
SDStaff Bricker replies:
Recalling how Bricker Jr. as an eight-year-old used his carefully trained Torterra to defeat a powerful enemy Gyrados, Nicole, I’m right there with you on the fascination these creatures have for the young. If sales figures mean anything, Japanese children are even more in love with the fantastic creatures than their American cousins, and the rest of the world’s children aren’t immune from the spell either.
Pokémon isn’t just a game; it’s a socioeconomic force. It can be argued that the franchise, which now includes trading cards, a complex trading card game, plush toys, clothing, board games, and branded toothbrushes in its list of licensed items, was responsible for the success of the early hand-held Nintendo Game Boy system. Indeed, in total sales, Pokémon is eclipsed only by the various Mario character-based games, another Nintendo franchise. It’s an amazing story for a game that began as a metaphor for insect collecting.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon is a role-playing electronic video game in which a player moves through a world inhabited by bizarre creatures, which can be battled, captured, and trained to battle on behalf of the player. As the player completes the various tasks in the game, his stable of Pokémon and the power and complexity of the tactics they can use grow considerably.
Satoshi Tajiri was 25 when he first envisioned the concept of Pokémon, inspired by his love of capturing insects as a child. “I got more insects than anyone,” he told Time magazine in 1999, explaining that while his friends used just a single method for capture, he tried different approaches and ended up with much more insect variety. He toyed with the concept of a game of capturing and training outlandish “Pocket Monsters” for a few years while publishing “Game Freak,” a Xeroxed fanzine about video game tips and techniques. It’s no accident that the main character’s name in the Japanese version of the games is Satoshi, who Tajiri unabashedly admits is modeled on himself as a child.
When Nintendo first released the Game Boy, Tajiri felt it was made for Pokémon. Particularly appealing was the communication cable: two Game Boy players could communicate with each other and trade creatures. It was a magical notion for a man still enthralled with the thought of finding and sharing rare catches — and, as it turned out, a great marketing gimmick.
The original versions of Pokémon had 150 different creatures available for capture. Cunningly, “Pokémon Red” had some creatures that “Pokémon Blue” did not and vice-versa; and a special “Yellow” edition released a few months after the first two had additional unique creatures available. Someone determined to collect them all would have to buy three editions, or interact with friends who had the other editions, in order to complete the set. And even then a mysterious 151st Pokémon, Mew, could only be obtained by taking your Game Boy and link cable to stores during special giveaway events.
In 1996, six years after the game had been initially designed, the first editions of Pokémon for the Game Boy were released in Japan to staggering sales numbers. To take advantage of the trend, a cartoon anime series was developed to follow the general storyline in the videogame. The first episode, “Pokémon – I Choose You!” aired a year later in Japan. The TV series followed Satoshi (Ash Ketchum in the English dub, the last name evoking the game’s “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” motto) and cohorts through adventures galore, fleshing out the settings of the game.
The English-dubbed version aired on the Kids’ WB network the following year, and since then eighteen animated movies have augmented the cartoon series, the most recent of which, Hoopa and the Clash of Ages, opened earlier this year. The movies and the series feed interest in the games in both countries, and of course the games keep interest in the series high as well.
How high? The trio of first-generation Pokémon games sold a whopping 10.23 million copies in Japan, with the U.S. adding a respectable 9.9 million to the total. (Bear in mind that Japan’s population is only 40 percent as large as the U.S.’s.) With additional foreign sales, that means nearly 21 million games were unleashed worldwide, making it one of the Game Boy’s hottest sellers, second only to Tetris.
A second generation (Gold, Silver, and Crystal) was released for the Game Boy Color in 1999 in Japan and 2000 in the U.S., with sales topping 15 million. Gold and Silver added an additional hundred Pokémon to the list of possible captures. The third generation, which added more complex Pokémon statistics and battle design, was released as Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald in 2003, selling 19 million copies and retaining the same marketing strategy: Ruby and Sapphire came first, each featuring several version-exclusive Pokémon, and Emerald was released some time later, with still more creatures unique to that version.
Nintendo also branched out, offering Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64 console and then two games, Colosseum and XD: Gale of Darkness, for the Gamecube, the N64 replacement platform. These latter games permitted Game Boy users to trade Pokémon to and from the console versions, retaining the interactivity that characterized the franchise.
When Nintendo rolled out the DS, a handheld game to replace the Game Boy, Pokémon wasn’t far behind, introducing a fourth series of games: Diamond and Pearl, with Platinum the followup release. These games increased the total number of Pokémon to 493.
The cable that enabled Game Boys to connect to one another was now replaced by wireless communication. For the first time a player could battle or trade with a partner halfway around the globe, connecting through Nintendo’s global WiFi system. Pokémon offerings for the Nintendo Wii also offered this functionality.
There’s at least some difference in how the games are perceived in each country. According to Tajiri, the Japanese are much enamored of Pikachu, the yellow electric mouse whose image is the most famous symbol of the franchise. In the U.S., in contrast, there’s more interest in Ash and Pikachu as a team. “I think Americans actually understand the concept of Pokémon better than the Japanese,” he says. “The Japanese focus on Pikachu, but what I think is important is the human aspect – you need Ash.”
Today Pokémon perhaps isn’t quite the juggernaut it used to be but shows little sign of fading away. To date, the franchise has sold over 137 million games worldwide — more than 200 million if you count derivative games. Children all over the world seem to have a never-ending appetite for the characters, of which there are now 720. We’re up to sixth generation games, which feature 3D Pokémon. To be sure, any given kid will move on to other enthusiasms eventually, but that doesn’t faze the faithful. “Pokémon is more than alive and kicking,” one game site says. “It’s eternal.”
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