What Pokémon Is

What Pokémon Is

I write a whole lot about Pokemon here at Kotaku — and every time, at least one person asks what the deal with the franchise is. Why is it so big? Why do people care about it? What's it about, even?

Maybe you wonder these things, too — it's an especially relevant set of questions now that Pokemon X & Y are about to release. Although it may be difficult to capture why this franchise has become so beloved, here's my humble attempt at explaining Pokemon.

Where it begins for most people might differ. Maybe it was the show, back in 1997. Maybe it was this song from the show in particular and the words I want to be the very best, like no one ever was:

Maybe it was the original games, Pokemon Red and Blue.

What Pokémon Is

Maybe it was the trading cards, and the endless attempt to collect all the shinies. Or, maybe it was all three at once — that's how it was for me, at least.

But wherever you went, there it was. Pokemon. Even then, during the late 90s, it wasn't too hard to see why. Here's this franchise about kids who go on adventures to become 'Pokemon masters,' and in practice what that really means is that you can leave home when you're like 8 years old to see the world with your friends and pets. Pretty seductive, as a fantasy. (And highly lucrative, as merchandise.)

151 was the magic number, initially. 151 different critters to choose from. 151 Pokemon, many of which look somewhat close to creatures we know in the real world...only cooler somehow. Sure, you can see that in the design, but mainly it was that these monsters could evolve and become faster, stronger, better. That was such an alluring concept. I didn't even know about Charles Darwin back then, but when the real-world concepts appeared in my life, they didn't seem implausible. It's like Pokemon, you know?

There's something about the world, too. Although there are many reasons to live with a Pokemon, the major one was to battle against other trainers. The idea is, you gain more and more experience, your companions get stronger, and eventually you challenge this society's version of bosses, which they call 'gym leaders.' Defeat a gym leader, earn a badge. Earn eight badges, and you can challenge the Elite Four — the toughest bosses in the land. Defeat the Elite Four and welp. You did it. You're the very best. Congrats!

It seems so perfect, now, to look at the badge as an emblem of success, especially for us millennials who grew up on this franchise. We can easily lump them with the certificates, the gold stickers, the trophies, or the idea that success has a specific path, a specific route, and that with enough tenacity, we, too, can make it. And then you look back and you realise that it was never like that, and Ash, the protagonist of the anime show, is still out there after a decade of trying to become a Pokemon master. Stuff like trophies haunt us, and Ash might be kind of a loser.

But while both the show and the card game still exist, most people know of Pokemon as a video game. For the better, really: most of us didn't even know how to play the card game, and the stuff that happens overs the course of a season in a show might happen in an hour or two in the games.

So let's talk about the games a little more. What is Pokemon there? The premise I described earlier is still the same, but...

Contemplation begins before you buy anything. First, there's the version; the games always come in two different versions. Pick a colour, or a letter. Each one has a specific set of Pokemon exclusive to the game. But what is perhaps the biggest choice that you'll think about before you get the game is the question of what Pokemon you'll start off with. Do you want a fire Pokemon? Water Pokemon? Grass Pokemon? Choose an element, and your rival will choose whatever element defeats yours, because they're a dick. In the earlier games, you could even name them Dick if you wanted to. That's Pokemon.

Six slots means six Pokemon. Six, out of over hundreds. Paring down your choice is practically maddening. And each individual Pokemon brings with it more choices, still: what do you name them? What moves will you give them; there are dozens of choices. How will you use them in battle? And then, after you decide, you'll watch these Pokemon grow stronger and stronger. Up to level 100, maybe. Through 3 different forms of evolution, sometimes. You'll end up with a monster, but you love that monster. They're your beast, and damn it if you won't bring them with you everywhere, across multiple games. Maybe one day you'll even pass them down to your kids. That's Pokemon.

Running in the grass means meeting new Pokemon. Not all Pokemon will catch your eyes; many will simply be battle fodder, a means to gain more experience. But then that one cool Pokemon appears. You'll weaken it — not enough that it faints, but enough that its health is in the red. You'll throw a Pokeball, the device that lets you capture Pokemon. The Pokeball will close, and the Pokemon inside will try to ram its way out. The Pokeball wobbles back and forth, until eventually the game decides whether or not you caught the Pokemon inside. But before that happens, you'll be so eager about it all that you'll find yourself holding the B button down just so that the Pokeball stays closed — even though you know your button press changes absolutely nothing. That's Pokemon.

The other trainers all wait for you. The second you come into view, they'll challenge you — despite being friendly, this world is weirdly combative in a way, too. Most people will fit certain archetypes — maybe they're a nerd, or a fisherman, or a couple. Many can't seem to understand that having 6 of the same awful Pokemon is not a viable battle strategy, but you can't complain, because beating them means being given half their money. And yes, you'll take that money even if it comes from the elderly or children — don't worry, at worst their response to losing is something ridiculous like I Like To Wear Shorts! They're comfy and easy to wear! That's Pokemon.

Somewhere along your journey, you'll hear about impossible Pokemon — creatures that created the world, creatures that govern weather, creatures that nobody has seen for centuries. It will sound magical, implausible. You will think they're just myths. And at some point, you will meet all all of these legendary creatures anyway. It's your destiny. That's Pokemon.

Does it make sense now?

(Top image via Tom Ledin)


    In the 90s, Pokemon was a game boy game, a card collecting game (no one ever played it, only bragged about what cards they had) and the TV show that came before DBZ on Cheese TV.

    It's still those three things to me. I don't kow what happened after

      Ahhh. Cheese TV. God that brings back memories. Damn it, I'm old! HOW DID THIS HAPPEN????

        Apparently you failed to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

        I used to get up at 7:30, hit record on the VCR, go back to bed and then watch Pokemon and maybe that morning's episode of DBZ after school.

        Man. Those days.

      Cheese TV, aw yeah. I'll get out of bed for that shiz. But there was some other early morning cartoon show before that came along that I watched when even younger, can't remember the name.

      I didn't watch that much of the pokemon tv series even so, but I remembered (and loved lol) most of the theme song somehow all these years.

      Only really played one of the games... on an emulator on PC lol. I liked it at first but at the time I had to be the best at everything and was quite cynical about the game so I got to a point where I started using a walkthough (lamest idea ever for pokemon) and lost interest.

      I think I'd enjoy the games way more now, that .jpg below sums it up. (http://24.media.tumblr.com/b14ce344c3b126ac29f3f30dc40c6c4f/tumblr_mgdcisTWA61rwnp75o1_500.jpg) Although I do like my shooters a lot, but not really COD... more CS/TF2/L4D1-2/QL.

      no one ever played it, only bragged about what cards they had

      Speak for yourself!

      I used to have epic Pokemon Trading Card battles. I made my own decks and had a heap of fun. My fiancée and I have even had quite a few battles (as recently as a few years ago).

    Does it make sense now?

    No :(

    I always felt like pokemon was aimed at a younger demographic to me...I was in late high school to early uni when it was becoming popular. It seemed like something along with power rangers and dragon ball z that my younger brothers were into but wasn't for me.

    Yet, right now I see many guys around my age (33) playing pokemon.


    I don't get it, and I don't think I ever will.

      Have you played it out of curiosity?

        No. I've never even been curious about it, certainly not enough to play it. I've seen others playing it, and I get bored of that pretty quickly. Just doesn't seem to appeal to me at all.

          Pick up a GBC Emulator and a Pokemon Red ROM and dedicate a couple of hours to it. If after the two hour mark you have no desire to keep playing, than the game isn't for you. At the very least you'll be able to understand the attraction after the experience.

            Make it a GBA emu and Fire Red, it's the bomb.

      I'm your age (well 34) and worked in a toy store when it first came out. I memorised the Pokemon as I thought it was neat and all the little kids loved when you could talk about the things they liked with them but I never played the games. (Always hated dbz etc).

      I did however record the cartoons so my mates and I could watch them at uni (generally at about 4 in the afternoon after just getting up) and in a certain frame of mind....none of my mates played it either. But we all said if they had made a n64 version we would have been all over it. Just the game boy didn't appeal.

      I think it was ruby and sapphire that my (now wife) and I played and it was pretty fun. Still think Nintendo should do a real version. Would buy a wiiu for that. But there's plenty of people our age who have had interest and as the games kept coming out decided to try them.

        Pokemon was called 'Pocket Monsters' in Japan and first and I think if Nintendo were to forget that then the series would be lost.

          You could argue that the pokeballs are kept in the pocket and expand from there. I do personally prefer to play the handheld versions of the game because then you can whip it out anywhere.

    I think the reason it works is because its just a good game. It's just really well made and it's a damn good idea. The competition is deep, the RPG is simple and each experience is unique to each player through the endless combinations of different Pokemon you can have,

    When people say "what's the deal" with it, I tell them that it's just a lot of fucking fun.

    Good article. :) Makes me want to get the new pokemon.

    One thing that is pokemon that you didn't cover is that it feels like actual magical animals living inside your gameboy.

    I am so excited for Pokemon X.

    Why aren't EB doing midnight launches! I don't care about GTA V, I want a damn Mega Charizard!

    The other thing you kind of glance off of is the collecting. For people who like to collect things, Pokemon is a fantastic game. You get all the joys of collecting, without the need to worry about where to put it or anything like that. it's not about the kind of collecting people do to later sell for Big Money, bust the simple joy of collecting for collecting sake. A lot of people, and especially a lot of geeky people, love collecting.

    It was also one of the first games to really push a social model, to the point they made hardware just to do it. It wasn't just that each version had it's own unique ones, it was that you could trade them, like baseball cards and such. It was one of the first games that really made you want to find someone else who plays, and bond over that sharing. Not as a two player game, but as your own game that just touches at the edges with other people's games. Social gaming without too much of the social. A lot of things we take for granted now like multiplayer and such Pokemon was on the leading edge of.

    Why did I preorder Y instead of X?

    *cries because no one will want to trade me a Charizardite X Stone*

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