Last weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Pokémon Red and Blue (or Red and Green in their native Japan), the first video games in a series that truly would take over the world.
The phenomenon that began in 1996 was slow to build. It was two years before the games were released in the US, and more than three before European children like me could play them. But by the time Pokémon arrived here, it was a ready-made pop culture explosion, with a TV series, trading cards and endless merch arriving from Japan alongside those weird, compelling, extraordinary Game Boy games. Pretty much nobody over the age of 11 in the year 1999 escaped Pokémon’s gravitational pull.
I was exactly the right age to be carried along on the first wave of Pokémania, which means that its 25th anniversary celebrations make me feel old. I begged my parents for years for a Game Boy, specifically to play Pokémon. My first experiences with Pokémon were reading about it in my Nintendo magazines, running a version of it in my imagination that was absolutely the greatest video game of all time.
What I discovered instead when my parents relented and bought me and my brother a Game Boy Color was a rudimentary-looking and strangely captivating game that turned out to be as much about maths as about collecting and battling monsters. Pokémon had millions of kids doing algebra voluntarily, mentally computing type advantages and movesets and evolution stats, studying tables of numbers in our guidebooks before deciding on the makeup of our squads.
Pokémon’s story is a classic childhood fantasy, retold more or less the same way for a quarter of a century now, stories about kids going out into the world and making their mark on it. Adults in the Pokémon universe are in the background, like Professor Oak or your mum, supportive and loving but barely present. Pokémon’s worlds are ones in which kids call the shots, as in Narnia and Harry Potter, and that’s part of what makes them so captivating at the right age. At 11, I thrilled at accumulating endless arcane Pokémon knowledge – monsters’ names, their types, attacks, what level they evolved at – because it was like knowing a secret language unknown to adults.
Kids today, in their millions, are still experiencing that thrill. It’s easy to assume that Pokémon peaked in the year 2000, when it first broke through into pop culture, but it’s maintained its popularity over the decades. Sword and Shield, the most recent games on Nintendo Switch, sold 20m copies – as much as 1999’s Gold and Silver.
Unlike Zelda, my other childhood Nintendo obsession, Pokémon hasn’t really grown with me. Plenty of adults play Pokémon – some earn a living from it, on YouTube or Twitch – but for me, no subsequent Pokémon game really recaptured the wonder of those rudimentary, monochrome Game Boy worlds, no matter how much prettier and easier to play they became. After 10 years or so without picking up a Pokémon game I was briefly consumed again by Black and White in my early 20s, when I was making frequent trips to Japan and working in an office where lunchtime battles and trades were commonplace – but I don’t think I could name a single one of the new monsters they introduced. For me the Pokédex will always stop at 151.
And yet Pokémon is a huge part of my cultural consciousness, as it is for my whole gaming generation, and our fondness for it endures – as evidenced by the fact that I just spent a truly absurd amount of money on a custom-made Charizard shirt, in tribute to my very first Pokémon. When Pokémon Go arrived in 2016, it wasn’t kids that I most often met roaming the streets in search of virtual monsters to catch on their phones – it was millennials, like me, in our late 20s or 30s. Younger generations have the same attachment to the later games’ Pokémon and regions as I do to Kanto. When Nintendo announced a couple of new games set in Sinnoh, from 2006’s Diamond and Pearl, it was the elders of Gen Z setting Twitter alight with delight. Whichever Pokémon game you play at that impressionable age, that’s the one that becomes a part of your personal nostalgic tapestry.
A wonderful thing about Pokémon in 2021 is that it has now become properly cross-generational. The first kids with Pikachu lunchboxes are becoming parents. The Pokémon Company clearly knows this, releasing nostalgic remakes of the older games that let younger children play along with their parents, such as 2018’s Let’s Go Pikachu, a smart and accessible mashup of Red and Blue and Go (my son, who was only two at the time, hated it, sadly – it was known in our house as “No No Pikachu”). When I covered the Pokémon World Championships in Washington in 2014, I met many beaming parents whose pride in their junior-division Pokémon prodigies warmed my heart.
Pokémon makes no sense unless you played it as a child. The last time I was in a pub with my squad of parent pals, I had to break off an anecdote about going for a date in a Pokémon Center in Japan to explain, through peals of uncontrollable, baffled laughter, what a Pokémon Center was. (It’s a place where totally cool and normal people go to meet up for trades and battles, OK!?)
But for those of us who grew up with it, Pokémon will always be a small part of who we are. Twenty-five years on, it is well on its way to joining Disney in the annals of timeless children’s fiction.