The colossal popularity of Pokémon has always weirded me out a little. On the one hand, I was there in the ‘90s, and very much a member of that fandom from the beginning. I remember every kid at school having the cards, and being delighted by a new episode of the anime when I got home. But taking the videogames themselves into account is really where it gets strange.
As a kid who started learning to read so he could play Playstation RPGs like Wild Arms and Suikoden back then, I quickly learned that sharing these games with friends usually led to questions like “Where do I go next, though? Why did my character miss? But why can’t I just attack?” At the time Japanese role-playing games just weren’t that popular in America, with even Final Fantasy only being embraced by a niche audience. Something about Pokémon broke through that though. To be clear, both western and Japanese RPG mechanics are more ubiquitous today than they ever were back then. But each passing entry in the Pokémon franchise has surprised me with just how many friends and classmates were ready to bust out their handheld console and show off their team.
In many ways, with each outing the Pokémon RPGs have done their best to feel like an overtly simple but solid JRPG. It just so happens though that the monster catching subgenre that Pokémon is built around is one of the most complex. Giving players the freedom to find their own comfy space between these two dualities has always been Pokémon’s greatest strength. A kid can go through the game’s campaign and beat the Elite Four using their starter and every legendary they run into along the way if they so choose, just as someone more strategically-minded looking to break the game wide open can find any number of teams that do just that.
Monster catching RPGs got their start in the late ‘80s with the first Megami Tensei games. Many of the staple demons we expect to pop up in a new Persona or Shin Megami Tensei game today can be traced back to that first one in 1987. Series like Dragon Quest and Pokémon would go on to refine the monster catching formula and add their own wrinkles to great success, but we all know where that framework came from.
Pokémon’s aesthetic is a different story, though. The first MegaTen games either involved traversing the demon realm itself or took place in a near future post-apocalypse. Neither of these really mesh with a lighthearted tale about a kid striking out on their own. Not Ash’s story. Not Ness’s or Ninten’s story.
Ness and Ninten, of course, are from Nintendo’s JRPG series Mother, whose first two entries were an obvious influence on Pokémon. Most folks know of Ness as the kid who yells “P.K. Fire!” in Super Smash Brothers, but like Megaten, the Mother series also got its start in the late ‘80s. Ness wasn’t in the picture yet, but the first Mother game distinguished itself in 1989 by playing a lot like a Dragon Quest game, while eschewing the fantasy trappings in favor of a more down to earth setting.
Mother typically involves using magic powers to fight off an alien invasion, but the battlegrounds are modern looking cities, with speeding cars, busy streets and shopping malls. Ness’ home country of Eagleland in Mother’s sequel Earthbound is clearly a parody of American tropes fed through the lens of someone who might have only picked them up through movies, TV shows and the occasional visit.
By the time Pokémon was in development in the mid-’90s, an RPG protagonist with a red baseball cap was an established entry in the cultural consciousness. Red’s Pokémon catching means he doesn’t amass a traditional party like Ninten or Ness do in Mother, but all three have a mom at home and a busy dad that’s mostly only mentioned in dialogue. Admittedly Pokémon does away with the American visual palette, but the towns and cities of the Kanto region that trainers make their way through are still decidedly modern.
Still, none of this quite explains why the cultural high water mark left by Pokémon towers over the ones its predecessors left. Even the procession of calculated edits to the formula like Digimon, Monster Rancher and Yokai Watch have all struggled to eclipse it. For many folks out there who don’t make time to play a lot of games, a new Pokémon is the reason to buy the next Nintendo console, a killer app in a way none of the games that influenced it could hope to be.
As someone whose own interest in the series has ebbed and flowed with the passing decades, the one guess I’d put forward is these games are comforting. My go to comfort games have always been JRPGs because there’s nothing like going out on an adventure with your friends.
Pokémon doubles down on that feeling by making interpersonal player interactions a core thrust of the games through trading and trainer battles. In a time when playing a JRPG meant sitting alone in your room for hours rifling through a printed out walkthrough or wandering an open world looking for the next story sequence, Pokémon gave you a reason to do that stuff with a friend instead. It cracked the daunting complexity and scope of the JRPG, turning it into something that appealed to America’s children, and introducing generations of players to the genre. Good job, Pikachu.
Yousif Kassab writes about games, music and manga on the internet. You can find him on Twitter at @Youuuusif (four U’s).