Hitting the Books: How Pokemon took over the world
The impact of Japanese RPGs on pop and gaming culture cannot be overstated. From Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star to Chrono Trigger, NieR, and Fire Emblem — JRPGs have spanned console generations, bridged the Japanese and North American markets, spawned entire universes of IP and delivered critical commercial hits for nearly four decades. Modern gaming simply wouldn’t exist as it does today if not for the influence of JRPGs.
In his newest book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs, Aidan Moher takes a wondrous in-depth look at the history of Japanese role playing games, their initial rise in the East, the long road to acceptance in the West and ultimate cultural impact the world over. In the excerpt below, Moher explores how Pokemon grew from Gameboy screens to become a multi-billion dollar entertainment juggernaut.
Excerpted from Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs by Aidan Moher. Published by Running Press. Copyright © 2022 by Aidan Moher. All rights reserved.
Though it takes many cues from Japanese games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Genshin Impact was developed and published by Chinese developer/ publisher miHoYo. Thanks to gorgeous visuals, free-to-play accessibility, multi-platform release, and easy-to-pick-up-impossible-to-put-down gacha-based gameplay, it took the gaming world by storm after its 2020 release.
Game Boy not only provided greater access to video games thanks to its low price, but it subsequently changed the way we play games. About the size of a mass-market paperback novel, and just barely pocketable, the Game Boy leaned heavily on Nintendo franchises, including Mario and Donkey Kong, and—equally important for a device marketed for children—a ton of tie-in games for popular television shows and movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park, and Star Trek.
The appeal for kids? Gaming where mom and dad couldn’t see the action — a private world of adventure. The appeal for adults? Appealing puzzle games, fewer back spasms from sitting cross-legged on the floor two feet from the TV, and a smaller, quieter way to keep the kids distracted before dinner.
“Game Boy had the advantage of being the first on the market before other major competitors,” explained Smithsonian Magazine. Though Sega and Atari soon followed with their own consoles, complete with color screens, they faced an uphill battle against Nintendo’s aggressive strategy of leaning into tech that was older, but also more efficient, affordable, and reliable. Like many ’90s kids, my first game console was the Game Boy. I was a computer game fiend, and we’d rent a NES with a couple of games now and then, but those were ephemeral promises of living room gaming that wouldn’t become reality for a few more years.
After its debut, the Game Boy was rife with puzzle games and character platformers, but by 1993, it had blossomed into a full-fledged adventuring machine thanks to familiar franchises like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and even Wizardry. The game that really sold the system’s capabilities, however, was a new entry in Nintendo’s ambitious The Legend of Zelda series. And, like many others, I was already a big Zelda fan by the time Link’s Awakening released in August 1993 thanks to its Super NES predecessor The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
What living room game consoles offered in scope, visual pop, and impressive technology, portables matched with their flexibility, bite-sized content, and on-the-go possibilities. Every morning, my friend and I would meet under a blanket of dew at our elementary school. Sitting side by side for warmth, Game Boys clutched in chilled fingers, we’d explore Koholint Island on individual journeys to waken the Wind Fish. The intimacy of this youthful bonding cemented Link’s Awakening as a core gaming experience in my life, all made possible by the Game Boy.
Though A Link to the Past and the entire Legend of Zelda series no doubt influenced a lot of JRPGs, especially puzzle-based games like Wild Arms or Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, its categorization as a JRPG is debatable. Personally, I don’t quite consider it a JRPG due to its lack of customizability, but there’s definitely enough overlap in mechanics, pacing, story construction, and so on to create an overlapping Venn diagram of fans.
Imagine the giddy power rush of being a kid with a whole universe in your pocket, out of sight of parents and siblings, with no lobbying for TV screen time required. At first blush, the handheld’s small screen might be considered a flaw, but the paradoxical reality was that the smallness leant to the understanding that it was a personal-sized portal to another world. Only room for one. Plus, you could pop in the cheap Nintendo-provided headphones and the world outside disappeared entirely.
Link’s Awakening was a revelation, a journey into the unknown that belonged only to me.
It was euphoric.
And then . . . there was Pokémon.
In a video review of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (discussed in Chapter 6), YouTube channel Austin Eruption examined Square’s failed attempts at catalyzing the Western JRPG market during the early ’90s. “The concept of the entry RPG would be more successful . . . not with Square, but with Nintendo’s wildly popular Pokémon,” they said. “It turns out kids are super down to play RPGs, they just gotta have cute and cool monsters to collect.”
In 1996, Japanese schoolyards were buzzing thanks to the new Game Boy game published by Nintendo called Pocket Monsters. Kids traded tips, creatures, and blows across Game Boys connected by a link cable. These newly trained Pokémon trainers, as they’re called in the game, couldn’t get enough of the 151 unique, cute, and catchable creatures.
Before it was about catching monsters, however, Pocket Monsters was conceptualized by its insect-obsessed creator, Satoshi Tajiri, as a bug-catching simulator. Known to his classmates as “Mr. Bug,” Tajiri spent his childhood dreaming of becoming an entomologist and studying bugs for a living . . . that is until he discovered arcade games like Space Invaders. Though his professional ambitions shifted focus to bits, bytes, and programming scripts, his love for bug collecting remained, and at just twenty-four years old he came up with the idea for what would eventually become Pocket Monsters.
Before his buggy dreams became a reality, Tajiri founded Game Freak in 1989 with Masuda and artist Ken Sugimori, and released his first game, Mendel Palace, the same year. A grid-based puzzler, this game was completely unlike Pocket Monsters, but its success encouraged Tajiri and helped solidify Game Freak. The following year, Tajiri saw two Game Boys tethered by a link cable, and his concept for a bug-catching simulator sprang to life. He saw opportunity not only for players to be able to share and collect bugs, but to competitively face off against one another on their linked Game Boys.
It took over two years after its Japanese release for Pocket Monsters to reach western shores, finally releasing in September 1998 as Pokémon. With its release on the ten-year-old handheld and with the more powerful Game Boy Advance on the horizon, Nintendo released Pokémon on a whim, expecting the series to arrive as a chunky, but relatively unnoticed, oddity before the Game Boy Advance took over. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the weird little Japanese phenomenon appealed to kids in the West just as much as it had to children in its home country. Playgrounds across the United States and Canada were suddenly crawling with kids obsessing over Pikachus, Charmanders, and Mewtwos.
“Although it was made in Japan,” wrote culture writer Matt Alt for the BBC, “for a moment at the turn of the 21st Century, no corner of the world was immune from what came to be called ‘Pokémania.’” Scrambling in the wake of this unexpected success, Nintendo quickly localized the anime spinoff for an American audience to further capitalize on the video game’s hype. A short year later, the follow-up movie adaptation was so popular that phone boards were overwhelmed as tens of thousands of parents and fans sought tickets.
Pokémon’s defining feature was its dual-cartridge release: Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Blue Version. The catch was that while each version had most of the same Pokémon available to catch, there were a few dozen available only in one version or the other. To “catch ’em all,” as the game’s tagline implored young Pokémon trainers, you had to find another player who owned the other cartridge. I chose Pokémon Blue, and with a set of fully charged AA batteries powering my Game Boy, I started a new game and settled on Bulbasaur as my starting companion. What followed was an experience that made Link’s Awakening feel like The Hobbit—and now I was playing Lord of the Rings. I soon caught more Pokémon for my party: a cute bird called Pidgey, a caterpillar that ensnared foes in silk webbing, and a bucktooth rodent known as Rattata. By the end of my first play session, these little critters became so much more than characters in a game; they tapped into that Tamagotchiesque sense of ownership and quickly became as beloved as my childhood pets.
This wasn’t a party of adventurers; it was a family.
Pokémon put players in the role of a newly minted trainer named Red. (Or anything else they chose to name him within the seven-character limit. My first name fit with room to spare.) Alongside rival Blue, Red arrives at Professor Oak’s Pokémon lab to choose one of the three starter Pokémon: the aforementioned Bulbasaur and Charmander, and the terrapin-like Squirtle. New Pokémon in tow, you leave your hometown on an adventure through Kanto region—a fictional game universe based loosely on Japan’s own Kanto region. With the goal of becoming the region’s greatest Pokémon trainer, you visit Kanto’s eight gyms, wherein you challenge their leaders, powerful Pokémon trainers who focus on particular types of Pokémon, like water-type or electric-type, to earn badges. Conquering the gym leaders then gives you the right to challenge the Elite Four. Defeat them, and the title of Pokémon Champion awaits.
Pokémon combined the sprawling adventure of the JRPG with a narrative focused on personal conflict and growth—not the end of the world. If anything, Kanto felt idyllic, a Star Trek–esque utopia where humans had moved beyond such pettiness as war or raising vengeful gods to destroy their enemies. With nothing else to do, Kanto’s inhabitants could spend their days training the critters crawling through tall grass, prowling in dark caves, and lurking beneath the waves.
Link’s Awakening felt like a limitless adventure at the time, but in reality, there was one critical path to victory, and each player solved the game by following the same steps in roughly the same order. Pokémon was different. Placing the player in a vast world populated by 151 collectable Pokémon, it created an experience that was as unique and individualized as each of its players. Love cute Pokémon and want to fill your team with Pikachus and Eevees? It’s possible. Want to overpower your starter Pokémon, grind your way through the game, and defeat the Elite Four through brute force? Go for it. Obsessed with Psyduck? Um, sure. I guess.
Pokémon offered so much variety and customization for how the player approached building and training their team that each kid could play it in their own way, opening the door to a new style of accessibility lacking in similar games. Kids cared for their Pokémon, and being able to show off a rare or powerful catch on the playground was a badge of honor. And because of its portable nature, Pokémon was able to experience the same social dynamics that drove other popular schoolyard phenomena. It was like Tamagotchi—without the midnight wake-up calls. While other JRPGs gave the player some customization options for their party characters, it was nowhere near the endless possibility of Pokémon’s gotta-catch-’em-all depth.
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