Kadabra returns, a weird chapter in Pokémon history ends

In this week’s event that no one had on their 2020 Bingo card, the magician Uri Geller announced he would allow Pokémon to resume using Kadabra on trading cards.

I don’t blame you if you just went “what?” But it’s an interesting part of Pokémon’s history, and a development that nerds like me probably thought would never happen.

So, here’s the story of why Pokémon hasn’t printed a Kadabra card since 2003 and why that may soon change.

Early Poké-history

The early days of Pokémon give off major startup vibes. Which makes sense since Game Freak, the company that made the games, was a startup. It used to be a self-published magazine run by Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori, but in 1989, the two decided to start making video games under the same name. Game Freak started working with Nintendo and pitched the idea for Pokémon, which Nintendo green lit despite apparently not understanding the concept. It took six years, but on February 27, 1996, the company released Pokémon Red and Green.

There are a few reasons why I say Game Freak had startup vibes. What’s relevant to this story is the naming of early creatures. References to real-world people were a lot more common in the early days than they are now. It seems like their designers could get away with a lot more. You probably know Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee reference Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, respectively, but did you know their Japanese names reference different fighters? Hitmonchan is Ebiwalar, referencing Japanese world champion boxer Hiroyuki Ebihara, and Hitmonlee is Sawamular, named after famous kickboxer Tadashi Sawamura.

They weren’t the only ones to reference real people. The Japanese names for Abra (Casey), Kadabra (Yungerer), and Alakazam (Foodin) do as well, referring to Edgar Cayce, Uri Geller, and Harry Houdini. (It’s helpful to see the Japanese way of spelling Kadabra’s name to understand the reference. Kadabra’s name is spelled ユンゲラー while Geller’s is ユリゲラー. The second character is shifted to one that makes a different sound but is visually similar.)

And therein lies the trouble.

Kadabra controversy

Four versions of Kadabra from the Pokémon Trading Card Game
From left to right: Kadabra from Base Set, Dark Kadabra from the Team Rocket expansion, Kadabra from Expedition, and the final Kadabra card to be printed, which was in Skyridge.

Geller wasn’t happy about the apparent reference. And the references to Geller seem to go beyond just the name. The evolutionary line has telekinetic abilities and Kadabra and Alakazam both hold spoons, which they bend. Geller’s shticks as a magician are psychokinesis, telepathy and spoon bending.

In December 1999, Geller first announced his intention to sue Nintendo. An article in The Guardian says he found out about Kadabra while Christmas shopping in Tokyo. He took issue with what he described then as “a straight theft of my persona” and said he would not have given permission for his likeness to be used to create an “aggressive and, in one case, evil character”. The evil character refers to Dark Kadabra (Bad Yungerer in Japan), which appeared in the Team Rocket expansion.

By November 2000, Geller had launched the suit. At that time, he also alleged the wavy marks on what the BBC called Kadabra’s chest but which is clearly a pelvis were allusions to the Nazi SS. I can’t find Nintendo’s response to that allegation, but some accounts online say it’s a reference to Zener cards. The suit was apparently tossed out of court, though I’ve had trouble finding the specifics on that too. Former anime director Masamitsu Hidaka told Pokébeach in 2008 the case hadn’t been settled and the company wasn’t allowed to use Kadabra on a card until an agreement was reached.

That brings us to Saturday Nov. 28, 2020, when Geller announced on Twitter he had a change of heart on the issue and was “releasing the ban” on Kadabra. This came a day after a story in thegamer.com about Kadabra’s absense from the TCG.

How to get to Alakazam without Kadabra

one Abra and three Alakazam cards from the Pokémon Trading Card Game
From left to right: Abra and Alakazam from Mysterious Treasures, Alakazam EX and Alakazam V.

If you’re familiar with the mechanics of the Pokémon TCG, you know not being able to print Kadabra makes it difficult to print Abra and Alakazam. For those who don’t know: Pokémon in the TCG evolve just like they do in the games. To play a Stage 2 Pokémon like Alakazam, you first must play a Basic (Abra), then wait a turn and evolve it into the corresponding Stage 1 (Kadabra), then wait another turn before that can evolve. There is an item called Rare Candy that allows you to evolve straight from Basic to Stage 2, but you would still want a copy or two of the Stage 1 in your deck as a backup plan. The game designers would have to get creative to make Abra and Alakazam work.

And they did! Exactly one time. The 2007 set Diamond & Pearl: Mysterious Treasures featured an Abra with a move that let players search their deck for an Alakazam card to evolve into. That Alakazam card contains the last reference to Kadabra in the TCG, since it mentions Alakazam evolves from Kadabra. Pokémon has not made an Abra card since.

Alakazam has fared better thanks to a few times the Pokémon TCG has skirted its own rules on Stage 2s. You may have noticed it’s a somewhat convoluted process to get one into play. For much of the game’s history, people have opted not to even bother. Pokémon has gone back and forth between incentivizing people to play evolution cards and making special versions of Stage 2 monsters that you can play as a Basic. Any time the latter was the case, Alakazam got a card. And unlike the Mysterious Treasures one, there was no need to mention Kadabra at all since the cards didn’t evolve.

A mind’s eye toward the future

Somehow Abra is not the Basic Pokémon from the first 150 with the fewest even though it hasn’t gotten a new one since 2007. It has 12 cards, but poor Krabby only has 10. Krabby doesn’t have legal issues to blame for that low number. Venonat and Hitmonlee each have 11 cards while Shellder also has 12.

Those numbers go to show how weird this situation is. Abra got 11 of those 12 by 2003 while the other Pokémon’s numbers reflect 1996 to present day. Clearly the Alakazam line is important to Pokémon in ways Krabby’s line never will be. The Basic Alakazam cards suggest that as well. And thanks to those cards, Alakazam has appeared on 13.

It takes a long time for new TCG sets to be developed, so it’ll probably be a couple of years before we see a new Kadabra card. But it seems certain that we will. I’m excited for the space Pokémon can explore with the line now that its middle evolution isn’t verboten. Based on the state of the metagame though, it has a 0% chance of seeing competitive play. The game is in a period where the designers have opted to print big Basics at the expense of Stage 2s. Poor Kadabra just can’t catch a break.

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