Good lord, Pokémon is turning 25 this Saturday. North American fans may feel like that sounds wrong, but that date corresponds with the Japanese release date of Pokémon Red and Green on Feb. 27, 1996. The multimedia franchise made it to the rest of the world in 1998 and kicked off a global craze that would last well past the end of the 90s. In honour of the anniversary, I thought I’d look back at what it was like to be a kid during the rise and fall of Pokémania. This is a sort of first-person account of Pokémon history.
Before I begin, I want to say that if you’re also a fan of the franchise, I want to hear your perspective on Pokémon history. Did you live through the late-90s Pokémon boom? Did you become a fan later? Have you been a fan since the beginning, or did you have a period where you were too cool for it like so many 90s kids? Tell me your story either in the comments or on social media.
Back to the beginning
When did I first hear about Pokémon? I have no idea. For weeks I’ve tried to remember how I found out to no avail. I remember life before it existed and I can easily recall the craze around it, but the moment I first heard about it has escaped me.
Going from non-existent to suddenly everywhere seems to be an accurate representation of how Pokémon swept North America back in 1998. The game and the anime both came out in September, and the first set of the card game landed in January 1999. We all boarded the hype train immediately each time.
I don’t think I’ve seen a cultural phenomenon that all-encompassing since. Everyone had the cards, watched the show, and played the game, but we all also had merchandise. I can see why adults back then were so annoyed. They all wanted Pokémon to be a fad, but it clearly wasn’t. Pokémon was everything. Pokémon was a lifestyle.
The games and show offered an expansive, utopian world with recognizable yet novel fauna. It was perfect for stoking the natural curiosity of children. We were all blown away and we wanted more.
Some enterprising youngsters, as children do, catered to that desire through information economies on the playground. Did you know you can catch Mew by the truck near the S.S. Anne? I hear there are new games coming and one of the characters is Pikablu! If you watch that old guy in Viridian City catch a Pokémon, then fly to Cinnabar Island and surf along the eastern shore you’ll cause a glitch that will give you hundreds of whatever item is sixth in your bag!
Evidently, not all this information was accurate. But some was valuable, such as which stores sold legit cards instead of the fakes.
The best games in Pokémon history
I was one of the more zealous fanatics. I had both Red and Blue, and I hollered at my parents any time a supplemental game came out until they relented and bought it. And I still somehow found time to replay Red and Blue multiple times. When Pokémon Yellow came out, I snapped it up and played the hell out of it too.
Then something wild happened. They announced that sequels were coming to what was, in my 8-year-old mind, the perfect games. I spent months obsessing over the potential Gold and Silver offered. I consumed dozens of magazines offering tidbits of information such as untranslated screenshots of the Japanese game and pictures of the monsters with transliterated names. The games came out November 21, 1999, but my parents made me wait until Christmas to get a chance to play. I spent most of Christmas break that year doing just that.
Good God what a time I had. I couldn’t believe it. They had found a way to improve upon perfection.
I connected more with Gold and Silver than I did with the original games. There was a lot more to do and discover, and I loved how expansive the world felt. The game was in colour! Not a couple of half-assed swatches like Yellow. Real, full colour. And at the “end” you could go back to Kanto and see how everything had changed. It was like two games in one.
Long after Pokémania had subsided and we had moved on to other things, I still regarded Gold and Silver as the best games in Pokémon history. In all of gaming, really. They were certainly my long-reigning favourites.
Life lessons from Pokémon card magazines
Then there were the cards. I was also way more interested in these than the average kid. Among the magazines I would read in search of information about Gold and Silver were several focused on the TCG. It turned out those cards did stuff. You could play with them!
What I’m about to say is going to sound wild but bear with me. The first time I remember being totally disabused of assumptions I took to be self-evident was when I learned about which cards were good and bad thanks to those magazines. My worldview was upended by Pojo’s. Life was simpler back then.
To this day, Charizard from Base Set is the most sought-after card from that era. In fact, most ultra rare Charizard cards hold high value just because they are Charizard. On the playground, we all knew it was the best card. But Charizard, these magazines told me, was trash. It holds such value because of the big numbers on the card, but you’ll never get to use those attacks. Don’t put it in your deck unless you’re looking to lose. Instead, gather up all those Hitmonchan, Electabuzz, Scyther. You’ll need four of each.
My exact reaction to that revelation is hazy, but it would have been as close to “what the hell are these fools talking about?” as my vocabulary allowed me to get at the age of 8. “Obviously Charizard is the best. Why would you want more than one of each card? None of this makes sense.”
Making hay and dancing for rain
But I kept reading. It turned out there were decks centred on Blastoise and Alakazam too. Who on Earth came up with this stuff? The decks even had weird names like “Haymaker” and “Rain Dance”. I had never thought about the cards like that before and it opened a whole new world.
Those Trainer cards that no one wanted like Bill and Professor Oak were also pretty good according to the heathen scripture printed by Pojo’s. So, I started organizing my cards and keeping track of what I owned. I didn’t understand how these people were getting four Hitmonchan. I had one, but you would have to open so many packs to get to four. Those magazines took it to be common knowledge that you could just buy the cards individually from stores. I guess I was too short to see into the glass counter back then or something. This knowledge wasn’t among the information available on the schoolyard. Either way, I never ended up building Haymaker.
It didn’t matter because none of my friends were interested in playing. I think that’s because one of the bigger information brokers at my school was also a TCG bully. This guy found out you could play with the cards too. “You have to see this guy’s unbeatable Starmie,” someone told me one day. I wasn’t in the business of saying no to anything related to Pokémon back in ’99 so I had a look. Sure enough, no one could beat that guy’s Starmie. Of course, that’s because he and everyone else had the rules totally wrong. He was slapping energy on there like nobody’s business and using both of its attacks each turn.
That was all most kids needed to see. Though it turned out that when you follow the rules, Starmie wasn’t a very good card at all. No one else seemed to be reading Pojo’s though, so I was the only one who learned that lesson.
The beginning of the end
Alas, nothing Gold (and Silver) can stay. Pokémon unexpectedly rocked our late-90s world, somehow improved on its own incredible formula, and proved it had a longevity not appreciated by parents who were annoyed that even my bedsheets had to have pictures of monsters on them. But then, at least according to 11-year-old me, the franchise fell off.
The first warning sign came courtesy of Pojo’s. I had kept collecting cards well into the Gold and Silver era unlike most of my peers. I kept reading the magazines too and getting what felt like exclusive previews of the Japanese cards, which always came out way before their English counterparts. Then one day, I saw some for a forthcoming group of sets called the e-Reader series. Dear reader, I gagged.
The frame on those cards was atrocious to me. I would not have those cards in my house. I was running out of pages in my binder anyway, and no one ever wanted to play, so I figured I’d stick to the video games.
What a foolish error. Few people bought e-Reader era cards and as a result they are now huge collectors’ items. Holos fetch huge prices, whereas those Base Set cards we all had were nearly worthless until extremely recently, when they inexplicably became highly sought after during a pandemic. That’s a topic for another day.
I also kick myself today for not looking past the frame. Those e-Reader sets have some of the most beautiful and unique art in Pokémon history. And this is a game that has always stood out for its beautiful and unique art. I could look at e-Reader art all day. Not as a foolish child though.
Pokémon history is over, or so I thought
The e-Reader series was one thing, but when I read in one of my video game magazines that the new Pokémon games, Ruby and Sapphire, were getting rid of so many aspects of Gold and Silver that I had loved, I was livid.
How on Earth could they go backwards? It was unconscionable that these new games wouldn’t play in real-time, with morning, day, and night modes like Gold and Silver. It was an insult that you wouldn’t be able to travel to Johto and Kanto after beating the Hoenn Elite Four. No radio? No cellphone? How could they possibly improve on the designs of the new 100 Pokémon? No one consulted me on this! As far as I was concerned, it was time to find a new hobby.
As I’ve learned later in life, it’s a good idea to take breaks from things like media franchises from time to time. There is plenty of other stuff going on for you to enjoy. You don’t need to replay Gold for the 17th time. You don’t need to play every new instalment on Day 1. It’s perfectly acceptable, advisable even, to take a break.
It was also easy to do because the social pressure that led us to cover our walls with Pokémon posters and our floors with cheap toys had vanished by 2003. The information economy had collapsed long ago. A lot of people had access to this novel technology called the World Wide Web where you could get more reliable information anyway.
Pokémon was suddenly everywhere all at once back in 1998, but it didn’t disappear with the same intensity. It cooled way down, but it never became uncommon to see a kid rocking Pokémon gear. We assumed back in the early 2000s that Pokémon must be something that only appeals to little kids and our cohort had all aged out of it. I think it’s more likely that people moved on as the game’s novelty wore off. People’s parents were probably getting sick of covering their house in Pokémon memorabilia and placed embargoes on further branded goods. But the franchise never went away. Pokémon history didn’t end. It was always there, willing to welcome us back should we decide to return.
Thus began a six-year stretch of my life when I mostly avoided Pokémon. Looking back now, I really regret leaving. Not just because I missed those e-Reader cards either. The TCG was excellent all through the Ruby and Sapphire era, and the games themselves ended up being a lot better than my magazines made them sound. I found that out the hard way.
At a sleepover at a friend’s house in 2004, I had a chance to play Pokémon Sapphire. And once again, my worldview on Pokémon was rocked. Sure, the sun was up in the game even though it was 11pm, just like in the prehistoric Red and Blue games, but I was having a ton of fun. The new monsters were way cooler than I expected, and the world felt newer than even Johto had felt.
But I was just borrowing the game for half an hour to see what it was like. I promised my friend’s younger brother I wouldn’t save over his file, and even if I did it’s not like I could take the game home.
As I sat there, still playing while my friend slept, I felt a weird sense of regret. I shouldn’t have written off this game, I thought. It was then I realized I was wrong. I started getting tired, so I shut it off without saving. Before passing out, I checked to make sure I hadn’t overwritten the save file. I hadn’t, so I shut if off again and went to bed, sad.
A recurring theme of my journey is that you don’t know shit when you’re a kid.
Recent Pokémon history
The next time I played a Pokémon game wasn’t until university. In first year, my friend group decided one day in 2009 “fuck it, we’re playing Pokémon”. One guy drove us all to a local pawn shop so we could buy copies of the latest games, which then were Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum. Later that (fiscal) year, Nintendo released updated versions of Gold and Silver, and I was transported back to the halcyon days of my youth. The first games to dethrone Gold and Silver as the premier gaming experience was literally HeartGold and SoulSilver. I am a meme, I know this.
Then, Pokémon history repeated itself again. Black and White got rid of a bunch of features HGSS brought to the table and I took a break from the franchise for a while. Also, you know, university kind of occupied a lot of my time. I’ve played every new mainline game since, and I even got back into the card game for a few years.
Since coming back, my interest has ebbed and flowed depending on what the games are like and what’s going on in my life. When I was unemployed after university, I started getting into 1v1 competitive battling. I found it difficult to devote the time needed to train teams once I landed a job, but I ended up following the TCG again. I bought individual cards this time, built proper decks, and played in tournaments. Unfortunately, I found there were few other people in my age range doing the same, so I moved on to other games.
Still, I enjoyed the game and I haven’t written off going back some day if I can find people to play with. And I’ll always pick up new major video game releases. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my careful observations of Pokémon history, it’s that the franchise is going to be there for me whenever I decide to come back to it.