This article about Pokémon first appeared on the old mediaareplural.ca in June, 2016.
When I was seven years old I was obsessed with Pokémon. That remained true for years, and even today I play the games, trade the cards and partake in the fandom of the series. But for some reason, every adult in my life back in the late 90s made a point of warning me that Pokémon was just a “fad” that would eventually be forgotten.
Just like the Tooth Fairy, the stork that delivers babies and the saying “coffee stunts your growth,” it proved to be another lie that would shake my faith in my elders and authority in general. Pokémon may not be the craze it was in the 90s anymore, but its fanbase is still significant. Certainly more significant than the fanbases of the Pet Rock, Cabbage Patch Kids, Pogs and Tamagotchi 20 years after their rise.
Joking aside, I don’t think the adults in my life had malicious intent when they wrongly warned me about Pokémon’s imminent downfall. Having seen a number of legitimate fads come and go myself, I admit Pokémon’s meteoric rise did mirror the start of a fad. But where it went from there is very different.
The biggest difference between Pokémon and a legitimate fad is the depth of the content. The original Pokémon games featured 151 monsters to collect, a world to explore, trainers to battle and they allowed you to battle against your friends. Not long after, the series got its own TV show and tradable card game too. If you liked Pokémon, it wasn’t hard to completely immerse yourself in it back then.
Compare that with a Tamagotchi and it’s not hard to see the difference. Sure there were a lot of them to collect, but the level of interactivity with the device was minimal. There certainly wasn’t a new world to immerse yourself in. There was a TV show, but it never made it to North America. It’s not easy to find information about it in English, let alone watch an episode.
Often, perhaps coincidentally, you can predict a fad by its name. If the whole experience is summed up by its name, it’s probably a fad. A Pet Rock isn’t anything more than a rock you pretend to take care of like a pet. Tamagotchi’s name is a portmanteau of the Japanese word for egg (tamago) and the word watch. It’s essentially a watch-sized device that allows you to hatch a virtual egg and play with the creature until you accidentally kill it several days later. Pokémon can’t be so easily summarized.
Pokémon’s depth wasn’t even limited to the original region and 151 monsters. In 1999 in Japan, 2000 elsewhere in the world, the Pokémon universe got an expansion, adding 100 new monsters, a whole new region to explore, and new trainers to battle. Other fads received updates as well, but what makes Pokémon’s different is that it substantially changed the way the games were played. There was no concept of time in the original games, but the second generation titles allowed you to play in real time, with different monsters appearing at night and during the day. There were other expansions to the game too, but suffice to say they went well beyond a simple expansion.
The series goes through these expansions, known as generations, fairly regularly. That was the second generation, but the series is now in its eighth generation since the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield last November. (When I first wrote this article, the series was just about to enter it’s seventh generation.) Each one has substantially added to and changed the game in a number of ways. It’s worth exploring these changes in a separate article. These expansions are much more substantial than a simple expansion of collectables, further separating Pokémon from the fads.
Adding new Cabbage Patch dolls to the lineup is interesting for a little while, but if you’re bored of playing with your old ones, a new doll probably isn’t going to be much more exciting. It certainly won’t re-engage you with the dolls you’re now bored of. Pokémon’s expansions, on the other hand, regularly revitalize old monsters. Kangaskhan is one of the original monsters from way back in the 90s who saw very little competitive use between generations two and five. But, when it got a new “mega evolution” in generation six, it quickly became one of the most overused Pokémon in the game.
Kangaskhan also leads me to my final point: there are many different ways to experience and play Pokémon, which often isn’t the case with a true fad. I’ve already touched on how Pokémon is a multimedia franchise in ways that most fads are not, but even if it were just a game, I think it would still evade such a classification.
There is a fairly large community of competitive Pokémon players who play the game just to battle people online and in competitions. They’re the ones who have made Kangaskhan “overused” so-to-speak, since the properties of its mega evolution make it a great battler. And it’s only within the context of competitive play that it is overused. If you’re one of the many players who don’t care about competitive battling and just enjoy the game for its story and world-building, you may not find the monster used that frequently. Some people play the game to “collect ’em all,” some people like to hunt for shiny Pokémon, some just pick up the games out of nostalgia, and some play within a particularly hard self-imposed ruleset called the Nuzlocke challenge.
All of these are valid ways to play the game, and all of them incorporate different players into the wider fandom (which also includes people who exclusively enjoy the card game [which itself includes people who just collect and people who battle competitively] and those who only watch the anime). No fad I can find has such diverse ways of experiencing the content.
So take that, adults from the 90s! Pokémon wasn’t a fad after all and I have proven so here today. Next week I will prove with media why homework, school as a whole, and other things I disliked in my youth were also wrong.