A little yellow rodent with red cheeks, a bolt-shaped tail, and a fondness for electricity—sound like a character you recognize? Pop culture icons are known to transcend their medium, such as Mickey Mouse’s appearance in the Kingdom Hearts series or the Mario brothers in their own Saturday morning cartoon. But few series have managed to remain so prevalent and long-lasting as Pokemon, the Japanese series that audiences have been enjoying since 1995. The little cartoon creatures have existed as trading cards, video games, anime, and its mascot, Pikachu, has even made a regular appearance at the Macy’s Day Parade. But what is it about Pokemon that keeps audiences coming back for more, even twenty years later?
Pokemon, in short, has something for everyone. Let’s start with the idea of having a pet. Since releasing the original 151 back in 1995, the series has expanded to 719, with more to be expected. There’s a lot of room for innovation there, and the series’ creators have taken advantage of it. We have everything from electric rodents to sentient rocks, from dragon-like sea monsters to forest spirits, and even guardians of time and space. Some are seemingly normal, like an ordinary bird. Others are quirky, like a ninja frog. If somehow you can’t find something to like in such a wide selection, just wait—there’s sure to be more to come.
Then there’s the foundational plot of each and every Pokemon adventure: you’re a young boy or girl who gets their first Pokemon and decides to explore the world and become a Pokemon master. Along the way, you’ll fight off evil organizations, compete with your own rival at every turn, and become the very best (like no one ever was). There’s no talk of money or danger—it’s an almost dream-like vision of the world. Time seems to stand still—there’s never any indication that the player needs to be home for dinner, the world is a safe place for a child to run around, and everyone you meet is friendly and ready to have a Pokemon battle. Yes, it’s a “perfect world” and totally unrealistic, but it’s a world that people want to get lost in. Even now, as a senior in college, I wouldn’t mind hopping on my bike and riding off into the sunset with my Pokemon.
What it all boils down to in the end is that the world of Pokemon is a world of warmth, ambition, and purpose. Just think of the lyrics to the anime’s first theme: “Every challenge along the way, with courage I will face / I will battle everyday to claim my rightful place. / Come with me, the time is right, there’s no better team, / Arm in arm we’ll win the fight, it’s always been our dream.” This idea that you, the player, are destined to be the very best is a powerful one, especially at such a young age. Again, I wouldn’t mind getting lost in a world like that.
But the moral of the story is always the same: harmony with nature, or as the series puts it, humankind and Pokemon living in harmony. Plenty of critics have pointed out that Pokemon is essentially animal cage matches. In our world, maybe that would be the case. But in our world, animals aren’t as expressive (with a few exceptions). This is the natural order of this world, and in the end, they don’t die or even seem to be seriously injured. There’s a whole (free) healthcare system in place for the creatures. They have clear opinions of their trainers. It becomes more than a human-animal connection. Nearly every one of the shows many songs talk about Pokemon being mankind’s best friends. Together, these teams are unstoppable.
So what does this say about us, a culture that seems to embrace Pokemon wholeheartedly? My interpretation is that no matter where we are in our lives, we all have some kind of childlike wonder in our hearts. We want a world where we can leave home one day and become a Pokemon master, then return home and find everything and everyone we love right there, waiting for us. The trainers in the anime and games are as diverse as their Pokemon; there are swimmers, street thugs, hikers, psychics, fanatics, children, bird trainers, insect hunters, and gym leaders, to name a few. In the latest generation, Pokemon X and Y, the player travels with four friends which include your neighbor and rival, someone who wants to complete their Pokedex, someone who wants to learn dance choreography with their Pokemon, and your standard Pokemon trainer. It’s pointing out that there’s no one true way to experience the world of Pokemon. Do what you feel called to do, and the rest will fall into place.
Twenty years later, and Pokemon is still going strong. You can still buy trading cards, you can still turn on the TV and catch an episode, and you can definitely keep playing the video games. It’s a cultural phenomenon that just won’t go away, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In a world that some claim is getting darker by the day, maybe we all need a place to escape — a world of imagination and wonder, filled with creatures unlike any we’ve seen before, each with its own history and purpose. At the end of the day, it reminds you that you can always be the very best, like no one ever was.