Developer: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company
Based on: Catching 'em all...then making the poor little collectible bastards fight one another to the death.
It's not too often that someone finds the formula for universal, long lasting success. Fads come and go, and what seems bleeding edge one year is little more than a cliché the next. Somehow, a man named Satoshi Tajiri did it...and all he needed to do was reach back into his own fond childhood memories to dig up a simple universal truth: kids like collecting and trading stuff. Lots of stuff. Doesn't matter if if they're coins, animals or Magic: The Gathering cards. If they can stick it in their pockets, then it's just fine with them. By tapping into this phenomenon, Tajiri created what has become one of the most monstrously successful video game franchises ever published.
Consider what Tajiri and the Pokémon Company (an offshoot of developer Game Freak) have managed since Pokémon made it big on the world stage a decade ago. The series is now on its fourth generation, and sales show no signs of abating. Fans often buy more than one copy of the same game, and many are willing to attend special events where rare monsters are given away just to be able to say they've "caught 'em all." In both Japan and America, the anime series has surpassed 500 episodes, and rosy-cheeked electric rat Pikachu adorns everything from dishware to cold masks. People clearly love their Pokémon.
The secret, of course, lies in the games themselves. Kids may come in through the anime, but it's the games that keep them hooked. Tajiri was clever enough to look at Nintendo's old brick of a Game Boy and realize that developers had been missing out on one of the system's most under-appreciated built-in hardware features, one that had lain mostly dormant since Tetris?: the link cable. He imagined a game in which kids could collect creatures and trade them with one another over the link cable, much as Japanese children often collect and trade insects. He believed that this kind of experience was unique to portable systems like the Game Boy, and was an element that previous games had failed to capitalized on. When his Pokémon Red and Green launched in Japan in 1996, he was proven right. And then some.
Pokémon is a carefully designed experience, and it does a remarkable job of grabbing the attention of new players with a series of hooks that are designed to reel them in quickly, then set them on the road to hopeless addiction. The first score, of course, is the decision that players must make at the very outset -- fire, water or grass? For many, selecting the fire-type monster Charmander was a no-brainer. For others, choosing Squirtle or Bulbasaur was just as easy. This elemental decision was a simple choice, but an important one. Three generations and more than 300 Pokémon later, most players seem to base their favored starting type on whichever Pokémon they chose first.
The second hook is the rival. The player's personal nemesis tends to be a smartmouthed little bastard, and you'll want nothing more than to put them into their place. And once you've accomplished that with your first battle, they wander off, assuring you that you'll soon meet again. Sometimes they'll even serenade you with a "smell ya later." When that happens, you know it's on. It's so on.
Not long after your first battle with your rival comes the final hook. Upon returning to the professor's lab following some errand, you are inevitably greeted with the magic words: "Your Pokémon really seems to like you!" Bingo. The game has made a personal connection between you and your companion, and that's the end of it. You'll never forget your very first Pokémon, nor what you named it. And together with your new digital pal, you're off to explore the wide world ahead of you. These hooks remain largely unchanged from game to game, as does the fundamental directive to go forth, collect lots of Pokémon, and conquer the Pokémon league. On the surface, it's a fairly simple but utterly beguiling formula that snares a new generation of youngsters with each subsequent release. Games ranging from Castlevania to Mega Man have made superficial attempts to graft collection elements into their sequels in some way or another for years now, with varying degress of success. The difference here is that collecting and trading are not just superficial mechanics in Pokémon; it's the whole experience.
Strip it down to its essence, and Pokémon becomes a dizzying array of statistics, all dressed up in the guise of adorable monsters. Some are obvious, some are not, but all of them have some sort of impact on your Pokémon. Clever fans have learned how to harness these hidden statistics, changing them from a randomizing force into the means by which a Pokémon can be trained to its maximum potential. It's up for debate whether Tajiri and company intended for players to discover the engine that drives Pokémon growth, but the addition of items that affect the distribution of the invisible stats seems to indicate that they knew it would happen sooner or later.
Mastering the art of these secret attributes -- training for ideal effort value and breeding for the best possible individual values -- is essential if you wish to become a top level Pokémon trainer. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for those who choose to go the distance to log hundreds, even thousands of hours, training Pokémon. It's the ultimate expression of the pain experienced by every RPG fan ever, whether they're playing Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest?, or Etrian Odyssey. But with ultimate pain also comes ultimate rewards. The creature that results from the Pokémon grindhouse is one guaranteed to make you proud. Pretty soon, you'll probably find yourself curiously attached to your little bundle of statistics. And there's truly nothing more satisfying than leading a team of six of these carefully-bred monsters into Pokémon's game of punch, counterpunch and prediction. At least for most people.
Not everyone is willing to subject themselves to this sort of stat-mongering. But there are other ways for those who are scared away rather than galvanized by competitive battle to enjoy Pokémon -- and have no doubt, there are plenty. For instance, it's not uncommon for players to be entranced by simply collecting every single Pokémon and placing them in numerical order in their boxes. Others are "shiny hunters" who are willing to reset their game for hours on end in their single-minded quest to find rare, pallete-swapped Pokémon, while still others are "breeders" who only want Pokémon with perfect stats and nothing else. Huge communities have sprung up around these separate segments of the Pokémon fandom, each of them convinced that theirs is the best way to play. Naturally, none of them like each other.
In the end, it really all just boils down to collection, but each variation is different enough to appeal to players of many different sensibilities. And thankfully, Pokémon is also not a game that actually needs thousands of hours to be enjoyed, though some of the more dedicated fans might argue otherwise. For most, simply venturing across each game's region, defeating all of the gym leaders and winning the Pokémon league, is enough. They may catch a few legendary Pokémon after that, but more often that the game vanishes into their drawer, never to be played again unless they happen to end up in a battle. This is a game in which players only have to go as far as they want. And Pokémon lets you go pretty damn far.
The result is a phenonemon that does a great job of retaining its fans from generation to generation while constantly pulling in curious newcomers. It's true that many of those who were in grade school when Pokémon Red arrived stateside have long since graduated to Persona 4? or Gears of War?, but plenty more have elected to stay with the series and continue training in earnest -- loyal collectors who come back year after year. And for its part, the Pokémon Company applies the same, successful formula generation after generation, developing a new region and a new clutch of Pokémon while asking that players once again collect eight badges and conquer the Pokémon League, snaring a whole new generation of youngsters each time.
Critics and longtime gamers alike often grumble about the lack of obvious change to the series from chapter to chapter, but they're largely missing the point. The main quest is for the newcomers, those kids who are too young to remember the last game as well as older gamers who are simply there to see what all the fuss is about. You could argue that Nintendo owes it to everybody to at least change the structure of the quests or the look of the battle engine, but Nintendo has no reason to try messing with success. Why risk screwing up a good thing? The serious players will be too busy training the new Pokémon or shiny hunting to notice, and the newcomers won't know the difference. Rest assured, Nintendo has Pokémon down to a science at this point. They know a good thing when they see it, and for them, Pokémon has been a very, very good thing.
Pokémania arguably salvaged the even then-ancient Game Boy, ensuring that Nintendo's portable legacy would continue even as Sega's Game Gear went into retirement. Nintendo has relied on it heavily since then, knowing that Pokémon could carry them through good times and bad, fully realizing that any challenger to the portable throne would have to go through the twin titans of Mario and Pikachu. Even Apple, an incredibly smart company with designs on the portable gaming market itself, must realize that all Nintendo has to do to move a million more Nintendo DS systems is to release something as simple as Pokémon Platinum in the States. As Sony discovered, the direct route to the top is not always the best one.
Pokémon has done an admirable job of shouldering this burden, basically becoming the ultimate realization of Nintendo's ideal of "gaming for all ages, and all different backgrounds." The magic formula of collection plus trading has proven durable for ten years now, and every few year it entrances a new group of youngsters. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Pikachu has come to equal Mario as the de facto face of Nintendo, with kids and adults around the world collecting Pokémon on buses, under school desks and in cafeterias. Sony and Apple have a long way to go before they can hope to catch up. And all because a kid named Satoshi liked collecting bugs.