Rewind to the late ’90s. Like any time period, it was filled with fads: Tamagotchi and Giga Pets, Old Navy tech vests, the Macarena, JNCO jeans and the all-mighty Pog. And like the pet rocks and snap bracelets of preceding decades, most turn-of-the-millennium trends fizzled out like a can of citrusy Surge soda. But one craze managed to dodge the bullet of short consumer attention span, and is still going strong over a decade later: those super-cute critters from Japan, Pokémon.
Last Sunday, the newest pair of Pokémon video games, Pokémon Black Version and Pokémon White Version for the Nintendo DS, was released in North America — and shattered the 15-year-old franchise’s sales records. In just one day, 1.08 million units were sold. The previous Pokémon one-day sales record, 780,000, was set by Pokémon Diamond Version and Pokémon Pearl Version in 2007. Behind Mario, Pokémon is Nintendo’s most popular property.
What started out as a couple of Game Boy video games in 1996 has exploded into an international, multibillion-dollar media empire. The original games were released in North America in 1998, and since then, Nintendo has cranked out over a whopping 60 Pokémon video games, an animated TV series (now in its 14th season), over a dozen feature films, comic books, a trading card game, a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon (which celebrated its tenth appearance in November) and a squad of jet planes.
So what, you may be asking, gives Pokémon its unholy death grip on the American populace? Let’s break it down:
Kid-tested, kid-approved. It’s no secret that kids make up a big chunk of the Pokémon-consuming population. As Tony the Tiger’s taught us, children respond positively to cute, cartoon mascots, and Pokémon are as cute as the dickens. Unlike the Power Rangers (too humanoid) or Troll dolls (too naked), Pikachu and the gang are easily transformed into plush figurines, ski hats and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese varieties. Plus, the premise of the core line of games — “Gotta catch ’em all” — appeals to kids’ competitiveness, as they try to collect all 150+ varieties of Pokémon within a single title, and battle them against each other with their friends.
Adults play too. While older gamers may be taciturn to admit it, many still play Pokémon. Sales numbers like 1.08 million in 24 hours signals two things: (1) When the figure is that big, there is clearly at least some of the 18+ demographic involved; (2) If a game sells that quickly, the public pretty much know what to expect, and they want in. Many Pokémon fans are ’90s kids who grew up playing the games, and they know they’re addictive and often critically-acclaimed.
A sprawling mythology. Like Harry Potter, Star Wars and other pop culture phenoms, Pokémon has constructed a detailed universe that encourages an enthusiastic, escapism-seeking fan base. Currently, there are over 600 known types of unique Pokémon creatures, each with its own set of special attacks, habitat and behavior, evolutionary stages and appearance. Yes, that’s 600. It’s truly quite engrossing, and allows people a selection of taxonomical proportions from which to choose a favorite critter. (Surely you noticed at least some of your Facebook friends participating in “Pokémon Profile Picture December“?)
A solid gaming formula. I don’t care if you’re a fifth grader, a housewife, or the road-hardened leader of your local Hells Angels chapter — if you play Pokémon, you’ll probably like it. An addictive strategy game, it’s easy to learn, promotes interconnectivity with other players through Wi-Fi trading and battling, is void of gore and guns, sells for relatively cheap in comparison to many top-line games (the new titles retail for $35), and is nice to look at. Not only has the property done a really good job of infiltrating nearly every realm of entertainment media, but the quality of the video games, the crux of the franchise, backs everything else up and keeps the empire on its feet.
A lynchpin franchise for the gaming world, omnipresent in the pop cultural consciousness, and a money-making behemoth, Pokémon might be — unlike Furbies — in this thing for the long haul. You’d just better get used to it.
So, PopWatchers, are you big Pokémon fans? Or does its continued cultural dominance make you feel like this: