I Choose You

Why Pokémon has remained in our hearts for the last 20 years


It was 1999, and I had just moved to a new home and a new school. I was really shy then, so it was hard to make new friends. Eating lunch and playing in the school yard by myself got pretty lonely really fast, so I finally decided to work up the courage to try to introduce myself to some kids on the playground.

One day, I nervously walked up to my classmates in the middle of recess while they were playing with their Game Boys, and tried my best to make new friends. My attempt quickly went astray, however. I didn’t have a Game Boy at the time. Also, how was I supposed to know what the hell a “poké de mon” was? It ended with the kids laughing at me and calling me a loser. Ill-equipped and obviously behind in what was “cool,” I walked back to my spot up against the brick wall, alone, and waited for recess to end.

When I got home from school, I spent an hour pleading with my mother to take me to the mall to buy something I had never even heard of before that day. After chipping away at my mother’s patience for an hour straight, she begrudgingly agreed to take us to the mall.

I stood in the aisle of the Best Buy, staring at these two boxes for what seemed like an eternity. One had a gnarly looking fire dragon on it. The other had beastly looking turtle with cannons coming out of its shell. It was a 10 year old’s Sophie’s Choice. I didn’t know what kind of journey awaited me inside these boxes, but I came to the conclusion that having a fire breathing dragon was a no-brainer. It has only been every boy’s fantasy since forever.

Once back home, I inserted my Pokémon Red cartridge into my brand new Game Boy. I chose Charmander as my starter. He would soon become my new best friend, and he and I would show those kids at school that I was cool enough to hang out with them.

I fired up my game and proceeded to roam the land of Kanto for the next five hours. The game was so entertaining I had forgotten about dinner, I had forgotten about my homework, and I had even forgotten the reason I had needed to buy and play the game in the first place. In those first few hours, I actually stopped caring about the kids at school (spoiler: they became my friends once I showed up with Charizard) and all I cared about was wanting to be the very best, like no one ever was! And so began my life long love of Pokémon.

Generations of kids all around the world have experienced similar memories and feelings over the past two decades with this media franchise. 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of Pokémon, and Nintendo has spared no expense to commemorate this landmark occasion. From special events held in Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo, to the distribution of mythical Pokémon leading into the releases of Pokémon Go and Pokémon Sun and Moon; Pokémon is showing no signs of it’s relevancy diminishing.

Beyond the celebrations and the new games, Pokémon’s popularity continues long after other franchises have faded. Sure, it has cute monsters that can still put a smile on a 30-year-old’s face, and yes, it has a world brimming with charming characters and catchy theme songs, but the original concept of the franchise is what has created an indescribable soft spot in our hearts for Pikachu and his pals all these years later: There is something inherently personal to Pokémon’s original concept and design.

At its heart, Pokémon is all about friendships and the bonds that bring us together.

From the moment you turn on a Pokémon game, you are allowed to choose a partner who will join you on your adventure. During this adventure, you befriend other Pokémon to fill up your roster, while you and your original partner grow closer together. Every single Pokémon has a different personality and feelings that are all their own. When you show Pokémon affection, they feel it and reciprocate that affection by listening to you and being by your side every step of your journey together; much in the same way animals in reality do. Neglect your partner, and you will find that they become bitter and sad, and will ignore you.

During the game, you will also meet people who bond with you over each others mutual love for Pokémon. These people help you by giving you advice, sharing helpful items, or just helping you and your Pokémon become a stronger team.

The meeting of people doesn’t just pertain to non-playable characters in the game. Since the original games debuted in Japan in 1996, they have always allowed players to come together and experience the joy of Pokémon through trading Pokémon with each other and battling one another.

The ethos of friendship is integrated into the Pokémon franchise. The Pokémon trading card game is all about collecting and trading with others for your favorite Pokémon and making a team to battle other trainers. In the Pokémon anime, protagonist Ash Ketchum is always traveling with companions and making new friends who share his love of catching and training Pokémon. Not to mention him traveling everywhere with his best friend and most iconic Pokémon, Pikachu.

Making new relationships and going on adventures is central to why Pokémon is beloved by many people old and young, and has endured as along as it has. Even the idea behind this wonderful franchise came from the experiences of an eccentric game designer from Japan, who wanted to share the joy of catching bugs and sharing them with friends.

Satoshi Tajiri is the man behind the creation of Pokemon. In a 1999 interview with Time Magazine, he explained that the notion behind Pokémon was for people to experience his love catching bugs with the other kids in his neighborhood. He chose to make Pokémon for the Game Boy console because of the link cable. This “link” cable connected two players consoles and allowed them to not just battle each other, but to share the Pokémon they had caught with each other. At the time, no other personal console had the ability to do that.

“With a communication cable, it’s one-on-one and the players pick who they play against. It doesn’t really get aggressive. It’s an intricate style of communication. Almost subtle,” Tajiri told Time.

It is this mechanic that made Pokémon more than just a video game. It made Pokémon an avenue that allowed people to connect with one another over their common love of catching and collecting Pokémon.

Janna Yukimenko, 25, is someone who understands the power of community and inclusion Pokémon can create. An administrator on The PokéCommunity forums, she recalls the importance Pokémon has had in her life.

“ I got into Pokémon around when I had just moved to America from Russia. I could hardly speak a lick of English, but I soon discovered the TV show to get me started. I loved the story and the monsters so I watched any episode I stumbled upon. With the help of the anime and people in my class, I was able to learn speak-able English very fast. Without this TV series it would have been more awkward for a longer while,” said Yukimenko.

Yukimenko and her favorite Pokemon. Drawing by Queenie Snow Tang

With its friendly themes and relatively low price point to play, Pokémon has also been the catalyst that introduced many people to the awesome world of video games. Gamers can attest to how memorable their first time playing a video game can be. For some, it can be life changing and determine what they want to do when they grow up.

Nicole Morales was one of those kids. She is 26 and a Market Manager for Xbox. She credits Pokémon for introducing her to the world of gaming. When she was a child, she and her family were flying out to Massachusetts. Morales parents knew her and her sister liked to bicker incessantly, as siblings do when they are young. To quell the girls’ misbehavior on a long flight, her father bought her and her sister a pair of Game Boy Colors and Pokémon Red and Blue version.

On the flight over, Morales and her sister played it the entire time. From the moment she chose her first Pokémon to join her on their journey through the imaginary lands of the Kanto region, she was hooked.

“It opened a whole new world. It got me interested in the field of gaming, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Charmander.”

All these years later, Morales is still an avid Pokémon fan. With the re-release of the original Pokémon versions on the Nintendo eShop, she is currently playing through the game that started it all on her Nintendo 3ds. She still has a soft spot for her original Game Boy and game though. “My sister and I still have our original Game Boys with Pokémon still inside. I would never sell it because of what it means to me,” said Morales.

Pokémon has had many games, anime adaptations, and movies over the years, but the franchise is only poised to grow even bigger with the release of Pokémon Go on smartphones this year and a pair of new games in the main series this fall.

Pokémon Go will allow us all to finally go out into the real world and geographically catch all of our favorite monsters through the power of our very own Pokédex, i.e. smartphones. And Pokemon Sun and Moon will take us to a whole new region with new Pokémon to discover and capture.

The games may be getting more hype, but the original feelings of sharing and community are just as present and relevant as they always were. Whether it’s kids in a new school or new country attempting to make friends, or two sisters bonding on a plane ride, what has made Pokémon last is not better graphics or newer characters, but nostalgia. What it has brought us was more than entertainment, and that’s what has made it last for as long as it has. That’s why it will continue to stick with us, and why we’ll continue to stick with it.

May Pokémon live on for another twenty years and beyond.

Train on trainers. Train on.

Graphic created by Angelica Cruz/ Original Photo by Nabeel H.