Monday, December 12

A Detailed Look At The Themes And Ideals Of Pokemon

Pokémon is a massive franchise. Wikipedia lists Pokémon as the estimated highest-grossing franchise of all time. They list the IP as worth $118.5 billion. There is no doubt that the vast majority of people alive today have at least heard of Pokémon in some way. The trading card game is on sale at any newsagent, comic book store, gaming store, etc. These collectable pieces of card are often sitting near the checkout, hoping to be picked up by someone in an impulse purchase. Then you have video games that have flooded the majority of genres. According to the Pokémon encyclopedia website, Blubapedia, there are 122 Pokémon video games as of 2022. The majority of these games are popular and enjoy much success. As of March 2022, they have sold 440 million game units. The anime has enjoyed 25 seasons with over 1000 episodes to its name and, even to this day, is massively successful. As of 2016, the Pokémon anime is one of the most-watched shows on the streaming service Netflix. This is to say nothing of the franchise’s merchandise over the years, from toys for children to collectables for older fans and everything in between. If you can think of a household item, then the odds are there is a Pokémon branded version of it, either official or unofficial.
Pokémon has affected all but the most isolated of people. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this behemoth franchise has influenced you and everyone you know to some degree. I want to look at the themes and ideals the franchise carries with it. The odds are that whatever the ideals of Pokémon are, they have impressed on you and those around you. This is even more true if you grew up between 1999 and now. Adults around their 30’s in 2022 would have grown up in the middle of the original Pokémon boom. These are the people most likely to have been influenced by the franchise.

You Teach Me And I'll Teach You

To begin dissecting the massive multimedia franchise that is Pokémon, we first need to understand how it works. The first Pokémon product to ever release was the videogames Pocket Monsters Red and Green. These games would release in Japan in 1996. This year also saw the Trading Card game begin in Japan. The manga and anime debuted in Japan the following year, in 1997. The series continued its success with the first English dub of the anime in 1998, which was released in the US. That same year saw the video games Pocket Monsters Red and Green ported to the United States and renamed Pokémon Red and Blue. These games and the anime were released across Europe in 1999. The Trading Card game was also launched in the US and worldwide in 1999. By this point, the Pokémon sensation had officially begun. 

Understanding this brief history allows us to see Pokémon for what it is. Most of the franchise’s revenue is brought in via merchandise. Its merchandise makes up 70% of the total money earned by Pokémon. This includes toys, video game console accessories, plushies, collectable figures, clothing, etc. The massive foundation is held aloft by the three core pillars of the franchise. These pillars are the video games, the anime, and trading card game.

The franchise has survived as long as it has because of a repeating cycle. This cycle begins with a duel video game release, such as Gold and Silver. These games will include a whole load of new pokémon introduced. The Anime will then release with the main characters of the show exploring the new region while meeting all the new pokémon that are native to the region. The card game will then introduce new cards that feature characters, items and pokémon from the games and anime. All three pillars will feature areas, characters, items, and, most importantly, new pokémon. These will all have toys, clothing and other merchandise made of them and will sell in large quantities. Fans will all want to buy collectables or toys of their newest favourite designs that they would have seen in one of the three pillars. These cycles are known as generations within the fandom, and so far, we have seen nine of them. Generation nine began at the end of 2022 with the release of the games Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The first generation that started in 1996 had a total of 151 pokémon; with the release of generation nine in 2022, there are now 1008 pokémon.

Gotta Catch 'Em All!

Let us begin by looking at the products that started everything off first, video games. Pokémon Red and Blue had the player exploring the fictional region of Kanto. The goal of the game was threefold. First, defeat the eight gym leaders and challenge the Elite four to become the Pokémon champion. Secondly, take on and dismantle the criminal organisation Team Rocket. Thirdly, collect all 151 Pokémon in the game, thus completing the Pokédex and finishing the game 100 per cent.

The first objective you’re given when you start the game is completing the Pokédex. This objective is mirrored in the tagline for the games.
“Gotta catch ‘em all!”
This is what I would like to focus on to begin with. The theme here is simple. Collecting. Trying to find and catalogue every Pokémon in the game. A task that was almost impossible for most people at the time. One of the pokémon players needed to collect was the infamous Mew. Mew could only be caught by attending official Nintendo Pokémon giveaway events. This made Mew extremely rare and valuable to fans of all ages. Some younger fans would start fights with friends and classmates over trading pokémon. This pokémon trading was also mirrored in the trading card game. Fans would swap cards with each other. Similar to the video games fights were started over these cards. The phenomenon became so widespread that schools across the US and Europe would issue bans on anything Pokémon. 
The game’s duel-release nature played into this obsessive urge to collect them all. Despite Red and Blue being almost identical, they fundamentally differ in one crucial way. Certain Pokémon, such as Abra, are only available in one game version. If players wanted to collect all pokémon available, they would have to talk a friend into buying the other version of the game or buy both versions themselves.
If we look at this optimistically, this was designed to promote and encourage sharing and teamwork. You would look for a unique pokémon to your version while your friend did the same in their game, and then you would happily trade them with each other. This happened and is a big reason why the games became as popular as they did. They were something fans could share with those closest to them. The fans often have fond memories of working with friends, classmates or siblings to complete their Pokédex. 
Then you have the more cynical way of looking at this. Pure greed from the Pokémon company as it promoted fans to either buy two versions of the game or ask a friend to buy the other version. Then you had the event exclusive pokémon that could only be collected at official Nintendo events. This was used for advertising and selling tickets to events that Pokémon fans might have otherwise had no interest in. These events might not have had anything to do with Pokémon and could just have been a way for stores such as Toys’R’Us to promote themselves. Players, mostly children, would have to enter the store and ask a staff member to transfer the Pokémon to their GameBoy console. At this point, the odds of the parents feeling obliged to purchase something from the store increased drastically.
This theme of collecting is also found within the Trading Card Game, or TCG for short. The game sees players attempting to build the strongest possible deck of 60 cards. This is done by buying booster packs of 10 cards, tins with around 40 cards, elite trainer boxes with 100 cards, booster boxes with 360 cards, etc. Collecting these cards can quickly become a costly hobby, with rare cards going for well over £200. 
This ties back into the more cynical way of looking at the Pokémon franchise’s collecting theme. Without a doubt, it benefits the Pokémon Company financially. Fans will routinely purchase video game double packs that include both versions of the same video game. Booster boxes of the TCG that cost over £100 each. This does not even mention the massive amount of merchandise fans buy yearly.

Oh, You're My Best Friend

If we take a more detailed look at the animated TV show, we can see that it was primarily aimed at children. The show follows the adventures of a 10-year-old boy called Ash Ketchum. His dream is to become the Pokémon champion of the Indigo league. To accomplish this, he must travel across the fictional region of Kanto to challenge and beat the eight gym leaders. When he has done this, he must take on the Elite 4 and the champion. Anyone familiar with the mainline series of Pokémon video games will also recognise this as the primary goal of the games as well. Along the way, Ash meets up with and befriends two of these gym trainers. Misty and Brock. The trio starts to travel together and form a close friendship, often helping each other overcome challenges and struggles.

The anime shares a lot in common with the first generation of video games but does differ in a few critical ways. During the games, the player will successfully become the regional Pokémon champion. In the show, it took Ash twenty-five seasons over twenty-five years to win his first championship. This is where we see the most fundamental change in focus. Ash never becomes the Kanto champion and never collects all the pokémon but what he does do is form a close friendship with Brock and Misty. The entire show is about the advantages of teamwork and solidarity. The first episode sees Ash failing to bond with his pokémon Pikachu. It’s not until Pikachu sees Ash instinctively shield him from a flock of attacking Spearow that the two form a bond that remains unbroken across all 25 seasons and over 1000 episodes. This theme is also a focus of the films. If we look at the first feature film based on the anime, we can see this in a scene where Ash sacrifices himself to protect his Pokémon from harm. He is petrified and turned to stone. His closest pokémon, Pikachu, then runs up to his petrified body and tries to wake him up to no avail. Only when all the pokémon around see his sacrifice and start to cry do their tears revive him. While rather tacky, the message is simple. Friendship and love have more power than violence does.
This theme of friendship is mirrored in later games, generation 2 and beyond, with the introduction of the friendship system. The more time players spend with specific pokémon and the more battles they win together, the more their in-game friendship meter increases. This was hidden from players in order to give the impression that their pokémon were growing closer to them. The theme or meaning behind this is rather surface-level. It’s about the bonds people form with their pets or, in this case, their pokémon. This feature has remained in the series to this day, with the newest entries, Violet and Scarlet, including it.

I Wanna Be The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was!

One last theme that can be found within the Pokémon franchise is that of competition. The games feature the player on a journey that sees them become the champion of the local region. This has been the case for every mainline game across every generation. Outside of the main stories within the games, you have the battle towers found within most of the games. These are a post-game challenge which sees players taking on other champions from other regions. This is an optional part of the games that increase the challenge drastically. 
Since the first generation on GameBoy, players have also been able to challenge each other to player vs player battles. These were only possible in person with the use of an extra cable connecting the two GameBoy consoles together. With more modern hardware, these battles can now be played online remotely. This has led to forming of a community that takes these online battles very seriously. Players from all across the world will challenge each other to battles in ranked leaderboards. Outside the games, these players will study the mechanics, analyse each pokémon and move to build the strongest possible teams. There are entire communities online dedicated to this competitive challenge.
This theme of competition is also seen in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. This game sees players building their decks and then competing in battles. The idea is to find out which player is the best of the two. Local trading card stores will often feature tournaments where loads of players compete for prizes.
The TCG and video games have global tournaments organised by the official Pokémon company that see players from around the world compete with each other.
The anime also sees Ash and his friends compete in championships to see who’s the best Pokémon trainer. While Ash never beat the elite four in his home region of Kanto, he did go on to win the championship in the Galar region during the 2022 season of the anime. This shows that while the anime's competition theme was the most relaxed, it was never entirely absent.

I Know It's My Destiny

To come to any conclusion, we need to review and analyse everything we have discussed. To begin, let us look at the themes of collecting. We can see this in the video games and the trading card game. The literal tagline of the video game series is “gotta catch ‘em all”, which emphasises this point. Looking at the TCG, rare cards can go for hundreds of pounds if they’re in good condition. Many card game players pride themselves on the rare cards they have within their collections. This theme of collecting is missing from the anime. That being absent from the TV show makes an argument that the theme of collecting isn’t the most central theme of the franchise. The counterargument to this would be that the collecting theme drives the central merchandising foundation the most. Fans will collect the video games, watch and collect the anime box sets, and collect trading cards. That’s to say, nothing of their collections of series merchandise. Fans of the games will buy downloadable content, extra controllers and so on. Fans of the anime will go out and get each season’s box set, clothing featuring their favourite characters and so on. Fans of the TCG will buy boxes of cards, protective sleeves, containers to store their decks in and so on. All because the series has conditioned them to “catch ‘em all!”

Then if we look at the themes of friendship, teamwork and companionship, we can see that they can be found in both the games and the anime. The games have a hidden mechanic that increases your pokémon’s effectiveness the more you spend time and win battles with them. They also encourage players to play together, sharing pokémon across the two versions to collect them all. The anime features plenty of stories where the central focus is learning to get along with each other and the power that friendships have in the face of adversity. This theme of friendship is missing from the TCG. You could argue that players are encouraged to swap cards with each other to build the best possible decks. However, this is not part of the actual game, which doesn’t include any player vs environment or team-based battle systems. The card game itself is an entirely player vs player affair. Thus, it lacks any cooperative form of play. While this theme is the most wholesome, it also has the weakest claim as the central theme. It’s pushed the least out of all three themes we have discussed and is entirely absent from the TCG. Unlike the theme of collecting, the theme of friendship does not contribute to the central merchandise foundation of the franchise.

The last theme is competition. I’d argue that this could very well be the most prominent theme of the entire franchise. It’s found within the main single-player story of the video games. The player character sets out on a journey that always sees them become the champion of the local region. Within the online community for the video games, there is a passionate group of fans that push each other with ongoing leaderboards. It’s also found within the anime. Ash begins his journey hoping to become the Pokémon champion of the Kanto region. While he fails this, he goes on to become the Galar region's champion. The theme of the competition is also strong within the TCG, with the entire game revolving around deciding which player is the winner. Outside of all of these, the official championships run by the Pokémon company span the TCG and the video games. While every other theme is found within a couple of the pillars of the Pokémon franchise, competition is found within all three. It also contributes to the central foundation as it promotes merchandise within all three of the pillars. Competitive trading card fans will buy cards, sleeves, deck boxes, and binders in which to store and organise their cards. Competitive video game fans will often purchase promotional advanced controllers, consoles, etc. Fans of the anime are the hardest to monetise via this theme. They can be motivated to watch the show during highly anticipated episodes that feature Ash and his friends taking on the championships. These episodes can even bring back older viewers who have long since stopped watching the show. This can be seen in the numerous articles covering Ash’s long-fought victory in the Galar region’s championship.

After this extensive look at the Pokémon franchise, can we say what its central theme is? Pokémon and the Pokémon company behind the franchise are corporate entities and, as such, exist for one purpose above all else. Profit. They don’t release two versions of the same game each generation because it benefits the fans. They do so because it generates more revenue. Everything that the company does is designed to push merchandise to the fans. Recently as I write this in the waning days of 2022, Scarlet and Violet have just released with a myriad of bugs, performance problems and other issues. These games were made available for parents to buy for their children’s Christmas presents. If the Pokémon company cared about the quality of its products, then it would have pushed the release back by at least a few months. This would have given the developers the time needed to provide the games with the polish they deserved.
Allow me to get a little personal for a moment. I love this franchise. I used to collect the cards and religiously watch the anime as a child. As a teenager, I saved up my money to buy a Nintendo DS to play my first ever Pokémon game, Pokémon Pearl. Despite all of this, no matter how much you may love this series, it is vital that you remember that Pokémon and the Pokémon company are not your friends. At times your interests may align. You want to buy a great game that you will love, and they want you to give them your money in exchange for a game. But if they could compromise the quality of the product for even the smallest increase in revenue, then they would do. 
Because of this, I would point to either collecting or competition as the franchise’s central theme. Both of these generate profit from the customers. During interviews and press conferences, staff may point to the theme of friendship as being what the series is about. This theme is included just enough so that it is not an outright lie when they say this. It does, however, obscure the franchise’s less palatable themes.

Ultimately, I don’t feel that anyone can say what the most significant theme of the franchise is. While there may be a theme that the creators intended to be the strongest, this may not come across to every player, viewer or collector. Themes and the meaning of a text are often subjective. The themes discussed here are only what I’ve found within the franchise. You may have read this and come up with different themes that you have seen within Pokémon. These are just as valid as my own. What you take out of Pokémon is personal to you. 

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