It seems like a moot point now — 25 years after the first Pokémon game hit kids’ Nintendo Game Boys on Feb. 27, 1996 — that the whole franchise was sparked by one young kid’s childhood hobby. Now, Pokémon has become a hobby in its own right for millions of people across multiple mediums. Still, the fact remains that the idea for the universe began with a curious kid named Satoshi Tajiri, the founder of Pokémon, who spent his free time catching bugs and insects in Japan. It’s that childhood essence and joy that has kept the Pokémon franchise thriving for the past 25 years.
“Pokémon makes people happy and it’s for everyone,” says Daniel Benkwitt, senior manager of communications and public relations at The Pokémon Co. “When Pokémon was first introduced in Japan, and shortly after around the world, it was a defining moment in pop culture. It captured kids’ attention and it was everywhere. It was bright; it was fun; it had a story; it had adventure; and it had 151 unique collectible creatures.”
FROM GAME BOY TO EVERYWHERE
After six years of development with Nintendo, Pokémon Red and Green were released in Japan in February 1996. By October, the 151 Pokémon featured in the video game found another home in the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG). A manga starring a trainer named Red and his rude Clefairy was released around the same time, which led the way for an anime series to debut a year later. The show starred Satoshi, a character named after the franchise’s creator, and won over fans in Japan before its international release, in which the main character was known as Ash Ketchum. The newer, reworked versions of the video game Pokémon Red and Blue and the anime series were in the U.S. by 1998, and the TCG was in almost every American kids’ hands by 1999.
“The very early days of Pokémon were zeitgeist defining moments, building a unique and ubiquitous brand platform that has allowed it to stay hyper-relevant,” says Benkwitt. “While it was the original Pokémon video games that started it all, the brand quickly expanded the ways in which it could be experienced. There were many ways that kids and fans could enter into the Pokémon world and that’s a tradition that continues to this day. It has expanded into competitive play, live-action movies, a licensing powerhouse, and so much more.”
Today, Ash Ketchum and Pikachu are the most iconic mascots of the franchise. The animated series is in its 24th season and the TCG remains at the top — so much so that major retailers are halting the sales of the cards because people are rushing in droves to buy them causing chaos in retail store aisles.
“The franchise never really dies,” says PokéRev (his real name is Nick), a Pokémon card collector and YouTuber with more than 250,000 subscribers. He clarifies, “More importantly it builds on itself. Every so often, a new generation of all-new Pokémon is released. [The creators] keep it exciting and always evolving — pun intended. New generations are constantly getting into it and older generations are coming back.”
In the summer of 2016, the fans who had grown up trading Pokémon cards were suddenly outside chasing the same characters with their smartphones. The augmented reality app, Pokémon Go, took the world by storm, and its popularity continues, earning $1 billion in the first 10 months of 2020, according to Sensor Tower. It gave Pokémon fans a unique experience that allowed them to explore the real world while making their Pokédex dreams come true.
In 2019, Pokémon was named the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, according to an infographic by TitleMax, a finance company. At the time, it had nearly $93 billion in sales, of which $61 billion came from merch.
No one can forget the first live-action film adaptation of the brand conquered silver screens in 2019: Detective Pikachu. It broke records for a film based on a video game and took home $433 million globally, according to Box Office Mojo.
THE POWER OF NOSTALGIA
PokéRev started his YouTube channel to give Pokémon fans a comfortable place to enjoy the fandom and to show off some really cool Pokémon cards. He says when he opened his first box as an adult — the 1999 Base Set Unlimited Booster Box — in 2015, it was the definition of nostalgia and he was hooked. Now, he runs his YouTube channel to show off unique card sets and he has an eBay page with items on sale for up to $3 million. “Eventually, I think one day every generation will have grown up with Pokémon. An 80-year-old and an 8-year-old will be able to bond over something they both genuinely enjoy,” he predicts.
Gary Haase, otherwise known as the Pokémon King, recalls a particular memory of his then 8-year-old son’s love of Pokémon: His youngest son fell asleep with a freshly pulled Charizard card in his hand and still had a firm grasp on it in the morning when he woke up.
Another moment he isn’t soon to forget might just be the First-Edition, PSA 10, Shadowless Charizard card he sold to YouTube star Logan Paul. At $150,000, it is one of many cards sold in recent years for more than six figures. Experts predict that certain cards could be worth millions someday. (It’s at this point in the article that I would like to publicly shame my mom for not letting me spend hundreds of dollars on the TCG when I was 7.)
Haase is known as the Pokémon King because of his involvement in the community since the beginning of the franchise. He’s also known for his appearances on the TV series Pawn Stars, in which he sold thousands of dollars worth of Pokémon Cards. He says that nostalgia is the main driver behind these pricey purchases, along with investment. And while the King himself loves the nostalgia of Pokémon, he says his favorite thing about the franchise is that, unlike most battle games, the characters never die. They always live to see another day.
Pokémon began with a common childhood hobby and ended up becoming an investment strategy, a home for kids who wanted to experience fun adventures, a heart-warming memory for adults, and, yes, a major hobby in and of itself. Today, we’ve seen the franchise grow to include more than 728 species of Pokémon across eight regions, making their way to video games, toys, apparel, films, and so much more.
To celebrate its 25th year, The Pokémon Co. has big plans. In May, Katy Perry released “Electric,” a single in a collaboration with The Pokémon Co. and Universal Music Group. It’s part of the multi-artist album, Pokémon 25: The Album, which will be released this fall. And of course, every anniversary party needs plenty of gifts, so the list of merch coming out this year is extensive.
“We knew that all eyes were going to be on Pokémon this year for the 25th anniversary and decided there was no better time to launch new items that fans of all ages would love,” says Gerhard Runken, the senior vice president of global sales at Jazwares, the master toy licensee of the Pokémon property. “Between plush and figures, we’re focusing on the absolute best, most demanded characters across the history of the franchise.”
Jazwares also has plans for some releases in 2022, which will keep the celebrations going well past the 25th anniversary. Other celebratory merch will come from Build-A-Bear Workshop, General Mills, Levi’s, McDonald’s, Scholastic, Mattel, Funko, PowerA, The Wand Co., and more.
Beyond merch, Ash Ketchum and Pikachu will continue their journey this summer in the 24th season of the anime, titled Pokémon Master Journeys: The Series. It’s a similar story to the original, but new friends will join in on the adventures while returning rivals await. Nintendo’s New Pokémon Snap debuted in April, giving fans a new way to explore the Lental region, and the reimagined Pokémon Shining Pearl and Brilliant Diamond are coming to the Nintendo Switch in November. In short, it’s all still evolving.
Pokémon, we choose you for the next 25 years and beyond.
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!