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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Why Pokemon?

Around the Mid-nineties, there was a crazy addiction among children for virtual pets. For those who were lucky enough to get one before stores sold out, Tamagotchis were extremely popular. Among them were also alternatives such as Digimon, and Dinky Dino.
Tech-wise, this was generally around the time when computers and the internet started to become more main stream. While 56k modems were slowly switching over to DSL and Cable, companies began to realize that children were learning how to use the internet. Examples of which were sites like Neopets (in 1999) or (insert name here) which sprung up like crazy during the "virtual pet era."

So in 1995, company founder [of Game Freak] and concept artist Satoshi Tajiri is in his studio as he draws a set of 150 monsters that would live in a new world. Thus in 1996, Pokemon enters Japan, the same year Tamagotchi are introduced. Interestingly enough, the Digimon virtual pet was released a year before in 1995.

In 1997, The Pokemon TV series came out, with the Digimon animation coming two years later. Other rival shows came up to compete such as Monster Rancher (the game came out in '97 with the show coming out a year later) and Yu-Gi-Oh! (Which originally started in '96 in Shounen jump and turned to TV in 98).

So now you know. Along with Pokemon were many, many other variations and yet somehow Pokemon ended up being Nintendo's second largest franchise (only to be topped by Mario). Why is that? Ignoring the easy answer for a bit, let me dive into the other series technically.

If I remember correctly, Monster Rancher (Farm) had problems gaining popularity. While there was a solid fan base for it, many other games existed preventing it from getting a solid foothold with everyone. For one thing, Dragon Quest Monsters took off in 1998 and probably stole a lot of the popularity due to it having a Dragon Quest title.
It isn't as if Monster Rancher was dead either. There were many sequels and loved by Tecmo fanboys for their "secret" monsters. (My personal favorite was when you got one that looked like Kasumi from DOA). As of now, Monster Rancher Online is in open beta in Japan. Internationally however, I don't think it did so well.

I always found it kind of odd that Digimon did so poorly compared to Pokemon. In the beginning, both franchises were generally neck and neck but then at some point, Pokemon exploded ahead. Help starting the craze for virtual pets, Digimon were one of the coolest things I had ever seen when I was younger. The ability to link up Digimon and fight was even better (I later did more of this with Chao in Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast). In terms of the animation's story, I often found Digimon trounced Pokemon.

Because a lot of the evolutions were based on emotions of those who were the respective handlers, character development was key to getting the story going (I don't ever remember Satoshi (Ash) punching or getting frustrated at his own Pokemon only to develop a bond with them later. Rather, it's more of the other way around... His pokemon manhandle him...) Not only that, each "chosen one" had one specific focus in terms of their personality.

Maybe the fan base was just too small. Perhaps the characters were still too minute to be considered. I have to say though, each character seemed to represent a different cookie cutter character at the start. Think about it, Mimi had that typical western look. Sora was definitely the tsundere (though, Kasumi (Misty) would probably be a better tsundere...). Izumi was the computer otaku. Jou was weak-willed gopher in your typical office drama. Yamato (Matt) and Takeru (TK) are the brothers with divorced parents, the older being a loner while the younger being the naive one. Taishi's kinda obvious and Hikari (Kari, the original "Light Yagami") is the "silent healer type." Pushing jokes aside, the overall story of Digimon in the first two seasons (and the later seasons as well) are riddled with character development. While the overall plot was very child-like, what happened during the journey was definitely worth noting.

I guess I really can only say that what killed the Digimon franchise were the games. There are a load of Digimon games but their quality seems to be lacking. Failing multiple times for hammering out a good battle system, Digimon has been a turn-based RPG, SRPG, Hack-n-Slash, Racing and Arena fighting style game. The only games that are staring to make an impact are Digimon World DS and Digimon World: Dawn and Dusk both for the DS. Regardless, Digimon had the potential to be much much better, but I guess the franchise management was average, which brought down the overall quality of the series.

And now for the first and final question: So why Pokemon?
If you look at it, Pokemon is an interesting game in that, despite it's expansive map, it's a very linear game until you beat Shigeru and go to credits. To be honest with you, I found Red, Blue and Green to be somewhat lackluster. While pokemon development was quite advanced and VERY fun to work with, it didn't really do much for me until everything entered Season 2 with Johto. I understand that Pokemon is an old game and that it did well for its time, but innovation really kicked off near the end of it's first generation. But to finally say it...

The reason for Pokemon's extreme popularity from the start? It was actually with the TV show in which the first Pokemon Satoshi comes into contact with is the #25 electric type whose name translates to spark[ling] rodent: Pikachu. Yes, as Pikachu being the poster child for the entire franchise. Was it a very original idea? Yes, the original concept and early innovation definitely scores many many points and can be considered very good as a whole. With Pikachu and HER voice actress Ikue Outani leading the way, the pokemon franchise was set as one of the top sellers. Here we have a time-consuming game, a animated TV show that, despite having a very broad plotline, is very linear and easy to follow, and a poster child to rake in everyone. Something many other franchises tend to lack is an element that will be used to appeal to both genders. While in other countries that isn't really hard, there seems to be an issue in the US. For some odd inexplicable reason (besides "heritage" and "tradition") women who don't partake in "female-like" activities are looked down upon either inadvertently, or intentionally. There's something wrong in that. Regardless, with a lot of pokemon scoring high on "cute" factors and the entire concept being "cool" or "awesome", Pokemon is universally accepted for both genders.

One other support of it's success would be Nintendo. With the backing of such a big company, and the ideas for something that would be big, it's hard to say that Pokemon wouldn't be forgotten. Even without the Pikachu factor, Pokemon would be able to leave a decent impression. It's part luck that Pokemon did as well as it has. It's also part effort.

Pokemon and Digimon had been tied until around 2001 simply because the US branches spent so much time localizing. Think of this way. Can you name the japanese versions of any of the 3 starter pokemon from any game (actually Chikorita's evolution tree is not allowed as they are already in Japanese)? The point is, you can't... We know pokemon in our language and so does the rest of the world. The amount of time and money spent in effort pays off as a quality series. Pokemon really just got an extra push.


Romnick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fuiko said...

Very informative post. I enjoyed that (oddly :P). It was easy enough for me to understand even if most of the information you listed down is a first for me.

Have to agree though, Pokemon > Digimon. But in terms of story line, Digimon seemed to have more "soul". Perhaps that's what captured the audience; Pokemon's linear plotline as you mentioned.

Good luck and more power!! xD

Anonymous said...

Pokemon won because it was simpler, and had good games, cards and a show.

Zerreth said...

I get the feeling you only read the title of the post....