Everybody knows about Pokemon. That’s what’s so interesting about it. With something over 30 different iterations in video games alone, Pokemon, like many Nintendo properties, is aimed at the age group of 6 to dead. It’s an incredibly simple thing that has not changed in any significant way since its debut on the Game Boy in 1998. Yeah, it’s been 13 years from then to the series’ latest versions, Black and White. And really, no other game franchise has ever lasted so long without drastic alterations to core gameplay.
Even Mario and Zelda and Metroid, other long-running Nintendo franchises, had to make a jump to 3D, which did change quite a bit about them. Nope, not Pokemon. Still a top-down view, still arbitrary gym battles and badge collection. You still get offered an incredibly dangerous animal that obeys your every command by a strange scientist down the street. It’s always got the city-route-city layout, with an occasional small plant that you can’t get past without the “Cut” HM. It still has fourth graders wandering alone in the woods, always initiating battles while your own character does, and then paying you when you beat the daylights out of their Pokemon—their only guarantee of safety in the freaking wilderness where there are badgers that breathe fire. Great job, parents!
Pokemon has simply gone through every iteration by tweaking and adding upon the classic catch-battle-evolve formula. Seriously, outside the addition of things like breeding and all the horrors that go with it, collectibles like berries or new species, and the infamous Pokemon beauty contests, the changes are few. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but veterans know that that’s all surface level stuff that the game only halfheartedly encourages you to take part of. The game is almost exactly the same as it was over a decade ago. They just keep coming up with fewer and fewer creative ways to design elementally-themed poket animals.
However, as the popularity of Pokemon just continues to increase, there’s reason to think more seriously about what exactly drives the series on a psychological level.
Every kid likes playing with animals. No, actually, scratch that: Every kid likes subjugating animals. Putting beetles and caterpillars in jars, catching grasshoppers, finding pet frogs or garter snakes that they keep for a day and a half before the snake escapes to its lair to plot revenge on humanity. Explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. That’s the children’s plan. (One day, the snakes will rise, and nobody will see it coming. Nobody but me, and I’ve got my snake disguise ready. Do you?) Snakepocalypse aside, we like putting things in cages and giving them leaves to eat and then looking at them. It’s why zoos exist.
But really, children like playing with animals. Heck, almost every person likes playing with animals regardless of age. We like pets. Usually we don’t use them for fights, but there is a Michael Vick here and there. Otherwise, we enjoy the company of loyal little beasties of various sorts. The level of respect we hold for them varies sometimes, occasionally getting creepily into human range or falling off the end of abuse. But for the most part, pets and animal companions are pretty universal to humans.
We also enjoy collecting things. (I think one of the stupidest childhood pastimes is the rock collection. Honestly, it probably has more to do with the parents trying to find something that the child can do that won’t end in blood or tears usually, but barring the occasional child who really has a knack for geology, it really is an exercise in boring.)
The Pokemon themselves get the short end of the stick, needless to say. They get attacked by random passers-by, imprisoned, and forced to fight against their own kind. It’s elaborated upon somewhat in the Pokemon universe that Pokemon can communicate with each other, so they’re basically gladiatorial slaves with flamethrowers and ice beams. Then, when the 7-year-old owner gets tired of them they get put in storage, possibly forever. According to the game, this storage unit for your Pokemon is a box.
In addition to all the weird, there’s really something to these games. Something about wandering around in relatively untamed places and discovering remote islands that triggers our exploring instinct. There’s a lot to see in the Pokemon games if you take the time to wander off the roads and poke around in probably dangerous caves.
So in wandering conclusion, the Pokemon series hasn’t changed a lot. So how does it stay so popular when it remains so similar to its old iterations? Because it relies on common human compulsions of collecting and categorizing and seeing numbers go up when we do things. It also feeds our desire to explore and discover things. There’s a level of polish, creative engagement, and depth to each new version that makes them worth playing. Despite its really quite basic nature, it remains one of the best and most popular series of anything ever to date.