Pokémon is celebrating 20 years of continued success and never-ending fandom

A personal trip down memory lane, on the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon franchise.

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A wild Oddish appeared! Go! Pikachu! Run! Got away safely!

That’s from my recent trip down memory lane playing the classic Game Boy title Pokémon Yellow, where I chose to chicken out of an impromptu battle and simply wander around Ash Ketchum’s hometown of Pallet Town.

Can you believe 2016 is the 20th anniversary of Pokémon’s debut? It first debuted as two similar games, Red and Blue, on Nintendo’s original handheld device, before making a splash as a widely-syndicated anime series.

The first TV series followed the trials and tribulations of wannabe-Pokémon master Ash Ketchum attempting to reach the top podium in the Pokémon League tournament with the help of his two friends Brock and Misty. And of course, his trusted Pikachu is with him every step of the way.

Of course, the entire premise is simply barmy. Ash is meant to be ten years old at the start of the show, when he kisses his mother goodbye and seeks out a new life travelling as a Pokémon trainer, where said Pokémon are potentially life-threatening animals with wonderful characteristics and physical features that give them each a unique offensive advantage. Take Pikachu, which is based on some sort of cat-like creature, one angry grump away from electrocuting you to death.

This was the start of a pop culture phenomenon that hasn’t quite been emulated to the same level of success since. Think about how much this colourful world had infiltrated our world at its peak: games on numerous platforms, a TV series, trading cards, multiple (successful) cinematic films and the plethora of branded merchandise.

The only thing that comes close as a modern equivalent is Minecraft, the digital block-building game. However, it’s much harder to gauge what the hot new thing is, given everyone’s preferences can now be catered for to an almost-scary level of perfection, and the ubiquity of small digital screens make it harder to know what things kids like.

Pokémon was the foundation of many social activities: watching the cartoon series with your friends, trading game cards or duelling each other using two separate Game Boy handhelds with the help of that weird link cable that was never used apart from Pokémon battles.

Now, I can happily admit that I’ve moved onto other obsessions like my fellow ex-Pokémon lovers over the years. Whether those obsessions are equally childish (or possibly more so), that’s not for me to judge. It won’t prevent me from boasting about the sweet-ass moves I can pull in the extreme-racing game Pure on my Xbox, which I believe is a skill of utmost importance.

Each generation has their own set of fandoms. Minecraft is clearly having its moment right now. And I can see my own niece and nephew loving the modern iterations of the Power Rangers series, which is of course grotesque, as we all know the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers truly set the bar for cartoonish violence.

But as we all move away from our childhood loves, sometimes things don’t necessarily settle down into the history books. The Pokémon Company is still a multi-billion-dollar entity, having now produced over 900 TV episodes, devised over 700 Pokémon and still produces games that sell millions of copies.

In fact, Pokémon is only behind the Mario franchise in terms of the number of game units ever sold. And while some groan at Disney effectively owning childhood with its Marvel and Lucasfilm subsidiaries, Pokémon is just as much of a titan in being able to continue to melt the heart of current and former fans.

No wonder the original trading card game is being brought back this year along with a new virtual reality game called Pokémon Go. It’s why it’s perfectly acceptable for a dude in his 20s or 30s to own a handheld Nintendo and still love the newer games. The franchise will be around for quite some time before we give it a tearful goodbye.

For now, those of us who’ve grown up can sit back and act bemused by the new Power Rangers and Minecraft and not get it. This always happens with grown-ups. When I was younger, I remember a particular trip to the house of some family-friends. There was a boy around the same age in that family too. As I was anxiously sat in silence, wanting to leave, the mums started talking about what time we, the kids, woke up on weekends. My mum said I woke up early on the weekend, so I could watch Pokémon, or “Pokéman” as she still calls it. The friend laughed and said her son was exactly the same. I didn’t find any of it amusing. I was simply very committed to becoming the best Pokémon trainer I could be, like Ash.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.

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