Twenty years ago today, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue were released for the first time in the United States. The games challenged players to catch 150 Pokémon (Mew wasn’t required!), which required cooperating with friends in the real world to evolve and obtain all the creatures.
It is easy to forget that twenty years ago handheld gaming was not the ubiquitous past time it is today and that bringing along a cable to physically link Game Boys was an altogether new social experience to enjoy with friends. You could raise a digital monster and actually send it to someone else, sometimes getting to see it take on a new life as a member of a friend’s roster. It was moments like these that came to define the titles, and those that came after, as single player games that were actually best played with others.
The Pokémon themselves can’t be ignored either. Some look back at the original 151 and see a lack of creativity or over-reliance on real world inspiration, but that is naive and misguided. It was the mix of fantastic and ordinary, simple and complex that allowed players to see a world they wanted to live in, but also one that wasn’t so different from their own.
Trainers were able to develop a real sense of comradery with their Pokémon as they battled through the Indigo League. It wasn’t merely an RPG with a party of characters, it was a custom team that players were able to create and bond with. The games reinforced the notion that Pokémon weren’t just tools of battle, they were also friends and companions that need to be respected. They were a part of our life.
Twenty years later, they still are. The Pokémon franchise is now the world’s highest-grossing and the fad that many thought wouldn’t last through the new millennium has outlived all expectations. Many trainers saw this potential right from the beginning: when we chose our first Pokémon in a little place called Pallet Town. We knew that we were seeing shades of what was to come.