As a kid, Satoshi Tajiri spent his days catching bugs and insects in his backyard in Japan. As an adult, he turned this innocent, adventurous fun into a game that took over the world. It’s now been 25 years since the first Pokémon game hit kids’ Nintendo Game Boys on Feb. 27, 1996.
Before he knew the success it would become, Tajiri gathered help from his friends to create the video game developer Game Freak, and then later the design studio Creatures, according to Bulbagarden.net (Yes, that is a website dedicated solely to Pokémon knowledge!). He developed a game called Capsule Monsters, an early concept of Pokémon in which players didn’t win monsters through combat, but could instead buy them or catch them in the wild.
Tajiri had his sights set on Nintendo and its new Game Boy device that was revolutionizing video games, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to get the gaming company to distribute Capsule Monsters. Long story short: He was failing. Game Freak was nearly driven to bankruptcy and five employees quit due to financial instability. Eventually, Tajiri’s new friend Shigeru Miyamoto pitched the idea to Nintendo once more, and the company agreed to fund the game. At that point, Capsule Monsters was changed to Pocket Monsters to avoid trademark issues.
“When Pokémon was first introduced in Japan and shortly after around the world, it was a defining moment in pop culture,” says Daniel Benkwitt, senior manager of communications and public relations at The Pokémon Co. International. “The core concepts of collecting, trading, and battling really resonated and have helped guide the brand to this day. It has stayed true to its roots and the vision of the creators, which in addition to trendsetting innovation, has been a key component to its enduring success.”
25 YEARS OF POKÉMON
Over the years, Pokémon has evolved into a household name. The brand expanded beyond video games into trading cards, anime series, live-action movies, and — when the 21st century hit — mobile games.
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 popularity of the augmented reality app Pokémon Go continues as it earned $1 billion in the first 10 months of 2020 alone, 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, Pokémon had nearly $93 billion in lifetime sales, of which $61 billion came from merch. Of course, toys are a big part of that success.
“We saw fervor for Pokémon reborn with the launch of Pokémon Go, and its relevance has just continued to grow,” says Gerhard Runken, the senior vice president of brand and marketing at Jazwares, the master toy licensee for the Pokémon property. “With an ongoing slate of both new releases and updates to longtime favorites, the brand continues to appeal to core fans who have been champions for the franchise for 25 years, while also bringing in new fans and reaching wider audiences year over year.”
Jazwares is one of the main toy companies that has benefited from the enduring success of Pokémon. The company is celebrating the 25th anniversary with special silver plush, figures, and more. The one everybody wants? Pikachu.
The glowing yellow ears of the electric type Pokémon are almost synonymous with the franchise. Pikachu is the character that everybody thinks of first when they hear the word “Pokémon.” In 1997, Pikachu was popularized as Ash Ketchum’s sidekick in the anime series. Now, the pocket monster can be seen in every comic book shop, dancing alongside Katy Perry in her Pokémon-inspired music video for “Electric,” and as the star of Detective Pikachu, which broke box office records for a film based on a video game and took home $433 million globally in 2019, according to the box office tracker Box Office Mojo.
THE POWER OF NOSTALGIA
“The franchise never really dies,” says PokéRev, 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. New generations are constantly getting into it and older generations are coming back.”
PokéRev is one of many people who’s engaged in the comeback of the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG). He currently runs his YouTube channel to show off unique card sets, and he has an eBay page with Pokémon items on sale for up to $3 million.
Gary Haase, a popular TCG collector, sold his first-edition, PSA 10 (in mint condition), Shadowless Charizard for $150,000 to YouTuber Logan Paul. This is one of many cards in recent years to be sold for six figures, a phenomenon that Haase chalks up to a bit of investment, but mostly nostalgia.
“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.
Today, the franchise has grown 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 turn around the sun, The Pokémon Co. launched a number of special promotions. In a collaboration with Universal Music Group, it produced Pokémon 25: The Album, which features the aforementioned “Electric” single from Katy Perry, as well as songs from the popular musicians J. Balvin and Post Malone.
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 Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are coming to the Nintendo Switch in November.
“Pokémon will continue to capture the imaginations of kids and fans around the world,” Benkwitt says. “It has cemented itself as one of the most enduring, beloved, and successful properties in entertainment while continuing to differentiate itself in ways that will always be unique and inspiring.”
In short, it’s all still evolving, and kids and collectors still gotta catch ‘em all!
This article was originally published in the October 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!