It all started in 1998 when Pokémon Red and Blue came out for the original Game Boy. These games took a traditional RPG approach and blended it with an incredible roster of 151 Pokémon between the two titles.
Although Japanese fans had their hands on these two games a full two years prior to the 1998 American release, there were few ways to import these titles back then, and the Pokémon series did not fully take off until after these games were released in the United States.
The original Pokémon games sold just under 10 million copies, and were able to spark an international phenomenon. Soon after the two game releases, the American version of the Pokémon anime debuted. Because of the games' early success, the anime fared quite well, focusing on the adventures of Ash Ketchum, a Pokémon trainer.
But Pokémon's early success as a franchise was not only due to the two-fold effects of the game and anime. Pokémon also crossed over very successfully into the world of Trading Card Games. The Pokémon TCG achieved a very high amount of success early on in its history, and soon rivaled Trading Card Game champion Magic: The Gathering as the card game of choice.
In addition to the traditional RPG-style Game Boy games, a Nintendo 64 title was also released: Pokémon Stadium. This title allowed friends to battle using all 150 pre-loaded Pokémon (unlike modern console brawlers, which require you to upload your own.) The original Pokémon Stadium also included several party-type mini-games and was one of the first real "party" games-it even pre-dates the original Mario Party!
But the early Pokémon empire was not quite finished yet. A little more than a year after the first Game Boy games were released, the first Pokémon Movie came out. Pokémon: The First Movie focused on the relationship between the 150th Pokémon, Mewtwo and Mew. It was a huge box office success and made $163 million at the end of its box office run, making it the highest grossing anime film to date. The first movie was quickly followed up by Pokémon: The Movie 2000, which was not as successful as the first release but still made an impressive $133 million at the end of its box office run.
Pokémon's success right from the beginning was mainly due to its presence in not one, but four, media elements-on TV, in the theatres, on your card table, and most importantly, on your video game hardware. All four of these elements worked very well early on in Pokémon's history in terms of saturation. No matter where you looked in the late 90s Pokémon seemed to be there. "Gotta catch 'em all" became an obsession, not only for people who were into video games but also for those who enjoyed anime or trading card games.
As fans became more and more immersed in the Pokémon franchise, they found themselves venturing out of their comfort zone in order to become more engrossed in this new fandom. Anime fans who had never touched a video game were playing religiously, and trading card gamers who never thought they would ever watch an anime suddenly found themselves tuning in on a regular basis. Pokémon was truly becoming a global phenomenon.
The Pokémon franchise started strong in the late nineties and carried that momentum right into the new century. Late 2000 saw the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver, which represented the evolution of the RPG series from Blue and Red. Pokémon Silver and Gold featured 100 new Pokémon, as well as several more advanced gameplay featured. The game featured a real-time clock and had several real-time events that only took place during a certain day of the week or time of day. Gold and Silver also included a breeding system, which made for a considerable gain for the series depth-wise.
Aside from the follow up to the RPG game, Pokémon Stadium also received an update. However, this title followed the formula set down in the first one, and aside from some new mini-games and an updated Pokémon roster, it was largely the same as the first one.
During this period, the Pokémon series went into a bit of a slow period. This wasn't necessarily bad, however, after the fever pitch of the preceding two years. Many people had begun to experience a Pokémon backlash, where they just felt sick of seeing the franchise everywhere.
Three more movies came out during this period, Pokémon 3: Spell of the Unown. The movie performed quite poorly compared to the previous two entries. It only garnered about $63 million worldwide, about half the total of the previous movie. The next two movies, Pokémon 4Ever and Pokémon Heroes, were box office flops, with the former making about $1 million at the domestic box office and the latter making a measly $700,000 domestic showing.
The decreasing popularity of these movies was further proof that the franchise was quickly losing popularity. But those who counted the franchise as all but completely gone were in for a surprise.
After a two year slowdown in all things Pokémon, 2003 saw the series reinvented and subsequently resurrected. It began with the release of Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire for the Game Boy Advance. These continued the Game Boy RPG series and built upon the series' already solid formula of RPG gaming. This time the Pokémon count was increased to a whopping 386. There were also some additions to the game that came in the form of the Pokéblock system, which enhanced certain Pokémon abilities using a Berry Blender. This added an even more in-depth level of strategy to the game, as certain berries used to build the various Pokéblocks were quite rare and required quite a bit of effort to get.
However, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire was not the only game that came out during this era. This era saw the release of ten new Pokémon games. Among the most noteworthy of these games was Pokémon Colosseum for the GameCube, the spiritual successor to the Pokémon Stadium series.
This title differed drastically from the Stadium titles, however, and placed a higher importance on the RPG elements of the game. In addition, it didn't feature any mini-games. It did have all the Pokémon available for use at the beginning like the Stadium series However, the game suffered because it was very difficult to attain a sizable number of Pokémon in the game if you didn't already own the Ruby and Sapphire titles.
Pokémon Colosseum did enjoy modest success, and it was followed by Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness. However, this game received much criticism because it was so similar to the original Pokémon Colosseum, and even used many of the same environments and animations.
But not all the games from this time period were as formulaic. The Pokémon franchise did something very unexpected in 2006 and released two roguelike Mystery Dungeon tites. These titles were very unique because there was a decided lack of dungeon crawlers in the market, and it was a considerably risky move, especially since roguelike games have only historically appealed to the hardcore sect. But the Pokémon franchise took this once-closed genre and made it appealing to the masses.
In addition to the resurgence in Pokémon games, this era saw resurgence in the Pokémon card game as well. An organization christened the Pokémon Organized Play Association came into existence in 2003, and began organizing highly structured card tournaments around the country. And while earlier organized tournaments suffered from low interest and participation, the POP was able to reinvigorate the card game, and thanks to their clever promotions and events, they are still running successful Pokémon tournaments to this day.
The Pokémon TV series also received a much needed reinvigoration in 2003, and began a whole new chapter in the series, Pokémon: Advanced. Pokémon: Advanced saw a real maturity come to the series. Misty and Brock were replaced with newcomer May. Fans really enjoyed the change in pace for the series, and it brought some of the lost viewership back.
During these years, Pokémon made a very important comeback. After the Pokémon franchise's sudden almost overnight success in the late nineties, many wrote the series off as a fad and were ready to never deal with Pokémon ever again. But these few years proved that the Pokémon franchise not only had staying power, but was also capable of improving and diversifying itself.
As with any Pokémon era, this one began with the release of a handheld RPG title. Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl came out in 2006, to modest acclaim. The gameplay remained largely the same, despite being for Nintendo's new handheld, the Nintendo DS. The game featured 107 new Pokémon and had the most connectivity with other Pokémon games of any other title. Not only did it connect to all the Game Boy Advance titles, but it also connected to Pokémon Ranger, which was another Pokémon title for the Nintendo DS.
After the success of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, the obligatory console follow-up came in the form of Pokémon Battle Revolution. This game did not receive the type of praise that the earlier console Pokémon fighters received, mostly because it omitted the RPG mode that had been the staple of the Colosseum games. It received further criticism because it was virtually unplayable if you didn't have the DS version.
But despite the criticism of Pokémon Battle Revolution, the modern era of Pokémon is doing rather well. In addition to these two gaming staples, the newest TV series, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, is airing successfully on the Cartoon Network in the US.
Pokémon Ranger also debuted during this time and presented a very different game experience than the traditional Pokémon RPGs. This title focused on catching rather than raising Pokémon and was met with generally favorable reviews. It was the first Pokémon game to really utilize the Nintendo DS' touch screen, and although Pokémon you caught in the title had to be released (this downgraded the depth considerably), the game provided a fairly fun experience.
2008 also saw a follow-up to the successful Mystery Dungeon series, which gained considerable praise, despite sticking firmly to the formula set down in the first game. The games are Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time / Explorers of Darkness.
Even though there is not too much Pokémon in the modern era, I believe that the series is sticking to what it does best, which is a good thing. Nintendo is focusing on producing high-quality handheld titles, and even though the console game this time around was a bit of a letdown, you can't help but feel like the series is progressing nicely nonetheless.
So, what does the future hold for this illustrious and long-lasting franchise? Well, you can bet that there will be plenty more Pokémon games coming soon. The Pokémon franchise is currently on track to support Nintendo's WiiWare service with Everyone's Pokémon Ranch. This title is directly tied to Pokémon Diamond and Pearl and allows you to transfer and trade your Pokémon from the game to your console. There is also a follow up to Pokémon Ranger in the works.
It is very interesting to look back on the ten years since Pokémon first made a splash in the US. The series has definitely had its ups and downs over the years, but it has proved several times that it is not going anywhere any time soon.