Yesterday was a big day in popular culture. On February 27th, way back in 1996, a little game came out in Japan that would unexpectedly take the world by storm, becoming one of the most popular, endearing and beloved franchises in history. That game was the original Pokemon. It would eventually make its way to the states and the world at large, becoming more than a passing fad, earning its place among humanity’s shared heritage.
Strangely enough, many of the original fans of the franchise, now in their late twenties or early 30s, still enjoy Pokemon, not only getting the new games, but also indulging in collectible items, friendly competition among friends, even enjoying the not quite as good movies and shows every once in a while. Though mainly aimed at young children, it has become a cult phenomenon amongst these now adult fans, with just about as many in-jokes as Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Me? I like classic stuff. I’m a 27 year old movie buff whose favorites include Kubrick, Hitchcock, and everything in between, with To Kill a Mockingbird, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Alien among my favorite movies. I also just so happen to be a pretty big fan of Pokemon. I have a figure of Mewtwo nestled right next to my Snake Plissken from Escape From New York figure, I gave my team a variety of nicknames, referencing people like Bruce Lee, Bruce Campbell, Christopher Walken, Carl Sagan. I even had a Dratini that I named Iris after Jodi Foster’s character from Taxi Driver.
Why do I still like Pokemon, and more importantly, why do so many others? While I can’t speak for everyone, I can explain why I still find these games appealing.
One is the basic setup of the games. Each game follows a formula about a young kid leaving home for the first time and going out into the world. Most fiction for kids centers around finding your way back to your parents and basking in the familiar environment of home sweet home. Pokemon does the exact opposite, allowing them to contemplate the joys that living independent of your parents can bring. This is actually a very positive message for children, and as a kid it actually made me pretty eager to grow up.
That really is the core theme of the series, coming of age. There are a lot of neat references in the games that reveal a lot about what the creators were going for, and why it appeals to me on a personal level. In the very first game, you wake up in your house and prepare to start with your adventure.If you interact with the TV downstairs, it says this.
This is a reference to Stand By Me, the movie by Rob Reiner adapted from Stephen King’s novella. In this film, told in flashback from one of the main characters, four boys, played by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connel and Corey Feldman, leave their home town to search for the body of a missing boy. In the process, they learn much about the world and its ills, about life and death, and about each other. Upon returning to their home, they have made the first painful steps towards adulthood.
That Stand By Me was referenced in the game is no coincidence. It really does elaborate on the coming of age themes that are central to the series. Stand By Me is a film that changes as you get older. When you first watch it as a kid, you obviously relate to the boys and what they are going through because that is what you’re going through. When you get older though, things jump out more. The narration of the now adult lead character, the heir of 50s nostalgia, the jokes about what he and his friends used to do. Watching it as a kid, the movie is about childhood. Watching it as an adult, it is about the memory of childhood, when you took those first steps to leave it behind.
That’s what Pokemon is about to many of its fans now. We’re remembering when we did that for the first time, how exciting and scary it was, but how hopeful we were of tomorrow. That brings us to another film that I think can explain why Pokemon continues to appeal to adult fans, me in particular. That is the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks.
Big is about a young boy who wishes to grow up, and finds himself in the body of his 30 year old self when he wakes up the next day. While initially still filled with the innocence of a child, he grows more and more mature, eventually taking up the responsibilities of an adult before finally becoming a child again. Like Stand By Me, the film changes when you watch it at an older age, but while Stand By Me is about remembering childhood, Big is about getting it back.
Childhood really is a magic time. You don’t pay attention to politics, the conflicts between religions don’t interest you, things like racism and other forms of prejudice make absolutely no sense, and the world seems like a full and beautiful place where all the evils are far away. When you grow up though, things change, and the world becomes a lot scarier as you move down the path of life until its inevitable conclusion. Big is about someone who became an adult and learned to cherish their childhood for what it was before getting a second chance. Sadly, that doesn’t happen in the real world, at least not literally.
But there are things that make us feel young again, and bring us back to the place we were, if only for a short while. I would often play Pokemon on the bus ride home in Ohio. It was a long, 40 minute trip through grassy fields, rolling hills, all punctuated by the music from a retro station playing the biggest hits of the 80s. When I play Pokemon, I can smell the grass, hear the birds, recite the lyrics to the songs, and feel the rough leather of that bus seat against my skin. I feel young.
One of the songs that often played on the radio as I journeyed through the regions of Kanto and Johto was Forever Young by Rod Stewart. It honestly couldn’t have been a more perfect choice. I still play you when I’m 27, and will likely be playing you at 47. Happy 20th anniversary, Pokemon. Thanks for making me feel young.