Every Millennial knows this. If you’ve observed a bunch of postmodern “yuppies” recently breaking out of the office and randomly snapping photos with their smartphone camera, don’t panic. They’re just being hit by a craze that they went gaga for back in the 90s.
Remember that round yellow rodent with a lightning tail? Well after 25 years, that creature Pikachu and the whole Pokémon gang are back to invade smartphone screens with Pokémon Go! It’s the latest gaming app from Nintendo and Niantic and has made its debut this week in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.
To those unfamiliar with the world of Pokémon (or if you’ve been living in a cave all your life), it is a game that defined a generation. It was first conceptualized by Satoshi Tajiri and released by gaming giant Nintendo in the late 90s. Making its debut in the Game Boy and Game Boy Color handheld gaming systems, this was perhaps the company’s biggest hit since Super Mario Brothers.
The origin of the game’s name came from the Japanese Romaji phrase “pocketto monsutta”. The translation from Japanese to English would be “pocket monster” or Pokémon in short.
The game made its debut in 1996 with the release of Pokémon Red and Green in Japan and in the United States and the rest of the world by 1998. Starting with the tagline “Gotta catch ‘em all!”, players were challenged to collect all 151 Pokémon species released on its first version. Acting as Pokémon trainers, players had to capture Pokémon in the wild using Pokeballs and battle out other trainers through RPG-style gaming interaction.
Of course, the game had a lot of twists, which included hard-to-collect and extra rare Pokémon species, extremely difficult opponents and bosses, and a whole lot of other game secrets that only diehard fans would know.
Based on IGN’s Pokémon timeline, more than 3 million units were sold in Japan by 1997. By 1998, 200,000 cartridges of Pokémon Blue and Red were sold easily on US shores during its opening weekend. In an unprecedented announcement from Nintendo of America in 1999, more than 4.2 million units were sold in the US, officially making it a “US$5 billion dollar industry worldwide.” Up until the turn of the new millennium, Pokémon had become a global hit and earned a huge fan base in many other countries.
The Evolution of Pokémon
Pokémon’s success worldwide has spurred a lot of sequels, spin-offs, and alternative versions. One of the first successes of Pokémon marketing was the introduction of Pikachu, an electrically charged yellow-haired rodent based on the actual mammal, the pika. Pikachu (which even has its own airplane livery) was the highlight in the Pokémon Yellow version, one of the most popular in the game series.
Since its origins from the Game Boy, more than 15 video game titles have been released from 1996 to 2016. This includes Pokémon Gold, Silver, Platinum, Emerald, Ruby, and Crystal, which remained popular amongst young gamers. Nintendo also had several game spin-offs like Pokémon racing, and a 3D game for the N64.
Riding on the success of the video games, an anime series was launched further bolstering the popularity of the franchise. In addition to that, 19 Pokémon cartoon movies have been released since 1998 and (hardcore fans, rejoice!) a live-action Pokémon movie is in the works in Hollywood under Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, and Legendary Pictures. Even Wizards of the Coast, makers of the highly popular Magic: The Gathering Card Game, also placed its bets on a Pokémon Trading Card Game, which actually became a huge hit.
Pokémon’s Grand Comeback
It’s been 25 years since the Pokémon franchise went mainstream again in pop culture. Years after its peak in 1999, the hype kind of mellowed. It wasn’t until the release of Pokémon Go did Nintendo find itself in the global limelight once again. The gaming app, which just came out last week, has already been downloaded at least 7.5 million times in the US alone for both iOS and Android, according to a report from Forbes. In the iOS alone, Pokémon Go is already raking in as much as US$1.6 million.
The impact has been so successful that Nintendo’s stock market profile has skyrocketed to its highest since 1983 in a report from the Verge. This means that Pokémon Go has already “added US$7.5 billion to Nintendo’s market value.”
Only one could speculate for now what’s driving the success of the gaming app.
Nintendo has been notably dodgy when it comes to releasing games on smartphones. But with the help of one of Google’s former partners, Niantic, the Pokémon world was successfully recreated in an augmented reality. Only a few games are currently using augmented reality, one of which is Niantic’s own game called Ingress.
Just like in the original games, the lead character Pokémon trainer gets to pick one basic Pokémon from Professor Willow (before it was Professor Oak): Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle, or Pikachu. Each Pokémon represented a creature type or element: Normal, Fire, Grass, Water, Electric, Ice, Poison, Ground, Flying, Fighting, Psychic, Bug, Ghost, Rock, Dragon, Dark, or Steel. Each one is either weak or strong against another element.
In Pokémon Go, players get to catch Pokémon in real places. This means they have to walk to different locations using a local map in order to locate certain Pokémon creatures. Pokeballs of varying types can be used to capture a Pokémon. For example, in order to find a water Pokémon, one must visit a nearby lake, bay, or beach. Once Pokémons are caught, they can be trained in Pokémon Gyms so they can engage in battles. Only through Pokémon battles can a Pokémon evolve to a higher creature type. For example, a Pikachu can evolve into a stronger type called Raichu after reaching a certain level.
An addition to Pokémon Go are the eggs. Eggs are a clever way for players to keep walking. The egg is pedometer-based so it will only hatch after a certain number of steps have been achieved.
Today there are more than 700 Pokémons. But for Pokémon Go, the 151 original characters are the only ones currently available.
Pokémon Go, No Go Yet in Other Countries
The gaming app was first made available for play in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Currently, Germany is the first country in Europe to get a release for the European version. There is no news yet from Nintendo and Niantic as to when Pokémon Go will be released internationally, but because the Pokémon fan base has reached a global status, many countries are resorting to different ways to cope.
An imitation gaming app called “Go catch ‘em all” for example, has been topping the iTunes downloads charts in Canada and China in the absence of the real Pokémon Go game in the said countries. Japan on the other hand is expressing utmost frustration as Pokémon hasn’t even been released yet in the game’s country of origin. In the Philippines, Pokémon Go has been accessed even though it has not yet been officially released in the country. Some opportunistic gamers were able to play the game for a while by bypassing the regional locks and installing the game’s APK directly to their phones. But within the same day, access was cut short at midnight.
Niantic admitted that they had to deal with a lot of issues after the game’s release. There were servers that started to get bogged down after an overwhelming release in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Aside from that, the task of carefully localizing the gaming app is also being considered after the Cantonese version of Pokémon Sun and Moon was removed from the release sparking a protest amongst Hong Kong residents.
For now, Pokémon fans with no access to the game can’t really do much except to read all the funny and crazy stories about Pokémon Go in the news. Other than that, fans can only twiddle their thumbs until the ‘go signal’ for international release is given.