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May 12, 2019-Sunday
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Pokemania: Why the little critters are still so loved

The magic of Pokemon is that a child gets to explore the world, surf across oceans, dance with dragons. And every adult in this universe (even his mom!) encourages and helps him to roam free.

more lifestyle Updated: May 12, 2019 08:47 IST
Aditya Nair
Aditya Nair
Hindustan Times
The Pokemon gaming franchise remains one of the most successful of all time. The online-meets-offline version, Pokemon Go, has had millions of monthly users since its launch in 2016. This week saw the release of the first animation / live action film in the franchise, Pokemon Detective Pikachu.

Why is Ryan Reynolds in a Pokemon movie in 2019? Who’s going to watch it? Who still plays the game? The answer to each of those questions is ‘millions’.

It’s been 23 years since the release of the first Pokemon game, and Nintendo has sold over 300 million copies worldwide, making it one of the highest-selling video game franchises ever. As recently as last May, Pokemon Go saw a seasonal jump that had 147 million users log on.

Though popular culture tends to represent Pokemon the game as Cute Monster UFC, to those of us who grew up with it, it is so much more.

To understand Pokemania, step back in time with me. Not in a temporally challenging, mentally exhausting manner. Rather one where you sit back and try to remember what it was like to be a child. Specifically, an Indian child in the last days of the ’90s, with the rules, traditions and parental orders that children were expected to follow without question.

Pokemon Go is still encouraging people to pick up their smartphones, head outdoors and work together. In a time of textbook answers and rote learning, the early games forced us to work together too, and to think, think laterally, and ask ‘what have I missed?’

Now, my parents followed the doctrine of good parenting, which holds as one of its core tenets that children should not be allowed to do whatever they want. Don’t run across the road; don’t go cycling around the city without telling us; don’t touch that; get down from there. All reasonable orders, but tremendously frustrating to me as a kid.

It was against this backdrop that Pokemon Yellow & Gold for Game Boy arrived. Here was a protagonist my age given a chance to explore his world, head-butt trees, surf across oceans, explore volcanic caves and dance with dragons. And every adult in this universe (even his mom!) was inclined to encourage and help him to roam free, track and catch wild animals, get involved in battles where flamethrowers and rock slides, thunderbolts and earthquakes were the norm.

The only characters in-game that prevented you from exploring or told you to “Scram, kid” were the villains. And they needed to be stopped!

With severely restricted internet access, there were no hacks or tutorials. The only tips and tricks you had were the ones you and your friends discovered and shared. And that spirit of community, of people gathering offline and ‘exploring’ together, is what would make Pokemon Go such a sensation 15 years later.

In 2016, Pokemon Go got people to pick up their smartphones and head outdoors. In a time of textbook answers and rote learning, it forced us to think, think laterally, and ask ‘what have I missed?’ I once spent an entire weekend ‘running between five cities’ trying to figure out why a wiggly tree still stood between me and in-game progression. It turned out all it needed was to be watered.

My favourite memory of the franchise comes from Pokemon Gold: When you were finally done exploring the region, had defeated the final boss, the Elite Four and the Champion, seen the end credits roll, you learnt that a new region had been unlocked, with new Pokemon, stronger opponents and a new Elite Four. The end-credit sequence was an entire game!

We’ve come to the franchise in different ways. Your start may have been the trading cards, the manga or the TV shows and movies. Maybe you caught on to games from later generations. Or perhaps you were there on day one, with Pokemon Red and Blue. Whenever it was that you strapped on those running shoes, the reason for staying with the franchise was always the same, a unique sense of adventure.

That promise of never-ending adventure continues this weekend, with Pokemon Detective Pikachu, a film about a kid who goes looking for his lost father accompanied by a talking Pikachu.

Meanwhile, around the world, the game is still giving children the permission to explore. To quote the first and last line of the video game’s intro sequence: ‘Welcome to the world of Pokemon… Your very own Pokemon legend is about to begin.’

First Published: May 11, 2019 19:28 IST