Happy birthday Pikachu and friends!
The Poke’mon phenomenon officially began ten years ago when a young boy by the name of Satoshi Tajiri – an avid collector of insects – thought up a cool idea for a Nintendo Gameboy videogame: players would interact with a wide variety of little creatures that resembled insects, rats and snakes. The menagerie would fight and play and do all sorts of mischief. The name of these creatures? “Pocket Monsters” or Poke’mon for short.
GameBoy executives in Japan scoffed at the idea. “Pocket monsters…?” Where’s the merchandising potential in THAT? Show this kid the door! But several months later, the company had a change of heart. Quicker than you can say, “One million copies sold” an industry was born. The initial Poke’mon Gameboy cassettes (there were two – a ‘blue version” and a “red version” sold like hotcakes.
The goal of the game is to try to become a “Poke’mon Master” and try to catch all the Poke’mon (which number 150). However – and here is where good marketing comes in to play – all 150 Poke’mon are not all in the same version of the game. In order to get all 150 you need to trade with someone who has the Blue version if you have the Red and vice versa. Even though that is the main goal – to become a Poke’mon Master – there are other goals a youngster can aim for. Some of these include training a specific type of Pokemon, trying to build a “perfect team” of Poke’mon, and trying to beef up your Poke’mon by getting them to level 100 (the highest they could go). And there in lies the “other” great marketing play: a game that teaches kids the value of setting goals, accomplishing objectives, and the meaning of hard work.
I’m pretty sure all this learning is masked by the fun involved. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
As is the case with a lot of hot ideas….a flood of merchandise quickly followed: an animated cartoon series debuted on television within months and kept the characters in the public eye – which in turn paved the way for a flood of cross-over products ranging from comic books, toys, clothing, trading cards and collectable figures. Within six months, Pikachu and company had generated over 4 million dollars in profits.
Fast-foreword ten years and Poke’mon has created an empire.
It’s nice to be a superstar. In May of 1999, Time Magazine dedicated its cover to the Poke’mon phenomenon. Around the same time, Topeka, Kansas organized its first annual To-Pickachu Day. The first Poke’mon theatrical film made nearly 11 million dollars (domestic) on its first day of release. In one 24-hour period over 20,000 Poke’mon related products were sold on eBay.
Like I said earlier, there are 150 pokémon. The different types of pokémon include water, electric, grass, fire, psychic, ghost, normal, flying, rock, ground, dragon, ice, fighting, poison, and bug. Everyone from psychologists to network executives tried to figure out what the secret was behind this crazy cast of characters with names like Artiuno, Charizard, Mew Two, Moltres and Zapdov, and why millions of children identify with them and follow their every move. And what about Pikachu The silent, forever smiling, upbeat little creature that for a while there seemed to give Mickey Mouse a run for his money?
The Poke’mon merchandise express debuted in Europe in September 1999 and the cash registers haven’t stopped ringing. The biggest impact of Poke’mon is the flood of similar characters that followed in its wake. But none quite as memorable as the cast of Poke’mon.
Say what you will abut Japanese animation, GameBoy and the like, but buried deep inside the Poke’mon concept is a parable or two that seems to connect with children. How the heck Poke’mon can take the Friedrich Nietzsche slogan, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and turn it into something positive for children speaks loudly about the power of the media and the way it presents messages.
Quite simply, the world of Poke’mon is a world without grownups. Just complicated enough to confuse adults who would like to understand the rules of the game but don’t, yet simple enough to hook kids of all ages.
So here we are on Poke’mon’s birthday. The cartoon series is into its 9th season, there are so many movies made for either theatrical of straight-to-video release it’s hard to keep track. And enough trading cards that we could probably line them up end-to-end and circle the globe.
Poke’mon. One of the true phenomena that shows no signs of slowing down.