What Pokémon Is

I write a whole lot about Pokemon here at Kotaku—and every time, at least one person asks what the deal with the franchise is. Why is it so big? Why do people care about it? What's it about, even?

Maybe you wonder these things, too—it's an especially relevant set of questions now that Pokemon X & Y are about to release. Although it may be difficult to capture why this franchise has become so beloved, here's my humble attempt at explaining Pokemon.

Where it begins for most people might differ. Maybe it was the show, back in 1997. Maybe it was this song from the show in particular and the words I want to be the very best, like no one ever was:

Maybe it was the original games, Pokemon Red and Blue.

What Pokémon IsS

Maybe it was the trading cards, and the endless attempt to collect all the shinies. Or, maybe it was all three at once—that's how it was for me, at least.

But wherever you went, there it was. Pokemon. Even then, during the late 90s, it wasn't too hard to see why. Here's this franchise about kids who go on adventures to become 'Pokemon masters,' and in practice what that really means is that you can leave home when you're like 8 years old to see the world with your friends and pets. Pretty seductive, as a fantasy. (And highly lucrative, as merchandise.)

151 was the magic number, initially. 151 different critters to choose from. 151 Pokemon, many of which look somewhat close to creatures we know in the real world...only cooler somehow. Sure, you can see that in the design, but mainly it was that these monsters could evolve and become faster, stronger, better. That was such an alluring concept. I didn't even know about Charles Darwin back then, but when the real-world concepts appeared in my life, they didn't seem implausible. It's like Pokemon, you know?

There's something about the world, too. Although there are many reasons to live with a Pokemon, the major one was to battle against other trainers. The idea is, you gain more and more experience, your companions get stronger, and eventually you challenge this society's version of bosses, which they call 'gym leaders.' Defeat a gym leader, earn a badge. Earn eight badges, and you can challenge the Elite Four—the toughest bosses in the land. Defeat the Elite Four and welp. You did it. You're the very best. Congrats!

It seems so perfect, now, to look at the badge as an emblem of success, especially for us millennials who grew up on this franchise. We can easily lump them with the certificates, the gold stickers, the trophies, or the idea that success has a specific path, a specific route, and that with enough tenacity, we, too, can make it. And then you look back and you realize that it was never like that, and Ash, the protagonist of the anime show, is still out there after a decade of trying to become a Pokemon master. Stuff like trophies haunt us, and Ash might be kind of a loser.

But while both the show and the card game still exist, most people know of Pokemon as a video game. For the better, really: most of us didn't even know how to play the card game, and the stuff that happens overs the course of a season in a show might happen in an hour or two in the games.

So let's talk about the games a little more. What is Pokemon there? The premise I described earlier is still the same, but...

Contemplation begins before you buy anything. First, there's the version; the games always come in two different versions. Pick a color, or a letter. Each one has a specific set of Pokemon exclusive to the game. But what is perhaps the biggest choice that you'll think about before you get the game is the question of what Pokemon you'll start off with. Do you want a fire Pokemon? Water Pokemon? Grass Pokemon? Choose an element, and your rival will choose whatever element defeats yours, because they're a dick. In the earlier games, you could even name them Dick if you wanted to. That's Pokemon.

Six slots means six Pokemon. Six, out of over hundreds. Paring down your choice is practically maddening. And each individual Pokemon brings with it more choices, still: what do you name them? What moves will you give them; there are dozens of choices. How will you use them in battle? And then, after you decide, you'll watch these Pokemon grow stronger and stronger. Up to level 100, maybe. Through 3 different forms of evolution, sometimes. You'll end up with a monster, but you love that monster. They're your beast, and damn it if you won't bring them with you everywhere, across multiple games. Maybe one day you'll even pass them down to your kids. That's Pokemon.

Running in the grass means meeting new Pokemon. Not all Pokemon will catch your eyes; many will simply be battle fodder, a means to gain more experience. But then that one cool Pokemon appears. You'll weaken it—not enough that it faints, but enough that its health is in the red. You'll throw a Pokeball, the device that lets you capture Pokemon. The Pokeball will close, and the Pokemon inside will try to ram its way out. The Pokeball wobbles back and forth, until eventually the game decides whether or not you caught the Pokemon inside. But before that happens, you'll be so eager about it all that you'll find yourself holding the B button down just so that the Pokeball stays closed—even though you know your button press changes absolutely nothing. That's Pokemon.

The other trainers all wait for you. The second you come into view, they'll challenge you—despite being friendly, this world is weirdly combative in a way, too. Most people will fit certain archetypes—maybe they're a nerd, or a fisherman, or a couple. Many can't seem to understand that having 6 of the same awful Pokemon is not a viable battle strategy, but you can't complain, because beating them means being given half their money. And yes, you'll take that money even if it comes from the elderly or children—don't worry, at worst their response to losing is something ridiculous like I Like To Wear Shorts! They’re comfy and easy to wear! That's Pokemon.

Somewhere along your journey, you'll hear about impossible Pokemon—creatures that created the world, creatures that govern weather, creatures that nobody has seen for centuries. It will sound magical, implausible. You will think they're just myths. And at some point, you will meet all all of these legendary creatures anyway. It's your destiny. That's Pokemon.

Does it make sense now?

(Top image via Tom Ledin)