In the 20 years since its release (the U.S. versions of the game came out in 1998), Pokémon has become such a gargantuan multimedia franchise that it’s easy to forget what a haunting, odd wonder the original game was. Your main goal was to collect, train, and battle with Pokémon until you were strong enough to face the Elite Four, the greatest trainers in the land. But the journey included multiple encounters with black-clad monster slavers, communing with the spirit of a dead Pokémon to grant her soul rest, and other moral twists that were strange considering the game’s overall concept. After all, the whole point is imprisoning these creatures and demanding they do battle, right?
With Pokémon Go, all this subtext is stripped away. You load the app on your phone, then walk around the neighborhood hunting for adorable beasts to snag by flicking Pokéballs to entrap them. If you want, you can do battle with them at gyms, facing off against other strangers wandering the same augmented-reality world. But the sense of wonder is largely restricted to the neat trick of using your phone’s camera to place a digital monster on the street in front of you (or perch one on your shower curtain, or have one slither across your desk). There’s something undoubtedly enchanting about that—but Pokémon Go is really about collecting, collecting, collecting, with mercenary aplomb.
This central goal hearkens back to the idea at the heart of the original Pokémon. The game’s designer, Satoshi Tajiri, was an avid insect collector as a child—his friends called him “Dr. Bug,” and his parents wrung their hands over his obsessive interests—and in creating Pokémon, he melded that hobby with a love of anime and Japanese monster movies to create one of the first truly social games. The Game Boy Pokémon was an adventure you played alone, but you could also trade your catches with your friends. Because of the divided nature of the game (it came in “Red” and “Blue” editions, each containing some unique monsters), you needed a buddy to truly catch ‘em all.
That’s the core magic Pokémon Go is tapping into. The monster-collecting isn’t really a multiplayer experience, but it still urges you to seek other people out and to show off your team. (The game’s creators have promised that a future app update will allow players to trade Pokémon with one another.) In a 1999 interview with Time, Tajiri said the idea of one-on-one trading appealed partly because of the bygone era it evoked. “Remember, there was no Internet then,” he said of his childhood. “The concept of the communication cable is really Japanese: one-on-one. It's like karate—two players compete, they bow to each other. It’s the Japanese concept of respect.”
The way Tajiri describes his childhood in that interview alludes to the game’s bildungsroman quality, that of a child learning about the world around him by physically grappling with it. “If I put my hand in the river, I would get a crayfish. If there was a stick over a hole, it would create an air bubble and I'd find insects there,” he said. “In Japan, a lot of kids like to go out and catch beetles by putting honey on a piece of tree bark. My idea was to put a stone under a tree, because they slept during the day and like sleeping under stones. So in the morning I'd go pick up the stone and find them. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.”