Pokémon and the Great Unknown

Released 20 years ago, the original Nintendo game was as much a bildungsroman as it was a monster-collecting challenge, and its newest incarnation captures that spirit.


The original Pokémon video game begins with its protagonist, a little boy, walking down the stairs at home and talking to his mother. “Right. All boys leave home some day,” she says, apropos of nothing. “It said so on TV.” You (as the little boy) are commanded to go next door, pick up a Pokémon from a kindly professor, and wander into the tall grass above your tiny town. There are monsters ahead—literal pocket monsters, of course, but also less tangible ones: the fear of leaving home, of taking on the big bad world armed with just a backpack, a trusty pet, and a valuable maxim from your mother. All boys (and girls) leave home some day—it said so on TV.

The original Pokémon (first released for the Game Boy in 1996) is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age-story, disguised as a bug-collecting challenge. It’s a tale of leaving home to explore the world of Japan’s Kanto region, filled with thick forests, scary towers, bustling metropolises, and dark caves, all of them crawling with supernatural creatures. Now, 20 years on, we have Pokémon Go, a genuine mobile-game phenomenon that emphasizes catching the colorful little monsters above all else. But that’s exactly not why the game works, and why it had over 15 million downloads a week after its launch: It works because it captures the original game’s spirit of exploration, even if its players said goodbye to their childhood home years ago.

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.”

But beyond that, he had a sense of nostalgia for the great outdoors, having grown up in a rural suburb of Tokyo called Machida that was developed and urbanized in the 1970s. “Every year they would cut down trees and the population of insects would decrease. The change was so dramatic. A fishing pond would become an arcade center,” he said. “Places to catch insects are rare because of urbanization. Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I. When I was making games, something clicked.”

For its relative simplicity, that’s the real appeal of Pokémon Go—the fact that it simply urges you to go outside, and that its peculiar geo-cached map identifies all sorts of odd local landmarks as “Pokéstops” and gyms worth visiting. After downloading the game, I poked around my local map and saw a location marked simply as “Statues” a couple of blocks from my home. I wandered over and found, in a small community garden, a group of peculiar statues arranged in a line, like some miniature urban Easter Island, an odd discovery that had been sitting under my nose for years (the garden, of course, was also full of Bellsprouts).

In its nascent form, Pokémon Go can’t offer the supernatural narrative twists of the original game it’s aping. Nor can it fully echo the strange sense of completeness that came from circumnavigating Pokémon’s fictionalized world of Kanto and coming back to your little hometown, this time with a slew of mighty monsters in tow. But it’s still managed to turn its fans into a nation of Dr. Bugs, even if we aren’t turning over stones or baiting trees with honey. At its best, it can evoke a little wonder in the mundane world around us—or force us to realize the world we live in was never mundane in the first place.