Arrested Evolution: Pokémon’s Refusal to Grow Up

Before you exit your house in 1998’s Pokémon Red and Blue—the first set of localized games in what has become a franchise of sprawling, borderline-unimaginable proportions—you’re given the option of interacting with the TV set. Clicking the A button on your Game Boy brings up this text: “There’s a movie on TV. Four boys are walking on railroad tracks. I’d better go too.” This is a reference to Stand By Me, the 1986 film based on a short story by Stephen King about preteens who venture into the woods to find the body of a missing person—and its ties to your own upcoming adventure only become clearer with time.

Stand By Me is rooted in nostalgia, not for the 1950s (when the story takes place) but for youth in general and its particular breed of wondrous companionship. It’s a story that couldn’t be told with adults. As grown-ups, we are far too burdened by responsibility and self-awareness to embrace the kind of journey that the kids in Stand By Me go on. The same goes for the journeys in most Pokémon games, journeys only a 10-year-old could do—battle trainers, stop evil, catch ’em all. These are goals uncomplicated by the things age throws at us. Pokémon isn’t a franchise about growing up as much as it’s about the lens we view the world through as children, one full of play and dreams.

But those who have enjoyed Pokémon since its early years have grown up. There are now multiple generations after them, whether they’re young adults or children, who are experiencing it all for the first time. They’re enraptured by the fantastical simplicity of the games and the current heightened state of its popularity, thanks to megahits like the Pokémon Go mobile game, the recent installments Sword and Shield, interest in the upcoming Pokémon Legends: Arceus, and the reemergence of the Trading Card Game into headlines and broader cultural relevance. These new players have likely never touched Red and Blue. Their only relationship to Pokémon is the here and now.

Both sides of the fandom are enormous, which leaves the supposed aims of the franchise in a muddled state. Is it meant for the older fans, whose responses to the series range from deeply nostalgic to desperate for progress? Or is the Pokémon Company’s sight solely set on newer devotees, those yet to discover the ins and outs of the addictiveness that has ensured Pokémon’s popularity for more than two and a half decades? One of the main attractions of the franchise, along with one of its major pitfalls, is that it’s done little to keep up with those fans who have cherished it all this time. I don’t mean this in the sense of maturing its storylines. Giving Ash Ketchum, the lead character in the anime, a goatee, or filling the games themselves with surprise grittiness, is a silly way to capture the fleeting attention spans of an older crowd.

Rather, Pokémon relishes in the comfort it provides—with every new installment essentially serving as a soft reboot of the series. It’s why Ash Ketchum will remain eternally 10. He is meant to represent every new kid getting into the series for the first time. And it’s why—before Arceus was announced—any changes in the Pokémon games’ mechanics, difficulty levels, or game designs have been incremental at best.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/pokemon-nostalgia-new-games