Wave upon wave of cute monster illustrations on cards, singer Jason Paige singing the “Pokémon Theme” on repeat, a child glued to his Nintendo Game Boy playing Pokémon Crystal— Pikachus everywhere. Mother, forgive me. From 1998 to 2002, like many other kids in the United States, I was entranced. Pokémania and the Japanese media mix had arrived. Half-jokingly The New York Times reported that kids caught a “Pokéflu”.
Pokémon’s arrival in the US hasn’t received much attention in the literary world until recently. Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All, written by Daniel Dockery, senior staff writer at Crunchyroll.com (an anime streaming service) and published by Running Press, tries to elucidate on how Pokémon through its ethos of “Gotta catch ‘em all” shaped a generation. Monster Kids does so by providing an entertaining account of the US arrival of Pokémania, a pop culture consumer-driven phenomenon from 1996 to 2002 started by Pokémon’s creators Game Freak, Nintendo, and several license holders. Pokémon—the highest-grossing multimedia franchise in the world—is the world’s most famous and successful media mix, a term defined by cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito as a linked character-based media system that synergizes video games, trading cards, anime and manga, merchandise, and films as part of a single franchise.
The Pokémon media mix was developed by Tajiri Satoshi and Sugimori Ken, their company Game Freak, a Japanese video game magazine turned developer and Nintendo. Unlike most Japanese media mixes, which usually begin as print media (manga), Pokémon began as a pair of video games where players explore the game world, collect a variety of monsters called Pokémon, and utilize them to battle against other players.
Welcome to the Media Mix: How a Generation Became Monster Kids
Time magazine, in a now infamous 1999 article, “Beware of the Pokemania” succinctly defined the phenomenon as “… a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it, with children mesmerized into cataloging a menagerie of multiplicative monsters, with trading cards linked to games linked to television shows linked to toys linked to websites linked to candy linked back to where you started—a pestilential Ponzi scheme”. Monster Kids tells the story of Pokémon’s arrival in the US and the pandemonium that ensued as a result.
Dockery attributes the success of Pokémon, and similar multimedia franchises of Japanese origin, to its ability to provide “an outlet for kids like me and our dreams”. Cultural Anthropologist Anne Allison similarly describes the main pillars of Pokémon—portable play and collecting—as “pocket fantasies”. For parents, these dreams and fantasies made the money in their bank accounts and wallets disappear.
Dockery argues that Pokémon “democratize collecting, a hobby that’s usually reserved for those with the means, the money, and the space”. Nintendo and Pokémon were making good consumers out of a new generation of kids by bringing the media mix approach used in Japan to the United States. This is exemplified by Pokémon’s English language slogan, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” that brilliantly and explicitly demands consumers to collect all the Pokémon.
Monster Kids provides firsthand counts via interviews on the North American localization, advertising campaign, and management of Pokémon by Nintendo of America, 4Kids (the distributor of the Pokémon cartoon), and other companies that held the coveted license. Nintendo of America spent $10 million (about $19 million in 2023 when accounting for inflation) to make Pokémon a success in 1998. 4Kids released the Pokémon animated series in September 1998. Its first episode was titled “Pokémon-I Choose You”.
The cartoon had already created excitement when the video games Pokémon: Red Version and Pokémon: Blue Version launched three weeks later in North America. Soon the Pokémon Trading Card Game, out in Japan since 1996, was released in North America in 1999 by Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for introducing the world to Magic: The Gathering. A successful Pokémon manga adaptation followed the same year. Its first issue, The Electric Tale of Pikachu, sold over a million copies in the US. Suddenly, Pikachus were everywhere.
Pokémon’s meteoric success led to widespread panic, mainly aimed at its trading card game, and concerns linking video game violence to the Columbine massacre. In a 1999 Time Asia interview, Tajiri defended his vision of the franchise by stating, “I’m very careful about violence in games. I’m not interested in creating violent effects”. Tajiri and Pokémon would get the blessing of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, which assured parents that the franchise didn’t pose “any harmful moral side effects” to kids.
The sequel video games, Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver debuted in November of 1999 in Japan and sold over six million copies in just six months. Debuting in the US a year later, they became the fastest-selling video game at the time. Pokémon’s success led to the creation of The Pokémon Company to manage the licensing of the growing franchise. By 2002 the third generation of Pokémon video games Ruby and Sapphire were released and, according to Dockery, “solidified its livelihood”.
The most unexpected and amusing segments of Monster Kids are those that highlight how other media franchises sought to capture some of Pokémon’s success. Doona Friedman, Kids’ WB’s executive vice president, credited Pokémon with establishing the success of anime in the US. Media mixes like Bandai’s (now Bandai Namco) Digimon, Cardcaptor Sakura created by CLAMP an all-female manga artist studio, Tecmo’s Monster Farm, known as Monster Rancher in North America, and Pokémon’s biggest competitor Yu-Gi-Oh! Created by Kazuki Takahashi. The Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game surpassed Pokémon’s in terms of sales and became the bestselling trading card game in the world. For Dockery, “Yu-Gi-Oh! was perhaps the ultimate realization of the aims of its peers… one could be a player like a character on the show.
Moving to Other Adventures
Monster Kids is not a detailed or satisfactory account of what made Pokémon a wider phenomenon. It lacks essential details concerning the multimedia franchise’s creation and history. Dockery fails to discuss Ultraman as the progenitor Japanese media mix franchise, instead relying on only briefly calling it an influence on Tajiri. Furthermore, claims made in Monster Kids that Tajiri and his team at Game Freak developed “…a game quite unlike any that had ever come before it” are unfounded. Though true that Pokémon’s monster collecting mechanic was inspired by Tajiri’s childhood bug-catching obsession, this is not the only source of inspiration.
Pokémon is not unique, nor is it the first video game to have creature collecting. It’s heavily indebted to the Dragon Quest video game series, specifically Dragon Quest V, in how it provides a simple yet engaging role-playing experience and monster-catching mechanics. Also, the 1987 game Shin Megami Tensei, released nine years before the first Pokémon games, might be the first video game to have a monster-collecting mechanic. This history is absent from Monster Kids.
Monster Kids barely discusses Pokémon’s greatest accomplishment: providing an engaging portable realm for collective play that, according to Ito in her article “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix”, “crossed gender lines”. Pokémon’s inclusivity and gender-bending of the media mix formula were facilitated by Nintendo’s portable gaming device, the Game Boy, created by Yokoi Gunpoi. The Game Boy allowed for portable play and social interaction in a way not too dissimilar to us today in our world ruled by smartphones. Additionally, according to Nintendo, in 1995, a year before the first games in the series were released in Japan, 46 percent of owners identified as female. This was to Pokémon’s benefit. Pokémon Crystal (released in 2001) gave players the option to choose between a boy and a girl character avatar. For many players, myself included, this was the first time they took the role of a non-male character.
Pokémon’s global success has its roots in Japanese consumer culture and Japanese advertising laws towards kids; this history is also missing in Monster Kids. More glaring is the lack of Japanese people interviewed as part of a book about a franchise made in Japan. Readers should refer to Matt Alt’s excellent 2020 book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World, for an approachable and insightful introduction to the Pokémon phenomenon and Japan’s popular culture. Also, Mizuko Ito scholarship (quoted in this article) offers detailed accounts of the Japanese media mix and how Pokémon brought girls into gaming. Another excellent read is the 2004 anthology Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, which probes the Pokémon phenomenon on a global scale.
Pokémon would never again invoke the same level of hype as it did during Pokémania. But what has? Through its use of the media mix, Pokémon built on its success to become the biggest media franchise in the world, with revenue of over $100 billion. Pokémon’s most recent wave of popularity resulted in The Pokémon Company expanding and decentralizing its media mix by supporting YouTubers and streamers, as well as the popularity of Pokémon GO, and the success of Nintendo’s Switch hybrid gaming console. The most recent games in the series Pokémon: Scarlett and Pokémon: Violet have set sales records, selling over 10 million units in three days. As Dockery states, Pokémania might be over, “but Pokémon was 4Ever.”
Allison, Anne. “Cuteness as Japan’s Millennial Product”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon. Editor: Joseph Tobin. 2004.
Alt, Matt. Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. 2020.
Barrett, Devlin. “Pokémon movie earns Papal blessing”. New York Post. 21 April 2000.
Cua-Eoan, Howard and & Tim Larimer. “Beware of the Pokemania”. Time. 14 November 1999.
Ito, Mizuku. “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix”, in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. MIT Press. September 2008.
Larimer, Tim. “The Ultimate Game Freak”. Time Asia. 22 November 1999.
Lyman, Rick. “Pokemon Is Catching, and Keeping, Them”. The New York Times. 13 November 1999,