When I say Pokémon, most of you probably think of the games. But the franchise owes just as much of its success to its cartoon series.
The Pokémon anime started in 1997, one year after the original game released in Japan. Those handheld classics celebrate their 20th anniversary this week. The cartoon is still going today — a 900-episode run. To put that in context, The Simpsons, which is often the butt of jokes for its long broadcast life, only has 587 episodes. It’s still one of the 10 most popular animes in Japan, and it airs today in more than 74 countries. Pokémon’s show has done just as much to keep the series popular as the games. In fact, the cartoon has become something of an advertising platform for the interactive entertainment, which has sold over 200 million copies in its 20 year life.
The secret to not just its longevity but its cross-promotional genius: The cartoon is able to introduce fans to new Pokémon long before they debut in any game. The first episode of the show, in fact, ended with a glimpse of Ho-Oh, a legendary bird that didn’t make his gaming debut until Pokémon Gold and Silver in 1999, two years after it aired.
Yet the show needs the games to survive. It would have run out of material a long time ago if the new games didn’t continue to come out. The original episodes closely follow the plot of the original Game Boy games, the Red and Blue versions: a young boy gets his first Pokémon and goes off on an adventure to defeat gym leaders, earn badges, and try to become a Pokémon Champion.
Of course, that’s only good for so many episodes. Luckily, each new Pokémon game introduces a new location, new characters, and — most important — new monsters to catch. Every time a new entry in the series comes out, main character Ash travels to the location introduced to the game, encountering all of the locale’s new creatures and characters. As long as new Pokémon games keep coming out, the anime will never run out of material.
The show did make one major change to the original setup for the games. In Red and Blue, you have a choice between Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander as your first Pokémon. The show, however, saddled Ash with a Pikachu, who before the anime debuted was just one of 151 pocket monsters you could capture in the games. However, his enlarged role in the show propelled him to mascot status, quickly making him the most popular and recognizable Pokémon — and a beloved character around the world.
In fact, Nintendo released a third version of the original games, Yellow, in 1998. While mostly identical to Red and Blue, Yellow made the adventure more similar to the popular show. You started with a Pikachu, and you would encounter characters from the cartoon, like Jesse and James from the villainous Team Rocket, that previously weren’t in the games.
The show is so popular that it even survived a major controversy early in its run. Episode 38, Cyber Soldier Porygon, made headlines all over the world after a sequence of flashing lights caused many Japanese viewers to experience headaches, seizures, and other problems. After it aired, 685 Japanese viewers went to the hospital. The show went on a four-month hiatus after the disaster, but it quickly regained its popularity. The episode, however, was never rebroadcasted or shown outside of Japan.
The show became a quick hit in the U.S. when it debuted here in 1998, around the same time the original games released in our country. It has been on a couple networks after originally broadcasting straight from syndication, running on Kids’ WB from 1999 to 2006. After that, the anime began showing on Cartoon Network, where it airs to this day.
Many of us grew up with the show. A lot of us have also outgrown it. It was never a particularly deep program. Most episodes involve Ash and friends rolling into a new town, meeting some new character and their Pokémon, and then befriending them while fighting off Team Rocket. It’s not exactly Breaking Bad. Still, the show serves an important purpose for the brand by keeping children invested in the property, and it reinforces Pokémon’s position as a multimedia powerhouse.