Pokémania: 1998-2016… and beyond?

With the release of Pokémon Red and Blue in the United States in 1998, “Pokémania” swept the nation. The video games, the anime, the board games, the Pokémon stuffed toys and action figures, the licensed Pokémon cups and bowls and macaroni and cheese – the craze lasted into the early 2000s as Pokémon movies saw release in theaters. As with any sudden pop culture craze, many parents were suspicious of the influence these popular monsters might have on their children. As Times reporters Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer wrote in 1999, “the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness… And never underestimate a child’s ability to master the Pokearcana required to accumulate such power: the ease with which they slip into cunning and thuggery can stun a mergers-and-acquisition lawyer.” Others expressed fears that Pokémon were demonic, especially psychic-types like Kadabra. And who can forget the debate over whether the Pokémon Jynx represented racist blackface?

Chua-Eoan and Larimer’s article focuses on other concerns of the parents of the 90s. Though the writers expressed discomfort at the way child players have adapted to the technology – “seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the miniscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It’s a much difficult task for adults” – their prime criticisms focused on the obsession that the game engenders in its players. Creator Satoshi Tajiri is described as having “obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque.” His early passion for arcade games made his parents worry that he’d become a “delinquent,” and he and his likeminded friends are called “junkies” as they start to build what would eventually become a multimillion dollar franchise. This wording reflects the concerns that many parents had: that Pokémon would convert their child into an obsessive, video-game-playing shadow of who they once were. But don’t worry, Chua-Eoan and Larimer wrote – “parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.” Pokémon never disappeared from the pop culture and video game scene – a gigantic version of franchise mascot Pikachu graces the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to this day – but it did, at least, leave the limelight.


Pikachu continues to loom over Americans. Source: the Macy’s Day Parade Wiki. 

Until July of 2016, when Pokémon Go was released. Pokémania was back.


Taking control of a gym. Screenshot of Pokémon Go gameplay from Niantic.

Created by Niantic, the smartphone game utilized augmented reality to place pokémon in the world around gamers and to turn local landmarks into Pokéstops where you can get items. You walk down to the corner store, spin an icon marking at as a Pokéstop, and get items: cool! You swipe to catch an Eevee: neat! You power up your monsters and battle hundreds of other players in your area to claim victory for your team and establish dominance for your team: rad! The simplified mechanics of the game, streamlined for mobile playing, irritated some longtime Pokémon fans used to the more complex battling system of the GameBoy and DS games, but generally it seemed like a cute, inoffensive game that encouraged people to go outside. What was the harm?

But just like the original Pokémania, the game set off another storm of controversy. This time, unlike the original Pokémania, critique focused largely on the actual g ameplay mechanics: the smartphone game was allegedly making players (a large portion of which being adults who had played the original Pokémon) inattentive to the world around them, it was a foolish waste of time, it encouraged players to trespass and drive recklessly, and – just like the original criticisms – it was a point of obsession. Click here to view a cartoon  by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski that expresses many of the critiques of the game. I’m sure we’ve all seen the many Facebook posts from older relatives or people uninterested in video games elaborating on their disdain for the whole phenomenon.

And while a large amount of the Pokémon Go hype has faded by now, the game continues strong, with active players across the world and large content and gameplay updates planned for the future. Further, with the next generation of the handheld console games – Pokemon Sun and Moon – planned for a November 2016 release, Pokemon may stay in the news in the near future. What is it about the Pokémon franchise that stirs such strong emotions in supporters and critics alike – its popularity, the perceived childishness of the game? Or is its criticism not at all unique – what larger cultural contexts drive these criticisms? Setting aside the very real issues of safety (such as playing Pokémon Go while driving), are the criticisms of the game the same hostility that video games as a medium face, or is the augmented reality aspect of the game a special marker that sets its cultural response apart from other games?

The Evolution of Video Games and the Diminishing Relevance of Failure

By Thomas Adams

In class, we began discussing failure in video games. The most common version of failure in video games in gameplay failure. Gameplay failure is when the player fails to complete a task that he/she must complete in order to progress in the game. This could be failing to solve a puzzle (e.g. Portal), dying to enemies (Halo), or even losing a match against an opponent (League of Legends).  I will breakdown the evolution of games over time and show how failure in video games became less harsh and more importantly, different.

Thinking back to early video games, we have to look at the arcade genre. Because of the video game infrastructure at the time, these games were meant to be played at an arcade, not in your home. As such, these games were meant to be played for a few (but possible several) minutes at a time to allow for others to have a chance to play as well. Thus, the games had to be developed in such a way that allowed for meaningful gameplay progression, but also had a “hard-capped” end. For example, Donkey Kong allowed players to play the game for as long as they could, while they still had enough lives left. Of course, the game increased in difficulty and most players could never really play too long.

As companies began developing in-house consoles, like the NES, the gameplay paradigm followed. Many games for the NES still had a very “hard-capped” ending. Super Mario Bros., for example, had a similar structure to Donkey Kong. The player could progress as far as he/she wanted until they ran out of lives or beat the game. Having played the game myself, it is very disheartening to see yourself progress really close to the end, and then lose your last life. That’s it. Game Over. Now restart from the beginning.

As technology grew in the 90s, games could become more sophisticated. Developers could begin creating non-linear story lines and program 3 dimensional worlds. Take the Nintendo 64 games for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 both became more forgiving when a player failed. Simply getting hit by an enemy didn’t mean death. Players began having health pools to take more than a few rounds of damage. Players also still had multiple lives. However, these two games in particular still had “Game Over” screens when a player completely died for the last time. (here is one for Banjo-Kazooie). As you can see, these game over screen are very disheartening and showing the player the results of their failures.

Fast forward another 10 years to the 2000s and even today. Technology has allowed us to put more content in games than ever thought imaginable. This new emphasis on content and story-driven games allows developers to be extremely forgiving with gameplay failure. This is mutually beneficial for both players and developers. The players get to continue their game without harsh penalty while also getting to access all the cool content that the developers spent millions of dollars on. It only makes sense, right? Why would a company spend that much resources on game content if the punishment for for gameplay failure was never getting to experience any of it? Nowadays, with huge thanks to advancement of technology, failure is almost irrelevant because of the willingness for developers to be forgiving and the perseverance of players in order to progress in those games.

Listen! (C-Up)

As I sit here contemplating what exactly I find to be my favorite game, few things jump out at me. Of course I could always say something that I found relatively enjoyable that has recently been released like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I could also say something that constitutes ass-kissing like Lord of the Rings Online (wouldn’t that just be appropriate from me?). But in all honesty it is extremely difficult to choose that one perfect game that balanced joy, fear, excitement, and sadness and organized them so perfectly that Beethoven could hardly match its perfection with his symphonic genius. Then I think I found it.

I was home a few weeks ago, enjoying my family time as usual. We decided to make a day of driving around town and doing a little shopping. Now, of course, no shopping trip is complete without the quick trip to Wal-mart to pick all your family necessities. So, I did what I normally do when we make a trip there, I browsed the electronics section for things to criticize and/or admire. I was walking through the Nintendo section when I stumbled upon the new giant signs exclaiming that the 3DS’s were now only $169.99. I had never used one and I was curious as to what they looked like with the “revolutionary” 3D graphics (Which has definitely not been in use since the 90’s…). So I moseyed on over to the display model, powered it on, clicked on demo, and waited. When the game loaded up I heard a heart-wrenching tune: the intro music for Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

I was torn into pieces. How could I have forgotten such a magnificently poised series as Zelda? When I was young, I owned a Gameboy: Color and I started my Zelda experience on Link to the Past. I always loved the epic story of an unlikely boy/young man who rose from the lowest rank, starting with nothing but a sword and shield to conquer the evils of the lands. Not only did this game evolve with some of the greatest gameplay qualities of the time, but it also held the values of courage, wisdom, and friendship to such high standards. No matter how old I was, I always adored the story line of one of these games: dressing up like Link on Halloween, running around the yard with a plastic sword yelling “Hiyah!”, and practicing the ever important speed boosting technique of shoulder rolls around the house. As I stood and played the first mission inside the Great Deku Tree, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia swept over me and I once again felt as if I was 8, enjoying another round of everyone’s favorite sequence: the Water Temple. If ever there was a game that impacted me, it was Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

[As this will be my last post until after September 11, I would like to take the time to say that my prayers go out to those who lost family or friends on that fateful day 10 years ago. (moment of silence)]

~~D3LTA04, Faithfully devoted to the defeat of Ganondorf [Post 2]