Pokémon has become so ubiquitous it’s difficult to imagine a time when Pikachu and friends didn’t exist. The beloved pocket monsters are spread across anime, video games, trading card packs, and so many toys — from plushies to Happy Meal collectibles. The newest games, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, are just around the corner, set to launch on Nov. 18.
But it wasn’t always that way. Pokémon debuted in Japan in 1996, and though the anime and video games were wildly successful overseas, its continued success in the U.S. wasn’t always a guarantee; and there were even years when it seemed the franchise might not even survive.
Daniel Dockery’s Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All digs into Pokémon’s illustrious history, from the creator Satoshi Tajiri’s inspirations to Pokémon’s overwhelming global popularity. The franchise’s success in the U.S. owes a lot to its localization, which included English names and catchphrases, along with wild publicity stunts — including a day in which Topeka, Kansas, was renamed “ToPikachu,” and planes dropped hundreds of Pikachu stuffed toys from the sky.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt that goes into detail about that fateful day, along with the lesser-known history of Pokémon’s English-language debut and the wild media blitz that introduced Pikachu to Americans.
“Gotta Catch ’Em All. Gotta Catch ’Em All.”
Invented for the English language Pokémon debut, this phrase was eventually slapped onto nearly everything related to Pokémon outside of Japan and was repeated frequently during the A Sneak Peek at Pokémon promotional VHS tape. It’s a catchy chant, one that you’re bound to remember even if you can’t recall any of the names of the monsters. And that is why it is so effective, as parents and kids didn’t need to know the names . . . yet. All they needed to know was that it was best to have all of them.
Using the Nintendo Power mailing list, these promotional tapes were mailed around the country to sell its viewers on the franchise, a tactic Nintendo had previously used for the Donkey Kong Country cartoon. In the sneak peek are two adult narrators: one is a professor who spends the whole time explaining what a Pikachu and a Pokédex are, as well as affirming those watching that Ash Ketchum, the main character, has “class.” The other narrator is Ash Ketchum’s Aunt Hillary, who can’t seem to decide whether they’re called “Poke-uh-min” or “Poke-aye-mon things,” but is very excited about the prospect of her animated nephew capturing hundreds of them.
Then, throughout the tape, kids show up to explain various characters or situations—including a preteen girl who seems to own nothing but Pokémon plush toys of various sizes—but, for the most part, it’s up to the two adults in garishly lit rooms to try to convince you to find out what channel the show will be on. The tape also promoted the video games, along with the Pokémon Pikachu virtual pet and the trading card game, merchandise that would all debut a few months after the games’ release. Then the sneak peek ends by telling viewers to keep an eye out for the “PokéCars,” which would be driving around the country, showing off the anime and games, and even handing out free Pokémon stuff to any fan who happened to be way too close to the street at the time.
This whirlwind of information and products that lasts less than fifteen minutes was most likely a cacophony of nonsense to adults and an absolute thrill for the kids lucky enough to witness it. And this sentiment proved to be the biggest asset of the franchise during its early years: kids were the immediate experts in Pokémon and were on the “ground floor,” if you will. It was something new, something entirely unfiltered by expectations or tastes established by series past, so parents had no clue how to change Pokémon because they had no comparison or reference to guide them. And kids had to get it all.
Nearly every month in 1998 Nintendo Power ran a new feature about Pokémon games, from articles about its effects on the resurgence of the Game Boy, to explainers that covered the ins and outs of its appeal, to six mini-magazines that guided you through portions of the game. While this was great for establishing a buzz around the game prior to its release, it was probably more than a bit exhausting for the Nintendo Power staff. When the review team finally did end up reviewing the game, their score was a 7.2 out of 10. Not bad, but also a far cry from the “this is the second coming” treatment that they’d seemingly been preparing for. Various other publications ran their own predictions about the anime leading up to its premiere. Brandweek listed the exhaustive amount of marketing Nintendo was doing, as did Advertising Age, which marveled at the more than $10 million spent on Nintendo of America’s push to make Pokémon a success, but was also quick to remind readers that this indeed included the show that caused all those seizures. The Wall Street Journal, starting their piece with “Godzilla, shmodzilla,” mainly focused on the toy potential and, yes, the seizures.
Overall, these were the two main takeaways: Nintendo of America was spending a lot of money on the show, so this franchise will probably make a lot of money in return, and the animated show causes seizures. Luckily, the negative press around the upcoming franchise would soften, mainly due to Nintendo’s push to make it look as wholesome and exciting as possible. One way to do that? With wordplay.
On August 27, 1998, a month before the anime’s official release, Nintendo held a special “ToPikachu” event in Topeka, Kansas, a city chosen because it was in the center of the US. As part of the event, the city officially renamed itself “ToPikachu,” a change that tragically only lasted a day, and more than 2,500 lucky kids got the chance to play the games, watch some of the upcoming anime, and nab some t-shirts. “Pokémon ‘Pretty Neat’” read the front page of the Topeka Capital Journal, alongside a picture of a seven-year-old embracing a gigantic Pikachu doll.
Seven hundred Pikachu plush were dropped from the air, along with ten skydivers who landed and drove away in the Pikachu-themed PokéCars. Then kids rushed into the field to claim the dolls—a mad display of energy for a product that hadn’t technically been introduced en masse yet. “They came. They saw. They sold,” continued the article, but to kids, it was extremely reasonable. It’s Pokémon, remember? Gotta catch ’em all.
The games had been renamed Pokémon: Red Version and Pokémon: Blue Version, using the updates provided by the Japanese Blue version, while keeping the groupings of monsters found in Japanese Red and Green, respectively. The name and color change came thanks to the same Hiro Nakamura, who had been integral for the US team with localizing the games, and continued to be instrumental in figuring out how to ensure that Pokémon performed well across different markets. “It was his kind of experimenting with people and understanding that blue is the most popular color in America and that starting with Red and Blue would be better than starting with Red and Green. It wouldn’t matter in the triangulation of water-fire-plant which two led,” Tilden said of Nakamura’s work.
Of course, everyone knows that fire and water don’t mix, like, at all. So the games leaned into this dynamic by placing Charizard, the final evolutionary stage of little flame-tailed Charmander, on the cover of Red, and Blastoise, the final evolutionary stage of the tiny turtle Squirtle, on the cover of Blue. Kids would not only trade between themselves, but instantly understand the inherent competition going on. “Which one did you get? Red or Blue?” would be the prime opening line for elementary school cafeteria arguments for months and years to come. Despite this natural tension and competition, technically, no choice was better than the other, which is a theme that continues to run throughout the series even today. “The unique nature of the sheer size and variety of Pokémon,” Bush said of the games, “means you can have your own special blend and your favorites. And nobody’s was better or worse than another, just different. There was identity in that.”
Then, finally, the time had come. The anime was set to premiere on September 8, a strategic placement that would hopefully entice even more kids—okay, their parents—to go out and buy the games, which were following on the twenty-eighth. However, there is just one more player to introduce before we explore the shockwave that would follow Pokémon being unleashed into millions of homes across America. They’re well known to Pokémon fans, some of whom remember them with childhood nostalgia, while others wish that they’d done things differently in their efforts to help make Pokémon as massive as possible.
They are 4Kids.
Prior to their release, there were two distinct commercials for the Game Boy games that were played almost constantly on television. The first was fairly chaotic, featuring a bus driver inviting a bunch of Pokémon on board, including a Pikachu, who greets him with a friendly “Pikachu!”, to which the driver drolly and hilariously responds, “Yeah, whatever.” It’s all a ruse, however, and the driver hauls the Pokémon to a factory where the bus is crushed with the creatures visibly panicking inside. The demolished vehicle is then turned into a Game Boy, which the bus driver happily plays, with no thought to the numerous crimes that he must have just committed.
The second commercial was of a gentler variety, of two boys playing Pokémon in apartment buildings separated by a wide alley. Seeing that their owners are frustrated by their inability to catch the monsters found in the opposing game cartridge, their Pokémon pals leap to the rescue! Led by Pikachu, who, of course, was already anointed as the Monster Team Captain for the franchise’s American reveal, the Pokémon escape the confines of their Game Boys and toss a link cable between the apartments. Then a handful of monsters make the precarious tightrope walk from one boy’s Game Boy to the other, effectively echoing the image Satoshi Tajiri had had in his head of bugs crawling across a wire almost a decade prior.
This was the perfect encapsulation of the franchise—and remains so to this day. Amid the marketing maelstrom created not just to appeal to American consumers, but to overwhelm pop culture itself with Pokémon’s ubiquity, here were friendly monsters from a lush fantasy realm coming to life to help total strangers connect in the middle of a cold, urban setting. It is up to the viewer whether it’s more of a capitalistic re-creation of nostalgic connection or humane bond formed by benign beings of supernatural biology. Regardless, the commercial is Pokémon.
From the book Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All by Daniel Dockery. Reprinted by permission of Running Press, part of the Perseus division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2022 Daniel Dockery.