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Reflecting on the First Pokemon Boom

On Saturday, February 27, 2021, Pokemon became old enough to rent a car in the US. But while Pokemon debuted in Japan in 1996, it took another two years – until 1998 – for Red and Blue to release in America. And I’m (ahem) seasoned enough to vividly remember the rapid explosion which proceeded to rivet every child in America – including myself.

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Such sweet friendship. Courtesy of Nintendo Life

Towards the end of 1998, Pokemon had begun the first stages of its stateside takeover – both the anime and Red and Blue came out in September. Yet even as an adorable first grader adorned with oversized fuzzy GAP hoodies, I have always been slightly… behind… on the trends.

But, by the following spring and summer, in 1999, Pokemon was unavoidable. It was everywhere. It felt like it happened overnight: nobody knew what Pokemon was and then, suddenly, everyone did. 

That summer, I remember beseeching my mother to buy me a pack of Pokemon cards while she took me to a day trip to the (now very ghost town-like) Water Tower Place in Chicago. She was treating me to a special lunch and everything, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was wandering around the halls like a zombie, shaking with anticipation to open my cards. 
The second I tenderly opened the packaging – I didn’t want to damage the Blastoise on the front! – all I could do was flip through them, one after the other, over and over again. I was ecstatic, entranced. Just looking at the old package art now, I feel a rush of that childlike thrill.

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I (read: my parents) bought so, so many packs of these. Image courtesy of GameByte

I was by no means alone in my enthrallment with Pokemon and Pokemon cards – though I admit I was one of very few girls at my school who was into it (story of my life). But I still had a few friends I could revel in nerdery with.

One such friend was my neighbor, a boy slightly older than me who had moved recently. Pokemon cards provided the ground upon which we built our friendship. I was admittedly more into the cards for the drawings and the cute creatures, but he was into it. He taught me how to play the card game – which, admittedly, I didn’t do all too much. I just liked collecting things.

This boy’s pride and joy was his holographic Charizard. He would flourish it constantly, with the air of accomplishment of a parent whose child has just gotten into Harvard – until, one day, during one flourish, the card slipped out of his hand and through one of the slits of my home’s porch. The next morning, my mother awoke to find him and four of his friends in our backyard, poking through the deck with long sticks which had gum attached to the ends. Tragically, she chased them off before their recovery mission was successful.

We didn’t hang out much after that.

All parents were convinced Pokemon was a fad – just like American Girl Dolls, *NSYNC, and Space Jam. My parents wouldn’t even let me watch the Pokemon anime because it was “too violent” (they weren’t super religious or anything, just profoundly overprotective), and they were sure my determination would naturally wane. But I would go over to my friend’s house and watch the anime, then and we would stomp around pretending to be both Pokemon trainers and their Pokemon.
By Christmas 1999, my parents caved and gave me a video tape (remember those?) of the anime, Primeape Problems. For the life of me, I cannot remember exactly why I wanted this specific video tape – especially since Primeape / Mankey were nowhere near my favorite Pokemon – but I was delighted.

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My holy grail. Image courtesy of ebay

Bolstered by the ridiculous explosion of popularity of the anime in particular, Pokemon released a new game in October 1999: Pokemon Yellow, for the GameBoy Color. If I had Blue beforehand (it would’ve been Blue, I’m a Squirtle stan), I honestly don’t remember, so strong was the imprint Yellow made on my psyche, so thoroughly did it rock my little eight-year-old mind. I was absolutely delighted by the Pikachu trailing my trainer around Kanto. I thought Pokemon Yellow was the best game ever.

(In case you were wondering, Pikachu was my favorite Pokemon as a kid. It is now Jigglypuff. And yes, Let’s Go! Pikachu was aimed squarely at me. And yes, I loved it.)

So, obviously, I was obsessed with my new game. I was so obsessed, I even got my dad obsessed. I vividly remember spending all afternoon on the couch one day as I finally beat the Elite Four.

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Hello, friend. Image courtesy of Destructoid

As an only child, I didn’t have any siblings to share my adoration for Pokemon with, so I had to share it with the older members of my family. My forceable Pokemon gravitational pull didn’t stop at my immediate family – my extended family was subjected to it as well.
Growing up, I would travel with my cousin (both my cousins are about fifteen years older than me) down to my aunt’s house in Urbana, Illinois, on the night before Thanksgiving. We would go to Olive Garden (breadsticks!), and then we would go see a movie – because Thanksgiving-time is typically a good time for blockbuster releases. And, of course, in 1999, the big movie – and the only one I wanted to see – was Pokemon: The First Movie.

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This poster makes me feel immense nostalgia. Courtesy of the Pokemon Wiki

My two cousins (who were in their twenties), my aunt, and my uncle all knew absolutely nothing about Pokemon. They barely knew what it was even about. Yet, they were all forced into seeing this movie by the unnegotiable force of my sheer enthusiasm. 

The Pokemon: The First Movie outing has become a somewhat infamous story in my family, largely because the film starts off with a twenty-minute short called “Pikachu’s Vacation.” Which doesn’t feature a single line of English dialogue. Or any context for anything.

My cousins, in particular, were dumbfounded during the whole film. They exited the theater laughing from pure confusion. “I thought it was cute!” my aunt said as we walked to the car, somewhat defensively.

I, by contrast, had a ball.
This was the tone as 1999 turned into a new millennium, as Red, Blue, and Yellow turned into Gold and Silver (I got Silver for my birthday in 2000, one year after Yellow’s release). Personally, the craze surrounding the first generation of Pokemon marks one of the last periods of tender innocence of my childhood (my home life would get rocky in the coming years). Plus, by the time Ruby and Sapphire released in 2003, I had “moved on” from Pokemon and thought I was “too old.” Or, rather, I thought I was too old for it until I was 21, and my college housemate downloaded a Pokemon Crystal emulator to my phone.

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My BFFs and I outside the Pokemon Store in Osaka, Japan in 2019

Then – for me, at least – the search for childhood comforts brought me right back to Pokemon fandom. I don’t think I’ll “grow out of it” this time.

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