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Tue November 19, 2013
All Tech Considered

The Surprising Cultural Stamina Of Pokemon

Originally published on Tue November 19, 2013 1:57 pm

Fifteen years ago, pocket-sized characters known as Pokemon arrived on American shores from Japan. The cute creatures were suddenly everywhere: television, video games, card games and a movie.

When the Pokemon cartoon theme song first hit American TV airwaves in 1998, "Gotta catch 'em all" became a mantra for kids. But few people imagined that in 2013 the stars of this cartoon would still be going strong.

"Pokemon's a more than billion-dollar business each year," said J.C. Smith, the marketing director for the Pokemon Company International. Fifteen years ago, the makers of Pokemon made a bet that releasing a video game, card game and cartoon all at once would launch a franchise that could stand the test of time.

For now, the bet is paying off, as the second generation of Pokemon players watches the cartoon and takes up their game consoles and cards.

"We do benefit from having been around as long as we have because there are dads who are playing with their kids now; these dads grew up with it and love it," Smith said.

On a Sunday afternoon at Game Empire in Pasadena, Calif., one of Los Angeles County's biggest game stores, two generations of Pokemon card players — ages 8 to 38 — gathered for friendly competitive play. Together.

Nine-year-old Mark, who was testing his skills against a player almost three times his age, explained the basics: "First of all, you have to have Pokemon that have high attack power."

Mark said Suicune was a good Pokemon character. "[He] has a really good ability, safeguard, that means it can't be damaged by E-Xes."

I had no idea what that meant. But it's the depth of the game, both in terms of rules and storytelling, that keeps people interested

I asked 23-year-old Taylor Jansen, who runs the card-gaming group, to explain the ties between the card game and the video game (which is made by Nintendo). The video game, he said, leads the way.

"So when a new game comes out, that's when new Pokemon come out, and new mechanics come out and stuff," Jansen said. "So that trickles into the card game and that same marketing gets a bigger base for the cards and the game."

Sales of the latest edition of the video game released in October were brisk. Nintendo sold 4 million games worldwide on the first weekend.

But some gamers are skeptical this can last. The video game part of the franchise relies on old-school devices, namely Nintendo handheld consoles, that are being quickly replaced by smartphones in gamers' pockets.

And that's the catch. Nintendo is stuck wondering if letting Pokemon roam free on phones will wipe out the handheld hardware market. The answer to that question will determine what a second 15 years of Pokemon will look like.

Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, a tech and digital culture site from Youth Radio.

Copyright 2013 Turnstyle. To see more, visit http://turnstylenews.com/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And it was 15 years ago that pocket-sized characters, known as Pokemon, arrived from Japan. The cute creatures were suddenly everywhere - television, video games, card games, and a movie. The franchise was huge in the '90s and then faded. Now, it's back in a big way.

Noah Nelson from Turnstyle News takes a look at the surprising cultural stamina of Pokemon.

NOAH NELSON: For those '90s kids in the audience, here's a little blast from the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF POKEMON THEME SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Pokemon, gotta catch 'em all. Pokemon.

NELSON: When this cartoon theme song first hit American TV airwaves in 1998, few people imagined that in 2013 the stars of this cartoon - cute monsters that fit in your pocket called Pokemon - would still be going strong.

J.C. SMITH: Pokemon's a more than a billion dollar business each year.

NELSON: That's J.C. Smith, he's the marketing director for the Pokemon Company International. Fifteen years ago, the makers of Pokemon made a bet; that releasing a video game, card game and cartoon all at once would launch a franchise that could stand the test of time.

For now the bet is paying off, as the second generation of Pokemon players watches the cartoon and takes up their game consoles and cards.

SMITH: We do benefit from having been around for as long as we have because there are dads that are playing with their kids now 'cause these dads grew up with it and love it...

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

MARK: Ah, man, one basic.

NELSON: On a Sunday afternoon at Game Empire in Pasadena, California, one of L.A. County's biggest game stores, I found two generations of Pokemon card game players, ages 8 to 38, gathered for friendly competitive play - together.

MARK: First of all you have to have Pokemon that have high attack power.

NELSON: Nine-year-old Mark was testing his skills against a player almost three times his age. I asked Mark to name me a good Pokemon character.

MARK: Sweetcoon has a really good ability, safeguard, that means it can't be damaged by E-Xes.

NELSON: Having no idea what that meant, I turned to the 23-year-old Taylor Jansen. He runs the card gaming group. I asked him to explain the ties between the card game and the video game made by Nintendo. The video game, he says, leads the way.

TAYLOR JANSEN: But when a new game comes out, that's when new Pokemon come out, and new mechanics come out and stuff and so that trickles into the card game and that same marketing gets a bigger base in the cards and the game.

NELSON: Sales of the latest edition of the video game released in October were brisk. Nintendo sold four million games worldwide on the first weekend.

But some gamers are skeptical this can last. The video game part of the franchise relies on old school devices - Nintendo handheld consoles - that are being quickly replaced by smartphones in gamers' pockets.

NELSON: And that's the catch. Nintendo is stuck wondering if letting Pokemon roam free on phones will wipe out the handheld hardware market. The answer to that question will determine what a second 15 years of Pokemon will look like.

NELSON: For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.

MONTAGNE: And Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, which is a project of Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.