Unless I’m the only target to a very consistent marketing campaign, people are being made aware of the fact that Pokemon is turning 20 this year. There’s even a Super Bowl ad coinciding with this milestone. While its been some time since the last time I played a Pokemon game (Gold, in case you are wondering), I couldn’t help but recognize that there’s still something special about Pokemon as a larger narrative and why it, at least to me, still seemingly has an importance today.
Of course, this could all just be wistful nostalgia, but let’s see where the rabbit hole leads.
The first place to start would be with the Super Bowl ad itself.
What’s particularly striking to me about this commercial is how little of it is actually connected to the content of the Pokemon franchise. The repeated mantra of “I can do that” calls back to the driving force behind Pokemon’s original narrative. For anybody who watched the original show back in the late 90s, the not-so-subtle inclusion of “Like No One Ever Was” is a direct reference to the lyrics of the theme song for the television show.
Aside from the obvious nostalgia angle, the decision to focus on these components of Pokemon is significant because it reinforces the open-ended nature of the protagonist’s (or the player’s) ultimate goal: to be the very best. The commercial shows people running, playing chess, gearing up for a football game, and engaging in a stadium-style Pokemon battle. How are all of these things connected? They aren’t, and that’s precisely the point.
The Pokemon television show back in the 90s introduced a protagonist, Ash Ketchum (because puns were funnier back then), who was driven towards being a “Pokemon Master”. Given that this is the character’s primary motivator for the first couple seasons, you would expect some specificity as to what conditions need to be met in order to become said master. You would be wrong. Between the two broad goals of capturing as many of the various types of Pokemon in the world and winning Pokemon battles, there is a whole lot of time dedicated to efforts that directly go against even these two enormous feats. On top of that, the show’s protagonist DOES NOT win all of his battles. He DOES NOT capture all the Pokemon ever, to the potential chagrin of completionists everywhere. But that’s okay. The goal of being of “Pokemon Master” is still out there, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his prioritization of his human companions, his Pokemon, or the world at large.
What’s equally enduring about Pokemon is that it’s not afraid to show us that world and, with each new generation of Pokemon introduced, seemingly expand it out further. The primary goal, of being the very best, takes on new significance when you realize just how big the world can be. However, the response by Ash (as well as the player in the Pokemon games) is to go out and engage that every growing universe. While there’s a certain level of naivete that comes along with a show predicated on a bunch of pre-teens wandering the world with nothing but what amounts to fighting pets by their side, 1) it’s a children’s TV show and 2) the lesson to be drawn from this messaging is that it is better to go out and see the world than to be afraid or averse to what it has to offer. If it strikes people as idealism, it is; but what would the world be like if we didn’t raise children to think they could be anything?
“Being the very best” is an open-ended goal that is largely defined by the person who takes it on. That was demonstrated in the TV show, the 20th anniversary ad, and is important when considering the population of people who grew up with Pokemon (myself among them). There are certainly a number of idealists out there who are pushing and fighting to achieve their dreams. Whether it is to be self-sufficient or to make the world a better place, they are out there, engaging the world, being their very best. Where I suppose this becomes “problematic” is when that aspirational and idealistic drive runs up against the realities of the world. The world of Pokemon is certainly not the real world. There are a multitude of dangers, threats, and crises that would, when taken collectively, scare anyone from ever leaving their bunker of a home. However, these dangers are more a product of the world we live in than they are necessary constants. The world as we know it now has always been changing, and those changes are often driven by those who aspire to change it.
It is worth reiterating that Ash lost most of his high-stakes earlier tournaments (it’s possible he became an unstoppable winner in later seasons but I doubt it). In spite of those early and narratively significant losses, he learned from his shortcomings, strengthened his bonds with those closest to him, and moved forward as a better person. What made that growth possible wasn’t just a robust support system, but a constant yearning for self-improvement. While I can’t speak for every idealist out there, I understand that “being the very best” is a long and challenging prospect. I can imagine plenty of people are working through some significant challenges right now and still maintaining their belief in a better future for themselves.
It’s important to think about where we come from collectively as a people, what forms our values, our fears, and our scope of imagination. When it comes to the idealism of the young, I think we were collectively well-served by the hopefulness, the determination, and the idealism that Pokemon presented. Whether that role is still filled by that franchise or another, it is important to our development as a people to never stop pushing for that level of excellence that seems just outside the realm of possibility.