Why the Pokemon Anime is the Most Successful Adaptation of a Videogame Ever

Game Freak's marketing juggernaut owes much of its success to its television spinoff. And it's still going.

Retrospective by Kat Bailey, .

My first brush with Pokémon came when I watched an episode of the anime at the behest of my friend. It had been airing for a month or two at that point, having been timed to coincide with Pokémon Red and Blue's rollout here in the U.S.

"Oh, that's kind of cute," I said to myself as I watched Ash Ketchum agonize over his decision to trade his Butterfree for a Raticate. I made a mental note to ask for the game for Christmas. A few months later, I was full-blown maniac for the series.

I wasn't alone, either. Millions of kids (and more than a few self-conscious teens) got their start on the series through the anime - easily the most successful example of spinoff media in gaming history. Street Fighter, The Legend of Zelda, and Final Fantasy have all had alternately hilarious and disastrous turns in the cinema and elsewhere, but the Pokémon anime remains an integral part of the franchise's identity. If you imagine a Charmander saying its name in its high-pitched squeak, then you're thinking of the anime.

And it's still going. Nearly 20 years after its debut on Japanese television, OLM, Inc. is still producing episodes and movies that are being translated and aired worldwide. The show has entered the kind of rarefied air occupied by a select few animated shows, including The Simpsons and The Flintstones.

Over the years, it has proven a brilliant and rather devious marketing vehicle for the games that have served as its inspiration. Its main goal is to promote both the new games and a handful of monsters, which are then turned into plush toys, figures, and other merchandise. Discussing this over breakfast this morning, my partner observed that even a Pokémon's habit of repeating its name is a smart marketing tactic - it basically drills that monster's name and image into your head forever (Pika Pika).

But its sheer marketability doesn't account for its sustained worldwide popularity. Lots of cartoons have been conceived with the intention of selling this brand or that brand and ultimately faded away. The Pokémon anime grabbed kids in a way that few other shows had to that point; and for a time, it was a bonafide international sensation. Certainly, the popularity of the games had something to do with it, but the show also appealed to kids on its own merits. Here's one reason: It was serialized.

Oh, Gary.

As it was originally conceived, the show was meant to parallel the game. Ash (Satoshi in the Japanese version, named for the franchise's creator, Satoshi Tajiri) receives his first monster, slowly but surely earns gym badges, battles a pair of villains trying to steal his Pikachu, and constantly finds himself one step behind his rival, Gary (Shigeru). Many of the episodes are meant to stand alone, but Ash nevertheless undergoes a distinct arc over the course of the series as he meets new friends, learns to temper his natural impatience and brashness, and becomes a skilled trainer. In the end, he enters a grand tournament and ends up fighting... himself.

In one of the final rounds, Ash encounters a trainer named Richie who is basically his doppelganger, even down to the fact that they wear similar clothing. Ash ends up losing because he sends out his Charizard, which fails to obey him and gets him disqualified. It's a surprisingly bittersweet ending for a kid's show - particularly one as upbeat as Pokémon. The reasoning for this decision becomes clear soon enough, though: Ash's journey isn't over. He still has another 800 or more (!) episodes worth of adventures.

In any case, kids loved following Ash's adventures from week to week, excitedly rooting for him to get that next badge and wondering what awaited him at the end of the road. It could be funny, as when Ash chased a Primeape and ended up getting the living bejeezus kicked out of him. It could be exciting, with battles that had little to do with the game - at one point, Ash uses a water sprinkler to wet down an Onix so Pikachu can shock it - but were usually well-edited and dramatic. And it could be heartfelt, as when Ash bid goodbye to his Butterfree. It was also inspirational in its own way. Pokémon set out to teach kids the meaning of fair play, good sportsmanship, and perseverance. Whenever Ash got knocked down, he would pick himself up again, dust himself off, and keep doggedly pursuing his goals. I'll admit, it was a guilty pleasure of mine for a long time.

Pokémon's infamous seizure episode earned a nod in the 1999 Simpsons episode "30 Minutes Over Tokyo."

The show eventually proved so popular that it actually influenced the games. In 1998, Game Freak released Pokémon Yellow in Japan - a special edition featuring Pikachu that was a direct nod to the anime. Jesse and James - the show's bumbling villains - also made an appearance with Koffing and Ekans. Years later, Pikachu would be the only monster in the game to say its own name as a battlecry. Though the anime has mostly existed at the service of the games since then, Pokémon Yellow served to highlight their symbiotic relationship. The popularity of one fueled the other.

Of course, as with all toy-driven shows, capitalism is still king in Pokémon. The franchise's ongoing success has ensured that the series will never reach a satisfactory conclusion. Every few years, OLM hits the resets button and sends Ash to a new region with his Pikachu in tow and the cycle begins anew. Ash is pretty much doomed to wander the earth - ageless and unable to ever get past the final eight of a tournament.

Amusingly, despite having been rebooted many times over, the anime has retained some degree of continuity over the years. Ash's old monsters hang out at Professor Oak's ranch, and they are called upon when he's either about to embark on a major battle or there's a remake to promote. Specials have occasionally appeared highlighting the whereabouts of old companions like Misty. Ash himself, though, will remain 10-years-old forever. It's best not to think about it too much.

(Another thing that's best not to think about: the shipping culture that has grown up around characters like Misty and May. Just... ew.)

As with the rest of the series, the anime's stubborn refused to change may eventually prove its undoing. Over in Japan, Level-5 has become equally adept at spinning its games off into kid's shows, and the Yo-Kai Watch anime has been reportedly eating Pokémon's lunch for a few years now. In the U.S., the anime still enjoys a certain amount of cultural cachet, but more as a nostalgia trip than an actual relevant property. You can find the shows and movies on Netflix, Cartoon Network, and elsewhere, but none of it is even close to being as big as Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, which grossed some $160 million in the international box office.

Still, the anime trudges stubbornly onward. With Sun and Moon, Ash will find himself in a new region with a new collection of monsters, ready to win over a new generation of kids. It's not as popular as it once was, but it remains etched in pop culture, defying the notion that videogames can't work as TV shows or movies. And when we think of the original 151 monsters, we'll think of Ash Ketchum wandering the world in his quest to be a master, forever young.

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Comments 23

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  • Avatar for LGscoundrel #1 LGscoundrel 2 years ago
    Yup, this was me. My younger sister got me into the show before I even realized it was a video game. A few months later I was begging my parents for a gameboy color and Yellow for my birthday.Edited February 2016 by LGscoundrel
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #2 odaiba-memorial 2 years ago
    @captainN2 I was thinking the same thing. Most successful adaptation? Sure, no arguing that. But is it the best? Not even close. Even just as far as Pokémon itself is concerned, the anime is pretty lackluster. The Pokémon Adventures manga, for instance, stomps all over the anime in terms of overall quality -- and it's been around just as long, and is still going strong in Japan. (Not to mention is Satoshi Tajiri's preferred adaptation, as well.)
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  • Avatar for alexirish93 #3 alexirish93 2 years ago
    One of the other unsung reasons for Pokemon's early success in the US is that the show was originally syndicated. That coupled with the move to a broadcast network (Kids WB) for a long time helped the series reach a wider audience than if it premiered on cable or premium cable (coughyokaiwatchcough)
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #4 CK20XX 2 years ago
    The first Pokemon movie did wonders for waking me up and killing my interest in the anime. It was such an awful, cheesy slog with the painfully ironic Aesop that fighting is bad. It caused me to look back and realize that Ash is a frustratingly bad trainer with a lot of fudged victories. Then I discovered the Pokemon Adventures manga and never watched another episode again.
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  • Avatar for jihon83 #5 jihon83 2 years ago
    The show is interesting, because it does try hard to instill the idea of being a kind and ethical trainer. I find it charming, though I like how the show tries to also create surrogates for the way players actually battle, train, and, taken together, treat their fighting animals. It does make me wish someone produced a parody cartoon about Pokemon Protective Services stopping contextually bad player behavior, even if it might be a bit SVU when it comes to busting Ditto egg mills.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #6 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    The fact that pokemon say their GD names is to the always-been-an-adult-during-its-existance me a complete "bwuh?", and it only got bwuhier after playing and finding out about the "distinctive" species-specific cries.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #7 Kuni-Nino 2 years ago
    Yeah, I still maintain that the Kanto arc is one of the better shows that you can put on for kids. There's a little bit of something for everyone in it.

    It's nice to see that the new seasons haven't forgotten what made the first season so great. Pokemon XY is a pretty good show from what I've seen of it.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #8 odaiba-memorial 2 years ago
    @CK20XX "Fighting is bad, but ignore that when you're capturing wild animals and forcing them to fight one another; it's okay, because they LIKE fighting!"

    Yeah, that movie's message was always a bit odd for a series that literally REVOLVES around fighting. From what I understand, though, that was mostly a result of the movie's localization; in the Japanese version, the weight of the plot was in how appalling it was that these Pokemon were vigorously beating the crap out of one another for no reason other than "I'm a clone and you are not." The message originally being instilled was more along the lines of what Mewtwo says at the end: "The circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are." I blame executive meddling for this one, really.

    Possibly even more baffling was the second movie's Aesop, which was, as Misty defiantly yells to our villain, "Pokemon aren't things to collect!" Er... You sure about that, guys?

    I totally agree on everything else you said, as well. Ash is a crap trainer and Pokemon Adventures is awesome.Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2016 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #9 CK20XX 2 years ago
    @odaiba-memorial Guess I'll chalk that up to the plague that was 4Kids Entertainment then, though I understand that their original programs were always much better than any of their dubs.
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  • Avatar for docexe #10 docexe 2 years ago
    I remember watching this show regularly till the middle of the Hoenn region arc, then quitting it. It had become too formulaic by then and I realized the character was, as the article put it succinctly, “doomed to wander the earth - ageless and unable to ever get past the final eight of a tournament”. The Kanto and Orange Isles arcs were decent though, if not exactly outstanding.

    Talking about that, I find it slightly bizarre how Ash has remained the protagonist of the anime till this day, and how, at least as far as I know, the anime still retains some degree of continuity. Most merchandise driven shows tend to change their protagonists and casts with every new iteration (think Gundam, Yu-gi-oh!, Digimon, Super Sentai, etc.) or do a complete continuity reboot at some point. Yet here we are, twenty years later, and Ash is still in the same quest to be a master. It’s kind of weird.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #11 link6616 2 years ago
    Pokemon might not be the best anime from a game. But it's probably the best adaptation. It expands a world beyond the abstraction of the games, but it also stays within it's rules... ish. There is an aspect to pokemon, especially it's first season, where you can almost learn the game through the anime.

    Which frankly is remarkable.

    I wouldn't mind though if pokemon learned a bit more from the anime, and allowed a lot more of the side story shenanigans at play in the show.

    I've also heard some incredible things about the manga, and skimming over it wikis, seems super interesting and well thought out. Although I imagine the cast is getting a little too large at this point?
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #12 Roto13 2 years ago
    This is only slightly related, but speaking of long-running adaptations of video games, the Sonic the Hedgehog comics have been running even longer than the Pokemon anime. (Since 1992.) Of course, it doesn't have nearly the same audience. Comics never do.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #13 odaiba-memorial 2 years ago
    @link6616 Well, the manga focuses on one "generation" of cast members at a time. At first, it was about Red, Blue, and Green (Green being a girl who stole Oak's Squirtle and makes a living as a con artist), and then it focused on Yellow (a girl pretending to be a boy) for a while, with the other three showing up as supporting cast here and there. Then it moved on to stories about Gold, Silver, and Cris, and... well, you get the idea. Red, Blue and Green returned for the FireRed/LeafGreen arc, but all things considered, the stories are very much separate (but connected) and have their own beginning and end.

    And the manga follows the games much, much closer than the anime does. The main character (at first) is Red, who starts with Bulbasaur, and he has to fill out the Pokedex on his own by catching Pokemon (rather than the Pokedex being a talking encyclopedia like in the anime), etc. It expands on the game's world and lore in the same way the anime does, but does so while also telling a dramatic story with distinct arcs. Overall, the manga is a much better story AND is much more faithful to the source material. Satoshi Tajiri himself has gone on record saying that the manga is his favorite adaptation, saying "This is the closest to how I always imagined the world of Pokemon would be."

    So, long story short, the manga is definitely worth reading.Edited February 2016 by odaiba-memorial
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #14 odaiba-memorial 2 years ago
    @Roto13 Yep, it holds the record for longest-running comic based on a video game! It had some dark days back when Ken Penders was in charge of the writing (shudder...), but now that Ian Flynn has taken over, the comics have improved tremendously and are really quite wonderful.
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  • Avatar for TerryTrowbridge #15 TerryTrowbridge 2 years ago
    I loved the cartoon and saw Pokemon: The first movie in theaters as a senior in high school with my buddy Grant.
    Then got the DVDs a few years back for Father's Day presents. Got to catch'em all!
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #16 LBD_Nytetrayn 2 years ago
    @odaiba-memorial Preach.

    I used to like the Pokemon anime, up to the point I realized it was going nowhere. My interest was briefly reignited when they did Pokemon Advance, and even though they still weren't changing the protagonist, they did mix some things up... and then it fell back into its rut and I pretty much gave up for good.

    Early on, though, I did discover the Pokemon Adventures manga, and that is by far my preferred Pokemon adaptation (with Origins just behind). Red > Ash, for sure.

    Also, you're close: Sonic isn't just the longest-running comic based on a video game, but the longest running licensed comic (consecutive run under a single company) in America (if not elsewhere), period.Edited February 2016 by LBD_Nytetrayn
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  • Avatar for JamesSwiftDay #17 JamesSwiftDay 2 years ago
    The Pokemon anime was such a waste. The potential was there to be something great, but it was so repetitive and frustrating that even a huge gen 1 and 2 Pokemon fan like me had to give up on it even before the Johto era.
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #18 DiscordInc 2 years ago
    It's easy to bash the Pokemon anime in retrospect, and I know I certainly have, but reading this and watching the movie marathon brought back memories of what I really loved about it. The anime helped expand the world of pokemon beyond the confines of the game boy. It fleshed out the world and gave personality to the actual pokemon. When your a kid and just discovering this whole world of monsters and adventures, that's pretty much all you want.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #19 manny_c44 A year ago
    @alexirish93 This kind of makes me wonder how shows that premier on networks like WOWOW ever get noticed in the first place?
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #20 LBD_Nytetrayn A year ago
    I definitely prefer Yo-Kai Watch by far these days. I just find it more fun, and you don't have to worry about every season ending in the same anticlimactic fashion.

    Ash is basically like the Maple Leafs: Good enough to reach the finals, but chokes in the end and hasn't won a championship in as little big as most people can remember (except unlike Ash, at least the Leafs HAVE won a championship).

    If they're going to effectively reset everything to zero every time he falls on his face anyway (even relearning basic Pokémon catching techniques), I'd rather they mirror all the other versions and swap in a new protagonist. As it is, there's no suspense any more -- I think that the last season cemented in everyone but newcomers' minds that Ash will never win the big one.

    Personally speaking, the anime -- which I used to watch all the time -- has become my least favorite part of the franchise, thanks to its running-to-stand-still mentality -- which also deprives it of cool moments like when Red and Blue were revealed to be in Sun and Moon.

    One can't deny it's been a long and largely successful tenure for the anime, but I'll stick to Origins, Generations, aMe the Adventures manga, thanks.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #21 LBD_Nytetrayn A year ago
    Deleted November 2016 by LBD_Nytetrayn
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  • Avatar for alifpunk #22 alifpunk A year ago
    I think Digimon is batter than Pokemon.

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  • Avatar for Rafka789 #23 Rafka789 A year ago
    like this very much sambal awesome
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