Why the TV show has faltered, but the game has stayed strong.
Since the original U.S. release in 1998, Pokémon has taken the world by storm. Over its 20+ year history, we have seen Pokémon’s evolutionary path make some critical strides while holding to its tried-and-true formula. On that same journey, the cartoon that also debuted over 20 years ago has gone through many changes of its own, but for some reason, the anime hasn’t been able to hold onto the same juggernaut status as the video game. Obviously, being a game first-and-foremost means that Pokémon would have stronger roots in the gaming-sphere. The odd thing here, though, rests in the fact that both have made similar, slight changes to their formula while creating vastly different results. Why is it that the anime has fallen short over its seasons, but the game feels better with each iteration?
Mainstream audiences aren’t always fond of hearing the same story over and over again. The loop on offer in Pokémon is fun and exciting, but after hundreds of battles, the intensity starts to wane as Pikachu consistently saves the day. It’s sort of the same idea as Dragon Ball Z’s fifteen episode fight scenes—hardcore fans are enjoying themselves, but most people are really, really lost. The cycle of traveling, catching Pokémon, battling, and repeat is more easily digested in game-form where the attachment to a thrilling story can be lessened via gameplay mechanics.
One of those mechanics is the introduction of new Pokémon and characters from each consecutive game release. Being able to see an all-new cast each time around isn’t just a creative decision, it’s a must. When this overall formula sticks so closely each time around, you need something to add some flavor—and adding more addictively-collectible creatures is definitely the best way. On that note, this goes against most of what makes TV shows important. Even the best of the best tend to lean on a base set of strong characters to get through the peaks and valleys. So, unless you consider Ash (with his odd physical changes and voice actor replacements), Pikachu, and Charizard a “strong base” you will find a rotating cast of secondary characters, with all-new Pokémon featured from the generation on display, which means viewers from season to season will find their favorites from the last regularly replaced, which can be attributed to the drop-off.
The reason the generational change works in game-form is the ownership of those swapped-out creatures. In a TV show, you’re just watching these Pokémon do things, you aren’t placing yourself in the scenario, necessarily. Thus, when you pick up your Game Boy or Nintendo Switch and jump into the collection on your own, the monsters are yours, not Ash’s. This allows for it all to have much more significance.
And on that note, the weak, looping story offered in the cartoon is further hampered by the fact that this is Ash’s tale, not your own. Even if this is how TV shows work, as you watch a cast of characters go through whatever the show is about, the shortcomings to Pokémon’s narrative become abundantly clear when you can’t offer a decent show based on the premise without the viewer feeling like they themselves are grabbing the Pokémon.
Pokémon is an incredible franchise—this is evidenced by the fact it is the single greatest selling gaming franchise of all time. However, a gameplay loop that can last through generations of gamers clearly has a story issue based on its transition to the big screen. These aren’t Pokémon’s only issues, and I also haven’t detailed all of what Pokémon does right, but the repetitive narrative transitioning to your Sunday mornings shows off one of the reasons this formula works when played and owned by an individual versus watched through someone else’s journey.
*sigh* The first season was incredible though.