Pokemon's 20th anniversary is Feb. 27
On Feb. 27, 1996, Pokemon appeared on Japanese store shelves for the first time. Players could inhabit a world crawling with animal-like creatures endowed with seemingly magical powers, fighting and capturing them to use them in battle. When the Nintendo Game Boy title arrived on American shores two years later, it sparked a phenomenon that dominated grade school cafeterias across the country. (And spawned a TIME magazine cover, eventually.) A media empire quickly developed, resulting in a TV show, feature-length movies, a trading card game and over a dozen more video games.
Nintendo announced new titles in the series on Feb. 26 during a live presentation online.
To celebrate Pokemon’s 20th anniversary, here are our favorite games in the ongoing series.
Pokemon Red and Blue
These were the games that started it all. They were basically the same game, except some Pokemon were exclusive to one version or the other. It was a clever way to get kids to link up their Game Boys and swap with one another. I had Blue, and it was the first video game I was utterly obsessed with. I have a painful memory of a distant relative accidentally erasing a save file that I poured probably hundreds of hours into. He didn’t know any better but I was inconsolable. Thank god for modern game backups.
Pokemon Blue was the first video game I remember being wildly addicted to. Few things were more exciting for me as a kid than capturing a rare Pokemon like Articuno or Zapdos. What’s most impressive about these games is that they hold up even 20 years later. Nintendo has continued to release new Pokemon games for its handheld consoles hinged on the same idea: capture Pokemon, train them, and travel to different regions to defeat bosses (called Gym Leaders in the Pokemon world). As a child, the only reason I had a Game Boy Color was to play Pokemon Blue. That hasn’t changed much; the main reason I bought a Nintendo 3DS was so that I could play Pokemon X, Pokemon Y, an all the titles that come after.
The breakout star of the TV series was Pikachu, a yellow mouselike Pokemon that could shoot electricity out of its cheeks for some reason. But Pikachu was a pretty minor character in Red and Blue. Yellow was basically the same game but it made Pikachu the star; he’d follow your character around in the game instead of staying locked up in a Pokeball like other Pokemon would. (Looking back on it, these games were weird.)
Pikachu was the face of Pokemon once the TV show became a smash hit, so making it a larger part of the games only made sense. The basic premise of Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow is exactly the same, so as a child I remember not paying any attention to Red since I already had Blue. But I had to get Yellow, just because of Pikachu. It was a genius way to get fans to play what’s essentially the same game twice, and it was a lot of fun.
Alex: This was the first Pokemon game that truly brought the series to a console system, rendering all your hard-won monsters in glorious 64-bit graphics on the N64. It basically used the same turn-by-turn battle system in the Game Boy games, but it looked a whole lot better. And the ability to transfer your Game Boy Pokemon to the N64 was nice.
Lisa: Pokemon Stadium was the game Pokemon fans had been hoping for at that time. The Game Boy titles were simple and addictive, but Pokemon Stadium was epic. It was the first time fans got a full-screen experience playing Pokemon, and it gave you further incentive to level up your characters in the Game Boy games.
Alex: This was a wonderfully weird game that I think is under-appreciated for how it showed Nintendo’s willingness to experiment with, uh, un-traditional ideas. Instead of capturing Pokemon to add to your battle armada, Snap put you in the role of wildlife Pokemon photographer. It was an on-rails shooter, but your weapon was a camera. But the best part was a deal with Blockbuster (remember those?) that let you take your memory cards to the rental store to have your in-game photos developed. I’m pretty sure my parents’ fridge was covered in Charizard photos for a while.
Lisa: Pokemon Snap was brilliant because it took the basic premise of what made the original games so enjoyable (seek out Pokemon and capture them), and delivered it in a new and interesting way. It also still embodied the idea of exploring like the original games did, since each level took the photographer to a different world filled with new types of Pokemon.
Pokemon Trading Card Game
Alex: Ok, this wasn’t a video game, sure. But I played so much of it that I couldn’t keep it off the list. I’m pretty sure that if I still had all the money my parent spent on Pokemon cards for me, I could’ve retired by now. Now’s as good as time as any to admit my secret shame: I played in a weekly league (I didn’t have many friends in middle school) and one year I got invited to the national championships. I bombed, but the guy who did the Blastoise art signed my card, which I have to this day.
Lisa: I have to be honest here: I never really enjoyed playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game. But I didn’t have to play it to appreciate it. I was still obsessed with collecting as many cards as possible and trading them with friends. It was yet another way for fans to bring elements of the game and TV show into real life by collecting Pokemon and adding them to their own sort of Pokédex, a pocket-sized computer used in the games to keep inventory of all the Pokemon you’ve seen.
Update: Pokémon Go, a new augmented reality game that lets players catch Pokémon in their real-world environment, is taking the world by storm just days after its release. While it’s too soon to tell if Go will be a lasting hit, the early indications are it could make this list in the future.