The 17th Pokémon film, Pokémon the Movie: Kyurem vs. the Sword, was shown on the giant screen above the stage at the Trafford Center in Manchester. Released in 2012, it mainly highlights the unicorn-like Keldeo that found its way into the franchise in Generation V or Pokémon Black and White.
I didn’t recognize it. Generation V was part of the era when I couldn’t keep up with Pokémon, the middle time between a childhood obsession and adult enjoyment. But it didn’t matter. Keldeo was basically the only Pokemon on display that wasn’t part of the original 151. We were tasked with finding these, hidden in colorful murals throughout the mall – because when it comes to nostalgia, nothing beats Generation I.
Walking the line between nostalgia and innovation has always been an area of tension that Pokémon love to master. But in 2022 it is more present than ever. February’s Pokémon Legends: Arceus set new standards with its open world, and now Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are bringing those changes to mainline games. And yet the memory of the franchise’s origins seems more present than ever.
In the recent book Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All, author Daniel Dockery examines the first four years, the heyday of Pokémania. “The fact that this is a fairly harmless story about befriending others and caring about the world that has been transformed into a cross-market goliath of rampant branding hasn’t escaped me,” writes he. “As with any art, we often have to wrestle with it and balance how it’s made and how it’s sold.”
I have no idea what the branding intent was behind the scenes behind the Pokémon: Art Through the Ages exhibition at the Trafford Centre. There were advertisements for the anime and the upcoming games Scarlet and Violet, but they were hardly intrusive. The entire focus was on the original Pokémon suite that hit our screens in the late 1990s. If the promoters wanted to sell the series, they did so out of sheer nostalgia.
And those who were at the Trafford Center on a windy Thursday morning in early November would surely already know that Scarlet and Violet were out. The mall was packed with shoppers but at least 1 in 10 was conspicuously clinging to the booklet with the checklist and a range of activities aimed at children aged maybe five to seven. Most of them, like me, were in their 20s.
If the promoters wanted to sell the series, they did so out of sheer nostalgia
Then again, maybe most of them had fallen out of love at some point and never started the ever-changing franchise again, like I missed Keldeo. I was investigating with my sister and my mother, neither of whom could have told you that Scarlet and Violet are out this month. They’re both avid Pokemon Go players, but other than that, their investment entirely depends on the past.
My sister and I became aware of Pokémon when the anime aired in the UK. My mom had heard the rumors that this new show was awful for kids so she sat down and watched an episode herself to see if we could participate. It happened to be Episode 30, “Grab Those Diglett!”, where the underground Pokémon banded together to stop the construction of an environmentally destructive dam. My mom has been an environmentalist since the 70’s and she will still sing the praises of this episode whenever she gets the chance.
The Pokémon: Art Through the Ages exhibition at the Trafford Center in Manchester.Photo: Jay Castello
It’s an image both captured and overlooked by Monster Kids. The book does a great job of establishing how well Pokémon has attracted children, but parents are confused at best and hostile at worst. That was never the case in our family. Although I wasn’t available for the Manchester hunt, I remember my dad telling me I’d call myself a true Pokémon Master if I could beat it in a fight, and true to his word, get a certificate the first time design and print it out. My mom loves to tell the story of how my sister learned to read with the toy Pokédex we got for Christmas. I still have a soft spot for Golem because that was the random figurine I got from a Poké Ball they gave us that same year.
After the anime and toys, we had a trio of Nintendo 64 games: Pokémon Yellow, Pokémon Stadium, and Pokémon Puzzle League. But like many others, we dropped out after just a few years—before the release of Gold and Silver and Generation II. As Dockery writes, these games were supposed to be the end of Pokémon, and the anime was supposed to wrap up around the same time. But financial interests could not let it die. Twenty-five years later, it’s bigger than ever.
Once Scarlet and Violet hit shelves, three new Pokémon entries will be released in less than a year, with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl last November and Legends: Arceus in February. The bold, feel-good TV show about nature and collaboration that my mom fell in love with doesn’t really exist under the weight of corporate branding. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from scouring the mall looking for critters to point and remember, it’s that the Pokémon Company knows the utility of pretending to be they still do.
Disputes about which generation is better aren’t just internet battles; They’re an internal tension that Nintendo is trying to soothe as it branches out into open worlds, while still staying front and center in Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur. But leaning on that nostalgia seems to be working. Like me, many people’s investment in Pokémon has likely gone up and down over time. But no matter: the Renaissance looks backwards as well as forwards.