Video game adaptations could learn something from the Pokémon anime

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Looking back at one of the best game adaptations of all time

I vaguely remember watching the Pokémon anime when I was a kid, albeit briefly. I think my brother may have cried while watching one of the movies at the theater, but since we hadn’t played any of the games at all when the franchise was at its peak in the mid-2000s, we somehow skirted around the whole ordeal.

After deciding to give the games a try as an adult, I finally understand the hype, especially when it comes to the earlier entries in the series. I keep imagining myself playing it on my Game Boy as a nine-year-old, and not to sound dramatic, but I can actually feel it healing my inner child in real-time. The games deliver on the quintessential adventure experience in game form — you really feel attached to all your Pokémon, and going through the game feels exactly like the fantastical journey it promises you. I’ll be writing more about my experiences playing Pokémon for the first time as an adult, but for now, I need to talk about how good the anime is.

The struggle of game adaptations

As I’m sure most of us have noticed by now, there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of video games being adapted to film and TV right now. My theory is that after the superhero burnout we’re all experiencing, video games are going to be Hollywood’s newest fixation for a while, but I digress. While comic book properties have gotten some really amazing adaptations over the years that are not only entertaining in their own right, but have also added to the property’s mythos in a substantial way, video games haven’t quite had the same luck.

Game adaptations are usually doomed from the start to be really, really bad, because there’s just something about throwing games up on the silver screen that film executives can’t seem to get right, usually because they don’t seem to understand what made the game or games good in the first place.

Enter the Pokémon anime. The show’s first episode was released in April of 1997, only a year after the first games in the video game series, Pokémon Red and Green, and Pokémon Blue. The show has been going strong since then, landing it at number 45 on Wikipedia’s list of anime with the most episodes. Releasing the show in tandem with the games was a genius marketing move. The adventures of Ash Ketchum and his friends became ingrained into children all around the world, cementing Pokémon as one of the most beloved and nostalgic properties to this day.

It’s not that the games were good and the show just so happened to be coming out at the same time — no, no, no. The studio behind the show put everything they had into the Pokémon anime, because it’s some of the best children’s television I’ve ever seen. It has a surprising amount of heart (I was already crying three episodes in), and the character development is incredibly strong from the start. It’s good writing, plain and simple. They don’t dumb anything down for kids, and at the risk of sounding old at the ripe age of twenty-five, they just don’t write kids’ media like this anymore.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Then we have the actual adaptation part of it all. After playing Leaf Green, I was fully shocked at how closely the show follows the events of the game. Ash travels to the same locations in the same order, and all of the Pokémon and their types correspond to exactly how they are in the game, which seems like a given, but nothing makes you feel cooler than knowing that flying types are good against bug types before Ash does.

In a world where your knowledge of Pokémon is everything, being able to bring that knowledge to the show is awesome! So much of Ash’s journey is learning all about the Pokémon he catches, and when we already know that stuff from having studied it while playing the games, it really does make you go, “Wow, I am a Pokémon master!” As a kid that would have blown my tiny little mind.

I also love how they show us what the world would look like if we actually did live alongside Pokémon. The battles look exactly how you imagine them, and you see how different parts of the world are built around the use of Pokémon, or in ways to accommodate them. It’s great that they also don’t shy away from the aspects of gameplay that would seem silly in real life.

What’s that? It doesn’t make sense that Nurse Joy could be in Viridian City and Cerulean City at both of the Pokémon Centers at the same time? Oh no, that’s just her identical twin sister who also happens to be named Joy, ya silly! They lean into the goofiness of it and make it a fun, memorable bit that plays perfectly into the comedic tone of the show. Another favorite moment of mine is Brock sitting in the pitch darkness of the rock gym seemingly just waiting for challengers to arrive. Incredible.

A musical legacy

I can’t talk about the Pokémon anime without also mentioning the theme song and the Pokéraps. They really said, “we need something that’s going to sound as cool as it can to children between the ages of 6-13,” and they. Absolutely. Delivered. When have you ever heard the Pokémon theme song come on and not heard at least one person sing along to it? That’s right, never. Again, it captures that same adventurous spirit that the whole show is going for, and getting to watch that intro before each episode really gets you hyped up for the excitement to come.

I always heard about the Pokéraps, but never really had any idea what they were. I totally get it now. Yet another awesome-sounding musical element to the show that also tied in that Pokémon-master-knowledge idea, as well as incentivized viewers to come back every day to learn the names of all 150 Pokémon. Another instance where I can imagine a nine-year-old version of me going nuts over that, and that’s how I know it’s amazing.

Capturing the essence

What it all comes down to for me is that the Pokémon games and anime are perfectly aligned in the type of experience or fantasy they’re trying to sell you. It’s a lighthearted yet empowering adventure of friendship and saving the world. It makes you feel smart and capable when you don’t often feel that way as a kid. It leans into its own campiness and goofiness, and doesn’t shy away from an earnest feeling for just one second. In my eyes, it’s the most perfect game-to-TV adaptation I’ve ever seen.

Of course, this is assuming you want a one-to-one translation of the game’s content. Take another game adaptation that’s done really well: The Witcher. While the show may not capture every single plot point and mechanic of the game, it absolutely conveys the same feeling as the games. The Witcher is also coming from a gaming franchise that started as an adaptation of a book series anyway, so its strength is playing into the overall mythos of the property, rather than making the game come to life in the exact same way.

Every video game show or movie will take a slightly different approach to their style of adaptation, as they should — because no two games are alike either. I’m not saying every single show needs to be like the Pokémon anime, but what those in charge of these adaptations need to do is capture the essence of what makes that game compelling in the first place. If they can do that, then I think they’ll be ushering in a new golden age of adapted media. Here’s hoping.

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