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Pokémon is a huge hit because it’s cooperative

Twenty-five years later, that’s still the case

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

When Pokémon launched 25 years ago, it did so twice simultaneously.

Pokémon Red and Green (later made Blue for its Western release) are almost identical, but each has a few exclusive monsters. The fire puppy Growlithe is only available in Red, for example, while those searching for a Venus flytrap-like Bellsprout will need to pick up Green. Players can also trade with a friend who has the opposing version. What began as a fairly cheap trick to encourage invested fans to purchase the game twice or to pressure their friends into picking it up, has since become a cornerstone of the entire Pokémon franchise: it’s meant to be shared.  

Alongside trading, players could also set up battles between the pokémon they caught and trained in their games. These two features transformed the otherwise single-player roleplaying games in ways that would be constantly iterated on as the core games received sequel after sequel. But even before the release of the second set, Pokémon Gold and Silver, spinoffs were increasingly focusing on multiplayer aspects. For example, Pokémon Stadium, released just two years after Red and Green, brought battles to the forefront. It allowed players to “rent” pokémon from an in-game library, letting friends fight friends without having to first catch and train them alone.

Before long, the franchise was getting its hooks into an entire generation

Stadium also added a handful of competitive mini-games. Where battling and trading required some understanding of the franchise’s core mechanics, these applied cute and easily recognizable pokémon as a decorative skin for already familiar concepts. Players might have to race Rattata through obstacle courses or play quoit with Ekans, for instance. Released in the same year as Mario Party, Nintendo was beginning to marry its existing properties with something approachable and family-focused, opening them up to much wider audiences. 

Alongside this expansion into casual play came other forms of media, and before long, the franchise was getting its hooks into an entire generation. Kids would reenact the anime on the playground, reinforcing its themes of friendship and teamwork (and rivalry). The trading card game was necessarily communal, if in a way that got it banned from numerous schools. Spinoff games continued to cross genres, bringing in different kinds of fans, from the match-3 Pokémon Puzzle League released in 2000 down to the upcoming MOBA Pokémon Unite. A positive feedback loop had begun. Pokémon was meant to be shared — and, increasingly, everyone was someone you could share it with.

Photo by Dani Deahl / The Verge

No matter how much it became a global phenomenon, selling double copies of the core games remained a habit that Nintendo refused to shake. But though this may have begun as a relatively transparent cash grab, as technology improved, it became less important to buy both games or to recruit a friend to get the opposing version. (Having said that, every friendship group that I’ve been in when a new set is announced has had careful discussions about who would get which; it’s an ingrained behavior.) By the franchise’s 10th anniversary, purely online trading was possible. Diamond and Pearl introduced the Global Trade Station, which allowed players to browse, search, and offer exchanges with strangers from across the world. They could also take part in battles, mini-games, and voice chat.

And while initially surely driven by a desire for profit, Red and Green had predicted (or perhaps hoped for) this kind of free and easy bartering. In-universe, it’s always been possible to upload your pokémon to a PC, and from there, send them all over the world. Nonplayable characters encourage trading as a cooperative, collaborative act. And as technology improved, Nintendo followed suit, making it increasingly easy to complete the pokédex or at least get the companions you like most. (Though its online efforts have not always run smoothly, and since 2018, it has also required a paid Nintendo Switch Online subscription.)

‘Pokémon Go’ sold collaboration as a core concept

Even once easy online trading was established, Nintendo continued to play with the formula. Pokémon X and Y brought the Wonder Trade, allowing players to upload a random pokémon and receive one in return. Naturally, a lot of trades are bargain bin Pidgey and Bidoof, but there are always stories of exceptional generosity, with legendary pokémon, battle monsters with perfect stats, and specially colored shinies all making their way to an unsuspecting recipient. Community coordinated events have also seen experienced players releasing waves of pokémon holding expensive items on Christmas Day to surprise kids playing for the first time. The latest entries, Sword and Shield, introduced Max Raid pokémon, giant monsters that required cooperation with others to take down, and campsites that friends could visit to hang out in.

And where Wonder Trade and Max Raid features leaned into the collaboration encouraged from the earliest days of the franchise, Pokémon Go sold it as a core concept. Its original announcement trailer showed families playing together, solo players meeting to trade, and huge group battles. Many of these features weren’t even in the game’s initial release or were so bare-bones as to be nonexistent — but it didn’t matter. Reviews consistently agreed: the game wasn’t objectively especially good, but everyone was having a great time. The mechanics ended up being unnecessary for creating an astounding social experience. Before the pandemic, in-person festivals saw tens or even hundreds of thousands of players coming together to catch and trade.

Over time, it became clear that this was not simply because Pokémon was a phenomenon among an entire generation. The Harry Potter game Wizards Unite, released three years later by the same developers, had the same if not more cultural weight. But it never took off. According to mobile analytics company Sensor Tower, in 2019, it netted just $23 million, compared to Pokémon Go’s almost $900 million in the same year. In fact, this was an increase over Pokémon Go’s launch in 2016, indicating its longevity. 

The key thing that Pokémon has that Harry Potter doesn’t is two and a half decades of community building. Harry Potter certainly has a fandom, a group of the most dedicated enthusiasts, but the book and movie formats are solo activities. To engage with Pokémon is to share. From the trading enforced by Red and Green to the family-friendly mini-games of Stadium to the swapping with strangers via Wonder Trade, it has consistently encouraged cooperation and bonding.

Twenty-five years later, that’s still what makes it a phenomenon.