Pokémon (Red, Blue and Yellow versions, the “first generation”) begins in a much more innocuous way than most video games. Instead of warping through a pipe or crash-landing on an alien planet, the protagonist just wakes up in his bedroom, surrounded by such commonplace items as a computer and a television with attached game console.
You play as Satoshi Tajiri’s child-self, a rookie Pokémon trainer whose quest will eventually culminate in becoming league champion. (Ash, the character’s anime and manga counterpart, is named Satoshi in the original Japanese.) Your very first in-game action is to simply walk downstairs, where your virtual mother reflects that “all boys leave home someday; it said so on TV” and suggests that you visit Professor Oak.
In Campbellian terms, this is a very simple version of the call to adventure, the first part of the hero’s quest. In this stage, the would-be hero decides to leave the comfort of home for the unknown. Pallet Town provides a clear example of the former, being essentially a child’s version of a small town with three blocky buildings surrounded by an enclosure. Based on Tajiri’s hometown, Pallet is comfortable, familiar, and everyday, completely lacking any sense of mystery: Pokémon Silver and Gold describe it as “a tranquil setting of peace and purity.” Significantly, a road leads north, away from the village and into the world beyond.
Professor Oak presides over the beginning of the adventure. He is a true archetype, part of the same family as Merlin, Gandalf, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. As Campbell writes in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.”
Because he plays such an important symbolic role, Professor Oak shows up in all aspects of the Pokémon multimedia; the image on your left is from Toshiro Ono’s Electric Tale of Pikachu manga. Every subsequent generation of Pokémon features a mentor named after a tree. (Although not stated in the introduction, a running theme of this blog will be how different creators in different medias reinterpreted Pokémon.) Ken Sugimori’s simple card illustration employs a single prop to emphasize the professor’s studious side and thus his wisdom. In Pokémon’s version of the hero’s quest, he provides the would-be trainer with two very important amulets indeed.
Most importantly, Oak gives the player their very first Pokémon. In the cartoon (and cartoon-inspired game, Pokémon Yellow), they receive the face of the franchise, Pikachu. In Red and Blue, however, the player has a choice between three elementally-powered reptiles, each a fine balance between aggression and cuteness. If you’re Gen Y, or the parent of a former Pokéfan, this trio needs no introduction: Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle have truly become icons in their own right, and my next three entries will cover each of them in detail.
These three also resonate strongly with Campbell. His proposed mythical structure, as stated above, begins with the call to adventure, and the very first story examined in that chapter of The Hero With a Thousand Faces is “The Frog King” of Brothers Grimm fame. In his analysis of that fairy tale, Campbell identifies its titular amphibian as a herald of adventure and comments that “the frog, the little dragon, is the nursery counterpart of the underworld serpent.” The three creatures above (who eventually evolve into dragon-like forms themselves) serve this same purpose in Tajiri’s imaginary Japan, offering the player their first glimpse of the fantasy world around them.
Inevitably, your rival (the professor’s grandson) chooses the Pokémon at an advantage against your own. (At this stage in the game, Pokémon battling is a lot like rock-paper-scissors: water beats fire, fire beats grass, etc. Once the player has a full party of six creatures, it becomes much more of a strategy game.) While Ash represents Satoshi Tajiri’s inner child, his rival (“Gary Oak” to western audiences) is named after Shigeru Miyamoto, who mentored Tajiri during the development of Pokémon Red and Blue. In a TIME interview, Tajiri mentioned that “Shigeru is always a little bit ahead of Satoshi” and stressed how his alter ego would never catch up.
Professor Oak gives Ash and Gary/Satoshi and Shigeru their first Pokémon for a very specific reason: they are to complete a quest for him. After giving both boys a handheld device called a Pokédex, the good professor explains the task before them: “To make a complete guide on all the Pokémon in the world…. that was my dream! But I’m too old! I can’t do it! So I want you two to fulfill my dream for me!” Thus, the in-game version of “gotta catch ’em all!” is somewhat more noble than in the real world, being an attempt to record and categorize a bewildering variety of fantastic creatures. (Technically, you could say that becoming league champion and defeating the Rocket gang are just very involved side missions.)
As the player explores the imaginary Kanto, each successful Pokémon capture adds another entry to the Pokédex. (Similar text can be found on each Pokémon card.) Supposedly written by Oak himself, these one-sentence descriptions sound more like a medieval bestiary than a scientific observation of an animal. The entries recall in-universe folklore, as many times a creature is “said” to possess a certain power or behave in a certain way, lending an aura of legend. Many of the descriptions bear the kind of exaggeration that one expects to come from hearsay and multiple retellings: if one takes them at face value, then the fiery horse Ponyta has hooves ten times harder than diamonds and the monstrous Rhydon can survive in 3,600 degree lava.
One of the sources I’ll be drawing on multiple times is Margaret Blount’s Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction. Just as the title would suggest, this book examines the place of anthropomorphic animals from Aesop to the present day. In her summation of the medieval bestiary, Blount unknowingly explains why Tajiri and co-designer Ken Sugimori spent years of their lives creating their own mythical creatures: “There is an extraordinary feeling in the Bestiaries of the wonder and strangeness of the living world, full of freaks, beauty, dangers, mixtures and myths that might be true somewhere.” Most of this blog’s entries will go into detail about how Tajiri and Sugimori managed to fit this feeling inside the 2.6″ screen of a Nintendo Gameboy.