Japanese culture enjoyed unique purchase on the imaginations of children and teens in the 1990s, creating beloved franchises such as Dragon Ball and Yu-Gi-Oh! In addition to significant financial success, these brands left oversized cultural footprints, thanks to the spread of obsessive fandom behaviours sometimes collectively called otaku.
Two monster video games franchises in particular linger on with vestigial popularity from the latter part of that decade: Pokémon, from 1996, and Mario. But one Japanese games brand you might not have heard of is Pokémon’s younger brother, the lesser-known and widely under-regarded Digimon, which started life in 1997.
Both Pokémon and Digimon can now claim a degree of retro chic, plus, in Pokémon’s case, a well-known killer theme tune. But although Pokémon has attracted a larger following and made more money, Digimon has emerged with hindsight as a clear connoisseur’s choice.
Pokémon, named for a contraction of the Japanese rendering of “pocket monsters”, poketto monsuta, is essentially a fantasy-world update of insect collecting, whereby players collect small creatures and can play them off against one another across a variety of different media, including playing cards and video games.
Nintendo’s genius for franchising entertainment, in which quirky television shows bring in new generations of players in digital and physical gaming verticals, has endured for decades. TV shows and merchandising brought new waves of children into the Pokémon franchise while older players were kept interested by, in theory, more complex games.
Except Pokémon has never really developed into the game some players hoped it would. For fifteen years, it has remained essentially static, with new monsters in annual batches but no significant evolution of the franchise. Since the anime series was introduced in 1997, and protagonist Ash Ketchum was shown to the world in what amounts to 847 30-minute advertisements for Nintendo’s gaming products, little has changed, despite changing consumption and play habits among new generations of gamers.
Nintendo has taken a highly conservative approach to Pokémon’s development, anxious not to spoil a winning combination of ingredients. The same formula has been in place since its launch, with Gameboy-era game limitations, such as a “four moves per monster” rule and extremely simplistic, turn-based combat–not to mention uninspiring, lazily-scripted rivals and basic AI.
Because new players are entering the franchise all the time, Pokémon anime cannot pursue innovative plot lines or long character arcs that might lose fresh or young viewers: thus, a “monster of the week” format that will be familiar to fans of shows such as The X-Files has been deployed. It has left older enthusiasts of the franchise cold.
Ketchum, then, has been full of sound and fury, but has achieved nothing. He is ageless, stuck in purgatory, devoid of accomplishments and character development. Unlike other successful kids’ entertainment brands, such as Harry Potter, he has not grown with his audience: instead, his audience continually grows out of him. It must be a lonely way to live–though it has, irrespective of its lack of artistic and cultural interest, been a lucrative existence for his makers.
At the other end of the spectrum is Digimon, which began as a virtual pet or Tamagotchi-style toy, not nearly as successful as Pokémon. That toy was quickly supplemented in 1999 with Digimon World for Playstation. In Digimon World, a child protagonist is sucked into the universe of the virtual pet and forced to raise a monster to fight an omnipresent evil while working towards rebuilding a fallen civilisation.
Pokémon is an artistically uninspiring, cash-by-numbers operation. Its execution is cynical and formulaic, say Digimon fans, and its writers and designers show little sign of imagination or desire to explore worthwhile existential questions in its flimsy story-lines. It is, for want of a more sophisticated expression, getting boring.
The story of Digimon, across games and anime, by contrast, is a catalogue of bold, aspirational cross-media storytelling. Granted, much of the Digimon franchise has been considered commercially disastrous, and some of it has been artistically mediocre. Digimon’s various creative masterminds have been punished by the market for excessive experimentation, and had to fight hard against expectations of uniformity imposed on them by the older franchise.
But nowhere in the Pokémon canon exist the moments of maturity, complexity and artistic achievement that Digimon, at its best, has offered its fans. The investment required to wade through poor releases and boring anime and seek out moments of sublimity is the sort of journey only a true aficionado can appreciate, and it is that ravenous, determined and intellectually curious nature that marks out the Digimon fan. Digimon fans are the Wagnerians of video game and anime culture.
Consider the stuttering camera style and metonymic cutaways of this clash of otherworldly creatures, set against a melancholic green cityscape that appears at once verdant and desolate. Or the exotic autumnal feel of this ethereal water-and-blossom montage. Few sequences in Pokémon touch either of these moments for sheer transcendent beauty.
The greater richness of characterisation and plurality of personality unique to Digimon is reflected in a wide variety of popular music across the Digimon franchise. Fan favourites such as “Butter-Fly” by Koji Wada, are numerous and women and men are both well represented in the large body of musical numbers surrounding the brand.
In commercial terms, too, Digimon was the more experimental franchise, across both games and anime, as the following sketch of its commercial history will show. Riffing on Tamagotchi game mechanics and developing them into a complex creature-nurturing architecture, Digimon World became notorious for being too difficult for its young audience to play. Digimon owners were ruthlessly punished for mistakes, and the European edition of the game was broken: it could not even be completed.
Yet the game was a success and spawned a cult following that persists to this day, in appreciation of flawed genius. Digimon’s success encouraged an anime series, Digimon Adventure, which closely followed the story dynamics of Digimon World: children were dropped into an unfamiliar, apocalyptic landscape and had to combat various evils to restore it to its previously idyllic state.
The Digimon anime, which became a full show despite a rumoured initial intention to limit it to a single story arc, had a plot. Its characters were developed as time went on, developing quirks and wrestling with serious subjects, unlike its older sibling, Pokémon. After 54 episodes, it closed neatly, to near-universal acclaim.
The follow-up, Digimon Adventure 02, was hated by viewers who’d loved the first show. Ridiculous plotlines, such as a romantic entanglement concerning an astronaut, left fans bewildered. And Digimon World 2, the next edition of the game, fell back into the Pokémon mould of “grinding” gameplay, with few redeeming features. Digimon World 3 had a better-developed narratological structure, and was seen as something of an improvement, but was still a disappointment given the runaway success of the first instalment.
After DW3 came a redemption: an anime series known as Digimon Tamers, whose lead screenwriter, Chiaki J. Konaka, was an established Japanese horror guru, best known at that time for cult anime series Serial Experiments Lain. Digimon Tamers unified the mythologies of the trading card game and the video games into a new set of canonical stories, dealing with serious moral issues and extensively developing both human and monster characters.
At its best, Tamers rivals the best of Western pop culture for catchiness and arresting visuals; though Digimon World 4 and Digimon Savers, games for PlayStation 2 that came out around the same time, failed to excite fans.
Digimon fandom persists, against the odds. A petition bearing more than 50,000 signatures demands that 3DS game Digimon Re:Digitize, seen as a true sequel to the original Digimon World, be brought to Europe and the United States. For a franchise that has been dead for a decade and which received little-to-no marketing outside Japan, this is an extraordinary number.
So far, the petition has been ignored. Digimon All-Star Rumble, a low-rent game for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 made by former Sonic developers, was released on 11 November this year. It bombed. A new anime series is in the works from Toei, but details are sketchy.
All of which is to say: Digimon’s is a chequered, complex and unsatisfying history. That fact alone would be reason for some game enthusiasts, pointedly obsessive about the highs and lows of once-great franchises, to find honour in celebrating its historiography.
But there are plenty of reasons to consider Digimon the superior, or at least the more intellectually satisfying, franchise to Pokémon on its own, artistic terms, as a wave of ideological purists in the video games community at present are seeking to establish. After luxuriating, as a newcomer, in the quirkiness and joyfulness of Digimon culture, comparing it to the soullessness of Pokémon: I agree with them.