The Pokemon franchise, a series of role-playing games with strategic elements, is a smash hit, both in its origin country of Japan and around the world. With its first simultaneous worldwide release on October 12, Pokemon X and Y (two barely dissimilar versions of the same game) sold over four million copies in three days. The Pokemon series takes up five slots on the list of the 25 top selling console games of all-time
That level of sales isn’t just driven by kids’ Christmas lists. So what gives … and why do adults like this stuff?
Look a little closer at Pokemon’s absurdly cute sprite animations, thoroughly Japanese trappings and seemingly simple gameplay and you’ll discover a vast underlying framework with plenty to teach us self-respecting adult types.
1. Strategy: Rock, Paper, Scissors On Crack
Pokemon’s core mechanic seems simple enough on the surface. For the uninitiated, two pokemon (those cute creatures controlled by you, the “trainer”) take turns whacking each other until one “faints”. Each pokemon in this sprawling world of rock, paper, scissors has a “type” (fire, water, grass, psychic, dragon … the list goes on and on).
Rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, eat your heart out.
But you know how paper is weak to scissors and scissors are weak to rock? Imagine if there was also coffee cup and blowtorch and slide rule … and … well, lots of things. And not just that, but scissors could be both scissors and paper. Did you brain just explode? If not, please enjoy this chart, the holy grail of Pokemon strategy:
2. Economics: Like Wall Street, But Fluffier
There I was last week, minding my business in Pokemon X’s iconic tall grass, when I discovered a little thing called the Global Trade Station (GTS). Granted this is my first Pokemon game in over 12 years, but whoa. The GTS is an online marketplace that connects you—the Pokemon trainer and hero of your own personal journey to gently subjugate the creatures of the greater Kalos region—to the other four million-plus trainers doing exactly the same thing the world over.
If you’re the arguably the obsessive sort like myself, you could spend a whole day just observing the in-game economy—not even playing the game at all—studying which Pokemon players are trading, which are commanding a high value in the market and why and jumping on in-game economic trends. Stop looking at me like that.
3. Statistics: Enter A Numerical Wonderland
The Pokemon series is essentially two things: battling and collecting. Dive into the online elements of the game, and the insanely varied strategy meta-game of Pokemon battles with other sentient players might be your kryptonite. And now that us would-be adults ablaze with late 90s Pokemon nostalgia are all grown up (kinda), this gets extraordinarily complex very quickly. It’s not as simple as assembling a team of six critters and wielding them at opponents all willy-nilly.
Like I mentioned in item one, each critter has a “type”. That type has subtypes in the form of numerical values that represent its strengths and weaknesses… and those subtypes have subtypes. And you know, those subtypes might even have subtypes. It’s a rabbit hole with seemingly infinite permutations of 718 different sets of statistical variability (a.k.a. “Pokemon”) ready to romp down it with you. Not just that, but these numbers aren’t fixed by any means—you can play mini-games and get into the Pokemon breeding business (don’t even get me started…) to up your statistical odds of total domination/awesomeness.
4. Happiness: Escapism Meets Unconditional Positive Regard
Grand Theft Auto lets you maim, rape and generally pillage your way through a hyper-realistic in-game world; Pokemon must be its complete antithesis. The world of Pokemon doesn’t really make sense and the story is thin bordering on nonexistent. The great part about that? Pokemon embraces the central conceit of a video game, whispering in your ear: Hey, you’re playing a video game … let’s skip to the game part, you know?
Forget yoga class with your cheating wife. Go out into the nonsense world and assemble a team of fantastical creatures just for the hell of it! Out there, everyone will greet you with unconditionally positive statements like “Don’t you just love collecting Pokemon?!” (yes!) right before they hand you a gift for no apparent reason.
If you’ve grown weary of insanely realistic games depicting the darkness and drudgery of “real life,” just hop into the world of Pokemon, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
5. Patience: Neurotic Stamp Collector Types Unite!
Are you the kind of person who puts “detail oriented” on a resume? Yeah, me too. Pokemon is a completionist’s dream, turning our favorite compulsion into an actual game. Collect things for the sake of collecting them! Collect like things and group them together… virtual things—cute ones, even! And because Pokemon X and Y are on the Nintendo 3DS console, these things literally live in your pocket.
On the surface, the Pokemon series is a cloyingly cutesy game about collecting tiny virtual animals—but look closer and it quickly spirals into a web of intricate statistical analysis, deep strategy and positive psychology. The people behind this whole Pokemon thing appear to really have us figured out, which is slightly unsettling. But hey, this crazy-smart, endlessly self-sustaining business model preys on our weaknesses to bring us untold joy, so it could be a lot worse. Collect all the things!