Pokemon is hugely popular. Even today, two decades after its debut, Pokemon continues to be a phenomenon. Even at its lowest point, Pokemon had a fan base tens of millions strong.
Something that popular is bound to see different takes on it, and in Pokemon’s case, there were many. How many people out there remember Monster Rancher? Or Magi-Nation? Or Fighting Foodons? Out of the many Pokemon me-toos, the most popular was Digimon.
When you mention Pokemon and Digimon in the same breath among gamers, you’ll see many of them take sides. Usually, they’ll side with Pokemon. No surprise there, Pokemon is much more popular. But if you ask any of them why they like Pokemon more, you’ll see many of them throw their hands up and say “we just do.” It would seem as though few people truly understand why Pokemon is more popular, as though Digimon were somehow a superior product in every sense, but people have come to a consensus to like Pokemon instead, just because.
However, people don’t like things without reason. Pokemon turned out to be far more popular, even if people don’t know how that came to be. This article explores the reasons why, even though Digimon superficially offers a more interesting experience, Pokemon has won the hearts of many millions more.
One thing that Digimon fans point out is that Digimon offers the better anime.
And in a sense, this is true. Digimon focuses on telling epic stories of adventure and character development. While Pokemon does something similar, Digimon is different in that it tells one or two season long story arcs centered around a cast of characters who are out to defeat some foe that threatens the well being of a world or two.
On the other hand, Pokemon is about Ash and Pikachu, and how they travel from town to town collecting gym badges. After a while, Ash does collect all the gym badges in a region, then participates in some competition before moving on to another region where he collects another set of gym badges. It’s formulaic.
So why? Why does the Pokemon anime consistently get better ratings?
The answer is, because of that formula. It’s a long-term strategy. Sometimes, a person who watches will take a break from it. When they return to it, they expect some familiar concepts and/or characters to have remained in place.
When people think of the Digimon anime, they think about the starring characters, such as Tai, Matt, Agumon, and those other familiar faces. When they take a break from it, they expect those familiar faces to still be there when they come back, because those are the faces that they associate with Digimon. However, if the fan has been away for a long time, they may come back to discover that Tai and Agumon are no longer anywhere to be seen, even though they were once the main characters! As a result, older fans that expected certain characters to remain are alienated.
When people think of the Pokemon anime, they think of Ash and Pikachu. While characters have left Ash’s group and new characters have been introduced, Ash is still there, and so is Pikachu.
This has been spoken of as though it were some weakness of the Pokemon anime. But in reality, it’s been its strength. Again, sometimes, fans go, but later come back again. Pokemon makes it easier for them, because the two main characters that fans expect to find upon return are still there. Meanwhile fans of Digimon that attempt to return to the show but don’t find the old main characters have to readjust to a new cast, and they may not be up for that kind of emotional reinvestment, especially when faced with the prospect that the new cast may not still be there in a season or two.
So, while the Digimon anime may have better writing, the Pokemon anime wins out in the long run, because it remains consistently Pokemon, whether you like Ash or not.
On to the second point, Digimon fans like to point out that Digimon designs are better. What do they mean by “better”? Apparently, that Digimon are gritty and heavily-detailed.
For a few examples of Digimon designs, check out the following:
Wow. Any one of those guys look like they could kick Mewtwo’s butt. Just how edgy can you get?
But here’s the thing: We don’t really care for that as much as one might think. In fact, the Digimon designs look like someone has been trying way too hard to impress us. That’s something we can see right through, or at least notice on a subliminal level.
While Digimon may try really, really hard to impress us with their terribly edgy designs, they aren’t the only ones that have an edgy appeal to offer. For one thing, gamers adore Castlevania, even though the edginess factor isn’t nearly as blunt. In gaming, it’s not hard to find something that’s been overdesigned to stain our undergarments yellow. In fact, that stuff’s everywhere.
Pokemon’s simpler designs are welcome because they have a wider appeal. A girl can adore a Pikachu because it’s cute, and a boy may find Pikachu interesting because its electrical potential has a connotation of danger. That’s the kind of thing that Digimon doesn’t manage to pull off quite right. That’s especially glaring considering that Digimon originated as a Tamagotchi game. And in any case, the appeal of a wild, edgy character isn’t really as wide as one might think.
One can point out that Pokemon places a lot of emphasis on cuteness. Which it does. That doesn’t hurt it that much, because the cuteness of one pokemon usually doesn’t distract much from its other qualities, such as the strength it has in spite of that cuteness.
Besides, cuteness really isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s great that Pokemon has that aesthetic appeal. Pokemon scratches an itch that most other games out there don’t even bother reaching for.
The third point, and perhaps the most obvious is that the Pokemon video games are plainly superior.
There aren’t very many people who argue against this one. That doesn’t mean that Digimon games are bad. There are some good ones.
The main problem is Digimon games usually vary significantly from one installment to the next. While the Digimon World games are RPGs, the original Digimon game for the Sega Saturn was a Tamagotchi simulator. There are those who consider Digimon World to be the gold standard for the Digimon experience, while others favor the Tamagotchis. As a result, there is fragmentation among the fanbase as to what one may expect from a Digimon video game. (Digimon isn’t the only game to do this. The Yu-Gi-Oh video games are very inconsistent as to whether to follow the rules of the trading card games.)
Pokemon games are so similar from one installment to the next, that the pokemon themselves can be transferred from one version to another, allowing players to keep playing with the individual pokemon that they’ve grown attached to as the series progresses.
One can point out that the main series Pokemon RPGs are formulaic, varying little from one installment to the next. A similar point could be made about the Pokemon anime, but if you remember that same point above, you’ll know that that didn’t hurt the Pokemon anime very much at all. As stated above, that kind of consistency can be a real strength.
People who play a certain game usually take a break from it after a while. When they return, they expect those familiar core mechanics to remain intact. This is what makes Pokemon such a friendly game for casual players: it doesn’t alienate players with changes to the experience. In fact, that’s reasonable to expect. The things that make Pokemon distinct have remained.
In light of this, one can understand that Digimon’s dissimilarities from one installment to another is a liability. For a long time, things have been thrown out there to see what sticks. It takes strength to stick to one’s strategy.
For the fourth point, Pokemon is more original. No surprise there, because Pokemon came first, and Digimon was an attempt to copy someone else’s popularity.
Not everyone wants to accept that Pokemon came first. I’ve already written an article proving that to be the case, laying the issue to rest, so I don’t have to get too much into that here.
Still, it’s pretty obvious that Digimon was born in a marketing meeting in an attempt to make some quick cash off of Pokemon’s popularity. While we don’t talk about that very often, enough of us do see right through that, and we don’t like the idea of supporting such a blatant lack of creativity.
To take something and say “Look, we can make it better by making it edgier and more X-treme!” doesn’t earn a lot of respect.
The fifth point is that Pokemon is generally a far more positive experience. And, believe it or not, there’s a lot of demand for that kind of thing.
Think about how many games are out there in which the main character is out to save the world. Some of the sharper readers out there would point out that that’s nearly all of them. It’s a recurring theme in video games: the relatable main character sets out on a quest to save the world from some bad guy or personified evil or abstract concept, gathering items and/or abilities along the way.
Done. So. Many. Times.
The Digimon games are yet another installment about unrealistically-heroic pre-teens saving the world from some evil that threatens to end it in some creatively dreadful way. And to be sure that that point gets across, it beats you over the head with some of the same edgy, overdesigned monstrosities that were previously discussed.
While Pokemon games usually also star kids who save the world, what’s noteworthy is that the tone of the adventures is far different. This is apparent in the settings of the games. The upcoming installments, Pokemon Sun and Moon, have settings based on Hawaii. The setting of Pokemon X and Y was inspired by France. Very nice settings that are very conductive to a positive and uplifting tone (even if France is a tad overrated).
Pokemon games have such an energy and enthusiasm about them, it’s almost as though each game were some large festival that players participate in each time they play the game. They even made some games based on New York City and managed to convey the same positivity. Think about the kind of creativity that would take.
If the idea of your game is to have a main character go on a long journey to save the world, you know how many games you’d be directly competing with that have the same theme? Just about every single one.
That’s what makes it so great that Pokemon at least tries to be different in tone. Pokemon games star kids who want to be champions. Not because anyone is counting on them, but because they want to be good at something. Pretty good idea for a game, right there.
The sixth point is that Pokemon has a far more developed competitive game. This has much to do with the fan base, but it is due in large part to the intrinsic elements of the game, so I think it does deserve a mention.
Pokemon has a much larger, far more developed competitive game. This is interesting considering that, when Pokemon was first made, it wasn’t originally intended to have much of a competitive aspect outside of link battling. While many may be loathe to admit it, the existence of fan communities such as Smogon may have played a large part in the development of Pokemon’s competitive game.
Love it or hate it, Smogon is huge. At first, it provided an online simulator, with simple rules to balance the game more than link cable battles. Mewtwo and Mew were deemed uber, so Smogon didn’t allow them. Over time, things got more complicated, but Nintendo began hosting official Pokemon tournaments with rules very similar to Smogon’s. Perhaps one was inspired by the other, though it’s likely that Nintendo recognized on their own that similar rules were better for the game.
The very fact that competitive communities such as Smogon exist and are as large as they are makes the case that there has been a huge demand for competitive Pokemon.
On the other hand, Digimon hasn’t been doing very much competitively. That’s not to say that they’ve been doing nothing. There have been Digimon tournaments, but they’ve been rare.
When it comes to a competitive Pokemon event, it’s usually either a video game or trading card game event. That’s seldom a problem for someone, because Pokemon fans typically play one game or the other (or both).
On the rare occasion that a Digimon event is held, it might be a button-mashing fest with the Digivice, which not many people own. Or it might be a trading card game event. But which trading card game? Digimon has tried more than one.
After a while, Nintendo has put more effort into making the Pokemon RPGs more competitively balanced, which has resulted in a better game. That was pretty good news for the many players who wanted Pokemon to have a stronger competitive aspect.
Those are the reasons that are apparent to me why, between Pokemon and Digimon, Pokemon has succeeded in having a much wider appeal. This is not an article on how Digimon is stupid and why people should not play it. If you enjoy a game, that’s a pretty good reason to play it. I wrote this article because it’s not very obvious to many people why Pokemon turned out to be the far more popular game.
Is there a reason that I missed or a counterpoint that you’d like to bring up? Comments section.