The release of Pokémon Go has children and ostensible adults everywhere spouting gibberish words like Pikachu, Aerodactyl, and Jigglypuff like we’re all back in 1998. Sure, that’s partially thanks to the app’s newfangled AR software, but it’s also thanks to the incredible staying power of the Pokémon franchise, a potent blend of role-playing games, bug collecting, the techno-futurism of so much mid-’90s anime, and creatures with eyes so big they force you to coo in delight.
To better understand the franchise, Vulture looked back at the first season of the surprisingly still-running Pokémon anime, which premiered in Japan in 1997 and in the U.S. on the WB in 1998. (It’s now on Netflix.) What exactly convinced millions of children that leaving their families to train pocket monsters could be a good idea?
These episodes are, of course, written for elementary-school kids, so while we’ve noted some of the most significant episodes, we don’t necessarily recommend that you binge them all. Think of this as a guide for when you are with friends who have Go-induced curiosity (be warned: a drinking game built around every utterance of “Pikachu” is not safe), want to show your kids something from your own childhood, or — we won’t judge — crave a brief jaunt into the comforts of nostalgia.
1. “Pokémon – I Choose You!” (episode 1)
The Pokémon anime roughly approximates the Game Boy games Pokémon Red and Blue, so, as in those games, we begin in Pallet Tow, where our hero, the 10-year-old Ash Ketchum, starts his quest to be a Pokémon master. No one really defines what it means to be “Pokémon master,” but it involves a mix of:
a) Catching and identifying all of the Pokémon in the world
b) Training your own Pokémon and winning battles
c) Wanting to be the very best, like no one ever was
Thus, Ash acquires his first Pokémon, the iconic electric mouse Pikachu, who refuses to travel inside a Pokéball or ever do anything Ash says. Together they head into the world, face off with spoiled rival Gary Oak, and glimpse a rare legendary Pokémon in the distance — though it might all be a dream.
2. “Showdown in Pewter City” (episode 5)
Ash takes part in his first major battle, with Brock, the rock Pokémon trainer who controls the Pewter city gym. Brock, it turns out, is about the same age as Ash, and he really wants to go on his own adventures, so after they face off (Ash’s Pikachu defeats Brock’s giant rock snake with supercharged electricity, which is technically impossible in the game, but whatever), they decide to go on a quest together.
The larger point is that Brock, who spends most of his time cooking and dopily hitting on police officers, is a dreamboat; 75 percent of the kids who watched Pokémon in the ‘90s had crushes on him, and the other 25 percent were in denial.
3. “The Water Flowers of Cerulean City” (episode 7)
Since we included an episode about Brock, we also have to include this crucial episode about Misty, Ash’s stubborn redheaded companion–slash–love interest, who’s been hanging around for six episodes yelling at him for breaking her bike. Ash wanders into a town with a gym run by Misty and her sisters, though she doesn’t want anyone to know about her involvement in the gym, because her sisters are mean to her. Also getting a good showcase in this episode: Team Rocket, a trio consisting of Jessie, James (dubbed by Eric Stuart, a fey fixture in anime fans’ childhoods, as he also voiced a character in Yu-Gi-Oh!), and their talking cat, Meowth. They provide the series’ comic relief by employing a set of Wile E. Coyote–brand schemes to capture Pikachu. In this episode, that’s a tank/boat equipped with a giant vacuum, which is honestly pretty cool.
4. to 6. “Bulbasaur and the Hidden City” (episode 10), “Charmander – The Stray Pokémon” (episode 11), “Here Comes the Squirtle Squad” (episode 12)
In the Pokémon games, you choose between three starter Pokémon, which are either fire, water, or grass type. In the series, Ash, the lucky fool, encounters them one by one in this set of three episodes. Each member of the trio has its undeniable appeal, and your choice between them as a kid was a precursor to other important-but-actually-meaningless self-definitions, like choosing your Hogwarts house or finding out your Myers–Briggs personality type.
These episodes also fumble with the idea that the Pokémon universe might actually be terribly cruel. What if the creatures you are capturing and forcing to fight each other want to hang out with their friends in the wild (see: Squirtle’s episode)? Or what if their trainers abandon them (see: Bulbasaur’s)? Or what if they might die when they’re left out in the rain (see: Charmander’s)? Ash mostly learns that you have to love your Pokémon really hard and everything will be okay. That’s not a complete answer, per se, but it’s a nice message. Also, he’s 10.
7. “Electric Shock Showdown” (episode 14)
Pikachu can evolve into the more powerful Raichu in the game series, but in the show Ash’s Pikachu never evolves — partially because that would mess with the franchise’s branding, and mostly because Ash’s Pikachu wants to do things on his own terms. This episode, where Ash faces off against a gym leader with an ultra-powerful Raichu, makes him reconsider his decision not to evolve Pikachu, though eventually he wins the battle the hard way, a.k.a. through the power of friendship.
(Note: I will Venmo $5 to the first person who submits a dissertation titled “Pokémon, Soft Power, and Demilitarized Japan” about the American lieutenant Ash defeats through said power of friendship.)
8. “Bye Bye Butterfree” (episode 20)
Ash’s butterfly Pokémon Butterfree falls in love with a pink, seemingly female member of its species and, after fending off an attack from Team Rocket, decides to leave Ash and go off with the love of its life. The episode features a powerful montage of Ash and his former Pokémon’s friendship as the latter flutters off into the sunset. Like any good kids’ series, Pokémon knew to swing for the big emotions, which, in the land of children, mostly stem from losing your pets.
9. “The Tower of Terror” (episode 22)
After realizing he can’t defeat the nightmarish doll girl that runs a psychic-type gym, Ash journeys to a town full of ghosts to catch a ghost-type Pokémon. (Ghosts are especially effective against psychic Pokémon, because.) In the process of trying to catch two goofy ghosts, a chandelier falls on Ash and Pikachu, and the ghost Pokémon extract their spirits from their bodies, giving the duo a chance to be ghosts for the episode. (They return to their bodies at the end of it.) The story raises a lot of questions about how the afterlife works in the Pokémon universe, but mostly it allows our hero to confront the abyss of death with the immortal line “Wait, I don’t wanna be a ghost yet!”
10. “Showdown at Dark City” (episode 39)
In this episode, Pikachu solves a gang war by being obsessed with ketchup.
11. “The Song of Jigglypuff” (episode 42)
Jigglypuff, a spherical cream being who became a secondary Pokémon mascot thanks to her (its?) appearance on Super Smash Bros., gets a standout episode where it sings people to sleep and then draws on them with a permanent marker. Later, Jigglypuff saves the day by putting all of Las Vegas to sleep, because sleep is one of the three most important things in the Pokémon universe, alongside friendship (of course) and food, which is often mislabeled in the American dub.
Also notable: “Electric Soldier Pokémon” (never aired in the U.S.)
You won’t find this infamous Pokémon episode on Netflix (or any other streaming site), because it was pulled from TV after inducing symptoms of epilepsy in more than 700 people during its first airing in Japan.The culprit: An explosion rendered in flashes of red and blue, which triggered symptoms of epilepsy. (You can find the episode on YouTube, if you feel so compelled.) In 1999, The Simpsons parodied the episode when the family watches “Battling Seizure Robots” on a trip to Japan.
“Electric Soldier Pokémon” was one of only a few original Pokémon episodes that were pulled from rotation after airing. Others include an episode where Team Rocket’s James cross-dresses; episodes about the Pokémon Jynx, which was accused of looking like a racist stereotype (Nintendo recolored the character’s skin from black to purple in later appearances, not that that changes the impact); and an episode where characters use handguns. So, sure, maybe the Pokémon universe isn’t all about friendship.