gotta catch em all

Which Pokémon Game (or Show, or Book) Is Right for You?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Nintendo, TXN, DeNA and Netflix

It would not be hyperbole to say that Pokémon is in one of the most successful periods of its 26-year life span. Though it may have shed the Pokémania moral panic of its late ’90s heyday, Game Freak’s “pocket monsters” are still ubiquitous on a level that most franchises can only dream about. Its 2019 “generation” of installments, Sword and Shield, have sold almost 24 million copies, putting them in second place in the grand scheme of the game series. Pokémon Legends: Arceus set Twitch streaming records for the sheer amount of hours people watched it being played. The mobile game Pokémon GO had its most profitable year ever in 2020. Recently, the Trading Card Game incited a furor among collectors and auctioneers not seen since schoolyard arguments during the Clinton administration. Pokémon is huge.

So, where do you get in if you’re suddenly feeling the Pokémon FOMO? Whether you’re a total stranger to the Pikachu brand, a lapsed fan, or just want to introduce it to your kids, Pokémon’s omnipresence means that there’s something for everyone.

Toddlers: Pokémon Junior on Pokémon TV

A cursory glance at the highest-ranking children’s shows on Netflix will show Cocomelon as the supreme being, a nursery-rhyme laden cartoon that blurs the line between cute educational fare and preschooler catnip. Pokémon TV, the streaming service solely devoted to the franchise, makes use of that formula as well with Pokémon Junior. It’s both an exercise in simple songs and in getting kids acquainted with the hundreds of monsters that fill its world. The videos all tend to be short, and one includes Pikachu & Co. doing the “Thriller” dance. As I said, there’s something for everyone.

Kids: Let’s Go, Pikachu!

When Let’s Go, Pikachu! was announced for the Nintendo Switch, alarms were set off for the portion of the fanbase eager for a more challenging experience. And sure, if you consider yourself a Pokémon expert, it’s a pretty smooth ride. However, if you’re looking for your kid’s first Pokémon game, Let’s Go, Pikachu!’s streamlined mechanics make it an easy fit. (Parents can join in on the fun, too — Let’s Go includes a co-op option for the first time in Pokémon history.) It even included a Poké Ball–shaped controller, just in case you wanted to have a good time slinging your arm to capture critters and a questionable time doing anything else.

Gamer Newcomers: Pokémon Legends: Arceus

Released in early 2022, Legends: Arceus is simultaneously the pinnacle of the series before it and a launch into previously unknown territory. It has all of the familiar staples (you play as a young person who has to “catch ’em all”) with new mechanics and a pseudo–open world approach that dispenses with many of the limitations that long-time fans had found increasingly archaic. If you’re new to Pokémon and know your way around a modern video game, it should be a good time and a great way to get caught up with a series trying to move in new directions.

Hesitant Outsiders: Pokémon Adventures Manga

Pokémon is a franchise that is almost entirely aimed at children. There’s no shame in that, though — it speaks to its enduring appeal that pieces of the franchise remain entertaining throughout adolescence and beyond. One of those pieces is the Pokémon Adventures manga, a Japanese comic series that takes the story line from the games and twists it off into something a little more complicated. It’s not necessarily grim, but the series does explore a more tangled narrative with a more open look at the violence that would occur in a universe obsessed with dragon UFC.

Casual Players: Pokémon GO

When Pokémon GO erupted in the summer of 2016, it might’ve been the last time we experienced collective world peace. Everyone you knew was flicking their thumb at a screen, trying to nab a Rattata or Charmander as they paced around the block. If you find the idea of a console game or manga too time-consuming, GO has evolved in ways that add way more features but don’t have to take up more of your schedule. For example, did you know that you can now take on the GO version of Team Rocket? And that they’ve added hundreds of monsters and “Field Research” missions? You can do it all while embodying the original version’s intended ethos of “Eh, just kinda walk around.”

Lapsed Fans: Pokémon Sun & Moon

If your last memory of Pokémon involved singing along to “I wanna be the very best … ” and you want to dive back in, then you have a lot to catch up on. That said, if you’d like to treat yourself to some of the best the TV series has to offer right away, Pokémon TV has all of Sun & Moon. That story line overhauled the traditional look of the show and is bursting at the seams with fluid, gorgeous animation (while still not abandoning all the silliness and battles and “You can do it!” character work.) After that, dive into online series like Pokémon: Twilight Wings, acclaimed for being perhaps the best-looking thing to ever have the word Pokémon stamped on it.

Nostalgia Addicts: The Original Series & Games

Look, if you want your memories of Pokémon to begin and end with what you experienced as a kid, that’s totally fine. Pokémon is a brand with its backbone in nostalgia, considering that it was the product of a man who wanted to recreate the joys of bug collecting and watching Ultraman as a kid. The entire original adventure is available on Pokémon TV, and if you have a Nintendo 3DS and want to download some stuff before their eShop closes for good, the Game Boy era of the series is available. Relive Pokémon Red and Blue, make a deck in the Trading Card Game, or rediscover why Crystal remains the best in the series to date.

Collectors: Pokémon TCG Live

Getting into the card game in its real, physical form is a gamble nowadays, considering how often booster packs sell out and how expensive many cards are being sold for. The soon-to-be-released Pokémon Trading Card Game Live looks like an attempt to streamline the process, where you can not only battle online but build a virtual deck and player. The site also says that you’ll be able to “Participate in Daily Challenges,” and considering that those challenges won’t be “Fend off card scalpers in the cramped aisle of a Target,” it sounds like a win.

Veterans: Deep-dive Books

If you want to learn about where Pokémon came from, the culture that produced it, and the history of connections that allowed it to make such a global impact, read Pure Invention: How Japan Made The Modern World. Written by Japanese media historian Matt Alt, it’s a brilliant look at how things like karaoke, the Walkman, the Game Boy, and monsters like those found in Pokémon became international successes. And if you’re just looking to relive Pokemania and hear the behind-the-scenes stories of the people that helped make it happen, my book, Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All, is available for preorder.

Obsessed Fans: Pokémon Masters EX

While GO tends to be the app that most people jump to for the experience of fighting Pokémon on your phone, there is another one tailor-made not for casual fans but for those that love the characters and the lore and would understand any minute reference thrown at them. Pokémon Masters EX gives you the chance to challenge and recruit classic characters from the series, ranging from Red, the original protagonist, to gym leaders like Viola, Clair, and Flint. The gameplay is serviceable, but you stay for the in-jokes and bits of interaction that make any 26-year dedication to Pokémon at least a little worth it.

Which Pokémon Game (or Show, or Book) Is Right for You?