In the late 1990s, there was one issue that mattered. There was one debate, an endless back and forth, with name calling and fist fighting, that broke the heart of every child on every playground. Pokémon or Digimon?
The uninitiated are likely to make two incorrect assumptions: that Digimon was a copycat of Pokémon, and that Pokémon eventually won. The first is patently untrue – Digimon was a combat-based follow-up to Bandai’s Tamagotchi devices and launched around the same time as Pokémon in Japan – while the latter is more debatable.
What isn’t debatable is that Pokémon Go’s release last year made a splash neither franchise had seen since their heyday in the last century. Children who had never held a Game Boy or an LCD pet in their lives were fighting for Pokémon apparel. Adults who half-remembered the two animés as the same thing were outside searching for imaginary monsters day and night.
Pokémon Go’s central conceit was that the eponymous creatures were hiding, invisibly, in real world locations. Using GPS and augmented reality technology, players tracked them down and tried to catch ‘em all once again. While the collecting element is core to Pokémon’s design, the series has never interacted with the real world.
Pokémon takes place in its own fantasy version of Earth, where the magical creatures are a normal part of everyday life. In the original videogames and the fiction they inspired, people live and work with Pokémon all the time. They roam the fields, share homes and are central to communities.
In Digimon’s various incarnations, the monsters live in their separate Digital World. Children in our world interact with the creatures through small electronic devices. Humans and monsters pass from one world to the other. In the animé, the Digidestined are pulled into that world to team up with Digimon partners and help them save the world. In Digimon World for the Playstation, a child is sucked into his LCD toy and trains, raises and battles monsters in the eponymous realm.
It’s easy to imagine the mobile game showing the Digimon creatures in their digiworld, passing through to ours. It would have been a more natural fit for the narrative. More importantly, Digimon’s gameplay mechanics wouldn’t have needed to be butchered in the way Pokémon’s were.
Training and battling Pokémon in the videogames is a surprisingly in-depth and tactical affair. The team-building, the movesets and the turn-based combat all take a considerable amount of learning. In Pokémon GO this is simplified beyond recognition. Many fans anticipated the prospect of carrying a Pokémon team on their phone at all times, and engaging in the classic battling gameplay systems with a larger pool of players than ever before.
The much simplified, single-monster combat that actually arrived was much more akin to plugging two classic Digimon toys into one-another. Tie in the virtual pet element, and use collected Digimon to power a cartoon-style devolution mechanic, and you’d be onto a winner.
None of this was outside the realm of possibility. Developer Niantic approached Pokémon with the concept, this wasn’t an internal project. If the bright spark who’d made that proposal had stood on the other side of the line as a child, things could easily have turned out very differently. As it is, Pokémon got to go and Digimon remained a small game franchise kept alive by nostalgia.
Pokémon Go is winding down in popularity, and while neither Pokémon or Digimon ever really went away after the 90s, it seems unlikely either will return to the popularity they enjoyed at the turn of the millennium or the popularity of last year. They are yesterday’s monster franchises. Monster Hunter is here now and it has some . . . familiarities.