Let us get this out of the way, since its inception, Pokémon has been the best selling Japanese Role-Playing Game franchise in the world. It is rarely mentioned alongside Final Fantasy by JRPG fans, but the reality of the situation is that Pokémon is bigger than Square Enix’s biggest franchise.
Pokémon Was the JRPG King of the Late 1990s Commercially
If you thought Final Fantasy VII was the most successful JRPG of the golden era of the genre, think again. Nintendo, which hasn’t traditionally been known for great turn-based RPGs, had in its portfolio the one JRPG to rule them all in Game Boy’s Pokémon Red and Blue (and eventually Yellow).
In 1996, Pokémon Red and Blue debuted in Japan. These titles sold 31 million units worldwide. Yes, that was not a typo: the first Pokémon Games (Blue, Red, and Yellow) sold three times as much as Final Fantasy VII did. Keep in mind, that Final Fantasy VII is generally recognized as the game that popularized the JRPG genre on the West.
That said, in terms of global commercial popularity, Pokémon was unmatched, and not just within the JRPG genre, but as a video game. The games would span an Anime series that would quickly turn into a mainstream success (even spanning successful worldwide theater release of the franchise’s first movie).
1999’s Pokémon Yellow’s (Pikachu’s Edition) sales are factored into Red and Blue’s numbers. To many, who found out about Pokemon by watching the Anime series before playing the games (including myself), Yellow was the entry that got them into the series.
How Influential was Pokémon During The JRPG Golden Era?
According to the average JRPG gamer, if we go by ‘favorite’ JRPG discussions on forums, and our on social media pages, Pokémon was not too influential. Pokémon, in any form, is rarely mentioned alongside Final Fantasy VI, VII, Chrono Trigger, and even The Legend of Dragoon in these arguments.
It is strange, as many more people in the world have played Pokémon games, than have played any of the above mentioned titles. Perhaps, the answer lies in the fact that Pokémon never had an entry that reached FFVII, or Trigger levels of critical acclaim. The highest rated (all-time) Pokémon game is Pokémon Y for the 3DS, which holds an 88 Metacritic rating.
The rating is higher than Legend of Dragoon’s, but much lower than Final Fantasy’s best efforts. Still, one would expect some of these (Pokémon) games to be held in higher esteem by the JRPG crowd.
Perhaps, Pokémon got so big that for many the games weren’t their main vehicle into the franchise. Many Pokémon fans love the trading cards as much (if not more) than they do the games, and others like the anime series, etc. It would be hard for any particular entry to have competed with something like Final Fantasy VII, at the time, in terms of reputation as a “great” game.
Pokémon Red and Blue (and Yellow) Was a Social JRPG
Pokémon Red and Blue were never meant to capture gamer’s hearts with their story, music and presentation. It was a game inspired by its creator’s (Satoshi Tajiri) childhood pastime of collecting insects from his expeditions to the wilderness.
Tajiri found the Game Boy to be a perfect fit for his idea as the system’s link cable would allow for gamers to trade their Pokémon with one another, and have a Pokémon battle.
In the days before the internet (became widespread), social media, and cell phones, Pokémon was as social as RPGs got for those that didn’t play on computers.
Beyond that, even as a single player experience, Pokémon Red and Blue were tremendously addictive games. Collecting all 151 monsters required the purchase of both versions of the game (Red and Blue) which many players did, making Nintendo executives very happy, indeed.
Leveling up, and evolving Pokémon through turn based battles (and consequential EXP gains) was just as addictive as finding and capturing them in first place. Pokémon had a winning formula, and its “monster collecting” nature helped it become a worldwide success.
Is Pokémon the Unsung King of JRPGs?
With 380 million units sold worldwide, no other JRPG franchise comes close, commercially speaking. Final Fantasy comes in at a distant second with 164 million units sold. To this day, Pokémon games sell better than Final Fantasy games, and the numbers aren’t that close.
And yet, being the king is more than just sales, and in most arguments, Pokemon games are left out of the “greatest” conversations. I will say this, Pokemon Red and Blue (and yes, Yellow) are underrated by the JRPG fanzine. I would argue, for example, that none of those games were as impactful on gamers in terms of story as Final Fantasy VII was, but that those games provided more hours of entertainment than Square’s magnum opus.
Given its continued dominance on sales charts (even while confined to Nintendo systems), Pokémon is the one JRPG franchise that continues to pull in extraordinary numbers, and for that, in my opinion, it is the King of the genre, even if I rarely admit it, and my favorite JRPG is doesn’t go by the ‘Pokémon’ name.
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