It's hard for me to believe that Pokemon has been around since 1996. The series received its US debut in 1998 and has been captivating children and adults ever since. I was even a little old for that first generation of fans in the US (September 1998 put me in 7th grade when the advertising skewed younger). Pokemon has been part of my life ever since. I played all the main games (and even some awesome side projects like Pokemon Snap! and Pokemon Pinball, the greatest handheld pinball game ever), watched the anime, and even dabbled in the TCG. But now it's 2014. The original fans have grown up and, surely, many have moved past this monster collection obsession. The new TV shows, games, and expanded universe (board games, toys, collectibles) bring in new young fans. It's a testament to the strength of the series that it's lasted this long.
Yet, these new children are entering a very different Pokemon world. Their games have always been in color. Brock and Misty were never their first two gym battles and Pallet Town is a forgotten relic. Shoot, these children have never been forced to to just choose between Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur as their starter Pokemon, let alone only three possible evolutions of Evee and only five legendary Pokemon. The children starting with X/Y don't have to deal with the frustration of overly sensitive four-way directional control or no drag and drop organization tools. It's like a different universe.
That's where the genius of Pokemon Origins comes in. Origins is a four episode, limited run anime series that debuted in Japan leading up to the release of Pokemon X/Y. The series is the first ever anime adaptation of the video game rather than the manga and that's a big distinction.
All this mythology you know from the TV show (Ash Ketchum, Pikachu as a starter, Meowth as a talking Pokemon, non-Battling Pokemon trainers) is not part of the game. The games started with Red visiting Professor Oak on his birthday. He is given a quest, fill up the first ever Pokedex with the 150 known Pokemon, and, by chance, a rival in the Professor's nephew. He encounters Team Rocket, an organized crime group stealing Pokemon, and actually has to battle eight gym leaders to qualify for the Pokemon League Championship. He doesn't get any allies beyond his Pokemon to save him when times are hard and has a very limited supply of money and resources. Winning under these conditions is a huge challenge and everyone will fail at least one gym battle their first time around.
Origins tells that story with highlights from the original Pokemon journey. The first episode is Red getting his Charmander and challenging the Pewter City Gym Leader. The second episode does a montage of major events--three more gym battles, meeting the scientists in the first mountain--before focusing in on the myth of Cubone.
Cubone is the sad little Pokemon who wears his mother's skull as protection and fights with a random bone from a fallen enemy. He's also introduced through the Pokemon House (an orphanage for abandoned Pokemon) and pulled right into the myth of the Pokemon Tower in Lavendar Town. This is your first encounter with Team Rocket in the original game and it's really messed up. The Pokemon Tower is the cemetery for fallen Pokemon. Team Rocket takes over and prevents everyone else from paying tribute to their former partners. Red has to use one-off technology to identify a mystery ghost Pokemon to climb the Tower, challenge Team Rocket, and free the destination for all people. It's a gut-punch in the game and even more so for being so lovingly adapted in Origins.
Unsurprisingly, the series ends with Red as the new Pokemon Champion, the second big goal of the game. He wanders around afterwards, collecting the rest of the Pokemon to fill the Pokedex before the biggest surprise of the series. Pokemon Origins isn't simply an act of nostalgia; it's a marketing tool to teach the new generation of Pokemon fans about the history of the series.
The fourth episode ties in X/Y in a really clever way. Red is tasked with capturing Mewtwo, the most powerful Pokemon in the original games. He battles with his trusty Charizard but can't quite get the edge on the wild Pokemon. That's when, through the strength of their bond, Red is able to unleash the power of Mega Evolution through two stones given to him back in Lavender Town. This is literally the intrusion of the newest battle mechanic from the newest Pokemon game on the oldest story the series has to tell.
The children who watched Pokemon Origins when it aired in Japan may not be familiar with Cubone's origin, the twist of the final gym leader's ties to Team Rocket, or even the concept of a four-battle run to the Pokemon Championship, but they will know Mega Evolution. It is the only new battle mechanic in X/Y and it's introduced through a long and unavoidable mission early on. Each of the new starter Pokemon (plus Lucario and a few other favorites) have this temporary fourth evolution that makes them faster and stronger than ever before. Suddenly, this unfamiliar vision of Red (not Ash) battling against such a small number of Pokemon is placed in a perfectly modern context for the young gamer.
Pokemon is a series that, by its very nature, cannot allow the past to be forgotten. If the older Pokemon are abandoned with each new generation, all the work put into balancing out the dynamic between the different types would need to be redone for each new release. Switching out moves, types, or skills on the older creatures lets them shine against the newest trend to debut in the anime shortly before the games. The formula of the game is so tight that making too radical a change could tip the RPG collection/battle series into tedium.
Pokemon Origins finally embraces the games that started the whole crazy with a beautiful short-run series. Red may never be as popular as Ash thanks to the anime/manga adaptations, but at least his story will be told to the new generation of Pokemon fans.
Have you seen Pokemon Origins? What did you think? Share your thoughts below. The show is available to stream on Hulu, which quickly and quietly became the streaming media choice for anime fans.