With 2.1 billion cards sold last year, the Pokémon Trading Card Game is still going strong
In 1996, Pokémon launched in Japan for the first time on the Nintendo Game Boy. A year on, it had already sold 10.4 million copies and was well on its way to an international release. By the arrival of the second generation, Pokémon had sold 13.4 million copies in the US and UK alone – where it remains one of the best-selling games franchises of all time.
But Pokémon is bigger than just the Nintendo video-game series developed by Game Freak. It spans anime TV series, multiple movies, books, and a slew of mobile games – the most popular of which is Pokémon Go, a game that sent the brand rocketing back into the minds of Western audiences last year.
However, there’s one aspect of Pokémon that many tend to forget, despite the fact it’s doing better than ever – the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG).
Card company Creatures launched its Pokémon TCG only months after the Japanese release of Pokémon Red and Green. In the UK, it hit our shores before the arrival of Pokémon Red and Blue in 1999, tying in neatly with the newly released Pokémon anime series. Now, with a new set of expansions on the horizon to coincide with upcoming Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, I jumped at a chance to interview Pokémon TGC members to find out just what makes Pokémon so appealing all these years later.
“It’s tricky to explain [Pokémon] from a cultural standpoint,” explains Yuji Kitano, Pokémon TCG’s producer and Creatures board member. “Its continued appeal comes off the back of the video-game series: each time a new one comes out, a new world is added and that’s very exciting. It also helps that each individual Pokémon has its own charms. As a package, it’s a colourful and intriguing world with characterful Pokémon populating it.
“It’s a simple reason, but that’s why I believe it’s managed to remain appealing.”
However, Kitano-san believes that Pokémon TCG taps into the same pool of desires Pokémon Go managed to hit last year. It’s not simply a game; it’s a social experience – 20 years ago it cemented the trading card game’s place in history, similar to how Niantic’s Pokémon Go has become synonymous with augmented reality in the public’s consciousness.
“In [Pokémon] TCG, you physically meet with other players to play face to face,” he explains. “When you’re going to the World Championships, you’re meeting people and playing with them – no matter what your age or where you’re from.
“That’s something we continue to place a lot of importance on, and why we believe the Pokémon TCG continues to appeal.”
As we chat, surrounded by Pokémon merchandise such as an oversized Pikachu plush and a giant Pikachu trading card, I can’t help but wonder who’s actually still playing the game. As a child, I remember eagerly dragging one of my parents down to our local newsagents to buy a booster pack of the cards, tearing through the foil wrapping to hopefully discover a rare “shiny”. Yet despite my passion for the game, I, like many others, moved on and only occasionally wondered who was still playing it.
But the Pokémon TCG is bigger than ever. Not only is there an annual three-day, invite-only Pokémon World Championships, but last year alone it sold 2.1 billion cards to retailers.
Creatures’ Yuji Kitano and Atsushi Nagashima
“Again, it’s difficult to talk about global demographics,” admits Kitano-san as he explains he isn’t generally responsible for keeping track of such figures. Instead, he offers up his observations from Japan’s Pokémon scene. “If you go to events like the World Championships, or even regionals, you see children as young as five or six playing alongside their fathers. These fathers have continued to play since they were children, so there’s a wide range of people taking part.”
Pokémon Trading Card Game tournaments take place all over the world at both regional and national levels, culminating in the Pokémon World Championships every year. Here, more than 150 different players compete for the number-one ranking in Pokémon TCG, along with a chunk of its $500,000 prize pot.
From all the photos and event videos, it’s clear to see Pokémon isn’t something exclusively for kids; there’s a family-friendly appeal to the whole event.
“One of the most interesting points about Pokémon TCG is that you get people of very different ages all in the same place. You have children and adults giving it their all, and they can both be at the same level – It’s something you don’t really find in other card games, or games in general.”
It seems that at the core of Pokémon TCG’s appeal beats the heart of a technically deep and complex game veiled by straightforward mechanics. It’s a similar approach to how Game Freak’s handheld series is designed – giving players the option to absorb themselves as much or as little as they like in its complex systems.
“One of the most difficult things about designing the cards and developing new expansions is keeping it simple enough for newcomers but interesting enough for veteran players,” explains Pokémon TCG game director Atsushi Nagashima.
On a base level, Pokémon TCG is all about whittling your opponent’s health down to zero by utilising the strongest moves in your arsenal. “When you have children playing it, they’ll usually just pick the strongest Pokémon and issue as much damage as they can,” continues Nagashima-san. “More advanced players make use of support cards, trainers and items to play more creatively. That’s one of the interesting aspects [of Pokémon TCG]: each age group can use the game’s simple mechanics in various ways.
“[When developing expansions] we have to be really careful, particularly with support and trainer cards. If we were to make too many support or item cards that let you achieve your aims too easily, the game would lose its appeal. It’s about balancing these new abilities without making it too easy to draw the cards you want on every turn.”
The latest expansion to shuffle its way into avid Pokémon TCG decks is Sun & Moon Burning Shadows. Available in a Fighting- and Psychic-type themed deck called Rock Steady, or in a Fire- and Water-type deck branded Luminous Frost, the Burning Shadows pack isn’t just something to keep the series ticking over for another calendar year. It’s a considered expansion to tie in with the launch of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon on Nintendo 3DS later this year.
“Conversations between Game Freak and Creatures are always taking place each time a new game is on the way,” Kitano-san explains. “Mr [Junichi] Masuda comes to Creatures and we’ll chat for a long time about artwork, proper implementation of Pokémon strategies and we can grill him and ask lots of questions about the new entry.
“When we make these new expansions, the inspiration always comes from the newest game, so those conversations with Game Freak need to take place.”
It’s arguable that the Pokémon brand, especially the Trading Card Game, doesn’t have quite as big an impact in the UK as it does elsewhere in the world. We may still have a national competition and entrants into the World Championships, but we haven’t had as many winners as the likes of the US or Japan. Despite that, the Pokémon brand is as strong as ever, and Kitano-san can’t see it going anywhere any time soon.
“I’ve been at Creatures for 17 years now and there’s not been one time that I’ve thought ‘ahh, this will end soon’,” he reminisces. “Nagashima-san and I have been going to events and teaching children how to play the game over the last few years, although we’ve not had quite the same opportunity to do so more recently. In this time, watching all of the players play together, we’ve never had the impression that this is something that’s going to end soon.
“The excitement with which children play the game makes us think that Pokémon is something that’s going to stick around for some time to come.”