Pokémon's celebrating a big birthday this week. The first generation of Pokémon games began Feb. 27, 1996, 20 years ago this Saturday, with the launch of Pokémon Red and Green in Japan.
The original Game Boy games incited the global phenomenon that the series became and, in many respects, remains to this day. True to its official name of Pocket Monsters, Pokémon has stayed largely on Nintendo's handhelds since its '90s launch, with a total of six generations of games thus far seeing release.
Since its Game Boy days — which players can relive with the re-release of Red, Blue and Yellow on Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console starting Feb. 27 — Pokémon games have typically followed the same mold: role-playing games with a major emphasis on collecting the eponymous monsters and sending them out in battle. These entries represent Pokémon's bread and butter, but that doesn't mean the series hasn't tested the waters of other genres.
Ahead of its special day, we take a look back at some of the other styles of game Pokémon has entertained over the years. We've compiled a variety of non-RPG spinoff genres the series has tackled in years past — consider this your simple history lesson on the Pokémon franchise's supporting players.
Although the mainline Pokémon titles have a lot to offer, the core gameplay coheres around fighting. It makes perfect sense that the battling element of the game would be spun into its own sub-series.
Pokémon Stadium was, in fact, the first Pokémon spinoff to hit stores. Nintendo dropped the first version of that game, which allowed players to build fighting teams from a set of first generation monsters and square off in the arena, onto Japanese Nintendo 64s in the summer of 1998. A more feature-complete edition by the same name made it stateside in 2000, 2 years after Pokémon Red and Blue had their American debut.
Pokémon Stadium and its even better sequel, Pokémon Stadium 2 (also for the N64), were pretty much dreams come true at the time: In many of the biggest, best ways, they were the Game Boy games on your TV. (In Pokémon Stadium 2, that was literally the case: You can plug your cartridge into the Transfer Pak add-on and play your actual portable Pokémon game on the bigger screen.)
Stadium players have the option to use their own Pokémon collections or build new ones as they fought against gym leaders as sthey made their way to the Elite Four. Stadium also offered multiplayer so that friends could battle each other. Seeing and using your favorite Pokémon in 3D for the first time was a pretty exciting experience back in February 2000, when the game arrived in the U.S. Some inspired minigames also help make the Stadium games more than just a home console port of the handheld titles' battle mechanic.
Beyond Pokémon Stadium, though, the series has mostly stayed out of the fighting genre. Pokémon Battle Revolution on Wii was the closest the series ever came to replicating its earliest spinoffs. That game added online multiplayer, which was impressive enough, but is otherwise far more barebones than the already limited Stadium games. Fans missed the minigames and, by Battle Revolution's release, were not as easily wowed by seeing the characters in 3D.
Pokémon is taking another step back into the ring this year, though; Pokkén Tournament, developed by Bandai Namco, is the first arcade fighter in the series. It's out on Wii U March 18 and, while playable characters are limited, we've enjoyed what we've played of the game thus far. It's got as much Super Smash Bros. DNA in it as it does Tekken, its primary inspiration, and we already know that Pokémon mixes well with that Nintendo fighting franchise.
Here's a genre Pokémon has dabbled in early and often. Pokémon Puzzle Challenge came out shortly after Pokémon Silver and Gold in the fall of 2000, also for the Game Boy Color; it was preceded by the similar home console game Pokémon Puzzle League, which launched stateside a few months earlier.
Both games took after Tetris Attack (a.k.a. Panel de Pon), laying a Pokémon-style veneer atop that game's time-based block matching. Pokémon Puzzle Challenge offered a gym leader progression based on the series' second generation of mainline RPGs while Puzzle League's inspiration was drawn from elsewhere. That game catered specifically to fans of the popular Pokémon anime, featuring selectable characters like Ash Ketchum and Gary Oak.
Thanks to the proven puzzle gameplay, both of these games were infinitely replayable and entertaining. The series tried its hand at a different style of puzzle gameplay years later with Nintendo DS' Pokémon Trozei. The inspiration this time is the slightly obscure Yoshi's Cookie; little Pokémon heads drop onto the game board as players match them up in lines of four to capture them, stopping them from filling up the screen.
Pokémon Trozei and its follow-ups on Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon Battle Trozei and free-to-start Pokémon Shuffle, have one great thing going for them over the earlier puzzle games: the incentive to fill out your Pokedex. Since Pokémon can be collected if successfully matched up, these games offer a similar pleasure as the main entries, albeit more simply. Still, the Trozei games make for good, mindless fun — as do all of Pokémon's puzzle attempts, really.
Pokémon has digitized the pinball machine only twice, but those two games are worthy of a Pokémon fan's time.
Pokémon Pinball for the Game Boy was American fans' first side game in the series and shipped with the innovative Game Boy Rumble Pack. The game does exactly what its name suggests: it slaps Pokémon characters on top of a pinball game, and it's great. The first Pinball let you travel to boards inspired by Pokémon Red and Blue's gyms for some added flavor, but mostly what's great about that game and its Game Boy Advance sequel is that it reminds you that pinball is a really solid game in its own right.
Pokémon Pinball: Ruby and Sapphire on the Game Boy Advance was the last time The Pokémon Company combined the franchise with that style of gameplay. With even more Pokémon to shoot pinballs at — which allows you to collect them, as all the best Pokémon spinoffs offer — and more colorful graphics, it left a lasting impression.
Pokémon has rarely delved into this territory, surprisingly enough. Pokémon Dash arrived early in Nintendo DS' lifespan and it shows: The game has little in the way of content beyond using the touchscreen to drag Pikachu around some courses. Players can't even choose another Pokémon; they can only race as Pikachu, who isn't known as one of the faster monsters in the series. Multiplayer and some inter-game connectivity (loading up one of the Pokémon Game Boy Advance games added new courses) spread the thin premise out a bit farther, at least.
The closest Pokémon has come to a real, good racing game is with the Pokémon Stadium 2 minigame Rampage Rollout. For those looking for a Mario Kart-esque standalone, however, keep holding out hope.
It makes sense that Pokémon's trading card game, which comprises another major pillar of its cross-media success, would have a digitized version. What's less clear is why The Pokémon Company's rarely tried porting the trading cards to its consoles. There are only two video games based on the collectible cards: Pokémon Trading Card Game for Game Boy Color and Pokémon Trading Card Game Online on Mac, PC and iOS.
Both games play similarly to the actual thing — as similarly as a virtual take on a very physical game can be, anyway. Pokémon Trading Card Game on Game Boy included the first three sets of Wizards of the Coast's popular cards as well as video game-exclusive ones. After choosing a starter deck that represents the three starters of Pokémon Red and Blue, trainers battle their way to the top in a progression system that heavily mirrors that of the RPGs.
The collectible aspect is still there as the game encourages players to seek out all 228 available cards. But while the real trading card game continues to receive new decks and remains popular to this day, it took until 2014 for The Pokémon Company to release the more modern TCGS Online on iPad. That game continues to receive updates, weekly challenges and new tournament rotations; it's also free to play, and is available to download for PC and Mac, too.
Maybe that's not the best definition of what Pokémon Snap is. But the Nintendo 64 photo-hunting adventure is as close as Pokémon has come to having a first-person shooter. As Pokémon photographer Todd, players rode around in a bizarrely designed vehicle, taking pictures of as many Pokémon as possible. Throwing apples at them or playing the Poke Flute would get them to interact in different ways for even better scoring pictures.
After taking pictures of a variety of Pokémon, Todd returns to Professor Oak's lab. The Pokémon scholar is also a respectable art critic, apparently; he assesses your work on their aesthetic merits, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Pokémon Snap isn't the longest or most in-depth game; its levels are easily exhausted because there aren't that many Pokémon around and they don't do that many different poses. But it has a lot of heart and a cool concept, one made better back in the day when Blockbuster let you print out your best photos in stores.
It's doubtful that Pokémon will ever star in an actual shooter, but we'd be lying if we said we didn't want another Pokémon Snap.
Some of Pokémon's most notable side games have been simulators of some ... interesting experiences. Hey You,Pikachu! on the N64 came bundled with a microphone that attached to the controller so that kids could talk to the electric mouse. The game specifically recognized voices up to a certain age, but Hey You, Pikachu! was clearly meant to appeal to the younger set.
Hey You, Pikachu! is ostensibly a pet ownership simulator, albeit with a twist. Kids whose voices are high enough to be recognized by the character can speak a handful of phrases to the Pokémon and occasionally receive responses. Pikachu also travels to different areas and complete tiny missions, which players have to guide it through using voice commands. These quests are over quickly — or they would be if Pikachu actually responded to its trainer's voice half the time.
If you're looking to get into Hey You, Pikachu! for the first time now, as an adult, don't bother: You're too old to get the game to recognize you. Not that it would have been able to when you were young, either.
Later on, the GameCube got Pokémon Channel, which is a ... television-watching simulator. Yep, the primary conceit of Pokémon Channel is gathering around the tube with Pikachu to watch a variety of Pokémon-related shows. That's basically all there is to it: watch as much TV as possible, including an original anime, a home shopping network and a fitness program. Every show is hosted by various Pokémon for some added cuteness, but the game gets repetitive very, very quickly.
Only Pokémon could get away with launching a game that literally asks you to watch television. In some ways, Pokémon Channel is progressive — Xbox One lets owners watch live TV without switching off the console, after all.
There have been other adventures running parallel to Pokémon's primary ones, too. The DS and 3DS in particular have more story-driven titles available to satisfy fans, like the Pokémon Ranger series and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games. The GameCube got two simpler, darker takes on the basic RPG formula, each with varying quality: Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness.
There's also the Pokémon Rumble Series, Pokémon Picross, Pikachu's PokePark, Pokémon Conquest and Pokémon Art Academy, among many others ... and let's not even broach the subject of proprietary Pokémon games like the Pokémon mini line or the Pokémon Pikachu toys.
Most recently, Japanese fans got 3DS eShop exclusive Great Detective Pikachu: The Birth of a New Duo, which appears to be a puzzle-adventure-role-playing-game hybrid. There's even a little bit of horror mixed in courtesy of Pikachu's very mature speaking voice. Mobile game Pokémon Go will bring the series into the real world later this year with its brand of real world creature collecting.
When you've been kicking around for 20 years and releasing games nearly non-stop since day one, you're going to want to explore as many avenues as possible. In that sense, Pokémon's myriad spinoffs are almost equally important as the better known RPG line-up. Whatever your preference, it's likely that you can find a version done up by the characters.