Detective Pikachu may be the first live-action Pokémon movie, but it’s not the first direct adaptation of a Pokémon game. That honor goes to Pokémon Origins, a 2013 mini-series that lifts straight from the Pokémon Red and Blue games, and has a reputation for accuracy and unexpected brutality.
An OVA produced by Production I.G, Xebec, and OLM, Inc., Pokémon Origins was a hyper-targeted effort directed at nostalgic fans. The trailer, which literally begins with a Game Boy playing the Pokémon intro, and a narrator saying this is for “those who played the very first Pokémon games,” sells the vibe: this is exactly what you remember, without any of the work.
The series itself begins just as all Pokémon campaigns did, with Professor Oak (also referred to as the Professor of Pokémon) introducing you to the world of Pokémon and its many creatures (he’s even standing in what looks like a TV set, as in the games). Then we jump to the iconic Gengar-Nidorino fight from the games’ intro, which a young boy is watching in his room, wearing a red hat and jacket. It doesn’t take long to realize where we are and who we are watching, as the boy’s mom tells him that Professor Oak is waiting for him at his lab.
From there on, Pokémon Origins becomes an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the original games, as much as a wandering Gameboy RPG can be recreated shot for shot. We follow Red (yes, really) as he chooses his first Pokémon, Charmander (because it’s a fire-type and fire is Red, really), develops a rivalry with Professor Oak’s grandson, Blue, and starts an adventure to capture every single Pokémon out there and complete his Pokédex.
Imagine a greatest hits album for a video game, and you understand Origins, which summarizes the entire eight-badges and elite four arc in roughly two hours. This story jumps around in time and abandons the hope for character development, replacing the normal meat of a movie with montages and narration.
Pokémon Origins has plenty of similarities to the main series, like Brock and Misty appearing at one point, Giovanni and Team Rocket showing up to be evil, and our protagonist learning to love and care for his Pokémon. Yet they take vastly different approaches to the source material. For one, the main Pokémon anime is all about Ash becoming a “master,” even though it’s never clear what that is or how he can achieve it, and puts more weight on battling than anything else. Pokémon Origins’ Red, on the other hand, has one clear goal in mind: completing his Pokédex. The mini-series makes capturing and discovering new Pokémon a bigger deal than the anime ever did, and it shows how hard it can be to find and catch some of the stronger or more remote Pokémon.
By nature of wanting to recreate the game as much as possible, the mini-series includes most of the game mechanics, such as being able to nickname your Pokémon, basic battling mechanics like the importance of Pokémon types, making the battles look more turned-based, and even showing health bars during the battles. Pokémon Origins is also full of Easter eggs and references to the games: Red acquires his bike to help him get around, gets a TM move in the form of a floppy disk, and hears someone yell “it’s very effective” during battles. You even get to meet the iconic Magikarp salesman, a conman who charges way too much for arguably the worst Pokémon. Furthermore, every piece of background music is made of melodies from the game, but ramped up with a full orchestra, adding to the feeling of seeing the games brought to life.
Pokémon Origins is also more mature than what we normally associate with Pokémon. The very first episode shows Red’s Charmander battle Blue’s Squirtle, with the latter violently biting Charmander’s face during a move. While the English dub still shows Charmander twisting in pain trying to push Squirtle away, the Japanese version goes as far as including the audio of Charmander screaming in pain, which is both disturbing and excruciating to listen to.
Episode 2 deals with Pokémon Tower, a site that is being haunted by the ghost of a Marowak. The episode then shows how the Pokémon came to haunt the tower, as we see the sad story of a baby Cubone that was being attacked by Team Rocket, and how its mom, a Marowak, stepped in to save it. Then a member of Team Rocket raises his baton over a crying Cubone and ... we a voiceover tells viewers that Marowak sacrificed itself. Pokémon Origins is not entirely kid-friendly.
The biggest difference between the mini-series and the anime is that Pokémon Origins actually has an ending. Because it follows the original games, Red doesn’t just go on to be a 10-year-old for the rest of his life, never accomplishing anything and never winning a single damn league. Instead we see the same turn of events from the games, which provides a satisfactory ending while still leaving the door open as there’s always more Pokémon to catch.
The best part of Pokémon Origins is how well it captures the spirit of the original games. While the battle-aspect looks great and the animation brings Pokémon battles to life in a fluid and vibrant way, the show also traverses the massive, lived-in world with all of its history, secrets, traditions, and a variety of people, landscape,s and Pokémon. The slogan “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” has never felt truer than while watching Pokémon Origins. The mini-series also makes it a point to show how hard it is for Red to get to some of these, including a visit to Cerulean Cave for a fight against a certain Pokémon clone.
Pokémon Origins is the rare bit of successful fan service, and a preserved form as console generations come and go. Red and Blue is why we fell in love with Pokémon, and why we’ll always be excited for the next game, the next anime, the next tentpole movie or whatever comes next. It’s pure nostalgia, but a movie that still “catches” every element that made the games great.