The same thing that makes the Digimon anime better than Pokémon also makes it incompatible with video games. Kids in the 90s were given a choice between them, but it was really a choice of medium. I’m reopening this wound since Digimon Story: Cyber-Sleuth – Hacker’s Memory is about to come out in North America and it’s going to be as mediocre as every other Digimon game and for the exact same reasons. Why can’t Digimon get it together?
The difference between the two titans of monster-collecting is a matter of marketing – Pokémon is so entrenched in collecting that after all these years it verges on being a scheme for weak-willed completionists, while Digimon isn’t actually about collecting at all. In the anime, you are destined to bond with a single Digimon for life, growing with it as a person and learning about yourself. The Digimon anime in Japan has no main character (though one was edited into the localization to make it more like Pokémon) and is focused instead on relationships and emotional growth. Series 2 of Digimon even progresses in real time – the main characters go from being twelve to being sixteen. The result is a show strikingly humane for a cartoon about befriending lizards and bugs. The point is never to collect, level up, or get rewards, but to grow as people.
This is why Digimon has nothing to get together, since it keeps striving to emulate something with which it shares only public perception: it’s really nothing like Pokémon at all.
In other words, the point of Digimon is opposite to the things that are valuable and fun in a video game. I’m talking about the progression-based mechanical things that Pokémon does so well, especially if it’s your first adventure. Pokémon Yellow was an enchanting wonderland that piqued my imagination as an explorer, a faux-adulthood in a world that had no consequences or taxes or school, and only adventure. The protagonist had no personality that I didn’t put there myself: adventurousness, in proportion to my own confidence as a gamer. This essential feeling is why the Pokémon games triumph but also why the anime flounders. In its non-interactive form, Pokémon is a concept with essentially no premise.
The concept: to collect all the monsters and beat all the gyms. But since the premise of the game is to foster passion for adventure in its player, the anime relies on stalling to delay the realization that it has no player to begin with.
So the show has been locked in an unproductive limbo for decades, so long that the timeless image of this ordinary twelve-year-old Ash is not only self-contradictory (he learns the same lessons over again constantly) but it’s beginning to get creepy. The latest Digimon anime, Digimon Adventure Tri, features the characters getting even older, tackling new situations and the new functions of their relationships. There are even romances. Pokémon never evolves, like it’s friendship and love and adventure playacted by paper cutouts of people. Only Team Rocket is some kind of beacon of personality, despite getting as little development as anyone else.
But at least they have an emotional coefficient and bother to remember when it inevitably comes up again that Ground is, still, immune to Thunderbolt.
These traits are oppositely representative of the series’ respective games. If Digimon was accurately made into a game it would be like its original form (Tamagotchi) or other similarly intimate video games focused on interaction, the likes of Nintendogs, The Last Guardian, Seaman, or, ironically, Hey You, Pikachu! Everything about Digimon is difficult to market: the solitude, the complex emotions, the singular bonding (notice how these games either become cult hits or require an entire hardware construction just to be serviceable). Pokémon takes the reverse of all of these in stride, elevating an emotional blank into a hero by the proximity of your goals as a player. The protagonist of the Pokémon games is always someone who could really be, in a stroke of marketing brilliance, you. The Pokémon games constantly reward the same goals that its players have, to collect them all. The professionals that made this game a global obsession that actually transcends entertainment have even integrated the notion into trading cards and plushies and McDonald’s toys. Even the game cartridges themselves adhere to this scheme, releasing color-coded versions of the same game to entice its player base with the same gameplay scenario in the real world.
Digimon has always lacked an angle. Its video games vary wildly from fighting games to turn-based RPGs to adventure games to kart-racers. This has not only shielded its essential premises from the public eye but from the perceptions of those who would otherwise adore it. Though the Digimon themselves can be over-designed they frequently have more unique personalities than the more repetitive wildlife-derivative Pokémon designs. The Digimon anime includes love and anger and even death, things that the Pokémon show can’t approach for fear of breaking its timeless bubble. Digimon includes real clashes between good and evil, while Pokémon has only people that are Ash’s friends, or people that will be soon.
Yet nothing Digimon has going for it seems to prevent its games from being anthems to licensed mediocrity, while Pokémon’s lack of substance makes it perfect for the exact adventure it hopes to instill in its young addicts. I have a FireRed cartridge with 400+ hours on it – I know of what I speak. Pokémon is real life’s swansong in video games. It has no killing, no stunts, no reaction gameplay of any kind. It is an interactive version of looking for crickets and exploring caves, of sitting with your dog by the lake one afternoon and meeting fellow life adventurers on the street. Pokémon contains within it an essential zest for life that makes it unique and irreplaceable as a video game, so specifically brilliant as interactive entertainment that it has nothing to translate to a show. Digimon has been staring down this horizon for decades and will continue to do so. Digimon made me laugh and cry harder than Pokémon ever could, but there’s no way you’ll see me in line to get the next Cyber-Sleuth game. No franchise has ever been more foregone.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org