Red and Blue's 20th anniversary: Five ways Pokémon influenced the U.S.

Twenty years ago, Nintendo asked America to try to catch 'em all. We still haven't (legitimately) captured a Mew.

An ANA Boeing 747 decked out with Pokemon lands at London Heathrow.
Photo by Adrian Pingstone/Wikimedia Commons
  • On Sept. 28, 1998, Pokémon Red and Blue came to the United States and asked children to catch 151 adorably abstract creatures.
  • Today, Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world, defeating the likes of Mickey Mouse, Star Wars, and Anpanman (trust us, it's a thing).
  • In anticipation of another 20 years, we look back at fives ways Pokémon has influenced the United States.

On Sept. 28, 1998, Nintendo released Pokémon in the United States and dared us to try to catch 'em all. We eagerly accepted the challenge. The first Pokémon games, Red and Blue, netted Nintendo $70 million stateside in their first six months. Worldwide the first generation of Pokémon games, including Yellow and Green, sold more than 45 million copies combined.

Then came the franchise blitz: Pokémon plushies, Pokémon clothes, Pokémon trading cards, Pokémon cereal, Pokémon TV shows, Pokémon bouncy balls, Pokémon pedometers, Pokémon airplanes, Pokémon Monopoly, Pokémon bedsheets. Pokémania was in full force. But like all fads, this one was destined to die out eventually. Right?

Guess not. Twenty years later, the games have sold more than 300 million units, the TV show airs in 124 countries and regions, and about 550 companies license the rights. As of March 2017, the Pokémon market size is worth more than ¥6 trillion (roughly $53 billion).

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon invasion, let's look back at five ways these Japanese pocket monsters influenced the United States.

Poké Shock

Pokémon's influence in the West began a full year before the first games were released stateside. In 1997, the Pokémon TV show entered our cultural consciousness by sending children to the hospital. (Not the most auspicious start for a product aimed at children.)

An episode of the show, titled "Dennō Senshi Porigon," sent several people into epileptic fits, and hundreds of children were rushed to the hospital. Some vomited blood, while others lost consciousness.

"I was watching TV but I [couldn't] remember anything at all when it was all over," one of the children said of the incident. "As I was watching blue and red lights on the screen, I felt my body becoming tense. I do not remember what happened afterward."

These red and blue lights flashed at a frequency that triggered seizures in people with a condition called photosensitive epilepsy. Photosensitive epileptics have primary visual cortexes that are easily excited, and lights flashing between 5 and 30 times per second, like those featured in the episode, can induce seizures.

Nearly 700 people went to the hospital, but further research showed that only a handful actually suffered photosensitive seizures. By then, however, the story had already gone international and been dubbed the "Pokémon Shock" incident.

Although we had known about the condition years beforehand, the panic brought it widespread attention. Today, companies regularly put warnings on entertainment products that feature such effects, and New York State has enshrined such warnings in law. Thanks to social media, companies that don't provide warnings are quickly reminded of their responsibility to do so.

As for the infamous Pokémon episode, it never came stateside nor has it ever been rebroadcasted in Japan.

Human sacrifice, lillipups and meowths living together, mass hysteria!

\u200bA total of 1,500 Pikachus appear at the Yokohama landmarks in the Minato Mirai during the Pikachu Outbreak event on Aug. 10, 2018

A total of 1,500 Pikachus appear at the Yokohama landmarks in the Minato Mirai during the Pikachu Outbreak event on Aug. 10, 2018

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

When Pokémon reached the United States, parents quickly forgot to worry about their children's health and instead indulged in another all-American pastime: the moral panic. Pokémon became the de facto activity that was corrupting children's lives, but this time, we were importing it from another country.

Parents accused Pokémon of promoting violence and leading children down the immoral path. Some even filed suit against Nintendo, claiming the trading cards were an "illegal gambling enterprise" design to create ankle-biting addicts.

"In my opinion parents should not let their kids watch Pokémon, play Pokémon, buy Pokémon cards, or have anything whatsoever to do with Pokémon," psychiatrist Carole Liberman told MSNBC back in 1999. "Because the message is violence."

America wasn't alone, though. Saudi Arabian religious authorities accused Pokémon of possessing the minds of children and issued a fatwa against the games.

"Parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokémon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers," proclaimed Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer in Time. "It's all Pokémon, all the time. At least until the next craze."

Twenty years later, we're still waiting for that next craze, but at least the parents have chilled out.

Ani-mainstream

Anime has been a part of American culture for decades. In the 1960s, NBC brought Mighty Atom to the United States under the auspices of "Astro Boy." In the late '80s, Akira became an obsession for midnight moviegoers. But it wasn't until the late '90s that anime finally broke into Western pop culture to become a mainstay in its own right.

The Pokémon TV series helped introduce an entire generation of youngsters to kawaii-eyed protagonists, online debates over power scaling, and characters that move so fast the background can't keep up. Other important anime of this era included Dragon Ball Z for adolescent boys (and honestly girls too), Sailor Moon for adolescent girls (and honestly boys too), Cowboy Bebop for the adults, and Neon Genesis Evangelion for…well, you know who you are.

Anime may not be mainstream today, but it is certainly on its way. Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2003 (even if the genre has been snubbed ever since). American cartoons such as The Last Airbender have drawn heavily from anime influences. And Crunchyroll, a streaming service dedicated to anime, has more than 20 million registered users.

While Pokémon may not be solely responsible for anime's foothold in the West, it was certainly among the vanguard of that important late '90s push.

Get up and Go

People gather to play Nintendo's Pokemon Go augmented reality game during the Pokemon Go Stadium event at Yokohama Stadium

People gather to play Nintendo's Pokemon Go augmented reality game during the Pokemon Go Stadium event at Yokohama Stadium.

Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

In 2016, Niantic launched Pokémon Go. The game uses augmented reality to let people catch Pokémon in their own neighborhoods, and we cannot get enough. Twenty-one million people downloaded it in its first three weeks, and videos of users stampeding by the hundreds in search of that rare find flooded the Internet.

In addition to being hugely popular, the game helped draw interest to what could be accomplished by marrying gaming with advancements in technology. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggested that participation in Pokémon Go "was associated with a significant increase in [physical activity]" and that similar forms of gameplay could help promote healthy activities in people attracted to games.

It was also showed the shifting dimensions of gaming in contemporary culture. More women play the game than men or children, and it is augmented reality's first killer app. During a talk with Big Think, journalist Virginia Heffernan argued that the game even shared the hallmarks of art.

"When people venture into those wide boundaries outside the narrow confines of where you're kept in a safe spot with other apps, Angry Birds say, you are going to take risks," Heffernan said. "And art asks us to take risks, literally asks to move us from one place to the other, exactly the way Pokémon Go has been moving us all over the world.

While Pokémon Go has fallen from the height of its popularity, predictions of its inevitable obsolescence seem as premature as similar prophecies from 1999. The game still pulls 20-plus million daily active users, and events like the appearance of a never before seen Pokémon continue to draw users back in.

Meta-gaming

Before Pokémon, franchises allowed children to collect toys and play as their favorite heroes. They could pretend to be Captain Kirk and learn all the ins and outs of the USS Enterprise, for example, but there was always a sharp dividing line between the world of Star Trek and their own.

Pokémon made this divide far more porous by mixing the franchise with role-playing elements. Children weren't just pretending to be Pokémon masters; they were becoming Pokémon masters by collecting the creatures, learning about their strengths and weaknesses, and memorizing rules that were just complex enough to be fun yet not daunting.

"Pokémon isn't just a game about cute animals fighting one another. That gives it a certain amount of initial appeal, but it earns a last [sic] attraction by offering up an esoteric rule set that is simultaneously simple enough for kids to understand while cryptic enough to confuse parents," writes Jeff Grubb.

Grubb continues, "For many kids, this is one of the first chances they'll get to feel like a true expert on a subject, and that's a critical step in growing into an adult. You need to know that you have the capacity to learn something that even your parents cannot grasp."

Pokémon offered children the opportunity to not simply play as something, but to invest in it in the same way adults come into their own profession: by learning and by actively engaging in it.

Here's to another 20 years

A scene from the Pok\u00e9mon TV show's 1,000th episode, titled "The Professors' New Adventure," featuring protagonists Ash and Pikachu. The milestone episode aired this year.

A scene from the Pokémon TV show's 1,000th episode, titled "The Professors' New Adventure," featuring protagonists Ash and Pikachu. The milestone episode aired this year.

Photo by The Pokemon Company International

Before Pokémon, Americans were no strangers to collection crazes. Parents rioted over Cabbage Patch Kids in the 1980s, and the early '90s saw adults trample each other to acquire Beanie Babies. Nor were we unaware of the franchise marketing blitz. Star Wars proved that attaching the name of a popular franchise to anything was the corporate equivalent of inheriting a mint.

But what made Pokémon so special that it became the highest-grossing media franchise in the world?

Simply put, it was fun and the kind of fun that could grow with children. Twenty years ago, trainers had to capture 151 Pokémon. Now there are 806 of the abstract beasties. With new Pokémon comes new game mechanics that create ever more complex interactions for children to master, while maintaining that approachable core rule set.

And as the original trainers have grown up, they've introduced Pokémon to their own children and rediscovered the game themselves. This has resulted in a cross-generational experience shared by adults and children. As NPR reports, competitions in game stores can sport players aged 8 to 38.

If it looks as though Pokémania has died out, that's only because we've acclimated ourselves to it. In truth, these Japanese pocket monsters have become a much a part of American life as cowboys, Superman, and Mickey Mouse.

Here's to another 20 years and the next generation of Pokémon trainers!

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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