The release of Nintendo’s latest additions to the Pokémon video game franchise, Pokémon X & Y, has spread great waves of excitement among fans worldwide. However, despite the tsunamic hype they’ve generated, the twin games have by no means overshadowed their anime counterpart, Pokémon Origins, which since its release has been making quite a splash in the fandom as well.
Intended to promote Pokémon X and Y, Origins is a four-part TV special based on the original Pokémon games from the late-1990s, Red and Blue. The story follows a young boy named Red, from the day he receives his first Pokémon, and through all his adventures during which he battles with a slew of Pokémon and Pokémon trainers to become the Pokémon League Champion.
Comparisons between this new show and its anime predecessor – between Origins and the original – are practically inevitable due to the two series’ similarly aged stars, Red and Ash Ketchum. However, as it soon becomes apparent to viewers, age is perhaps the only thing they have in common, for Red by far proves to be the more competent Pokémon trainer of the protagonist pair. His meteoric rise from clueless novice to peerless veteran is documented in just four episodes, and viewers get to see how Red overcomes various challenges with considerably more aplomb than Ash ever managed. What we are treated to, then, is a new Pokémon anime that is more faithful to the game compared to its predecessor: Instead of painstakingly watching a bumbling protagonist meander his way through the plot, we get to see a more effectual hero relentlessly take down opponent after opponent, just like when you play the original game.
But this isn’t to say that the writers portrayed Red as some nigh-invulnerable Marty Stu, who breezily (and boringly) swats aside obstacles like a rampaging Tauros through a crowded street. For Red, the road to the Indigo Plateau is rocky. He experiences problems, setbacks, defeats. This much is apparent from the beginning, when he loses his first match against his rival, Green, and shows up at his first gym leader battle utterly ignorant of basic strategy. However, Red is a fast learner, and we cannot help but relate to and root for the boy.
Indeed, how can we not? The four episodes are bursting at the seams with all manner of shout-outs and references to the games that inspired it, and it is easy – all too easy – for ex-players to see themselves in the hero during his moments of trouble and triumph. When Red challenges Brock, the first gym leader, we get to recall the pains of going up against a Geodude and an Onix with our fire-type starter (for the uninitiated, rock beats fire). When Red panics over a fleeing Chansey, we are reminded of the skittishness of the Safari Zone Pokémon. When Red faces his rival for the final time, we have the satisfaction of seeing Green use the same six Pokémon in the same order as in the game.
However, even as the series reaches a critical mass of shout-outs, the writers do not shy away from allowing Origins to deviate in some respects from the games on which it is based. This unfortunately means that, no, Red doesn’t get to “remind” Professor Oak during the start that his grandson is named after some crude expletive, as a lot of cheeky players were wont to do in the old games. But it does mean that viewers get rewarded with some very pleasant surprises. It was, for example, nice to see that a few non-player characters from the console games were given personalities in the anime adaptation. Mr Fuji’s granddaughter is given an expanded role as Cubone’s caretaker. Brock is depicted as a kindly mentor figure when he guides Red along during their match – a level of characterisation that is lower than that of his main cast status in Origins’ long-running predecessor, but still far greater than in the games. And even Giovanni, the villainous leader of Team Rocket, was portrayed in a sympathetic light when brief flashbacks show him as a boy not very different from Red.
But just as a chosen few got to bask in the limelight, other characters and events were left out in the cold – there’s only so much you can cover in 88 minutes. Red blitzes through the plot at blinding speed: six out of eight gym leaders are defeated off-screen, the two evolutions of Red’s Charmander are given only passing mentions, and fans don’t even have the satisfaction of seeing Red tear down the Team Rocket headquarters in Celadon City. One cannot help but get the feeling that if it weren’t for the restrictions of time and budget, there could have been a better compromise in the series’ length, and Origins could have been made more evenly paced and attentive to major checkpoints of the games – without, of course, resorting to the needless longwindedness of the original anime.
Origins left its audience craving for more. But, then again, perhaps the biggest shortfall of the series could also be considered its strength. Red achieved within an hour and a half what Ash couldn’t in 16 years. Red did it. He took out the Elite Four, dissolved Team Rocket, defeated his rival and, with his capture of Mewtwo at the end, really did catch ‘em all. Perhaps, to an audience hungering for the next Pokémon video game fix of collecting gym badges and defeating other trainers, what Origins offered was enough: a protagonist who really is the very best, like no one ever was.
Another writer ponders about the troubling reality that the world of Pokémon creates after watching Pokémon Origins.