Belle Starenchak’s love for Pikachu—and Pokémon in general—began during her time at KB Toys, where she stocked the shelves with the cute, cuddly creatures in the late-1990s.
She said the yellow, electric type Pikachu reminded her of the chinchillas she raised as a kid.
Andrew Barrow was drawn into the Pokémon fandom through hand-me-down cards and toys from his older siblings and “Pokémon Crystal” on the Game Boy Color, which debuted in 2000.
Kieran Johnson remembers the moment he got his first pack of Pokémon cards—at age eight or nine he believes—and found his favorite Pokémon, Eevee. From there, he just kept on collecting and collecting.
More than two decades later, all three superfans are still collecting, still playing and still trying to catch ‘em all.
Pokémon celebrates its 25th anniversary on Feb. 27. Technically, the date is the anniversary of the 1996 launch in Japan. The U.S. wouldn’t get the franchise until two years later with games “Pokémon Red and Blue.” But that doesn’t keep fans from celebrating.
In 2019, Pokémon was crowned the world’s largest media franchise, grossing nearly $4 billion a year and earning roughly $92 billion since its introduction in 1996, according to analysis by Business Insider. And while it all began with video games, the franchise quickly spawned a hit anime series with more than 20 seasons, a wildly successful trading card game with more than 30.4 billion cards sold and a slate of themed merchandise, manga comics, books, animated films and a live-action film.
Then there’s “Pokémon Go,” the mobile augmented reality game that garnered 50 million users around the world in less than three weeks.
It’s not a stretch to say Pokémon is a multi-generational hit with brand recognition rivaling Mickey Mouse. But what is it about Pokémon that keeps fans playing while also drawing in a new generation of trainers trying to catch ‘em all?
Starenchak, 44, points to original fans who were kids when Pokémon first came out and are now all grown up, having children of their own and introducing them to the world of Pikachu, Charmander and Squirtle.
“We pretty much grew up with it,” she said. “It’s kind of a circle of life. Pokémon is really not just for kids.”
Starenchak, an artist and entertainer in Citrus County, gained international fame back in 2009 when she earned a Guinness World Record for the largest collection of Pikachus. In an interview with the Ocala Star-Banner that year, she said she had more than 6,000 Pikachu items. A dozen years later, that collection has grown to over 22,000 pieces in what she calls the “Chuseum.”
She also has thousands of followers on social media as “Pikabellechu,” where she updates her fans on new Pikachu finds, appearances at comic conventions and her daily travels with her bright yellow Pikachu-themed Volkswagen Beetle.
“Not a day goes by that Pikachu is not in my life,” she said. “He’s really cute…cute but deadly.”
Starenchak’s “Chuseum” is spread across several rooms in her home, including a Pikachu-themed bathroom. Among her 17 binders full of Pokémon cards are two just for Pikachu versions. She won her first Pikachu plush in a carnival game at Universal Studios Florida and “from there, (my collection) just grew.”
“I fell in love with this ‘electric mouse,’” she said. “Pokémon is more than a cartoon to me; it’s my life I’d say.”
Kieran Johnson, 23, and Andrew Barrow, 22, both point to the appealing, fun character design and welcoming community as a big reason for Pokémon’s longevity.
Johnson is a digital artist and volunteer at Forbidden Cards and Games in Tampa, where he helps people of all ages build Pokémon card decks and learn how to play the trading card game. He also calls himself a “living Pokedex.”
“I see it as a whole new generation of Pokémon to explore and learn about,” he said. “Me with my generation of Pokémon knowledge, seeing my nephew getting into Pokémon and teaching him about Pokémon…kind of makes me feel like a Pokémon professor.”
Johnson estimates he owns close to 2,000 Pokémon cards—not counting all the cards he gave to his husband, who recently got back into collecting cards.
“We both have been playing Pokémon since we were little,” Johnson said. “(Now) I’m over here teaching him all these new Pokémon…and what’s happened since he last played.”
Johnson said his oldest memory of Pokémon is inheriting cards from his older brother. His prized card is a base set Charmander, which shows the cute, orange baby dragon-type character hiding its flaming tail in the rain.
“That thing has seen better days, but it’s been with me through everything,” he said. “It’s kind of a good luck charm. I have a lot of Pokémon cards that have memories attached to them.”
Pokémon, so far, is one of the few media franchises that has lasted multiple decades with relatively few controversies. Some fans come and go for various reasons, but many have stuck around because of Pokémon’s mix of nostalgia and ability to quickly evolve and reach fans through several different outlets.
There’s also Pokémon Go, which exploded at its debut in the summer of 2016. Its popularity has dwindled over the last several years, but in 2020 generated more than $1 billion in revenue and saw monthly active users grow 45 percent between January and August 2020, according to Sensor Tower.
“I think it’s because everybody loves to see something new in something old,” Johnson said. “There’s always something new; something exciting. Pokémon (is) always doing something to improve…to attract new people in.”
Barrow, who works at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater, says “it’s kind of a formula they have…a good and fun formula.”
“There’s no particular reason to dislike it or end it once you start,” he said.
Barrow said he was drawn to Pokémon through the design of the characters. The first video game he played was “Pokémon Crystal” but it wasn’t until “Pokémon HeartGold” where he found his favorite character, Ampharos, an electric type.
“I found it fun; there were a lot of cool creature designs and things to do,” Barrow said. “I was three and there wasn’t the internet. And (Ampharos) was kind of a goofy-looking guy.”
Barrow isn’t sure exactly how many Pokémon cards he owns, but he does keep binders of each character and organizes them by Pokedex number.
“I’ve been collecting for so long…(but) I still buy packs; I buy a couple every couple of weeks,” he said. “This game’s got a community that is a very fun community to be a part of.”
Perhaps a key element of Pokémon’s longevity and legacy is its diversity—both with the plethora of ways to enjoy the franchise and characters and its community. No matter how fans participate in Pokémon, Johnson said there’s “just so much happiness around when I see people play it.”
“No matter what people say about Pokémon; no matter how it’s changed,” Johnson said. “The catchphrase is going to be the same: ‘Gotta catch ‘em all,’ which is exactly what I plan to do.”
Follow @chelseatatham on Twitter.
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