Although Pokemon games pre-date the TV series, for many it was watching the anime that lit their burning desire to become a Pokemon Master. The original series was able to depict the themes of friendship, loyalty, and ambition in a way the Nintendo’s humble Game Boy games struggled to, making the fantasy of traveling the world catching and battling Pokemon much more tangible and enticing.
Although Ash Ketchum’s journey was filled with triumphs, it was also fraught with heartbreak. The show had many emotional moments and valuable lessons for aspiring trainers. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pokemon we’ve highlighted a few of our favourites. You’ll no doubt have your own picks of powerful Poke-moments that aren’t included here, share them in the comments and let’s get nostalgic together.
I Choose You
In episode one we meet Ash Ketchum and his first Pokemon. Pikachu wasn’t always the cute little critter we know and love today. When they first meet, the mischievous yellow mouse electrocutes Ash, refuses to get in its Pokeball, and mocks his attempts at catching a Pidgey.
That all changes when Ash attracts the fury of a flock of Spearow, which are notoriously ill-tempered devil birds. They’ll attack humans, harass other wild Pokemon, and if you park your car near them they’d probably take a dump on it.
These Spearow viciously attack Pikachu, so Ash tries to carry it to safety. As he races to the Pokemon Center for medical attention, the skies darken and a torrent of rain falls. The treacherous conditions thwart their efforts and, in an accident, Pikachu is slammed into the ground. With his Pokemon laying there limply, Ash begs it to get inside its Pokeball where it’ll be safe. He then turns towards the charging Spearow and, as the music swells, proclaims he’ll become a Pokemon master. He throws his arms out to shield Pikachu as the Spearow attack.
In the very final moments, Pikachu is shown leaping onto Ash’s shoulders, then launching itself into the air. A lightning bolt strikes it and the power is converted into an incredible ball of electricity.
Pikachu was stubborn and never listened, but this didn’t stop Ash from trying so hard to save it. It was beautiful, and in that moment viewers really got to understand what Pokemon is about: friendship, the bond between trainer and Pokemon, and facing hardships together.
Through The Fires and the Flames
People can be cruel to each other and even crueller to their blindly loyal Pokemon. Ash had to swallow this bitter pill of Poke-reality when he encountered a trainer called Damian.
Over the course of the show Ash meets a whole bunch of real bad dudes, but Damian stands out as being among the cream of the turd crop. Not only is he named after the antichrist, but he has one of those snooty British accents that makes your skin crawl.
Damian--aka the Draco Malfoy of the Pokeverse--holds little regard for the safety of Pokemon, and fails to understand they grow in strength as the bond with their trainers deepen. Blaming his Charmander for a defeat, Damian abandons it in a rocky outcrop. Believing his master would return for him, the Charmander waited, refusing to move even when rain threatened to extinguish its tail flame and kill it.
While in a Pokemon Center, Ash overhears what Damian did and knowing he has no intention of returning for his Charmander, goes to rescue it. By that point Charmander was in a bad way, but Ash uses his coat to shield its tail flame from the rain and takes it to the Pokemon Center.
When Charmander recovers, he immediately returns to where he was abandoned. Damian eventually returns spouting nonsense about leaving Charmander to toughen him up, and when he throws a Pokeball to reclaim his Pokemon, Charmander deflects it.
It is a sad story about how the loyalty and love of Pokemon can be abused. Charmander joins Ash after this, becoming one of his most loyal and reliable Pokemon. That is, until something unexpected happens later in their journey….
Ash’s Butterfree starts off as the little Caterpie that could. Not all Pokemon are created equal, and spend much of their lives with a big disadvantage. Caterpie happens to be one of them. The bug type is actually the first wild Pokemon that Ash catches, which he manages without even battling because it’s so weak. Sad but true.
Caterpie always dreamed of being a better Pokemon, and one that would be loved. Although it has a fondness for Misty, Ash’s travelling companion, the young lady is grossed out by the bug, because that’s how anime stereotypes work. But being spurned by her only makes Caterpie more determined to become a stronger Pokemon one day.
Caterpie’s wish technically comes true in a battle against Team Rocket, the show’s bumbling antagonists, when it uses a combination of String Shot and Tackle to take down Ekans and Koffing. An impressive feat when you consider the former is a massive purple boa constrictor and the latter is a floating ball of poison so deadly it has a skull and crossbones on its skin as a warning.
The battle triggers an evolution and Caterpie becomes Metapod. In battle Metapod only has one move: Harden, which strengthens its shell. It is otherwise physically incapable of fighting back. So while it is undoubtedly a stronger Pokemon than Caterpie was, it is also more useless by multiple orders of magnitude.
The legend of Caterpie is not over, however. Once again, it rose to the challenge against Pinsir, a stag beetle that has a Sarlacc Pit for a mouth, razor-sharp claws, and spiked pincers so large that it’s got to be compensating for something else. Faced with this monstrosity, Metapod stands its ground, hardening until it shatters its opponents pincers (and self-esteem too, probably).
Later on Ash and Metapod are attacked by a swarm of Beedrill. Ash fails to prioritise Metapod’s safety and the little green cocoon gets nabbed. This causes a breakdown in the relationship, as Ash doesn’t own up to his mistake. When he later apologises the friendship is repaired. Metapod goes on to defeat a Beedrill (seriously, this Metapod cannot be stopped) and evolves into a Butterfree. Caterpie’s dream finally comes true.
Butterfree becomes instrumental in helping Ash defeat Gym Leaders, catch Pokemon, and foil various Team Rocket capers. This made what happens next all the more difficult to watch. In an episode called Bye-Bye Butterfree it’s revealed mating season for the Butterfree had started. Ash’s Butterfree meets a Lady Butterfree and wants to have Babyfrees with it. This leads to Ash making the hard decision to let his loyal companion go and start a family. There were tearful goodbyes inside and outside the TV the day that episode aired.
The moral of the story is with enough encouragement your little caterpillar will grow, it’ll evolve and harden. Then one day it’ll meet someone it’s got the hots for and boom, you’ll have babies. Oh wait no, sorry, it’s if you really believe in yourself and give it everything you’ve got you can realise your dreams.
A Song of Ice and Fire
After dealing with Damian, Charmander and Ash kick some serious butt. They explore dark caves, survive almost freezing to death, and defeat gym leaders together, creating a strong bond between each other.
Ash’s guidance and skills as a trainer help Charmander grow in experience. Trouble was brewing, however, as Charmander approached its teenage phase. In a battle with an out-of-control Exeggutor, Charmander reaches the peak of its skills and its evolution is triggered. The loving, obedient infant Charmander becomes Charmeleon, a petulant know-it-all teen that refuses to do what it’s told. The inside of its Pokeball was probably wall-to-wall Eminem posters, neon bongs, and N.W.A blaring at full volume.
From here the relationship between the two deteriorates, and it was crushing to watch Ash’s go-to Pokemon become his greatest liability. Charmeleon showed no loyalty, ignoring commands until eventually Ash stops using him altogether. On the rare occasion he's given another chance, things escalate pretty badly. In a battle against Aerodactyl, Charmeleon stubbornly fights against a flying type he is clearly outmatched by. With his pride damaged, he evolves into Charizard to win.
The only thing worse than a troubled teenager is an out-of-control adult that can fly and breathe fire. Everyone has that one friend, right?
Anyway, Charizard was even more temperamental and uncontrollable, choosing only to battle against foes it deemed to be worthy challengers. Even then it wouldn’t follow orders, it fought according to its own strategy, which was mostly set it on fire and viciously piledrive its face into the ground. Admittedly, a winning strategy.
On one occasion Charizard even cost Ash a pivotal League battle. When it was called against Sparky, a powerful Pikachu with a totally swish side-quiff, it took a nap instead of fighting. He went from top of the class to total washout.
In Pokemon, as in life, even the most wayward can be reformed through the power of love and the help of near-death experience. For my mate Joshua, it was a bad drug trip, but for Charizard it’s a Poliwrath that can beat the absolute crap out of him. Things looked bad from the outset, when the Poliwrath emerges from its Pokeball wearing a gold championship belt. It’s pretty much symbolism for 'this thing is a certified ass-kicker and you’re in for it.'
Poliwrath’s Ice Beam leaves Charizard on death’s door. Ash spends the night lighting fires around his dying Pokemon, covers it with blankets, and rubs its tail until his hands are raw, hoping to keep it warm. This act of kindness triggers memories in Charizard, reminding him of Ash saving him when he was a Charmander. It was touch-and-go whether Charizard would survive, but by the time morning came Ash had earned the magnificent fire beast’s respect and loyalty.
They later face Poliwrath again and Charizard grabs his championship-belt wearing ass, flies into the the sky, does a few loop-the-loops and slam-dunks him into the ground. I had his triumphant roar analysed by Pokemon language experts and have been told it translates to “you just got Seismic Tossed, sucka.”
Charizard accompanies Ash when he moves on to the Johto region but is so overpowered that it’s unfair. Even Ash’s friends begin to scold him for using Charizard against fresh trainers, as it would mercilessly annihilate their Pokemon. Eventually the two part ways when Charizard finds its soulmate, a lady Charizard called Charla. Adorable.
Although they go their separate ways, the bond between them remains strong, and Charizard reappears at various critical moments in Ash’s career to lend a hand. It’s a story of overcoming a rocky friendship for the ages, and one we can all learn something from.
Ketchum But Not Winum
This last one isn’t a single moment, but a lesser noticed message hidden in Ash Ketchum’s career. Looking back at his performances on the grand battling stages of history, his win-loss ratio is pretty pitiful.
Although Ash has bested many a random trainer, conquered gyms far and wide, and cut a path of victories across some of the most difficult regions, he hasn’t been very successful in winning actual leagues.
Ash Ketchum is undoubtedly a choke-artist, but an inspiring one nevertheless. Despite his failures, he is still considered one of the greatest Pokemon trainers the world has ever seen. He’s been the first to discover mythic Pokemon, raised power fighters, brought down evil organisations, and instigated profound shifts in the Pokemon universe.
There’s a lot that can be learned from this. You don’t need to be showered with championship accolades to be important, you can forge your own legend by making a difference to the people and Pokemon around you. Your determination, heart, and positive actions will ring louder, further, and truer than any league victory.