In the past week, Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. The augmented reality mobile game, which allows you to look through your smartphone camera to "see" Pokémon in your surroundings, has brought the franchise back into America’s cultural consciousness for the first time since the '90s.
Back then — the first time Pokémon was popular — augmented reality games were still a long way off. In the '90s, the hot new trend was virtual reality, or VR, and the difference between the two is subtle but important.
To play a virtual reality game, you strap on goggles or a headset to "enter" an expansive, immersive fantasy world. In augmented reality games, you remain firmly in the real world, and the game architecture adds fantastical elements to it.
A VR version of Pokémon Go would involve covering your eyes with goggles to block out this world entirely and transport yourself to a magical realm with a Pokémon gym. In the augmented reality of Pokémon Go, you look through your iPhone camera at your neighborhood Starbucks and the game app shows you a Pokémon gym right there.
What makes Pokémon Go such a runaway success is that it marries childhood nostalgia with cutting-edge technology. So to exacerbate the childhood feels a little more, let’s take a quick trip back in time to remember what we all thought was the ultimate in immersive reality-building games the last time Pokémon was popular.
And, no, I’m not recommending we all revisit The Lawnmower Man, because that movie is two hours long and features lengthy scenes focused on telekinetic toothpaste squeezing. Instead, we’re going to delve into the treasure chest that is Sailor Moon.
Sailor Moon is Pokémon’s rough contemporary; the anime TV series premiered in 1992 in Japan and 1995 in the US, while the first Pokémon games came to the US in 1998. Both Sailor Moon and the Pokémon animated series were staples of Cartoon Network’s afternoon programming in the late '90s, with the general idea that Sailor Moon would be for the girls and Pokémon would be for the boys.
In the '90s, Sailor Moon was only available in the US as an awkwardly dubbed version of the Japanese series, with all of the characters sporting Anglicized names and a truly perplexing variety of American accents (and all of the gay characters straightwashed).
After celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2014, the franchise was re-released on Hulu, with subtitles and a more accurate dub. (The original dub, sadly, is now consigned to the farthest and dustiest corners of the internet, so if you yearn to relive Molly saying "Sereeeeeena" in her Brooklyn accent, prepare to do some hunting.)
In the season two episode embedded above, Sailor Moon hits the new virtual reality arcade in character as her secret identity, the cowardly schoolgirl Usagi. Her biggest priority is to get her crush Mamoru to notice her — he’s the reincarnation of her true love, but he was brainwashed and now has amnesia, long story — but that’s only because she hasn’t yet realized that every new business that opens in her town is an elaborate scheme designed to steal the energy of innocent humans, so of course the outing is going to be a working date.
In this particular case, it’s a plot by the aliens Ail and Ann to feed upon the energy humans expend while fighting virtual monsters. But Ail and Ann are so interested in wooing Usagi and Mamoru, respectively, that they almost lose track of their evil scheme. (They’re really romantic partners, but their secret identities are brother and sister, for reasons that remain unclear.)
In the first half of the episode, the foursome mostly just make their way through glowing green and purple tunnels while virtual baddies appear and then stand stock still, waiting patiently to be shot with virtual lasers. But then the true monster of VR appears: Hellant, with its glowing power cord tentacles that can suck the energy right out of your body. It’s up to Sailor Moon to save the day! Well, Sailor Moon, the Sailor Senshi, and the mysterious/vaguely problematic Moonlight Knight.
The whole thing is a beautiful time capsule of '90s anime: the clothes, the colors, the slang, and what was at the time the cutting edge of immersive gaming. It’s a taste of just how far both technology and gaming have come since the last time Pokémon was A Thing — and of just how long we’ve been dreaming of finding a way to fight monsters in the real world.