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Pokémon Go: This New York Times reviewer told us exactly how we’d react to the game — in 1999

International Tokyo Toy Show 2009 Begins Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If you’ve been awake at any point in the past few days, you’ve probably heard of Pokémon Go.

Within days of its beta release, Nintendo’s new augmented reality mobile game — which lets you catch adorable Pokémon in your own real-world environment — has essentially taken over society. Nearly as soon as it began rolling out to Americans on July 5, Pokémon Go became so popular that the huge demand to play it started to break the game and ultimately forced an international release delay. It’s been present in news headlines and social media conversations ever since.

But not everyone is completely surprised by the game’s overnight success. In fact, in the late '90s, New York Times critic Anita Gates predicted this sudden Pokémon craze with pretty stunning accuracy:

In the year 2015 or so, it's going to be embarrassing. Young novelists and reporters will probably be using terms like Charizard-like or Squirtle-like in their work and insisting to their much older editors that everyone knows what they mean, everyone who ate and slept Pokemon as a child, anyway, which will be the vast majority of young adults.

Gates was envisioning a future in which the giant success of Nintendo’s '90s game franchise had left a lasting impact on popular culture — as opposed to the still-niche popularity it knew in 1999, when the feature-length film Gates was reviewing, Pokémon: The First Movie, opened to mostly negative critical response.

At the time, if you were following Ash Ketchum and his pal Pikachu on their adventures to catch all of the world’s cuddliest pocket monsters, you were most likely under the age of 20. Now, nearly two decades later, most of the original generation of Pokémon fans are all grown up, though new hunters are coming to the franchise — which today includes several different games, movies, and more — all the time.

The result is that Pokémon Go appeals strongly to people of all ages, especially millennials who were fans of Pokémon when they were younger. The phenomenon has left their older, bemused counterparts — everyone from the editors Gates mentioned to moms to outdoor gear marketers — scrambling to catch up on all that hip Pokémon jargon.

But Gates’s Cassandra-like powers of prediction were even sharper than she realized. As she wrapped up her review of Pokémon: The First Movie, she noted that the Pokémon craze could be a heady experience — one that not all fans may be responsible enough to handle.

"This 'Pokemon,’" she wrote, "endorses a reckless prove-yourself attitude, the kind that leads inexperienced young pilots, for instance, to fly at night in low visibility."

It’s almost as though Gates had received a prophetic vision from our time, one that depicted a chaotic scene in which millions of Pokémon fans aimlessly wander the streets, smartphones in hand, meandering into traffic, starting fights, injuring themselves, and causing general public alarm as they frantically try to catch 'em all.

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