Digimon – not a Pokemon rip-off, but a full featured series of both video games and anime with complex messages and interesting themes
Broncos vs. Raiders. Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Kirk vs. Picard. Pop culture is full of rivalries of varying types, from literal home/opposing teams to characters and series that get compared and debated due to their similarities. Usually, despite all the playful fuss that participants in such debates might make, there is a certain level of cultural acceptance given to both sides. Rational people might disagree about which of two things is better, but they seldom denounce the other side entirely.
Unless, of course, one franchise’s popularity eclipses another’s dramatically. There are winners in culture wars–face it, Gobots fans, you lost. I feel your pain–I lost too. I’m a Digimon fan, which brings me to my point. I’m going to do my best to convince you why, from quality and conceptual standpoints, the Digimon franchise deserves to be loved just as much as Pokemon, if not more. So without any further adieu, here we go!
Base Concepts, or, “What the Hell is a Digimon?”
Digimon stands for Digital Monsters, and is both the correct singular and plural term for said monsters. Though the multitude of Digimon anime and video-game series have significant differences from one another, they all star creatures who are made up of data. Digimon is a monster franchise firmly rooted in the digital age. Basically, take the idea of alien life, and make it more cyberpunk. My use of the term “alien” is significant as well. Though Digimon media frequently features humans and the planet Earth, Digimon always come from their own separate world named-you guessed it-the Digital World. The idea is basically that humankind has created a separate plain of existence through its development and proliferation of technologies, particularly computers and the internet.
That last bit is something the franchise shares with other technology-themed media like the cult classic Serial Experiments Lain. In fact, Lain’s head screenplay and series structures writer, Chiaki J. Konaka, later went on to serve a similar role in the creation of the Digimon Tamers anime. Different Digimon series vary in terms of what genres they most heavily lean into (sci-fi, fantasy, techno-horror, etc.) but they all share at least some base coverage of the idea of artificial intelligence and its resultant questions.
Does a creature made up of data have emotions as humans understand them? Did humans create Digimon? If so, what does that imply about the relationship between the species? Digimon is a twenty-year-old franchise that’s been grappling with concepts of artificial intelligence since its very creation, and those concepts will only become more and more relevant to everyday life over time. In several of the franchise’s anime series, humans enslave or seek to eliminate Digimon as a species. How said human characters think about Digimon and the nature of life (as well as what constitutes “higher life forms”) informs those actions and plot threads. It’s important for anyone interested in the franchise to know these things going in because, while Digimon contains plenty of just-plain-cute critters just like Pokemon does, it also contains themes and subject matter far beyond the bounds of what most non-fans expect or assume.
Now is probably a good time to point out that in almost all Digimon stories, the majority of the titular creatures can speak and possess human (or above) level intelligence. Pokemon, with their language barrier, tend to interact with humans in a way that is more analogues to real-world animals. Digimon, on the other hand, are about as alien a form of life as one could imagine, and not only raise but can participate in philosophical debates. Again, the frequency and depth with which specific Digimon stories tackle these questions varies, but they’re always at least an interesting facet to the adventure stories being told.
One last bit of key information to know: the Digimon franchise contains several different continuities. A majority of the anime series and videogames are self-contained, and each plays with the idea of digital life forms in its own way. The differences between stories extend to things such as how Digimon evolve, how the Digital World was created, if and who the gods and rulers of the Digital World are, and if (and how) Digimon come into contact with humans.
This might sound like a recipe for confusion, but I would argue that it’s actually one of the franchise’s biggest strengths. By leaving room to tell radically different stories with each new iteration, Digimon avoids becoming stale or predictable. As beloved as Pokemon is, all of the main series’ games follow a singular formula. The anime, likewise, has been the subject of many jokes regarding just how long Ash Ketchum can remain ten years old. All of this is fine if you enjoy what’s consistently being presented. I personally am not a big fan, but I won’t detract from what many consider to be enjoyable experiences. Nonetheless, if you’re like me and love seeing franchise’s continually retool and reinterpret core concepts, then Digimon is full of stories you may enjoy.
Speaking of Stories–How’s the TV Show?
When most Americans think of Digimon, they likely remember the anime. There was a period at height of the series’ American popularity, when its dubs were airing on Fox Kids, when it was a legitimate financial rival to Pokemon. There’s a good reason for that–the Digimon anime series are some of the best children’s cartoons ever produced.
Quick fact dump: there are several Digimon anime series, most of which were dubbed in English under the single title of “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” The full list of anime, under their original intended titles, is Digimon Adventure (1999), Digimon Adventure 02 (2000), Digimon Tamers (2001), Digimon Frontier (2002), Digimon Savers (2006), Digimon Xros Wars (2010), and Digimon Universe: Appli Monsters (2016). There have also been several movies, including many based on the aforementioned series, a standalone CG-film entitled Digital Monster X-Evolution, and the Digimon Adventure tri. series. As mentioned previously, most of the anime are self-contained stories, with the various Adventure series and films being the sole exceptions.
The original Digimon Adventure cartoon made a big splash, and is still beloved by many. This is largely due to the unusual amount of depth it gives its characters. The stars of Digimon Adventure are children who suddenly find themselves stranded in the Digital World, with nothing but their wits and new partner Digimon to protect them from danger. The series is very much a good-guys-fight-bad-guys cartoon, but the characters’ motivations are deeper than just doing the right thing. Over the course of the series, viewers learn about all the children’s anxieties, friendships, family histories, and more. There are characters who struggle with life after parents’ divorcing, revelations of adoption status, and more.
It may be this strong focus on character work that most distinguishes Digimon’s anime series from those of similar franchises (i.e. Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, etc.). There are a large number of kids’ shows featuring cute or badass monsters (and Digimon certainly delivers both of them), but kids’ cartoons that hit on so many real-world concerns so poignantly are much rarer. Digimon contributed to my morals and view of the world in very significant ways–love, courage, hope, and more were explicitly discussed and propped up in Adventure. Not only that, but the series discusses these concepts in a way that doesn’t feel forced or too hokey. Okay, maybe the dub does get hokey, but that’s part of it’s charm. That, and Jeff Nimoy’s amazing voice acting in the role of Tentomon.
Any discussion of Digimon anime would be incomplete without giving a nod to its artwork. The original Adventure series’ hand-painted backgrounds are divine, from their renderings of lush forests to true-to-life depictions of specific Japanese locales. Each series twists the franchise’s trademark visuals in its own unique way. Digimon Tamers, for instance, is still lovely while using a somewhat darker color palette, matching the series’ comparatively dark themes and storyline. Sure, the anime (especially the older ones) have animation issues. The oldest of these cartoons are almost twenty years old–but they look damn good for their age.
I talked earlier about how each iteration of the Digimon anime plays with the franchise’s comments and lore in its own way. This is nowhere more evident than in the anime. Different series introduce entirely new types of evolution. All those newly introduced mechanics in the last few Pokemon games? Digimon already featured equivalent mechanics in the late 90s and early 2000s. Cooler than evolutionary differences, however, are the myriad ways the series handle the base sci-fi subject matter and shift their tones to match.
Digimon Tamers, for instance, is the darkest and most explicitly philosophical Digimon anime by a long-shot. Aside from a darker visual palette, it delves deeply into the specific history of how Digimon were created, and addresses the question of how governments would act if such creatures existed. Characters die permanently, and one main character murders another, kicking off an emotional arc about forgiveness and retribution. I would argue that one character, Jeri Katou, is one of the most well-written examples of a character struggling with depression in any cartoon, regardless of genre or intended audience. Just about every main character in Tamers subverts genre conventions in one way or another. Takato Matsuki is the lead, and rather than being boisterous, loud, and overconfident, he is a shy fanboy full of doubts. Riki Nonaka, meanwhile, is not only the main female character, but also the most aggressive, and her Digimon partner is the strongest in the series. Henry Wong, meanwhile, spends a significant portion of the narrative struggling with his desire to be a pacifist, forbidding his partner to take part in any sort of violence.
If that all sounds like a bit much for your taste and you’d rather your monster show not question existence or the morality of violence so much…you’re in luck! Most of the other series are more lighthearted, and vary in the degree to which they address such topics. Like I said, part of Digimon’s strength is that its anime vary greatly–you’re likely to find at least one that strikes your fancy. Does the same hold true for its videogames, however?
From V-Pets to Cyber Sleuths: The History of Digimon Videogames
Though the anime are the most popular portion of the franchise, Digimon actually started out with toys. Back in 1997, the original Digimon gadgets were v-pets (virtual pets). These pocket-sized toys were directly inspired by Tomagotchis, and children would play by raising their Digimon. The care process included various aspects such as feeding and training, and players could also pit their Digimon against each other in combat. Handhold toys like these have been a franchise staple ever since.
There have also been countless Digimon games on traditional videogame consoles. One of the earliest, Digimon World for the PlayStation 1, took the Digimon raising concept of the V-pets and placed it within a larger RPG context. Players still raised their own Digimon, but they also took that partner around the Digital World fighting and progressing through a story line (that, naturally, included overcoming evil). Some installments in the Digimon World series have utilized similar mechanics, while others have forsaken the v-pet play style entirely.
Many Digimon RPGs are similar to mainline Pokemon games in that players get to obtain various Digimon of their choice, place them into battle parties, and go on adventures. Digimon World 2 and 3 both fit this description, as does the more recent Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. These RPGs all have different stories and include different gameplay mechanics, so they are unique experiences much like the franchise’s anime series. There are also fighting games, such as the Digimon Rumble Arena series, and a cart-racer, Digimon Racing (don’t play that one–it’s god-awful).
Up until this point, I’ve talked about the Digimon franchise’s variety as a source of strength. In most cases, I believe it is. The biggest place where that might not be the case, though, is it’s videogames. The variety in gameplay mechanics is great–the variety in quality, though, not so much. Most Digimon fans will admit that the Pokemon franchise beats ours out in terms of having more consistently solid games. While I’m not a huge fan of any Pokemon games, I do agree that they seldom reach the low levels of Digimon’s worst titles. I enjoy my favorite Digimon games much more than I ever have Pokemon games, but I’m in the minority, and that’s okay.
So, full disclosure, I wouldn’r recommend jumping into the Digimon franchise by just picking up an old game at random. That could easily turn one off from the franchise permanently. Once again, I caution you not to purchase Digimon Racing. Nonetheless, there have been some great Digimon games. Digimon World is a classic, and easily one of my favorite games of all time. It has a lot of details that are dated, and it’s buggy as all get-out, but there’s an amazing sense of wonder to be had by exploring its charming world and encountering all the Digimon present in it. It’s not a game for the faint of heart though–attempts to progress through that game without a guide are doomed to Dark Souls levels of difficulty. If you have a hard time getting into older games, I’d recommend Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth. It allows players to obtain over 200 different species of Digimon, all while navigating visually pleasing renditions of both cyber space and real-world Japan. Cyber Sleuth‘s sequel, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth – Hacker’s Memory, also just released in America. You can look forward to AiPT’s review of the game coming soon!
Final Thoughts from a Fan of a Forgotten Franchise
Here’s the truth–Digimon lost its culture war with Pokemon. But popularity doesn’t equate to quality, and Digimon is still alive and (in my opinion) worth checking out. I’ve been a fan for nineteen years now. The franchise has literally shaped me as a person, and some of its anime and videogames are among my all-time favorites. I enjoy the huge pantheon of different monsters, both cute and badass, with myriad influences from animals to plants to mythology and more. I enjoy the infusion of techno-philosophy, and questions about what it means to be alive. I enjoy the light-hearted humor and the poignant character work. More than anything, I enjoy the constant evolution and variety.
I’m not going to make the declarative statement that Digimon is better than Pokemon. I personally favor Digimon immensely, but opinions are opinions, and I can acknowledge that there are many reasons why other people might not share mine. I just tire of the disagreement stemming from a place of ignorance–hearing the franchises’ similar names, deciding that Digimon must be a rip-off with nothing unique to offer, and never even giving it a chance. I’m not saying that others should agree with me, but I am saying that they shouldn’t make judgments without actually experiencing the franchise for themselves. Digimon is a lot more than just Pokemon but with more guns–although, in a humorous way, that descriptor fits pretty well.