Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Cards Riding High on Wave of Nostalgia

Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Cards Riding High on Wave of Nostalgia

In the late 90s, Pokémon became one of the most popular video games in existence, spurring on an anime series and trading cards. More than two decades later, near the 25th anniversaries of both Pokémon and its popular contemporary Yu-Gi-Oh!, collectors witnessed a resurgence in these trading card games all over the world. Tom Bateman explains what is driving the current craze, and how it has evolved from its early beginnings to a global phenomenon.

A s the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and the world retreated indoors, a strange thing happened in the world of collectable trading cards.

A series of record-breaking auctions, culminating in the November 2020 sale of a first edition, mint condition, 'Shadowless Charizard' Pokémon card for US$369,000, thrust the hobby back into the spotlight.

The trend was more than a few big sales: online auctioneer eBay reported a 500% increase in trading card sales volume in 2020, while the Pokémon Company announced it had enjoyed one of its most profitable years ever, selling more than 3.7 billion new Pokémon cards.

What drove the wave of nostalgia that propelled millennial childhood hits like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragonball to new heights at a time of global crisis? For the adults who grew up on the diet of anime, games and movies of these franchises, what prompted them to take a second look?

To understand this seismic shift in card collecting, we need to go back to where it all began.

THE POKÉMON COMPANY, NINTENDO INC.,  JAPANESE POKÉMON TCG X EDVARD MUNCH: A RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION, THE SCREAM (SET OF FIVE)  . ESTIMATE: 35,000 - 60,000 HKD

When Nintendo launched the original Pokémon games in Japan in 1996, they rapidly became a gaming phenomenon that blended the digital world with reality.

Like Dragonball before it and Yu-Gi-Oh! after, Pokémon offered an all-round experience, the toys and games integrated with accompanying anime and film franchises. You didn't just watch the story unfold; you could be part of it.

At first glance, Pokémon has a simple premise: go out into the games' virtual world and collect every creature you can find. The catch is that players can't do it alone. The need to interact, trade, and co-operate in real life was baked into the series from the very start.

"The idea I had was for information to go back and forth. It wasn't about competition," Pokémon's creator Satoshi Tajiri told TIME magazine in a 1997 interview. "I liked competition, too. But I wanted to design a game that involved interactive communication."

Soon, children across the world were gathered around their Game Boys, swapping the 151 original monsters in a bid to "catch 'em all," as the series' English slogan proclaimed.

For a game that elevates the act of collecting to a shared mission in pursuit of the rarest, most unique monsters, the move into trading cards was an obvious next step, and it paid off. In the 22 years since the Pokémon trading card game was first launched, more than 34 billion of them have been printed and sold in thirteen languages and 76 territories worldwide.

For many of Pokémon's young fans, the wave of Pokémania at the turn of the millennium was all-consuming.

After launch, the cards proved so popular that they sparked a global moral panic, prompting bans at schools, lurid tales of armed robberies, and even a fatwa issued by religious leaders in Saudi Arabia. In 2000, the British media was shocked when an eight-year-old boy called in to a local radio station in southern England and offered to swap his infant sister for a holographic card featuring the water type Vaporeon.

Another Japanese card gaming franchise, Yu-Gi-Oh!, followed Pokémon's recipe for success. Its multi-pronged approach combining the card game with an anime series and even feature-length films has helped sell over 35 billion cards since the game launched in Japan in 1999.

But with so many trading cards in circulation, what do the most valuable have in common?

The ‘Shadowless Charizard’ sold in November 2020 owes much of its appeal to a printing error that was corrected in later editions. To take another example, a simple 'Nintedo' typo in a 1999 edition of the 'Ancient Mew' Pokémon card is what makes it so desirable.

In the eyes of collectors, these production errors set the cards apart, transforming something mass-produced into a uniquely scarce piece of Pokémon history. The fact that Charizard and Mew themselves are iconic mainstays of the original Game Boy games, the long-running Pokémon anime and a number of movies is just an added bonus. 

Defects aren't the only factor in determining a card's worth. Some are rare by design. 

The 2019 Legendary Gold Box, Blue-Eyes White Dragon was part of a limited edition collection of Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards sold in Japan that featured unique gold accents, setting them apart from the standard cards in production.

The most valuable Yu-Gi-Oh! card, the one-of-a-kind, stainless steel 'Tournament Black Luster Soldier', was awarded as a prize at the first Yu-Gi-Oh! Tournament in 1999. Essentially priceless, it is rumoured to have changed hands for sums numbering in the millions of US dollars.

Nostalgia is another influential factor. Wealthy millennial celebrities like the rapper and streamer Logic and controversial YouTuber Logan Paul, who were children when Pokémania was at its peak, have been behind some of the highest-profile card sales of recent years.

Paul, who bought the record-breaking US$369,000 Charizard Pokémon card, displays his love of the franchise with a tattoo of Squirtle, one of the three starting monsters available in the original 1996 Pokémon games.

Logic, who paid US$183,000 for another English first edition ‘Shadowless Charizard’ in October last year, said the purchase had fulfilled a childhood dream.

"As an adult who has saved every penny he has made, being able to enjoy something that I’ve loved since childhood now as a grown man is like buying back a piece of something I could never have. It’s not about the material, it’s about the experience."
Logic, Rapper and Producer, on Instagram

Perhaps this, too, is part of the secret sauce that has made Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards into an enduring, desirable commodity for the 21st century. For a generation that came of age in a time of crisis, the chance to reclaim and indulge our deepest childhood fantasies is something that's hard to put a price on.


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