Friday, 30 June 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 1]

I’ve been wanting to write a longer discussion and analysis of Digimon World for some time now. It’s a game that is intimately tied to my childhood and therefore has a lot of nostalgic value. Despite this, I also genuinely think the game is something of a weird, confused masterpiece. There’s very few games like it, and it’s a series that’s only just recently received wider attention with the release of Digimon World: Next Order earlier this year.

What Are Digimon? 

A discussion about Digimon World can’t really begin without first discussing what Digimon actually are. Starting off in the mid-to-late ‘90s, Digimon were an off-shoot of Bandai’s successful Tamagotchi brand. Yes, those dinky little key-chain toys with the little virtual pets to take care of.

Whilst Tamagotchi were popular amongst girls and boys, Bandai eventually released the Digital Monsters line of virtual pets, as a kind of cooler, edgier brand primarily marketed towards a male demographic. Already you could see the changes made to the core mechanics of the Tamagotchi keychains. Whereas the original toys were primarily about raising animals and taking care of them, the Digital Monsters brand also incorporated battling with other players.

A little bit like a certain other monster-collecting franchise…

Pokémon struck in the mid-90s and then, boom, it was on. I could write an entire article alone on how almost every game company and toy manufacturer wanted to capitalize on Pokémon’s success. Digimon, however, was best positioned to take advantage of the sudden monster-collecting craze, and so Bandai immediately began the development of not only a card game (presumably to break into the market that the Pokémon Trading Card Game was currently riding high in), but also a video game and animated series.

It’s worth turning now to discussing precisely what Digimon actually are. Despite ostensibly being a collection of fun creatures designed to sell toys, Digimon designs are notably different from Pokémon. For a series that’s regularly maligned for having “ripped-off” Nintendo’s monster-catching franchise, Digimon are remarkably unique in terms of their inspirations and aesthetics.

Effectively, Pokémon are wild animals that simply inhabit another world. That’s essentially the entire gist of the series. Excluding the weird designs that reference sentient items (and are by far the worst Pokémon designs) almost all of the creatures are fantasy animals: Rattata is a rat, Pikachu a mouse, Ekans a snake, and so on.

By contrast, Digimon’s designs are, well...weird. Sure, there’s the usual gamut of anthropomorphized animals; lizards, cats, wolves, to name a few, but then things get a lot more bizarre. A whole swathe of Digimon reference various religious myths. There’s also a Digimon nod to Lovecraft, there’s a sentient turd, and it just gets more bizarre from there.

The vast majority of these designs were developed by Kenji Watanabe, who was brought on to work on the series during its inception as a line of virtual pets. In interviews he mentions how the designs were influenced by American comics and this is immediately noticeable. It’s fascinating to see things like H.R. Giger’s Alien work its way into designs.

All of this, I would argue, served to differentiate the series from its primary rival. Digimon as a franchise is weird and eclectic, with a darker edge to it, helping it contrast with the more wholesome charm and cuteness of Pokémon.

The Animated Show

This trend would also extend to the animated series. Pokémon has always had a cartoon show to compliment each generation of games. Digimon however, opted for a more conventional series that told a complete story. Whilst the show was initially only slated to have a twelve episode run, it was a huge success in Japan upon its release, causing Bandai to extend the series to a whopping fifty episodes.

Whilst this series is primarily going to cover the game, I do want to briefly mention the animated series. Digimon Adventure is an unusually well written kid’s show. For a cartoon that’s essentially only there in order to market and sell toys, the series maintains an incredibly high quality over the course of its fifty episode run, rarely delving into filler, and showing a remarkable level of emotional breadth for a show that’s about a bunch of cartoon monsters fighting each other.

Whereas Pokémon was largely a collection of “one-shot” episodes week in week out, Digimon Adventure spun a larger tale. Beginning as a kind of Lord of the Flies-type story, the show revolves around seven children who find themselves whisked away to the digital world whilst at summer camp.

The European cover art capitalized on the show's popularity.
All seven of the main characters (an eighth is introduced around halfway through the series) are surprisingly well-rounded, each with their own distinct personalities and flaws. They also all have their own Digimon partner, doubling the number of characters that the show has to juggle.Yet, somehow, it manages it. I suspect the franchise’s popularity in those first few years was largely down to the success of the show, both in Japan and especially abroad.

With the franchise-building in full swing, the last cog in the machine was the development of a video game. Digimon World was released in Japan in 1999, with a North American release in 2000, and a PAL release in the summer of 2001. It’s worth noting, during that time, all of the other bits and pieces of the Digimon franchise were being released. So, whilst the game actually predated the cartoon series in Japan (being released off the back of the card game), in North America, and especially Europe, there was a lot of Digimon “stuff”  long before the game came out.

Pokémon, meanwhile, was at its creative zenith with the release of Pokémon Gold & Silver in late 1999...


  1. Hey! This made me nostalgic. I used to watch a lot of this with my cousins. We used to live under one roof and it was the best time of my life. Now, we have all moved to different places. My children don’t get to sit with their cousins but I know they all are big fan of Andy Yeatman shows.