If you were a kid in the '90s, chances are you were a fan of either Pokémon or Digimon, and got mad at your parents when they mixed one with the other. To be fair, it isn’t that hard to see why they'd make such a mistake. They had similar names, were born as video games, expanded out into trading cards and successful and long-running TV shows, and feature stories about kids and strange creatures going on adventures and fighting other creatures.
Whereas Pokémon now has over 1,050 episodes in the anime series, 21 movies, and over 30 video games, Digimon was far less prolific. There are fewer than half the number of Digimon anime episodes as there are episodes of the animated Pokémon series, and its theatrically-released feature films haven’t had nearly the same impact at the box office as the first two Pokémon movies — those Pika-features are still the highest-grossing anime movies ever released in the U.S. It only got more uneven this year, when Pokémon made the leap to live-action with a hit movie starring Ryan Reynolds, which only added to the coffers of the highest-grossing media franchise ever.
In case you're still confused, we at SYFY WIRE are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Digimon anime and finally setting the record straight once and for all with 10 ways in which it and Pokémon are completely different.
Different origins for different kinds of video game fans
The moment that sealed the fate of both franchises came on February 27, 1996 — the day Nintendo and Game Freak launched Pokémon (short for Pocket Monster) Red and Green in Japan. Appealing to the huge JRPG market of the time, with simple mechanics that served as an introduction to the RPG genre for many gamers in the West, the games became instant successes, easily topping video game sales charts in 1996 and 1997.
Meanwhile, Digimon started not as a video game in the same sense as its competitor, but as a series of virtual pets akin to the Tamagotchi. Released in June 1997, Digimon (short for Digital Monster) allowed players to take care of a digital pet, train it, and make it fight with other monsters. Compared to Red and Green, the Digimon game was much more simplistic, as the devices were only about 1.5 inches long and there were only three buttons you could use.
Serialized vs. episodic storytelling
When the Digimon virtual pet came out, it was already a year behind the global phenomenon that was Pokémon. To make matters worse for the franchise, the Digimon anime came out two years after the world was introduced to Ash Ketchum and his adorable Pikachu. By then it didn’t matter that both shows approached their stories completely differently, the damage was done and in the eyes of many people, Digimon was but a copy of the far more lucrative franchise.
Too bad, because the franchises offer different things to different audiences. Where Pokémon was an episodic show with low stakes — Ash wants to capture every Pokémon out there and become a “master," with each episode having a contained story — Digimon was for many kids their first foray into serialized television and story arcs. Many episodes ended on a cliffhanger, even if you weren’t aware they were a two-parter, and the story carried over from episode to episode forming a complete story with a beginning and an ending. Many episodes also referenced events or even characters from earlier in the season.
This made the viewing experience more challenging than that of Pokémon, as kids could not simply skip a dozen episodes and still follow the story, but it made for a more satisfying experience as the story rewarded you for paying attention.
It isn’t controversial to say that the Jessie and James of Team Rocket aren’t the most competent villains out there. Indeed, most of the villains in Pokémon aren’t much of a threat. Team Rocket are just a group of buffoons, and even the gym leaders are just temporary adversaries who Ash often ends up befriending. Though the show does have some very emotional scenes that forever scarred many of the kids who watched, for the most part the characters were safe and (almost) no one died.
Digimon, on the other hand, was known for its high stakes and devastating losses. The villains were not only frightening, but completely ruthless and evil, particularly the nasty Myotismon, who opened a doorway to the real world allowing the dangers of the Digiworld to leak into ours. Battles between Digimon often turned deadly, and we often saw Digimon die on screen. No children who saw Digimon can ever forget Gotsumon and Pumpkinmon, and they have for sure not yet healed from the devastating loss of Wizardmon.
Indeed, plenty of friends and allies sacrificed themselves to keep our DigiDestined safe, to the point where in Episode 43, “Playing Games,” Mimi makes graves for their lost friends.
Who can forget the opening song for Pokémon? Jason Paige’s powerful pipes popularized the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” slogan and even charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999. But did you know the song we now associate with the show is completely different than the original? It is good, but has nothing on the John Siegler and John Loeffler classic.
Digimon, on the other hand, had a different story. Whereas the dubbed version of the Pokémon song was a vast improvement over the original, the folks responsible for bringing Digimon to the States hired Shuki Levy to compose an entirely new soundtrack, which some people believe to be made partly out of recycled and remixed versions of other cartoons like Spider-Man: The Animated Series.
Worse yet, they replaced the show’s opening song, Koji Wada’s melancholic yet uplifting “Butter-Fly,” and the absolute banger “Brave Heart” by Ayumi Miyazaki (which plays over all digievolutions and action scenes) for the generic and very kid-friendly merry-go-round “Digimon Theme” and “Hey Digimon” by Paul Gordon. Nothing against the songs themselves, but compare the emotional tone of this dubbed scene and the devastating and powerful alternate version with the original songs. The former tries to hide all sadness from watching Wizardmon die with happy tunes, while the latter recognizes that Wizardmon’s death has to be sad and impactful in order for Gatomon’s first digievolution to be powerful enough to make you want to jump from your seat and cheer.
Agumon can talk, Pikachu can’t
This one is pretty straightforward. If there’s one annoying thing about Pokémon it's the fact that Pokémon can only say their names — over and over again.
The creatures in Digimon, on the other hand, can speak perfect English. This results in a variety of different and colorful personalities, as we hear the thoughts of Digimon good and evil alike.
Evolution is permanent, isn’t it?
The main point of the Pokémon games was to complete your Pokédex by, well, catching ‘em all. But if you want to do that, you’re going to need to evolve your Pokémon, which replaces your original Pokémon with their evolutions. Say you evolved Pikachu into Raichu and then decide you kind of liked Pikachu better. Well, you’re screwed, because there is no going back in Pokémon.
Digimon is a different story. Digievolutions are more like power-ups. Digimon digivolve during a battle in order to take down a powerful enemy and then return to their base forms right after.
Immortal vs. regular kids
As mentioned before, part of the reason Pokémon remains popular after so many years is its formula — you don’t need to know much before you’re all caught up. This extends to Ash himself. Despite the anime being 22 years old, Ash is still only a 10-year-old who travels all over the world with a couple friends who are also minors.
Digimon, on the other hand, has shown its main cast grow old and develop throughout the years. The first time we noticed this was in Season 2, which showed the original DigiDestined grown up, their relationships changed. Then Digimon Adventure tri. showed them in high school, having gone years without seeing their Digimon companions. Next year’s Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution is set to bring back the original cast, who are now in their 20s, for one last adventure with their Digimon partners.
This brings us to the next point.
Digimon has an ending
Whereas we have followed Ash’s journey for over 20 years and never seen him become a Pokémon master, or catch all the Pokémon, or even win a tournament (Orange Islands doesn't really count), we actually have seen the end of the DigiDestined’s story.
The serialized nature of Digimon meant that, eventually, their fight against an evil villain was going to end. In the first season, that villain was Apocalymon (because of course it was) and after defeating him, the story was over. Subsequent seasons had different stories with different characters and Digimon, with some references to the previous season. This meant actual arcs and a satisfying ending for our characters’ stories.
Pokémon don’t deuce
Though Pokémon are mostly used as pets (and occasional cockfighters), we don’t really see them do their business during the anime. The Digimon of the original virtual pet system, on the other hand, took dumps constantly.
A common feature of virtual pets is having to clean their droppings, teaching kids to not leave dumps on the floor all day. But nothing can prepare you for the amount of dung Digimon drop all day long, to the point where you can’t believe they have any strength left to fight.
Maybe Pikachu is just better at cleaning after itself.
One has a live-action movie, the other doesn’t
After 20-plus years with both franchises, we already got a live-action Pokémon movie starring Ryan Reynolds as a furry Pikachu — that even talks like a Digimon!
So now I ask, where is the live-action Digimon movie? Sure, the show’s treatment of computers as weird and nearly magical things is kind of outdated, but imagine how cool Josh Brolin would sound as MetalGarurumon?