Close your eyes and think of a popular, yellow, lovable video game monster who stars in a popular children’s anime series. Happy, friendly, big teeth and giant giant head — a digital monster, a friend all the kids know and love. Agumon, right? He’s the one that shoots electricity from his cheeks and goes pika pika, right?
In another world, that might be the case. In our world, the Digimon franchise began as a virtual pet toy that could link up and battle with others of its kind. Since its humble beginnings, it has since spawned several anime series, video games, toys, and even some classic cinematic soundtracks. Although these adaptations of source material are beloved for their unique characters, the digital monsters themselves have always been the focus.
But unlike fellow monster-battling franchise Pokemon, Digimon video games have an extremely uneven history. The problem? By focusing on the Digimon themselves, the games have failed to capitalize on what made Digimon different in the first place: a fully realized world populated by relatable, interesting characters.
The Real Unreal
The first Digimon series was byproduct of a 1998 short film, Digimon Adventure, by animator Mamoru Hosoda. Initially aiming to mimic the grandiose scale and violence of classic kaiju movies, Hosoda and his team came to realize that the project was actually “a story about children meeting Digimon,” rather than an unsupervised monster mash. It was that angle that differentiated it from the rival Pokemon, which despite its messages of friendship was much more straightforwardly about collecting and battling creatures.
The anime became the basis for a whole host of media set in the newly-created world, including drama CDs, comics, and role-playing games. The short-lived WonderSwan RPG series included derivative characters from the Digimon Adventure series who were later adapted into the actual anime. These projects together created a tightly-managed franchise in the service of Hosoda’s goal: to “depict unrealistic things in a realistic way.”
Meanwhile, the blank-slate protagonists of Digimon World and subsequent console Digimon games didn’t truly add anything significant to the already rich world I had come to know and love. With the release of the action RPG Digimon World 4 and collect-o-thon Digimon World Dusk/Dawn in the mid-2000s, I came to accept that the familiar era of Digimon I knew was over. Although these titles included recognizable mascots like Veemon and Agumon, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm I once felt for the anime’s carefully curated world. The games were moving away from the things that had drawn me to Digimon in the first place.
That changed in 2013, when SEGA programmer Yuji Naka’s independent studio Pope developed their first role-playing game based off the entirety of the original 1999 Digimon Adventure anime for the Playstation Portable (PSP). The choice of platform hurt the game’s Western sales, and it wasn’t critically beloved, but it was a return to the character-driven storytelling that had launched the franchise. More recently, the Digimon Story game series and the Digimon Tri anime have appealed to fans’ desire to return to where it all began. These installments were more than shallow nostalgia trips — they brought the human characters back into focus. Goodbye Digimon Racing, hello brave new world of Persona-style Digimon mystery solving and teen angst.
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A New Path
Last October, I returned to the Digital World with the English release of Digimon ReArise, a mobile role-playing game that felt both like a funhouse mirror and a return to form. While obviously chasing the success of similar games in the cramped mobile scene, ReArise separates itself with a brand new, fully-voiced cast of characters with narrative arcs. Much like Fire Emblem Heroes’ approach to chapter-based storytelling, ReArise hits recognizable beats in a compressed format.
While ReArise is a significant improvement from the first English mobile game, Digimon Heroes! (a Puzzles and Dragons clone), it isn’t perfect. But Digimon Survive, slated for release later this year, promises a “darker tale about friendship and survival” with a choice-driven narrative. Whether it sticks the landing remains to be seen.
Digimon has always existed in relation to the more successful Pokemon, and has alternately fought to differentiate itself and make itself more similar to its competitor. But the latter approach is a losing game — you can’t out-Pokemon Pokemon. Instead, Digimon needs to lean into its origins as a series about relationships — between people, monsters, and the world.