Over the years I’ve caught many a Pokémon memory. From my first glimpse of the poster for Pokémon: The First Movie in a movie theater as a young child, to facing the final boss of last year’s Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, my nearly lifelong experience with Game Freak’s multimedia franchise forms a flowing tapestry of wonderful moments that I never want to forget. But I had completely forgotten about an infamous 1998 TV/VHS commercial for Red and Blue, in which a manaical bus driver squashes Pikachu and company with a car crusher. And now that I remember it, I wish to forget.
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In fairness to the ad, it’s very much a product of ‘90s video game marketing, which was often over the top, crude, and edgy. But looking at the video of a bus driver collecting swaths of Pocket Monsters all under the guise of public transit, it’s kind of wild to compare the tone of Pokémon marketing at the turn of the century to what it is now.
A lot of modern Pokémon marketing leans into the “wholesome” side of the franchise, with themes of friendship and how a journey is best taken when taken together. Some of the most recent live-action ads, like the original Scarlet and Violet reveal trailer, lean into the wonder of the world more so than hamming up the collectathon aspect.
The old “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” slogan has been retired from the franchise for around a decade at this point, having last appeared as part of a defunct website promotion for Pokémon X and Y, so the idea that Pokémon are something to be tricked and captured hasn’t been a major point in how The Pokémon Company presents the franchise for a bit. It feels like a major contrast to the “power of friendship” framing the franchise preaches lately. Mechanically, the concept of catching Pokémon remains the same, it just seems like The Pokémon Company wants to place the focus elsewhere. All that in mind, watching this ad from the ‘90s is a little unsettling, but it’s still funny and gets its point across.
It does seem like Nintendo realized there was some uneasiness with the ad, because there are two versions of it online in which alternate takes and strategic cuts make the bus driver seem a little less menacing, even if he has the same malicious intent. There’s less maniacal laughter, he’s nicer to Pikachu when the little guy enters the bus, and the actual carnage done to the bus in the press is almost entirely cut from the ad. No need to traumatize kids watching their favorite Pocket Monsters getting violently squished any more than you have to, I guess.
But ultimately, the commercial’s conclusion is still the same. When the hydraulic press re-opens, all that’s left of the bus is a Game Boy with Pikachu and friends struggling to get out through the screen. It’s very clear the Pokémon are scared about what’s happening, and I, too, am scared because that’s not the Pokémon League-approved method of catching these critters, Mr. Bus Driver. Get your Pokéballs and beat them up until they’re too weak to fight out of their spherical prison like everyone else.
The bus ad is like a fever dream from a time when companies were less precious about the pristine image of their billion-dollar properties. Nowadays, it feels like the Pokémon franchise is more on the same page in terms of the tone of its games, anime, and advertisements. Even so, we sometimes still catch glimpses of the down-and-dirty Pokémon of the 90s, such as the Detective Pikachu movie having a dark, occasionally crude tone, and recent games like Legends: Arceus and Scarlet and Violet having more grandiose takes on their worldbuilding.
But it does feel like The Pokémon Company wants to keep the public-facing image of the series as friendly, light, and wholesome as it can. The more I reflect on it, the more the bus ad captures a moment before branding was airtight, and staying on message was all that mattered. I respect that. I just wish it wasn’t also nightmare fuel.