The Pokémon franchise has had an immeasurable impact on popular culture over the past 25 years—and in that time, the series has also attracted its fair share of controversies. Some of them have been completely warranted; others, well, are just downright weird. Here are nine of the most notable.
1. The Banned Episode
Several episodes of Pokémon, mostly in the series’ early days, have been banned in certain countries over depictions of firearms, sexualized content, and other issues. But one stands out far above the rest: “Electric Soldier Porygon.” This episode from the first season in December 1997 features a scene where Pikachu fires an electric attack that detonates several missiles, causing the screen to flash red and blue in rapid succession. As a result, approximately 700 children in Japan watching the episode on TV were hospitalized with dizziness, headaches, and even seizures. The series itself wouldn't return to Japanese airwaves until April 1998, and when the show eventually made its U.S. debut in 1999, “Electric Soldier Porygon” wasn't a part of it.
2. Jynx's Racist Appearance
Early in the franchise’s existence, writer Carole B. Weatherford published an article for Black World Today taking the character Jynx to task. The focus was on the character's appearance, which drew comparisons to racist depictions of Black people from throughout history.
“The character Jynx, Pokémon #124, has decidedly human features: jet-black skin, huge pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane, and a full figure, complete with cleavage and wiggly hips,” Weatherford wrote. “Put another way, Jynx resembles an overweight drag queen incarnation of Little Black Sambo, a racist stereotype from a children's book long ago purged from libraries.”
To rectify this, Jynx’s face was recolored purple for the release of the second games in the series, Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Silver, and remains that way to this day. In addition, any anime episodes or trading cards featuring the original depiction of the character have been banned.
3. The Satanic Panic
Satanic panics are nothing new—people have argued that the devil has been involved in everything from heavy-metal music to the Smurfs and even Pampers diapers. As Pokémon became increasingly popular, it was only a matter of time before the franchise was targeted. Over the years, several parents and religious groups have claimed that the series is an allegory for Satanism, comparing summoning Pokémon to summoning demons. One Florida-based pastor named Eugene Walton even attempted to describe the mechanics of the game by saying: “You get all these potions and witchcraft, and the idea is to try and control other people.” In 2000, one religious group went so far as to distribute pamphlets that claimed a pentagram could be seen on one Pokémon's forehead. It was, in fact, just a star.
4. Nazi Imagery on a Golbat Pokémon Card
Occasionally, cultural differences bring about unintended controversy. That was the case when a Golbat trading card featured what looked like a swastika and created an uproar among Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Japanese culture tends to recognize the swastika not as a Nazi symbol, but as a religious symbol of good fortune; regardless, the appropriate edits were made to avoid further offense.
5. Pokémon's Magician Lawsuit
This one has Satanism, Nazism, and copyright infringement! In 1999, a “psychic entertainer” named Uri Geller claimed that Kadabra (named Yungerer in Japan), a psychic-type Pokémon best known for carrying around spoons, was based on his likeness. Geller, who was known for his spoon-bending magic trick, also claimed Kadabra featured markings on its head and chest that referenced Nazi imagery. In short, Geller said that Nintendo had turned him “into an evil, occult Pokémon character” and sued the company for millions. In response, the Pokémon Company was leery of using Kadabra in any promotional materials for decades. However, in 2020, Geller had a change of heart, reportedly due to the "tremendous" amount of mail he had received over the years from Pokémon fans who wanted to see Kadabra come back. Geller apologized for all the lawsuits (many of which had already been dismissed) and for causing Nintendo to ban the use of Kadabra for over 20 years.
6. The PETA Problem
After the release of Pokémon Black 2 and Pokemon White 2 in 2012, animal rights group PETA released a statement claiming that the games encouraged animal abuse, even going so far as to make their own parody game called Pokémon Black & Blue to get their point across. “The amount of time that Pokémon spend stuffed in pokéballs is akin to how elephants are chained up in train carts, waiting to be let out to 'perform' in circuses,” the organization wrote in a statement. “But the difference between real life and this fictional world full of organized animal fighting is that Pokémon games paint rosy pictures of things that are actually horrible.”
Years later, when Pokémon Go was released, the organization declared its Los Angeles office a “safe Pokémon zone” where no one was allowed to capture or fight their Pokémon.
7. The Inappropriate Pokémon Go Gyms
It wasn’t long after Pokémon Go—the augmented reality app that lets you see and catch virtual Pokémon in the real world through your phone—debuted in 2016 that a new batch of controversies flared up over the fact that the game could quite literally be played everywhere. Many notable locations around the world like Big Ben and Central Park became PokeStops and gyms, where players could obtain items and battle for rewards. Unfortunately, the virtual Pokémon were also popping up in more solemn locations, including Holocaust museums, Ground Zero in New York City, and Auschwitz. As these stories hit the web, the institutions themselves had to plead with gamers not to try and catch any Pokémon on their premises. Soon after, the game's developers removed all PokeStops, gyms, and the Pokémon themselves from sites like the Hiroshima Peace Park and the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
8. Pokémon's Gambling Issues
The first four mainline Pokémon titles featured a game corner, in which the player character could take part in a variety of games that could possibly, from a certain point of view, be likened to gambling. While no real money was needed to play the games, it still, in theory, taught kids how gambling works. Later games would see fit to remove the game corner for that very reason. In fact, the PEGI ratings board in the UK passed legislation in 2020 that would earn the games an 18+ age rating today if they included the game corner.
9. The 2021 Pokémon Card Shortage
Pokémon’s most recent controversy goes back to the world of the trading card game. In the past few years, card sales have seen a significant spike, rivaling the Pokemania of the late '90s. Naturally, the low stock and empty shelves have led to its share of problems. In early 2021, it was being reported that scalpers were filling shopping carts with boxes of the cards to then sell on the secondary market. On its own, that's not unusual (even if it is dodgy)—but then reports of violence started to come out. In the parking lot of a Wisconsin Target, one customer allegedly drew a gun on a group of four men who assaulted him over some trading cards. As a result of this type of Pokémon-based violence, Target temporarily removed trading cards—including Pokémon cards and sports cards—from their shelves completely over concerns for their staff and customers.