This week Universal finally revealed more details on Super Nintendo World and its three attractions: Mario Kart Koopa Challenge (nee Bowser Challenge as Koopa is his name in Japan), Yoshi Adventure, and several interactive experiences. This thing looks... incredible. I don't know how my already sky-high expectations and hype were somehow exceeded but here we are. Everything appears to be a home run so far, fingers crossed the rides bring it home (*side-eye to Smuggler's Run*).
Of course with an awesome theme park land reveal we get the usual amount of Very Bad Hot Takes. "If this is cloned how is it different than Ratatoullie?", "LOL Epic Universe", and "Is Nintendo even relevant? OMG TRON!". Between the fawning over the land, Disney fan cynicism, and people confusing a bus-bar driven dark ride with a rollercoaster are people wondering what will happen to the largest video game property around: Pokemon.
Pokemon, the original Red and Green games from Japan, was developed over the course of several years by game developer GameFreak. Upon a blockbuster 1996 release in Japan, the game received an animated series. Pokemon was localized for other countries and released, alongside the animated series, as part of a mixed-media product launch. The original Pokemon Red and Blue (Green was rebranded as Blue) did very well, as did the semi-follow-up, Pokemon Yellow.
The franchise continued to grow into the millennium with Wizards of the Coast releasing a collectible trading card game, the release of the first true sequel Pokemon Gold and Silver, an animated movie, licensed merchandise, and even Pikachu in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Pokemon was huge and only growing. As of the date of this article, Pokemon is listed as the largest media franchise in the world at a valuation of over $100bn USD in 2019.
Now, the obvious question when told "Pokemon is the biggest media franchise in the world" is "What are the theme park rights?" Well, it's more complicated than "Universal has it in the bag" but it's unlikely Disney will be able to swipe in for acquisition. The reason lies in some confusion about video game development and a unique quirk of Pokemon itself...
Pokemon, despite its nearly ubiquitous association with Nintendo's platforms, is not developed, owned, or licensed by Nintendo itself. GameFreak fully developed the concept on their own and are the main series developers, with other such as Creatures Inc and Niantic Inc developing other games. Prior to the launch of the worldwide Pokemon brand a whole new company was created, The Pokemon Company.
The Pokemon Company (TPC) was founded in 1998 after equal investment by Nintendo, GameFreak, and Creatures Inc. TPC controls all licensing of Pokemon: from video games to trading cards, plush to food pop-ups, television to movies, live-action theater to, yes, theme parks. To get an idea of what sort of IRL experience we can expect, lets look at two concepts TPC approved.
TPC licensed out the Pokemon characters and names once for a traveling theme park, Pokepark, which traveled through Japan and Singapore from 2005 to 2006. While the rides were customized its hard to call it a theme park - most of the attractions were off-the-shelf flat rides with minimal Pokemon theming. Pokemon also had a sporadic retail presence starting with a retail store in NYC from 2001 to 2005, at which point it was remodeled to become what we know as Nintendo NYC. In early 2020 TPC opened a more elaborate Shibuya, Tokyo Pokemon Store.
With TPC revisiting prior concepts it's not out of the realm of possibility that a theme park addition is on the list of additions. So while Universal and Nintendo have a working relationship and contracts signed that does not lead to the use of Pokemon by default. In order for Universal to start using the property, they would need to court TPC, Creatures, and GameFreak. The good news is Nintendo already has had positive experiences with Universal and will likely put in a good word. Conversely, while Disney could also court TPC for the use of its characters in the parks the Nintendo factor will likely play into them not receiving it.
Of course, signed contracts are not a requirement for the development of a concept. As Alicia from Theme Park Stop and other rumors point out, Universal has quietly worked on Pokemon concepts for the parks already. These ideas range from a new land replacing KidZone (two competing concepts from what I heard) to a Pokemon Go after-hours event with characters, trainers, theming, and more.
So where does this leave us? From what the rumors say Universal has worked on concepts to present to TPC but nothing is finalized. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in all of Universal Creative's plans, including laying off a majority of its workforce. Theme park and Pokemon fans should watch for the critical reaction to Super Nintendo World in Japan, I expect Universal is waiting to see which aspects are hits and which need tweaking before committing to one Pokemon concept for the parks. Then TPC would need to approve, and then guide, Universal Creative with the development and construction of the land. Once COVID-19 is over and Epic Universe is underway it is likely Pokemon will take a top priority with the company.