It happened instantly and without warning, practically overnight. One day, millions of smart phone users began hitting the streets, looking through their phones, underneath over passes, highway pull offs, in front of stranger’s houses, and even in zoos. But no, it wasn’t actual, tangible items or real zoo animals these tireless seekers…sought; it was, and is for the foreseeable future, Pokémon, the imaginary animals imbued with powers that imaginary trainers use to battle other imaginary trainers.

Most popular mobile games ever, image via Survey Monkey
Most popular mobile games ever, image via Survey Monkey

Confused yet?

Pokémon Go is the global, mobile revolution that recently took smart phones by storm, leading to an estimated 21 million active users daily, according to Survey Monkey. But before the game in question became the biggest mobile game in the brief history of mobile games , beating out mobile giants like Candy Crush Saga or Clash Royale, these cute little creatures appeared on trading cards, not randomly on your phone.

Let’s take a minute to stop and look back on what started the mobile gaming craze that is Pokémon Go. Here’s a look back at the trading card game that started it all.

Alakazam from 1996 Pokémon set, image via Collectors.com
Alakazam from 1996 Pokémon set, image via Collectors.com

’96 Was a Good Year

Flashback to 1996, a year after the Pokémon video game had gamers of all ages glued to their Game Boys, back when Game Boys were a thing. Following the widespread success of the handheld video game, the aptly titled Pokémon Company — the media franchise behind everything Pokémon that brought us video games, cartoons, movies and trading cards — launched the card game in Japan, borrowing rules from the Game Boy iteration. The trading cards hit stateside three years later.

The card game found immediate success and is still played and collected to this day. The cards were broken down into three types: Energy, Pokémon and Trainer cards, all of which are collected. But when it comes to these trading cards, the real rarities, the good stuff, are typically the holographic cards — those shiny, reflective cards that evoke oohs and aahs, especially next to the non-shiny sort.

Let’s Play a Game

Remember when we mentioned trainers? Well, in the trading card game, you’re the trainer, or the person qualified to tame these mystical creatures and unleash their powers on other less fortunate Pokémon and their trainers. Players alternate turns placing cards on the battlefield — which is a fancy word for “table” or any other surface for which Pokémon can duke it out — and try to inflict as much damage to the other player’s cards, all while guarding your hand from that pesky Team Rocket (Pokémon cartoon joke, never mind).

There are other nuances of the game, but that’s the gist of it. Today’s mobile iteration of the game involves the same concept, only rather than “catching” Pokémon in card form at your local comic store, you’re catching the digital projections of the creatures on your phone or mobile device.

But the thing about trading cards, not digital projections, is that they tend to go up in price as years go by…

20 Years Translates to Skyrocketing Value in Poké-Speak

The most valuable Pokémon card in the world, image via eBay
The most valuable Pokémon card in the world, image via eBay

Pokémon were coveted and relatively valuable when they were introduced back in 1996, but apparently 20 years does wanders for their value. Holographic cards from the first set can command prices in the thousands, and some in the tens of thousands. The rarest Pokémon card in existence with only five known, the Pikachu Illustrator card, is valued at $100,000. Some highly graded card sets can command upwards of $200,000.

Cards from the first 1996 Japanese set and 1999 U.S. set are among the most sought after. Some cards even feature certain printing errors—such as the accidental omission of a surrounding drop shadow around a card’s focal point — that can significantly boost their value. If that sounds like a lot to look out for, fear not, there are Pokémon buying guides all over the internet for your reference when trying to catch ’em all.

Speaking of catching ’em all, you might have already caught them. If you were part of the initial Pokémon craze 20 years ago, you might have some cards lying around. And you might want to get those authenticated and graded. It wouldn’t hurt to poke around your garage or attic for a forgotten Squirtle or Charmander. Plus, these cards are real, not digital representations.

Poké Wrap-Up

So that’s it. Twenty years, multiple video games, cartoons and movies later, Pokémon are back in our lives. Just remember where it all began when you see your neighbor poking around in your front yard, looking eagerly at his phone screen, shouting, “I caught a Golbat!”