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What is Pokémon without Ash Ketchum?

The TV series’ beloved protagonist will be ending his 25-year run. The franchise, too, is evolving.

Ash and Pikachu, holding a trophy. The Pokémon Company
Izzie Ramirez is the deputy editor of Future Perfect, Vox’s section on the myriad challenges and efforts in making the world a better place. She oversees the Future Perfect fellowship program.

The beloved protagonist of the Pokémon TV series, Ash Ketchum, is finally leaving the show after 25 years of training to be the very best.

The news, while nostalgic and bittersweet, isn’t surprising for those who kept up with Ketchum all this time. Ash Ketchum and his adorable partner, Pikachu, have been the cornerstone of the show for more than 1,200 continually airing episodes. The iconic duo have persevered through tough battles, made a conscientious effort to always learn more about each other and the world around them, and brushed off their shoulders after almost comically regular defeat. But this season, the perpetual 10-year-old finally became world champion and has been on a bit of a reunion tour, after decades of losing.

“Ash’s greatest traits are his tenacity and his love for those around him,” said Sarah Natochenny, who has voiced Ash for the English version of the show for 17 years. “So to watch a character for 25 years be this motivated, this dedicated to achieving his goals without making anybody else feel horrible, that’s such a beautiful lesson, especially for young people growing up who are engaging with the show.”

During Ash’s 25-year reign, the Pokémon Company churned out dozens of games; more than 20 movies, including Detective Pikachu, featuring Ryan Reynolds; manga; seemingly limitless toys and card games. These ventures don’t all include Ash, but they do embody the sense of adventure and growth he came to be defined by. While Ash has been reaching his goals, the franchise — by some metrics, the most valuable IP in the world — has been evolving, too.

2022 was a huge year for Pokémon fans. We got two new games, Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, that challenged what it meant to exist in the Poké universe. In a typical Pokémon core game, the player picks their starter Pokémon and begins their journey, usually to beat all eight gyms (in a set order) and eventually become the champion of the Pokémon League. Instead, Arceus thrust players into the distant past, when wild Pokémon would have no hesitation to clobber you. You don’t battle gyms — rather, you see a world full of wonder and lore, where Pokémon aren’t necessarily cute friends. While 2019’s Sword and Shield was the first to introduce open-world elements, Scarlet and Violet — which came out in late November — is a cautious evolution of that experimentation. You can battle any gym, giant beast, or Team Star gangster in whichever order — a refreshing spin on the typical Pokémon format.

The new generations have been rather divisive in the Pokémon ultra-fan community, whether it’s because of janky graphics or the ramping up of silly power-up gimmicks, like “Gigantamaxing” or “Terastallizing.” Pokémon isn’t always successful in its endeavors to break the formula, but I would argue that despite their occasionally clunky storylines and performance flaws, Arceus and Scarlet and Violet offer rich worlds to enjoy. It’s fun to see more context in the Pokémon universe, like seeing actual Pokémon’s reactions or witnessing more in-game cultural history.

“I am such a first gen-er when it comes to Pokémon, so it’s kind of hard for me to enjoy the new generations,” said Noella Williams, an editor and longtime fan of the series (they have a tattoo of the grass-type Pokémon Chikorita). Still, their curiosity around Arceus and Scarlet and Violet’s new open-world mechanics won them over. “The beauty of playing a Pokémon game is that it’s never going to go away, but you’re looking forward to how the games will interact with new technology. It’s exciting to see.”

The current season of the show, Journeys, marks a departure from the usual format as well. Ash has the freedom of going to any region he’s previously visited as well as new-to-him Galar. As a research fellow — which is funny to think about considering the character’s established penchant for simplicity — he hops on planes and trains to solve whatever Poké phenomenon is happening alongside Goh, his companion for the arc. Ash returns to Diamond and Pearl’s Sinnoh, Sun and Moon’s Alola, Ruby and Sapphire’s Hoenn, and more, to re-battle old friends and make new ones.

My feeling had always been that Journeys’ location agnosticism stemmed from a strategic storyline set-up for Ash’s departure. Why else would we see characters or locations that haven’t been mentioned in years? To see this year’s games have the same ethos confirmed my suspicions: The Pokémon universe is undergoing a vibe shift, one that will define the franchise for years to come. It could be risky — or it could usher in a new era of fans.

Pokémon has been around longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know a world that doesn’t include Ash, Pikachu, and some version of the games. I remember having a knock-off tie-dye Pokémon shirt featuring Misty that my dad got me at the Mexican flea market when I was 4. I remember playing the card game illicitly at my very Christian elementary school. I remember going to friends’ houses and watching the show with their older siblings. I wasn’t a mega fan back then — I didn’t have the video games, for instance — but it felt like a constant presence. I think the same holds true for a lot of people my age and slightly older.

“There’s not a time in my life where I cannot remember liking Pokémon being one of my defining characteristics,” said Nicholas Friedman, a Pokémon fan since the ’90s and senior editorial manager for Crunchyroll. “The level of text storytelling that even those very early Pokémon games put on you as a child, it’s intense. I think that combined with the sense of adventure almost certainly led me to want to be a writer one day.”

Friedman had grown up playing the games, watching the show, and eventually reading the manga. I interviewed him days before the news broke out that Ash and Pikachu were leaving the show (again, I had a hunch), and we talked about what it would mean for the franchise to grow up with us.

“I have such a complicated relationship with the Pokémon anime and I think a part of that comes from being an anime fan in general,” Friedman said. “I desperately want Ash to grow up and be happy and have kids and send them out on their adventures. As an adult who’s starting to experience major milestones in my life, I kind of want him to do the same. But there is a reason why kids love Pokémon and I would a thousand times over choose to keep that touchstone geared toward children — to get them interested so that they can become part of this amazing thing that’s done so much for me — than have that story grow up with me and selfishly ask for that.”

It’s not the first time fans have had this discussion. When Pokémon GO exploded in 2016 — probably the most ubiquitous the franchise had ever been — it was a “wake-up call” for fans who may have “tapped out” of the show, Friedman said. Given how a lot of people aged out of the show’s intended audience demographic, that’s to be expected. But a large part of the show’s problem during that time was that it never felt like the protagonist was progressing in the way the games were.

I tuned back in around the time Ash won the Alola Championship in Sun and Moon. It wasn’t his victory that had re-engaged me, but rather a trip to DC to see my cousins in the fall of 2019. I saw my second cousin, E, for the first time in a while and he insisted on watching the show. My brain couldn’t compute that this was the same Ash Ketchum I knew when I was E’s age. When I returned to New York, I would watch the new episodes during breaks. And when the pandemic came, I decided to rewatch from the very beginning. I’ve now seen every single episode of Pokémon that’s available in the US.

The Pokémon world has been growing at such a rate that there’s always something new to enjoy for any type of fan, no matter what age. At the same time, Ash and Pikachu always felt like a given amids change, said Melanie Pineda, a paralegal and Pokémon fan.

“I know that Pikachu was their mascot and everything,” Pineda said. “But for me, Ash was the trainer. He was the guy. He was the hero that we were rooting for. Even if he kept unfortunately losing over and over again, he kept going and he kept growing. No matter which region he was in, it was a comfort knowing that whatever next chapter Pokémon was bringing, Ash was going to be there, you know?”

Still, it’s about time the show breathed in new life. The next iteration of the TV series will be set in Scarlet and Violet’s Paldea with two new protagonists in 2023. Untethered to Ash and Pikachu, the show will be able to experiment just like this generation of games did. But first, there will be an 11-episode short series to send off Ash and Pikachu airing January in Japan, the Pokémon Company announced.

That said, it’s still hard to say goodbye, especially for folks who grew to love the goofiness of Ash and his dedication to being the best he could be.

“I will probably cry,” Friedman said of the inevitable end of the era. “But I’m so excited for the future of Pokémon, and I’m so glad we got to spend all of this time with Ash and Pikachu.”