Pokémon may indeed be the very best like no one ever was– but that doesn’t mean that no one else ever tried. In fact, after the explosive popularity of the games, the TV series, and the physical cards in the mid-90s, a whole slew of Pokémon-like franchises popped up, hoping to catch just a little bit of the massive windfall. Some were shameless rip-offs, while others at least tried to do something a little bit different with the basic conceit. Not all of the franchises below are necessarily in that exact mold, but they are all clearly inspired by Pokémon in setting, cast, and/or tone. In some cases, a franchise that bore little to no initial resemblance to Pokémon ended up evolving into something much closer to it as time went on.
TV has always been the most mainstream part of the Pokémon franchise. Some of the more successful imitatators also branched out into/started from manga, video games, toys, trading card games, and more. Even though none of them have come anywhere close to the legendary status of Pokémon some have managed to capture enough popularity to be more than one- or two-season wonders, lasting upwards of a decade or more across multiple media types.
Here are the 16 Pokémon Imitators You Forgot About.
The premise of Monsuno is that a “living DNA” from somewhere in space was riding on the asteroid that crashed into Earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. That DNA– which is the DNA of the titular Monsuno creatures– had been dormant for millions of years, until one day it was discovered by a scientist named Jeredy Suno, who thought that its power could be harnessed to solve the Earth’s energy crisis. Not surprisingly, things don’t quite go so smoothly.
Monsuno are creatures that are hybrids of multiple real-life animals with added armor and such. Jeredy Suno’s son, Chase, is essentially the protagonist of the show, and among his Monsunos are Lock (hybrid bear/tiger/gorilla), Deepsix (hybrid fish/shark/tiger), and Batteram (hybrid ram/buffalo). Chase and friends have to battle against other people who have also harnessed Monsunos, but for evil purposes.
The TV version of Monsuno ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon between 2012 and 2014, and counted legendary voice actor Cam Clarke among its English cast. There was also a line of Monsuno toys as well as a trading card game.
Not only is Slugterra one of the only non-anime entries on this list, it is also the newest, having made its initial debut as a TV series in September 2013. The show takes place in a land called Slugterra, where the biggest sport is “slug-slinging.” Despite the slimy imagery all of this may conjure, the “slugs” are actually cute, colorful little Pokémon-esque creatures. Also like Pokémon, each slug lines up with a basic element– earth, air, fire, water, and energy– which affect their attacks as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
An interesting wrinkle is that each element has an originator slug that is still alive and can affect all of the other slugs that share its element. If, say, the original fire elemental slug is affected by dark energy– called being “ghouled” in the world of Slugterra— every other fire slug will also be corrupted in the same way until the main slug is reverted back to its original form.
Slugterra is currently airing its fifth season and has a variety of toys. Its popularity hasn’t quite been enough to necessitate a console or PC game yet, but there are multiple Slugterra games on iOS.
14. Spider Riders
Like many of the franchises on this list, the story at the core of Spider Riders involves a kid fulfilling the legacy of a parent or grandparent. In this case, protagonist Hunter Steele is using his grandfather’s journal to find the underground world of Arachna, and in doing so he stumbles upon an epic battle between the citizens of Arachna and giant mutant insects.
Naturally, there is an ancient prophecy that foretold the coming of a surface dweller to help the people of Arachna in their fight, and here comes Hunter to the rescue. Hunter and the other young warriors of Arachna have enlisted the help of giant insects of their own, literally making them riders of spiders.
Spider Riders began as a trilogy of novels that were soon after adapted into an animated series. It only lasted a single season. Interestingly, despite originating as American novels, the Spider Riders franchise actually saw a bit more popularity in Japan, where it was turned into a manga web series and spawned several mobile games.
A lot of people forget– or maybe just never knew– that Pokémon actually began life as a video game before it became even a collectible card game. While most of its imitators tended to debut as TV shows or manga first and held off on the video games until they gained some popularity, Medabots is one of the few that followed Pokémon‘s lead by cutting straight to the video game chase. The series was even gutsy enough to release dual versions of most of its games, just like Pokémon always has.
The first Medabots games were 1997 the Japan-only Game Boy titles Medabot: Kuwagata Edition and Medabot: Kabuto Version. The series made its North American debut with a Medabots fighting game for Game Boy Advance in 2003, followed by the RPG Medabots Infinity for GameCube. However, the franchise’s popularity in the West was relatively short-lived. Although several additional Medabots games have been released since– with another slated for later this year– none have been localized outside of Japan since the GameCube game.
12. Zatch Bell!
The franchises that don’t directly go for Pokémon‘s “pet-monsters-trained-for-battle-by-kids” setup still tend to keep things in the realm of animal creatures of some sort. Zatch Bell mixes up the formula by pairing children with otherworldly demons, called Mamodos, conjured from spell books. The stakes are obviously higher as a result of having demons fight each other for supremacy over their world rather than just having animal companions compete in a tournament. Beyond that, Zatch is pretty standard fair among its contemporaries, except that it is probably the most bizarre in tone.
The original Zatch Bell manga is definitely the centerpiece of the franchise, running over a respectable six years. The TV adaptation also managed to last for three seasons in the mid-00s. Perhaps most surprising is how prolific Zatch was in gaming. While only Mamodo Battles and Mamodo Fury for PlayStation 2 and GameCube were localized in the West, nine separate Zatch Bell games were released, all within a mere two-year span. Talk about striking while the iron is hot.
11. Dragon Drive
Dragon Drive is chock full of anime tropes; a lazy teenage boy, his put-upon female best friend, children as warriors, cute animal companions, and a virtual world with sinister intent behind it. That last part is at the core of the franchise, as the hot new video game, also called Dragon Drive, turns out to be an evil corporation’s attempt to recruit children as soldiers to help them destroy the world.
As it always goes with things like this, the seemingly victimless video game battles that take place between the players and their card-based dragon companions are anything but.
While its broadcast run only aired on Japanese television, the 38 episodes of the Dragon Drive anime series were released on DVD in the West, as were translated versions of all 14 volumes of the manga. None of the three Dragon Drive games– one each for PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance– ever came here, though.
In the tradition of Transformers and G.I. Joe, the manga series Beyblade was created specifically to promote and sell toys– in this case, a spinning top battle game. Like those other properties. Beyblade went on to become equally popular in both its toy and story-based forms.
The original manga ran for five years, over 150 anime TV episodes were created across three different variants between 2001 and 2003, and a new manga began in July of 2016 that still runs to this day. That doesn’t even take into account the many spin-offs to the franchise, each often spanning multiple media– including Metal Fight Beyblade, Metal Saga, BeyWheelz, and BeyWarriors.
Surprisingly, the physical Beyblade game has also remained prolific since its 2001 launch. The Beyblade family of toys and accessories and the game rules that embody them are way too complex to list here, but it spans at least six “systems”, or lines, with new series still being introduced as recently as 2015’s Beyblade: Burst.
This is a case of a fairly un-Pokémon-like franchise being stretched into one when it was localized for North America. Cardcaptor Sakura, as it was originally called, involved cards and magical creatures but was primarily a fairly mature drama aimed at preteen girls about teenage angst and relationships. Fast forward a few years, and it’s part of a Taco Bell kids’ meal in the U.S.
So what happened? Pikachu happened. Following the success of Pokémon, the people who licensed Cardcaptor Sakura for release in the West decided to downplay all the sappy melodrama and zero in on the card-collecting action. They even hacked the title in half so that it sounded like it was all about cards and monster-capturing. The broadcast run of this version didn’t end up catching on anyway, and Kids’ WB only aired 39 episodes of that severely edited version of the show despite it having nearly twice that many in Japan.
Cardcaptors Sakura, in its true form, continues to be popular in Japan, with several TV and manga series, a whopping ten different video games, and another new series set to begin airing next year. No word yet on a Western version.
8. Dinosaur King
It was only a matter of time before someone took the basic premise of Pokémon and made it all about dinosaurs. It was also only a matter of time before Sega jumped into this arena; though they probably should’ve tried something sooner than 2003, which is when Dinosaur King’s predecessor, Mushiking, first hit arcades. While the latter was all about beetles and didn’t really became a breakout success, both games have a similar setup in that they combine physical cards with an arcade game. It’s actually a pretty interesting premise, but one that wouldn’t work that well anywhere that doesn’t still have a vibrant arcade scene– so, not North America.
A separate card-only version of Dinosaur King was eventually released, though frustratingly, it wasn’t the same cards that worked with the arcade game. The franchise also spawned an anime series and a Nintendo DS game, both of which were brought to the West.
7. Monster Rancher
Arguably the first video game to go after the Pokémon crowd– and the first to do it on consoles rather than handhelds– Tecmo’s Monster Rancher for PlayStation was a unique monster breeding/battling game that had players spawn new monsters by putting music CDs into the system’s disc drive and creating a creature based on the data on the disc.
While much of it was random, there were examples of specific discs creating specific monsters– some Christmas music CDs would create a “Santa” monster, while albums like R.E.M’s Monster (get it?) and the Forrest Gump soundtrack would actually spawn monsters completely unique to those albums. That interesting system would continue through some of the franchise’s sequels on other CD-based game systems, while various password- and card swiping-based systems would be used when the series went to cartridge-based consoles.
While the Monster Rancher series has remained popular enough in the West that most subsequent games and the anime series were localized here, it remains biggest in its native Japan, where it has even spawned an MMO; something Pokémon fans have wanted for years.
6. Cardfight!! Vanguard
Cardfight has something of a card battling game dream team behind it, being created by key figures responsible for both the Duel Masters and Yu-Gi-Oh! franchises– both of which, spoiler alert, we’ll be getting to shortly. The premise involves a shy high school boy who finds solace in a card game, blah blah blah. We all know the drill by now. What sets Cardfight apart from the other entries in this list is its actual physical trading card game, which are by far the deepest and most complex of any of the other card games borne from these other franchises.
The accompanying anime series focus mostly on players playing in Cardfight tournaments and the associated drama surrounding those tournaments, rather than there being some crazy supernatural force behind the whole thing, which is a nice change of pace.
Perhaps most notable about Cardfight is that a 90-minute live-action movie aired on Japanese television in 2012, the first– and so far, only– card game franchise to make the jump out of animation. Take that, Pokémon!
Neopets began in 1999 as a virtual pet website and online community where users would raise their pets, interact with others, and buy various in-game accessories for their pets. Other than being about cute fictional pets, the brand initially didn’t have a whole lot in common with Pokémon— that is, until legendary trading card company Wizards of the Coast launched the Neopets trading card game in 2003.
It might be risky to accuse the very originators of collectible card games of being imitators, especially when they were the originals publishers of the Pokémon trading card game. But it just so happens that Nintendo took over the publishing of the Pokémon card game the same year that Wizards launched the card game version of Neopets, so they clearly had a void to fill in terms of kid-friendly alternatives to games like Magic: The Gathering.
Unfortunately for Wizards, the Neopets card game was only popular enough to justify a three-year run, and it was discontinued in 2006. That was also the year that the second and so far final Neopets video game was released.
In an interesting twist, Bakugan Battle Brawlers— the TV series that launched the Bakugan brand– was a flop in its native Japan but found success in North America. In fact, it was so popular here that three additional seasons were created and even aired here first, with the final season never making it back to Japan at all.
In its transition to physical form, the universe of the titular creatures and their human masters went in two different directions. One was the typical card-based route, though it was a glorified playing card game played with a 52-card deck rather than being a collectible card battling game. More interesting was its other form, which used a combination of cards and spring-loaded miniature figures that were shot out onto a playing field. That game was popular enough that new editions of it were released over an impressive six-year span, from 2006 to 2012.
3. Duel Masters
When you reach a certain level, as Pokémon has, your imitators began to have imitators of their own. Duel Masters‘ Shobu’s visual similarity in appearance to Yu-Gi-Oh‘s Yugi, right down to both characters always being drawn with a card in hand, can’t possibly be a coincidence. That said, in Duel‘s defense, it managed to be plenty popular on its own even if it was something of a copy of a copy.
The aforementioned Shobu hopes to– trope alert!– become a great duelist like his father in a card game in which the monsters depicted on the cards come to life. This tale began in manga form before moving on to television and eventually its own real-life trading card game, which Wizards of the Coast acquired the North American rights to.
Wizards eventually followed it up with the Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters card game, which was then turned back into a TV series of its own. Though Kaijduo only lasted for two seasons, its official story continued on through the Kaijduo website and additional releases of the card games. Both have been discontinued as of 2014.
Of all the franchises to follow in Pokémon‘s footsteps, none were quite as blatant at borrowing from the original than Digimon. Not only is the name absurdly similar– in this case, being a portmanteau of “digital monsters” rather than “pocket monsters”– but many of the monster designs are so close to specific Pokémon characters that it’s kind of surprising lawsuits were never filed.
Digimon‘s beginnings actually had roots in Tamagotchi-style digital pet machines before evolving into an anime series where it began to take on more Pokémon-esque tendencies. While the various animated series have been extremely popular, it’s arguable that Digimon‘s video game presence has been its most prolific aspect.
Starting with the first Sega Saturn game in 1998 and continuing on through a 2014 fighting game for PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360, there have been nearly 50 individual video games released based on the Digimon brand– by far the most of any franchise on this list.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! manga debuted only a few months after Pokémon, so it may seem questionable to call it an imitator. Indeed, the original manga was quite different than Pokémon in a lot of ways. But like so many other franchises of its time, it gradually began to get more Pokémon-like as it evolved, becoming primarily about the collecting of cards and the battling of monsters.
It’s easy to make the case that Yu-Gi-Oh! has been the overall most popular and successful of all the Pokémon-inspired franchises. For starters, it’s been going strong for almost as long as Pokémon has, from the 1996 manga through its newest TV incarnation, set to begin airing in Japan this May. There have been three feature-length Yu-Gi-Oh! films, all also released in North America and one even being in 3D. The video game branch of the franchise started on Game Boy and still has had new games up through 2017.
Yu-Gi-Oh has even surpassed Pokémon in one key area: in 2009, it was certified by Guinness as the top-selling card game in the world at 22 billion cards sold, and has since added another 3 billion to that tally.
Are there any Pokémon rip-offs that we forgot? Let us know in the comments!
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