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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Digimon Fans Still Exist—and They’re the Keepers of Its Future

In an era when everyone wants to peek behind the scenes at the development of their favorite games, it’s harder than ever to separate the final product from the news of its dev cycle. That's especially true with Digimon Survive, the latest installment in the monster-collecting franchise that was announced in July 2018 for release the following year. That, of course, did not happen. A 2019 release became a 2020 release, a 2020 release evolved into a 2021 release, and a 2021 debut turned into a 2022 finish line. Pandemic delays, an overhaul of the game’s engine, and a complete switch in production teams combined to turn the wait into a seemingly indefinite one.

Of course, this is nothing new for Digimon fans. For years, a dearth of official releases and scattershot localization of the anime meant that the franchise has been kept alive only by fan passion in America. It doesn’t have the almost omnipotent branding of Pokémon, where every big release is a major pop culture event. Instead, Digimon is only as strong as the will of its fan base. But in 2022 that fan base is more than eager to see its favorite batch of monsters thrive.

A far cry from the explosion of Digimon in the late ’90s, the number of games bearing the Digimon logo on store shelves would be reduced to a trickle by the end of 2002. When the anime did finally show up again in the US, it was on short-lived programming blocks like Disney’s Jetix, and some series never even finished their runs. Even now, the latest three series have never been dubbed and aired on American television, though fans can find the Japanese versions on streaming services like Crunchyroll.

However, even though the landscape looks barren, “what allows Digimon to continue growing today is this passion from fans,” says Ravel Carvalho Monte, a notable Digimon enthusiast and the researcher responsible for the Digital World Archive blog. Monte’s love of Digimon actually blossomed during those lean times. He first encountered the franchise through a DVD of the second anime series that he’d watch during school breaks in 2006, while “hundreds of children played with different things” around him, he says. Nearly a decade later, he’d throw himself into fan communities on Facebook and other platforms, even as Digimon was breathing its last on network TV outside of Asia. (The most recent Twitter post for the brand’s TV efforts was in September 2015.)

Monte has made deep dives into the franchise’s history, often aided by The Digi-Lab, a one-person labor of love by its site owner. Translating everything from Japanese chats with artists and writers to CD liner notes, the site allows fans to play catch-up and learn the intentions of the franchise’s creators. “Even when Digimon isn’t airing an anime, there’s already so much content that those fans just continue making new fan content,” Monte says.

Interviews aren’t the only things fans are translating. In 2013, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the anime, a Digimon Adventure game was released by Bandai Namco on the PlayStation Portable. It seemed like the game was destined for a wide release in Europe and North America. But when that didn't happen, fans stepped in, creating a full English translation patch for it in 2018. Fans gave the same treatment to the similarly region-locked Digimon World Re: Digitize, and though there remains a broad spectrum of Digimon games that haven’t been translated or patched, officially or otherwise, fan perseverance continues to fill in the blanks.

The Digimon community remains strong, albeit on unofficial platforms. The With the Will forums are a popular hub for news and discussion, one can find threads almost 20 years old on Neoseeker’s still functional Digimon section, and the Podigious! podcast regularly revisits older eras of Digimon along with the latest subtitled episodes. For years, Digimon Forum Roleplay has operated as a center for fans who wish to act out their stories of having a Digimon partner, and as I’m writing this, the latest piece of Digimon fan fiction on Fanfiction.net was updated 12 hours ago. (The oldest, 1,673 pages of stories prior, is from December 4, 1999. That’s less than four months after Digimon first appeared on American TV.)

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What has stopped fans from losing interest? “Digimon changes so often that it's hard to ever get burned out by it, because something refreshing is always around the corner,” says TAHK0, an artist and content creator whose Twitch badges include an Agumon and Greymon, the Digimon equivalent of Pokémon mascots Charmander and Charizard. This feeling of newness, whether through new games and anime or revitalized older material, has put Digimon in a special place for a community where digging just a little bit often leads to the discovery of something new.

It’s also kept fans interested by “growing up with its audience,” according to TAHK0. “Digimon tackles surprisingly hard topics, even at a young age, and then continues to tackle harder topics, like growing up, getting a job, and letting go, as its audience reaches those milestones as well.” It’s something Monte agrees with: “Nowadays the amount of support that the series has from old fans is basically always mentioned when talking about the success of the series, and this fandom is basically what allows Digimon to never die and always try something new.”

It’s also something that Digimon’s creators, Bandai and Toei Animation, are keen to capitalize on. The most recent Digimon film, Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna, involves adult versions of the original group of kids that young audiences fell in love with back in 1999. While its theatrical release was canceled due to the pandemic, in the home video version, many of the original American voice actors returned for one last ride. A similar treatment is planned for the upcoming “legacy sequel” to the second batch of kids from Digimon Adventure 02.

In fact, the last few years have seen a revival of interest in Digimon. Nintendo Switch ports of the popular Cyber Sleuth games, 20th-anniversary virtual pets, a renewed vitality in the trading card game, and a push for the expansion of the anime (a dub of the Digimon Adventure reboot series has been announced, but Bandai and Toei have said little about it since) have all emerged thanks to fan enthusiasm. And of course, there’s now Digimon Survive, which earned strong critical reviews when it was finally released worldwide, even if its visual novel style was not what many longtime fans expected.

It’s the kind of return that would’ve been impossible had fans not latched on to it from an early age and kept its spark alive, so that new fans could easily jump in as well. Now powered by multiple generations of Digimon devotees, it’s “going through a renaissance of sorts,” TAHK0 says. “It’s really in a very good place,” Monte agrees. Both are eager to see the franchise reach its full potential.

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