There's some unexpected stuff hiding in the Digital World
When it comes to franchises about kids befriending monsters and then going to war with them, Pokémon is the undisputed "chosen one." It's got an anime and a video game series that are both consistently popular, mascots that are household names, and it is super accessible no matter how old you are. Every time a new installment is released, your local video game store is filled with elementary schoolers, high schoolers, and me, an awful near thirty-year-old shouting "UM, I pre-ordered Pokémon Luminous Diamond, NOT Pokémon Radiant Pearl. IS THERE A MANAGER THAT I COULD SPEAK TO?"
Compare this to Digimon, which, while popular, has always existed in Pokémon's shadow as a sort of "pretender to the throne." For most of my friends, the anime is currently in a state of "Wait, is that thing still going?" And the video games require a level of obsession that most people refuse to match. The evolution, excuse me, Digivolution charts of the monsters look like the red string tied up between serial killer locations on a TV show detective's wall. And the closest thing the Digimon franchise has to Pikachu is Agumon, a charming lizard bro that hasn't really caught on.
That said, I adore Digimon, but not because it's an underdog in the battle to beat Pokémon for the title of "Maybe The Most Popular Thing Ever." I adore it because Digimon provides things that Pokémon has never even attempted. Despite the fact that it deals with a universe where 99% of the characters' names all end with "mon," some of the themes that it tackles are way more thoughtful and relatable than anything that you'd find in Pokémon on a regular basis.
Digimon Actually Deals With Growing Up
Pokémon keeps its lead characters in a kind of youthful stasis, mainly because it's better for the wish fulfillment. The entire thing is based on the premise of "Hey. You're ten years old, and an old man that lives next door just said that your mom can't tell you what to do anymore. Time to go out and collect laser beasts." Ash Ketchum is never gonna grow up. We're never going to see a season of Pokémon where Ash has a terrible time filling out a resume because he spent his childhood not going to a school of any kind. No one in the Pokemon games is ever going to tell the player "Have you thought about getting a job somewhere, instead of, ya know, trudging through the world until you die of exposure?"
And while Digimon doesn't examine the minutiae of going from battling Devimon to filling out your tax forms, it does examine what it's like to outgrow the fantasy of being a kid with a dinosaur pet. Ash Ketchum may lose his companions, but he'll never truly leave the life of being someone with no responsibilities except to keep "catching them all." On the other hand, seasons of Digimon tend to end with a lot of monster murder and then a lot of goodbyes.
The characters of Digimon are constantly losing friends and allies, and not just in a "We'll see you again someday" way, but in a "Oh, man. He just got blown in half by a giant metal snake" way. But more importantly, they often have to leave the "digital world" to go back to the real world, where no one understands or really cares that they've helped save countless creatures from the wrath of the Digimon Emperor or whatever. That's resounding stuff, because growing up is tough. You're expected to constantly say goodbye to things -- to friends that move away, to interests that everyone tells you to outgrow, to hobbies that aren't going to "help your future." And you often have to do this waaaaay before you're ready.
So as much as Digimon is about what happens when you get to travel to a magical world full of talking behemoths, it's also about what happens when you have to leave.
Digimon Also Regularly Deals With Death
If Digimon had the equivalent of an Ash Ketchum character, it would be Tai. You may recognize Tai as the free spirited "leader" of the Digi Destined who has impeccable taste in large, useless goggles.
Well, in the first season of Digimon, the group has to infiltrate the evil Etemon's hideout. In this hideout, there are walls that you can pass through. However, if you don't pass through the right one correctly, you'll be killed. This naturally causes Tai to have an emotional crisis, because he'd never had to consider that this little monster vacation that he was taking might end with his death. He freezes up, and this ends up costing his team.
And this illustrates a big difference between Pokémon and Digimon: In Pokémon, humans are definitely at the top of the ecosystem. Pokémon are wild, but we're so unafraid of them that we're letting fourth graders catch them for sport. Digimon, on the other hand, have a far less neutral impact on their environment. The digital world can't go four seconds without some evil monster wanting to destroy or enslave part of it. Every Pokémon is a potential friend. Most Digimon are actively trying to incinerate you. As a human, you're kind of an invasive species.
This increases the stakes considerably because you're not just in a world where you don't belong, you're also apparently "destined" to save it. It's kind of like if you were sent to a country where you don't speak the language just so you can run for President. So, unlike Pokémon, which pleasantly starts with "Welcome to the world of Pokémon. We live in harmony with these things," Digimon starts with "Hey, welcome to a world that wants to eat you. You're really gonna love it here."
Digimon Often Requires Some Introspection
Pokémon very rarely asks that its heroes take a deep look at themselves. For the most part, issues can simply be fixed with "You're Pokémon-ing wrong." You want to use this powerful creature to restart the earth or open a portal or tear down time and space? Don't do that, you silly goose. Instead, just kind of nurture it and use it to fight your friend's Pokémon. See? Problem solved.
Digimon requires its protagonists to get down and dirty when it comes to self evaluation. If you're a coward or greedy or lazy, you're asked why and then you have to grow past that. In Pokémon, you can be the worst kind of person in the world, someone that robs people and hurts people and clicks the "close doors" button on the elevator after someone already asked you to hold the doors, and you can still raise some powerful Pokémon. In Digimon, that's much more rare.
Because, in Digimon, if you're not being nice, your pals won't grow stronger. It's a weird symbiotic relationship. When you become a better person, your Digimon is allowed to Digivolve and get bigger and often have more cannons attached to it. And that's the main goal of any Digi Destined, really - Get your Digimon partner to the point where it's nothing but cannons. That's when you'll know that you truly have a good heart.
Overall, I love Pokémon too, so don't take my criticisms to mean that I'm somehow finally agreeing with my sixth grade bully who told me that Pokémon actually sucked and then went on to rob a pizza restaurant. However, as the proverb says, "One cannot subsist on Pokémon alone." And so, if you find that Pokémon isn't giving you all that you need thematically, give Digimon a chance. Honestly, the worst that can happen is that you become utterly obsessed with it and buy a two hundred dollar WarGreymon statue on Amazon, and oh no, how am I gonna pay my electric bill now?
Someone please help.