Though the history of Pokémon stems back only about 20 years, and we’re nearly two years removed from the Pokémon Go craze of July 2016, collectors are still clamoring for vintage Pokémon cards. If the term vintage incurs scoffs when referring to cards that debuted in 1999, keep your ridiculing in check until you hear the value of some of these cards. The premier cards of the bunch regularly command values upwards of $20,000. In fact, in November of 2017, a complete 1st Edition Pokémon Set fetched nearly $100,000. That’s a far cry from pieces of cardboard originally meant to be a mere trading card game.
Yes, Pokémon cards seem poised to stay and are demanding hobbyists’ attention. They are the real deal when it comes to collecting. But it isn’t as simple as Pokémon = $$$ in this game; there are three types of Pokémon from the original run, and of them it’s the 1st Edition cards for which a younger generation of collectors continue to clamor for. If you happen upon some cards you tucked away from your middle school years and think you’ve stumbled upon a cardboard gold mine, or maybe your kids were into the game and forgot about them, you’ll want to know the difference between the three main versions of Pokémon’s original releases: 1st Edition, Shadowless and Unlimited.
The Set That Everyone’s After
Long story short, 1st Edition means the first run of cards for that release. Each 1st Edition card released gets a neat little stamp, just below the featured Pokémon, to signify it’s 1st Edition status. That little stamp is key, as it separates 1st Edition from lesser sought-after sets. It’s important to remember that immediately following Pokémon’s inaugural 1999 release, there were a couple of aesthetic tweaks made, tweaks that weren’t reflected on future releases — thus the emergence of Shadowless and Unlimited. (More on those later.) These factors make the first run of 1999 cards super scarce, and if we’ve learned anything in the hobby, scarcity typically translates to desirability and yes, value.
The king of Pokémon, which some even refer to as the “1952 Mickey Mantle” of the trading card game, is Charizard. Commanding upwards of $20,000 and beyond, Charizard’s value, and that of 1st Edition cards in general, seems to only increase. But don’t worry, you can still get your hands on 1st Edition boxes; it will only cost you around a casual $50,000, while individual packs can be yours for around $800 apiece.
After the success of Pokémon’s 1st Edition run, it was time to print more cards. So, the company produced more colorful cardboard and simply removed the 1st Edition stamps, making them — are you ready for it?— Shadowless. Besides the omission of the stamp, for all intents and purposes, Shadowless cards are mirror images of 1st Edition cards. In short, Shadowless cards are simply the first run after the inaugural release. “But then why are they called Shadowless?” you ask. Because 1st Edition cards, too, are shadowless.
Let’s take a look.
Here’s a Shadowless Poliwrath next to a 1st Edition Poliwrath, both from 1999. The cards are identical, right? Look closer. The stamp on the Shadowless example has been removed. But check out the character box of both cards, both without the drop shadow that was added shortly after. The font, specifically the “90 HP,” appears to be of the same thickness.
As the story goes, after 1st Edition and Shadowless cards were released, a drop shadow was added and the text bolded to add some visual oomph. Shadowless cards are still sought after, as only a limited supply was produced before the company decided to make some aesthetic tweaks. But any cards after that point feature the shadow and thicker text.
Enter, Unlimited cards.
Unlimited Cards Are, Well, Less Limited
Just like its name, 1st Edition came first, then Shadowless, then Unlimited. Unlimited cards all come with the shiny holographic features from Pokémon’s first run, but without 1st Edition stamps, thus without the inherent value of 1st Edition status. Plus, they are more common than Shadowless cards, making Shadowless versions more valuable than their shadowed brethren. Remember, rarity and desirability often go hand in hand in the hobby. Unlimited cards were, and still are, more widely available, easily attainable, and sadly, less valuable.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All
So to recap, 1st Edition came first; they hail from ’99, have a little stamp below the featured Pokémon and lack the drop shadow that outlines the right-hand side of the character box. Shadowless came next, and are separated by 1st Edition only by the absence of the stamp saying so. Finally, there’s Unlimited, which features a bolder font, a drop shadow and are also devoid of 1st Edition stamps.
Regardless of 1st Edition, Shadowless or Unlimited, examples from that first year, 1999, are generally more sought after than later series. And regardless of what year the set hails from, Pokémon cards have transcended their trading card game status and exploded into the collectibles realm, and should be considered as such.
Have fun on your hunt catching ’em all!