When I was in 8th grade, I became friends with a Japanese kid named Toshiki. I use the term “friend” lightly because Toshiki was a heartless robot. For as long as I knew him, he had two emotional states: contempt and tolerance. It was a great gift to be tolerated by the robot boy because he was the gatekeeper to the lunch table where a particular sect of the academically gifted boys sat. Whenever there was an open seat (meaning one of the regulars was absent from school), he would let me join the elite. They were condescending and unfriendly, but I grew to care for them over the years.
Perhaps, I earned my place with my middling academic success.
Perhaps, I was experiencing something akin to Stockholm syndrome.
…or perhaps, it was all because of the power of Pokémon.
My love of Pokémon began in the fall of 1998. That was the semester that Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue were released in the United States. In no time at all, my lunch-mates were consumed by Pokémon fever, and the conversation turned toward matters of catching and training a variety of monsters for the purposes of fighting. Toshiki had already played through the Japanese version of the game, which had been out for about 2 years, so he became our Pokémentor.
I remember quite vividly the first time that I got a chance to play the game. A neighbor of mine named Steve, who was always reluctant to share his video games, actually let me play the first 15 minutes of Pokemon Blue. I had to promise not to save the game because that would overwrite all of the hard work he’d done. So I received a Squirtle and ventured out onto route 1, where I trounced some Rattata for a bit… until Steve’s tolerance for human interaction dried up at which time he took his Game Boy and went home. I was hooked.
I knew that I had been introduced to something very special. Soon after that, I discovered a Game Boy emulator in the vast wilds of the untamed internet. Thanks to the “fast” internet at my middle school, I brought Pokémon home with me on a 3.5″ diskette. It took me a while to figure out how to operate that clunky software, but I eventually defeated the Elite Four on a computer screen, and even my little brother and my dad (neither of whom would self-identify as a “gamer”) ended up playing through most, if not all, of the game.
I got a green Game Boy Pocket and a legitimate copy of Pokémon Red for Christmas that year. That was, perhaps, the greatest day of my life up until that point.
This experience is hardly exclusive to me. If I casually mention Pokémon in conversation (which happens waaaaay too often for someone who is approaching his 30’s), I am not surprised to hear stories about how much someone loved watching the anime series, or how stoked they were when they traded for a rare holographic Charizard card, or how immersed they were in their quest to defeat the Elite Four in Pokémon Blue. If you were between the ages of 4 and 14 in the late nineties, you were either aware of Pokémon as a cultural phenomenon or completely enamored with it.
But for some reason, my fascination with the games have lingered. In fact, of the 24 core games in the series that have been released in America (the original Green version didn’t make it over), I’m pretty sure that I’ve completed 12.
There is something really special about Pokémon as a game. At it’s surface, Pokémon is a fairly simple. You start by capturing 6 Pokémon that you think look cool. Then you travel the world in a relatively linear fashion, battling other trainers Your team get’s stronger, and your enemies get stronger. Eventually, you’ll beat the Elite Four without much difficulty.
Yet, even though Pokémon is so straightforward and accessible, there are other layers of challenge for players to take on. For years, the mantra of the game was “gotta catch ’em all.” With over 700 creatures, this has become an extraordinary challenge that requires players to trade for Pokémon from other games. And for the ultra-hardcore, there is an entire layer of stat mechanics within the game that casual players will never be aware of. Game Freak has managed to use these hidden stats foster a high-level competitive community that seems to deepen with every new game.
Though I don’t have any interest in breeding a Pokémon with perfect IV values, I find myself coming back with renewed excitement for each new game. Game Freak always manages iterate on the core game in subtle and enjoyable ways, while always retaining what makes the game enjoyable. In fact, now that the game is in its sixth generation, they’ve solved the only real problem that I had with the series. Up until Pokémon X & Y were released in 2013, there was no simple way for me to transfer my Pokémon from one game to the next. Pokémon Bank solved that problem with what amounts to a DropBox-like cloud storage system for my creatures. So, when I defeated the Elite Four in Omega Ruby earlier this week, I took in at least one Pokémon that has been with me since I played Pokémon Pearl almost 9 years ago. That’s really cool.
I’m going to keep playing Pokémon for a long time. And perhaps someday, I’ll finally catch them all.