I spent most of the last week or so playing the newest Pokemon release (White for me because I’m racist). I love it. Pokemon has lost nothing in the 13 years since it landed on American shores. Amazingly, the Pokemon “fad” seems to have diminished slightly or not at all if the record first day sales are to be believed. For the first time since I bought Red on a whim, I went into this game virtually blind. I knew how the game worked, it doesn’t change drastically from game to game, but other than what the starter Pokes looked like, I knew almost nothing about this version. Playing it blind has made me absurdly nostalgic for the old Game boy days of Pokemon.
As I said, I bought Pokemon Red on a whim way back in October of 1998, about a month after its release. I was a newly minted teenager, flush with a small fortune in birthday money and in control of the family Game boy Pocket. But the Game boy was a tired system, especially in the Skocy household. The system was closing in on 10 years old at that point and while we hadn’t had it that long, we had definitely had it long enough for me to extract all the fun possible from Super Mario Land 2, Kirby’s Dreamland and Wario Blast (a Bomberman/Wario crossover). A fortuitous Wal-Mart stop allowed me to glimpse a commercial for some game called “Pokemon.” A kindly older, animated gentleman, who I later learned was called Professor Oak, told me how you catch monsters and force them to fight in virtual cockfights. The screens reminded me of the Final Fantasy series, which I was already enthralled with. I had to have this game. After wheedling my mother for permission, as I hadn’t actually brought that birthday money with me, I became the owner of a copy of Pokemon Red.
I got in somewhat before the craze, but I soon learned that a cartoon was already airing in the morning. So I set my VCR to record it. Because even if I had the desire to wake up early to watch it, my mother did not allow us to watch TV before school. To this day I have several tapes full of Pokemon cartoons. But the cartoon was always a side attraction. The game was where it was at. There was so much to love about the game. It took the gameplay of Dragon Quest and combined it with the fun of pet raising, a truly addictive combination. The similarity to Tamogotchi and other similar virtual pets probably helped fuel the fad talk, though Pokemon has surely outlived that. The trading aspect was the game’s crowning achievement. There was something great about trading on the Game Boy, though I certainly do not miss the hassle of the link cable.
I can still remember my first team, the one that I first used to curb stomp the elite four into submission. My starter was Bulbasaur. I gave him a nickname that it kills me to not remember; he never left my party. I used a Mankey who fell back near the end of the game, but that little pig-monkey has always been a favorite. I had a Jigglypuff I used quite extensively despite its near uselessness. I had a Pidgeot, the first Pokemon I caught. My ringer, the Poke who pulled the other’s bacon off the fire when things turned south was a Gyarados, the one that an unscrupulous hiker would sell at the start of the game. The joy of Pokemon, especially the first generation, was in the discovery. Each of the Pokemon was a revelation. Now everyone knows that the useless Magikarp evolves into the all-powerful Gyarados, but when I first started, I had no idea. I hoped, guided by an already sharp grasp of video game logic, that that little fish couldn’t just be useless, but I did not know. Each new area of the game unveiled new monsters to tame, with new abilities and skills to master. It perfectly captured the feeling of stepping into a new world that as a player it was your job to explore. It is no wonder it was the phenomenon that it was.
After the first game, though, the series lost some of its luster. I played Gold and Silver, but the magic was gone. I think a big part of that was the fact that I had scoured the internet in the months preceding the release for information about the game. I had nothing to discover. Then I skipped Ruby and Sapphire entirely. I wasn’t really up on the release at the time, I had just moved on. But when Diamond and Pearl came out for the DS is was itching for some Pokemon fun. And Pearl scratched that itch, but it still lacked the magic of Red and Blue.
But White has recaptured that magic. I think the key is that as soon as I decided to buy White, I stopped checking out information on it. I made a point of knowing as little as possible about the game before I played it. Nintendo and Game Freak helped me out by limiting the available Pokemon during the main game to only the new ones. While many of the Pokes fall into the same archetypes as the original 150, there was enough new for it to be fresh. I don’t think I’ll have quite as fond memories of White as I do of Red, I’m not 13 anymore, but I’m having just as much catching them all as I did back then. The fact that it is still going strong makes me hope that there will be many future releases that rekindle this joy of discovery and collecting.