The year is 1998. After an unprecedented wave of popularity in Japan two years prior, Pokémon is unleashed on the Western world to instant fanfare and success. Unlike fads before it, Pokémon sent the world into a frenzy; spawning avenues of merchandise and emptying the bank accounts of parents everywhere as kids clamoured to get their hands on anything relating to these strange creatures that could be captured and trained. With action figures, trading cards, an anime program and a series of video games, Pokémon not only cemented its place in history but in the depths of gaming culture as well.
I was eight years old when Pokémon took off. My memory is relatively sketchy, but I remember being presented with a copy of both Red and Blue shortly after their release, and from then on I was absolutely hooked. I chose to stick with Red Version (my favourite colour) and my Mum would play Blue; the only downside was that as there was only one Game Boy in the house, we could never trade to complete the Pokédex. This was later rectified by secret meetings in the schoolyard – they had to be secret, because as with anything that was a fad, it was outlawed at school due to being a high theft item – meetings at the back of the oval or behind certain classrooms would be where everyone would gather to trade and battle via Link Cable, or just to show off how far you’d gotten in the game. By the end of it, I had all 151 obtainable Pokémon (which back in the day was mad bragging rights). Everyone’s minds were blown when, on release of Pokémon Yellow, Pikachu could follow you OUTSIDE of the Poké Ball JUST LIKE IN THE TV SHOW!Of course back in those days, my Game Boy never left my side. If you were to keep an expenses account of how many sets of batteries I went through playing the original games, I’m sure I’d have enough to buy an Oculus Rift outright by now, with change to spare. My Game Boy went everywhere with me; school, my grandparents’ places, birthday parties, even to the toilet (and if you’re as big of a gamer as I am, you know that the toilet is one of the most comfortable places to game handheld!). Nights spent waiting for each streetlight to advance in the game (thanks to a lack of backlighting) or straining one’s eyes on a dim lamp were well spent.
The craze showed no signs of stopping by the time the second generation was released with Gold and Silver. Adding 100 new monsters to the mix as well as innovating the gameplay by adding day-and-night cycles among other things, the new games were equally as big of a hit as the originals. Of course by now it was a lot easier to obtain all the Pokémon necessary, through trading as well as transferring between Pokémon Stadium on the Nintendo 64 and the Game Boy games. Couple this with other games like Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Trading Card Game, as well as the TV series and movies, and it seemed like the franchise was only gaining traction and not tapering off. Pokémon Crystal rounded up the trio, being the ‘enhanced’ version of the three, and becoming the norm for each generation of Pokémon games to come.As I got older, I found it hard to keep my love for Pokémon relevant. I was in high school by the time Ruby and Sapphire were released, and although I went straight out and purchased Ruby, I found that less of the people I knew were as interested in the series as me. A lot of people I’ve spoken to have found that at some point they have had a gaming ‘slump’, where it doesn’t interest them or something about it turns them away for a while, and while I still loved Pokémon in my early teens, the call to the PlayStation and more ‘grown-up’ games that my peers were playing was where I spent my time. Having said that, I still loved the hell out of Ruby, and I played it as much as I could where time permitted. Emerald and Fire Red also took up a place in my Game Boy Advance, but by then I was slowly losing interest in what the Big N had to offer.
When Diamond and Pearl came around, the feeling was different. I wasn’t about to run out and grab it like I had in the past, though I did eventually sit down and play it after a while. At this stage I was quickly losing touch with the series, and while it was still fun to play from time to time, the goal of seeking out each monster to catch and train just wasn’t as appealing as it used to be. Plus at this point the total number, if you wanted to “Catch ‘em all!” as the slogan said, was 493. FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY-THREE POCKET MONSTERS. It was bad enough catching the initial 151 through levelling up, using stones and trading, but by this point, Pokémon had lost its appeal to me.
I must confess that I never managed to get into Black, White or their sequels. By this point I was disillusioned with the series, and the mere thought of diving back in scared me. I didn’t have enough free time to check it out, so I glossed over it. I did manage to pick up Heart Gold during this period though, which began a nostalgia trip stemming back to the original Gold and Silver. This reignited the passion within to play Pokémon, which would stay on a slow burn until the next release.Of course with 2013’s release of Pokémon X and Y, I was ready to dive back in. It was just something about the reinvention of the game; the 3D sprites and modelling, the new world to explore… Playing X and Y felt like starting Red and Blue all over again. Add to this the fact that there is a choice of Charmander, Squirtle or Bulbasaur early into the game, and the nostalgia came flooding back. X and Y also helped me remember that even though I had let it slide in my teens, my love for Pokémon, regardless of how simplistic and predictable the game is as an RPG, would always remain. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire’s release further drove the point home, evoking more nostalgia of a time where my love for Pokémon wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm from my peers. Only this time around, I was able to share the journey with my girlfriend and get her to experience the same thrills that I did all those years ago, that weren’t a part of her childhood.
I think, for me, the best part of Pokémon has been the journey. The games teach you that friendship is important, to be kind and protect the ones you love, and to always strive to be the best, like no one ever was (all the while using your pets to pummel other people’s pets into submission in order to win money). And those sentiments (bar the brackets) have echoed in real life – the friendships that people have made through their love of gaming and Nintendo’s want for people to connect through these games has always been a key component to enjoying the series, and as long as they don’t lose the essence at their core, Pokémon will continue to thrive in the gaming world for years to come.
Happy 20th birthday, Pokémon. Thanks for the memories, and here’s to many more.