I am hard-pressed to name something I’ve kept with for 20 years other than what comes naturally or what’s taught at a young age. I stopped running frequently and playing soccer once my knees gave out right after high school. There have been attempts to learn an instrument (I’ll get you one day, bass), coding, or a new language. And I have a terrible habit of buying, trying, and (shortly after) dropping off of books and video games. However, despite my short attention span, I’ve somehow kept up with a video game series almost since its inception.
That would be Pokémon.
I was introduced to the Pokémon animated series on an ancient, wood-grained tube TV sitting in my grade school babysitter’s living room.
Before her kids could flip the channel to the bane of my six-year-old existence, Full House, I witnessed Ash Ketchum—a young boy with spiky brown hair, a signature red and white hat, a blue vest, and a penchant to “catch ‘em all”—and his electric mouse partner, Pikachu.
They stood in a PokéCenter, conversing with the pink-haired Nurse Joy and her companion Chansey, a stout, possibly marsupial creature that kept an egg in a small pouch on its stomach.
Every day that I got off that bus after school at my babysitter’s, I wanted to hurl the entire cast of Full House from the Golden Gate Bridge into the water below because they were eating up my after school time with a truly superior series.
I couldn’t tell you today what episode it was or the time of year I first saw it. But seeing that snippet of the show made the synapses in my brain spark, and like a technicolor stimulant, I was fixated on Pokémon.
An impatient origin story
For my sixth birthday, I received a starter deck of Pokémon Cards and an imported plastic Squirtle figurine. It was battery-powered and had a motion detector, letting out its Japanese call “zenigame” when you walked past it. I still have a lot of those cards, and the figurine is tucked away somewhere in a box, but at the time these few possessions weren’t enough to satiate my hunger for Pokémon.
I knew the games existed. I saw the commercials daily. I witnessed my peers sneaking Gameboys to school, connecting link cables in hiding places on the playgrounds, and battling and trading Pokémon in secret, because video games were forbidden on campus.
I remember even having a dream of receiving a copy of Pokemon, and reveling in my sleeping splendor because I’d finally achieved my life’s goal at age six. But I soon woke up and realized the game wasn’t there.
Then one day, it happened.
It was a weekday. My brother and I were home from school when our mom told us to pack into the car. We were standing in FuncoLand and the cashier handed my brother and I each a Gameboy Pocket and a copy of Pokémon Red (for him) and Blue (for myself). By that time, the sun had set, and there was no way my mom was driving with the overhead light on. I could barely make out anything on the moving green pixels of the dot-matrix screen. But I’d finally done it. I had Pokémon.
At that point, I couldn’t handle reading or writing much more than my first and last name. I was in kindergarten. As much as Pokémon was a game marketed to children, advertisers should have included the caveat, “Children who can read.”
There aren’t any difficulty settings in Pokémon games, except those that are self-imposed. For instance, different starter Pokémon can assist better than others in the first few gym battles (for instance, Squirtle or Bulbasaur will fair better than say Charmander against Brock’s rock-type Pokémon in the first gym of Generation I). But not being able to read in a pretty text-heavy game made it expectedly harder. On one attempt at a playthrough, I ended up stuck in a cave with my strongest Pokémon only knowing moves that were status affecting, not damage dealing, because I couldn’t read any of the attack names; or know when to assign certain moves to my party to advance through physical barriers like shrubbery, boulders, or bodies of water. I couldn’t follow the quests or storylines, because I had zero clues how to solve these tasks presented to me.
And with my poor adolescent judgment, I didn’t realize I shouldn’t let my friend borrow my game and subsequently have my save file deleted, because I was six and my child brain didn’t know any better.
These struggles through the Kanto Region weren’t seen as such while I was illiterate and knee-deep in it. Every slight progression was a major triumph in my book. Those small unknown details that are present in every iteration of Pokémon since were astounding. Not having a strategy guide or the wherewithal to use one meant that something like evolution was the greatest surprise. I knew it would come, because I devoured the show and knew the names of all the creatures and their evolutions, but I didn’t know when it would happen or at what level.
While the picture books sitting on my family’s shelf remained unopened, I found the frequent text boxes in Pokémon as a much more compelling motivator to learn how to read.
Pokémon Red and Blue are the quirky first entry to a much-beloved series. That’s not meant to disparage the games. Red and Blue are fully-realized, but as they took their first steps, they occasionally stumbled. Revisiting them after another seven generations of games in existence makes the cracks plenty clearer.
The most glaring is the sprite work, especially in battle sequences. From the perspective of the trainer, very few backs of Pokémon look good in battle. They’re frequently blown up, blockier versions than the opponent’s side — and even in that case, it’s a gamble on how well those will look too.
For example, Koffing is a round, purple, floating Pokémon with small smoking geysers poking out of its body, and a skull and crossbones on what I presume is its belly, with its mouth and eyes above it. In the first games, however, that’s reversed. The skull is placed on its forehead (or above the eyes), turning the character sprite from a level-eyed creature to one forced to stare up at everything.
Or there’s Exeggcute, a grouping of eggs with faces that have a presumably shared consciousness. In the TV show and proceeding games, all of the eggs in Exeggcute are the same size, but in the first game, there is one central enormous egg and several smaller ones.
For me, some of the character artwork is the low point of the game. It’s a flaw, but a funny one, at least. Even after I remove my nostalgia glasses, I have a hard time picking out aspects of Generation I Pokémon games that I dislike.
There’s a charm that culminates at the intersection of an incredible soundtrack, an interesting setting, and RPG elements that even the most novice player can pick up. It’s an entry-level title in a sea of much larger, much more complicated RPGs, especially nowadays. And, honestly, it’s one of the few RPGs that I’ve seen to completion. Pokémon is one title in the genre that broke through, because the systems can require as much or as little demand as you’d like to allow progression.
On the surface, the games might be viewed by the uninitiated as just another product lumped in with an ad campaign with brightly-colored characters with strange names, floating in an ocean of merchandise. What’s inside is much more enticing than any of that.
The game is a familiar but fantastical setting that gives 10-year-olds the agency to take on the world.
Your lot in this Pokémon life is determined by your ability to catch and train the creatures. You start with one and grow your team and its levels and take on the trainers of the region. With them, they can take you nearly anywhere—in the skies, across the ocean, deep into caves. You’re camping out in cities, in forests, and on roadsides with your team, with only a bike, fishing rod, and a pack filled with items.
And they put this game on a system you can pick up and carry with you. For me, it was something that breathed more life into my imagination. I would walk the acres of forest my family owned, pretending to face off against wild Pokémon with my trusty Squirtle, half hoping one would actually appear. I could still regularly be found underneath a light source with Gameboy in hand, but if I wasn’t, I was still in that world.
I’m no longer that six-year-old whose biggest concern was Pokémon. I’m now a 26-year-old with a house and a career, but one who’s very much looking forward to November and the release of Pokémon Sword & Shield. These amazing creatures have been with me for two decades now. I’ve seen every mainline game to completion and defeated every gym leader, villainous team, and Elite 4 who stood against me. So, for the next however many months, I’ll be revisiting these Pokémon regions and writing about my time with them, past and present.
Today, I’m still day-dreaming about walking the numbered routes of Kanto with my party of Pokémon at my side.