Select Your Starter: The One that Got Away (Safely)

I’ve done how many of these things now? Four?

I’ve had a lot of experience starting new games of Pokemon in the last few months. I try to play it long enough to jog some memories to put enough down here.

So I go with what I know most of the time. I boot it up, pick the starter I always did, and try to blast through the opening ,moments of the game, because it’s usually the same beats. Pick your name, your rival’s name, select your starter (see what I did there?), fight your rival, and then get out of the first city, because there’s nothing there for you than a couple NPCs and a mother you leave at home alone.

Well, when I started this go around of Pokemon Fire Red, on Step 4: Fight Your Rival, I, for the first time in years, lost.

I picked Bulbasaur, my second favorite starter from the first generation of Pokemon. They’re all good, and I love all three of them dearly. But I’d been through this motion I don’t know how many times, so I wanted to change it up a little bit, because I always pick Squirtle.

I picked Bulbasaur, technically the number one Pokemon according to the Pokedex. I started the battle with my rival, used Growl to reduce his Charmander’s attack, and a few moments later saw my Pokemon’s health bar reduced to zero.

Then—then—Professor Oak has the audacity to say something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s disappointing.”

“O.K.”

Sir, your grandson, my rival, just won his first Pokemon battle ever against me, the kid next door. I’m already reeling from the embarrassment of losing this starting battle for the first time in probably over a decade, and between involuntary eyebrow twitches, I realize just how little you care for your own flesh and blood.

This entire series has been a nostalgia trip for me. I’m shaking the metaphorical box that is my brain to see what dusty memories fall out as I play this formative game series, and in those first few minutes I caught a glimpse of how frustrating and helpless these games could make you feel when you were unprepared. That’s not an attribute specific to Pokemon, but it was, for a time, a regular experience for me when I played.

So, after I cooled down, healed my Pokemon, and made it out of my hometown of Pallet, my Bulbasaur and I went on an absolute rampage to bury that feeling again. There was no time for catching anything to build a party, just winning battles against every low-level creature unfortunate enough to cross our path.

I went straight to the first gym leader, Brock, and one-shot K.O.’d each of his Pokemon.

“Yes, I am a Pokemon master,” I reminded myself, because my ego couldn’t handle the initial loss.

Pokemon Fire Red and Leaf Green were the first instance of Game Freak remaking one if its existing games from the ground up. These two were based on the first generation of Pokemon games, cutting out blue and following the scheme of the original Japanese title lineup (Pokemon Red and Green were the first games in the series, released in Japan).

From every generation forward, there would be a couple new games followed by a third or direct sequel, and sometimes a remake of a previous entry. From Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald, there is Fire Red and Leaf Green. From Diamond and Pearl, there is Heart Gold and Soul Silver. Ruby and Sapphire wouldn’t be remade until X and Y were released on the 3DS, and we’re still holding out for Diamond and Pearl remakes.

But if there was a region and a game that deserved some polish, it’s definitely Kanto and Gen I Pokemon. We were lucky enough to revisit Kanto immediately in Gold and Silver.

Remember those quirky, misshapen sprites that riddle the first games? Those are gone now and replaced by beautifully-rendered pixel illustrations, and there are even overworld sprites for every Pokemon.

Seeing Kanto once again re-envisioned and upgraded is a treat, giving us the original story in a new light and sound with all the Pokemon from Gen III packed in post-game.

When I got Pokemon Fire Red, I had a few years of experience in me. My path wasn’t obstructed by my inability to read anymore. I knew the story beats, and built up a party to make my way through the game. Not to say I didn’t struggle at points, but I managed to catch all the legendary birds and become the region’s champion. But, to be honest, I don’t remember much of my time with the game.

At some point my Gameboy Advance disappeared with my copy of Fire Red inside.

I don’t know if I misplaced it or if somebody took it, but my silver Gameboy Advance with the Spider-Man faceplate was gone. I understood the rage of having a save file erased. In that case, you could at least start over again. But with no system and no game, everything I’d put into it was lost.

As much as playing video games is a privilege, I still relied on them. It’s a hobby, that’s for certain, and escapism is a coping mechanism, but in doses it’s healthier than a lot of other things.

I still haven’t got another physical copy of Fire Red. I bought a bootleg cartridge by accident that ended up dying a few weeks after it arrived (I should have known the price was too good to be true). So, it’s left me wary of seeking out another.

Luckily, not long after I lost them, I received a Gameboy Advance SP for Christmas. Then at some point I picked up Pokemon Emerald. It’s technically a better system, with the compact design and backlit screen.

But I can’t help but miss that silver Gameboy and the Pokemon I lost with it.

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