There’s two kinds of people in the world: the kind who haven’t played Pokémon and the kind who formed a deep emotional and transformational attachment with Pokémon. Sam Brooks pays homage to the pocket monster constant in his life.
If you’re a 90s kid who was even slightly engaged with pop culture or being cool on the proverbial playground then Pokémon has been a part of your consciousness. Whether it’s through the anime or through the video games, you knew what Pokémon was and it’s probably still in the back of your brain, ready to activate you like a sleeper agent when someone lists the first 150 Pokémon in order. (Fun fact: I can still do this! I can’t drive a car. What a layered tapestry our lives end up being.)
Pokémon has been a part of my life longer than more or less all of my friends. This is why. This is how.
The first time Pokémon impinged on my consciousness it was not the game, but the TV show. I was really into the show, and would rush home to watch it every day after school. The art style was new to me, because my innocent ears had never once heard the word ‘anime’ and it would be years before the term ‘waifu’ burned its way into my brain. Ash caught brightly-coloured cute animals who were only slightly anthropomorphised! He travelled with a loud red-haired girl, a perverted guy with a backpack and a yellow electric rat! It was nonsensical, and I loved it, and like every other basic little child, I wanted as much of it as possible.
I’ve never been a subtle person, so I suspect my mother picked up on some hints and decided to reward me for something or another. Still, it came as a complete surprise: one night I got home and there was a copy of Pokémon Blue waiting for me.
It was my first RPG, a gateway RPG, if you will, to games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Age and Skyrim. RPGs are notable for having incredibly structured stories, repetitive gameplay and for sucking hours away from your life. (In this scenario, getting up to the first gym in Pokémon would be my first cheeky cigarette, while the 65 hours I have poured into Persona 5 is my black-tar heroin.)
Up until that point, I owned a Super Gameboy, a massive thing in which you could see all the interior wiring. The only game I owned for it was a terrible Beavis and Butthead platformer that I can only assume came with the cursed machine, because the animation style of that show terrifies me. It was a boring platformer remembered by nobody, not even me really, but it’s useful for contrast’s sake.
Putting the Pokémon Blue cartridge into the Super Gameboy for the first time was a revelation. I didn’t know video games could be like this. In the past, I’d thought of video games as something to be overcome and beaten; I never thought they could be something you were immersed in. Pokémon Blue took my over my world entirely.
It seemed endlessly huge. You could name your character (but you still had to play as a boy)! You could pick your Pokemon at the start (which conveniently lined up with Pokémon introduced early on in the anime)! You could go anywhere (within the massive limits of a game produced in 1997)!
This game even had a proper narrative that followed the show! Now if anime and waifu were foreign concepts to me at this age, you can bet that I’d never heard of synergy. Of course the Pokémon games and the Pokémon anime would feed into each other, as they continued to have ever since.
It’s not the individual moments of playing Pokémon Blue that I remember, it’s the culture that surrounded it at school and my friends. If you played Pokémon Blue, if it was a part of your life, then you’ll remember the weird culture that surrounded the rumours and the glitches. Who doesn’t remember trying to get back on the S.S Anne? Who doesn’t remember getting 99 masterballs from Missingno? PIKABLU, you guys! PIKABLU!
It was everything to me, in a way that one thing can be everything to a child, and not so much to an adult. More than anything else, Pokemon Blue got me hooked into the ways that videogames can envelop, enrich and also take over your entire life, if you let it. At age seven, this was my whole goddamned life and I was happy to let it be that way.
Real talk: Pokémon Yellow was my introduction to the concept of an abusive relationship.
Pokémon Yellow is basically the same game as Pokémon Blue and Red, with very very minor differences to the engine to disguise that people are shelling out about $80 in 1998 money for the same game. The big difference, at least when you’re a kid, is that Pikachu is following you around and you can now get Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander all in one game so now you can play the anime properly!
The thing with having Pikachu follow you around means you can check on how he’s feeling. As a seven year old, I had a pretty debilitating habit of infusing things that did not have life, feelings or emotions with all these things. It’s why I had something in the realm of 30 stuffed animals.
I did this constantly. At age eight I didn’t know that basically Pikachu cycled through a series of responses and that what I was doing had little effect on what Pikachu was feeling. I thought I had an adverse and huge impact on what Pikachu’s emotions, and I was making him sad.
This messes with a kid’s psychology, even moreso when this Pikachu is supposed to be your best friend and your primary way of making progress in the world of Pokemon, even though Pikachu is an electric type which isn’t very good against a lot of types, but you can’t let him go because Pikachu is your best friend so you’re forced into this blurring of personal relationships and working relationships and now Pikachu is sad for no reason!
Of course now I understand that Pikachu is just a programmed, more or less random bunch of pixels. I am also now a 26 year old who believes that his actions have adverse and seemingly random effects on those close to him and with a very blurred line between professional and personal, so well done Pokemon Yellow!
When Pokémon Silver came out I thought it was the best game I’d ever played. I have a very distinct memory of my grandparents babysitting me one weekend, and being a little dismayed that instead of wanting to read books, I wanted to play Pokémon Silver all weekend. And by all weekend, I mean all weekend. They took me out to the Papakura RSA, staying quite late to dance because my grandparents were amazing, and I sat patiently in the corner and played Pokémon Silver.
By this point I was pretty deep into my video games as escapism. I’d poured about 50 hours into Final Fantasy 7 and 8, I’d beaten all three Spyro games, I’d mastered many characters in Tekken 3 and watched a lot of people play Metal Gear Solid because I was too scared of playing it.
Pokémon Silver’s big twist is that it’s basically two games. Once you beat the core game and eight gyms, which again very cleverly and synergistically followed the plot of the second anime series vaguely, it’s suddenly revealed you can go to the world of Pokémon Red and play through those gyms! Not only is that roughly eight more hours, you get to escape back into the world that made you happy when you were seven years old, but with slightly better graphics. Of course, older and wiser me knows that it’s essentially the same engine as the first game, and that minimal effort has been expended on making it as much game as possible, but age ten me just saw SIXTEEN gyms, TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY ONE Pokemon and a beloved Togepi that was absolutely useless in battle. I escaped thoroughly into this game.
The difference this time was I had a friend with Pokémon Gold. We would sit side by side and play the games together, trading Pokémon so we could fill up each other’s Pokedexes. We would often never talk for hours, just play Pokémon in the same room. (This was a futile exercise. To this day I have never gotten close to filling any Pokedex in any Pokémon game and now there’s something like 900 of them and that doesn’t sound like even a little bit of fun.)
I’ve found social gaming difficult, to be blunt. I’ve almost never played a game online, I will sometimes play competitive games with other people in the room, and whenever I play single-player games with other people in the room I get antsy. For me gaming is a very solitary behaviour. Now that game controllers come with headphone jacks, it’s become less escapism and more isolation. It suits me.
Pokemon X and Y
I wouldn’t say that I was depressed when I bought my copy of Pokémon Y (at this point I’d become one of those people who would skip the initial double release and instead wait for the updated third release) but I will say that I was paying $175 a week to live in a room just off K’Rd that was so small I couldn’t fit a double bed into it and the toilet was broken so every time you flushed it it would flood the bathroom so you had to mop it up. So I wasn’t depressed but I was definitely primed for it.
It was a dark time in my life.
I came into some money at the time because I’d won a thing, and decided to spend some of the proceeds on the game that was coming out that week, Pokémon X. I hadn’t played Pokémon properly in about ten years, I’d emulated previous games and played them for a weekend but I hadn’t passionately invested my time and my imagination in one of those games. There had been other games in those ten years, your Fantasies Final, your Effects Mass, but there hadn’t been a Pokémon.
In this pre-depressive time, Pokémon X was what I needed. For all the shit that the game gets for essentially having the same formula since its inception, it works. There’s something satisfying about booting up your game and going through the same process.
A professor gives you a speech. You pick one of three types of Pokémon; I always pick grass. You catch some Pokémon. You beat eight gyms, get eight badges. You defeat the Elite Four. You go on a celebratory boat trip. It’s comfort food.
It works because it’s satisfying, and if you’re a 90s kid, it works because it takes you back to a simpler time. It takes you back to when the hardest thing you had to deal with in your life was figuring out how to beat the Fire Gym Leader because the only thing you had done was level up your grass starter and now you were completely fucked. It takes you back to a time where you didn’t have to pay for the doctor, and the main worry you had was that your Venusaur had run out of Vine Whips.
I could not tell you a single plot point from Pokémon X. I couldn’t tell you a Pokémon I caught. I can tell you that I nickname characters after Golden Age Hollywood actors, because I have always been, and remain, the worst. What I can tell you is that for about two weeks I forgot I was paying $175 to sleep in a single bed on the ground floor of an apartment building where there wasn’t an electrical outlet in the bathroom so I had to just gamble with my scant facial hair situation.
Thank you, Pokémon X.
Pokemon Sun and Moon
All good things come to an end. Children grow into adults, spring turns to summer, Rachel McKenna leaves Shortland Street.
At the end of last year, I went on tour with a show. It was the first time that I’d ever done a show properly full-time, rehearsing full-time during the week (but starting at 10am because I’m not a monster) before going into a fairly insane schedule of four cities and 36 shows over a month and a half. We spent more hours in that tiny hatchback than I care to remember. (It’s important, a bit, to mention that this show took place entirely within that hatchback, because theatre needs gimmickry to continue.)
Pokémon Sun and Moon came out a week into our tour. I said I would devote days during the tour to playing it, proudly to anybody who would listen, which was nobody. I would devote time to having fun! To revisiting my childhood! To being a hermit during the day!
I played about 45 minutes of Pokémon Moon. We had some downtime during our four day stint in Palmerston North, so I decided to set up in our picturesque Airbnb’d villa in Foxton and play the game.
I was dismayed and excited. This was not the Pokémon I recognised. You could move in diagonals! It was 3D! There were people of colour! There were new Pokémon, as there were every generation, but these ones didn’t hook me.
Eventually, my friend and fellow tour-endurer Tim asked me what I was doing. When I said I was playing Pokémon, he looked at me strangely. I remember him saying, “They still make those?” but I think he said it more with his eyes than with his mouth. Eventually there was a problem I had to solve with the show, and I couldn’t hide from it because we were on tour, and secretly, I actually wanted to solve it.
Because Pokémon hadn’t hooked me. I wasn’t seven, ten, or even 23 anymore. Pokémon wasn’t a place I could escape to. Pokémon was a distraction, and a strange distraction for a 26 year old man. And even more bizarre, I wasn’t even hooked by it. It wasn’t a place I could actually escape to anymore.
I’m sure I’ll find my way back to Pokémon one day, when my toilet can’t flush or when I have a two week period where I’m not obligated to leave the house for any reason. It’s not that I can’t escape into video games anymore, as the 65 hours I’ve spent on Persona 5 this month proves, it’s that I can’t escape the same way a seven year old could.
Pokémon is for many people. It’s for people who can spend hours catching 150 monsters, people who can be emotionally abused by a fictional electric rat, people who want to sit in silence and play and people who really really need to escape. It’s not for me at the moment, but someday it will be.
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