The lights are on
"It's kind of like dog fighting": my friend didn't have the most eloquent way of explaining this new game called Pokémon that was just released for the Game Boy, but I was intrigued. In 1998 I was eleven years old and had never played an RPG before, I also hadn't really spent much time with any Nintendo game. I remember peering over my friend's shoulder as he explained this world where you can capture and train little monsters. The closest analogy I had at that time was Tomagotchi, but this combined ownership over some strange digital pet with a gigantic world and genuine challenge.
I went with Pokémon Blue because it is the only version where you can catch a Meowth in the wild, and the television show had taught me that Meowth is a must-have. I was immediately hooked. I chose Squirtle and set out on my path to become a Pokémon master or something. I spent an unhealthy amount of time with the game; not only because of the scope of the adventure, but the slow battle speeds can really eat away at the clock. I was always eager to give it another go in the Safari Zone or to cruise the same strip of sea over and over again in hopes of finding something other than an unwanted Tentacool. Facing the Elite Four at the end of the game was brutally difficult, and I'm happy to say that the final showdowns still make me sweat when playing and replaying other Pokémon games in the series.
The game itself was great, but what made Pokémon an infinite time sink were the discussions that surrounded this new universe at school. Pokémon swept through my school like a plague. You would walk down the hallways and have to step over kids battling Pokémon cards before tripping over a Game Boy multi-link cable. It was the first and only real cultural phenomenon that I was a part of. Who needs The Beatles when you have Weedles? I eventually got my hands on a strategy guide for the games and read it again and again as if it were a great work of fiction. I remember riding the long bus ride home and studying the 151 Pokémon like my life depended on it. I memorized all of them because it was fun, I will be able to tell you the difference between a Grimer and a Ditto when I'm 64 years old. Claiming your favorite Pokémon (Tangela and Golduck) and arguing with friends about their quality was an oddly formative experience.
The games had a sense of mystery surrounding them. Part of this could be that they were Japanese and there were always rumors about how far along the television show or new game releases were in Japan, but a lot of confusion and rumors came from the game itself. There was the infamous glitch that could corrupt your save when you took the steps to catch something called Missingno, and then there was the legendary Pokémon Mew that couldn't be caught in the regular game. Those two additions opened the door and set off a firestorm of rumors and exaggerated first-hand accounts across the playground about things that have been accomplished and mysterious new Pokémon that have been caught. I heard that you could evolve Charizard into something called "Charcolt" if you followed five simple steps, a friend of mine claimed to have caught variations of Pikachu that were called "Pikagreen" and "Pikablue." It was hard to draw the line between reality and rumor in a game as ambitious and new as Pokémon.
For the amount of time that I spent both playing the games and daydreaming about what type of gym leader I would be if I lived in the Pokémon world, I'd have to say that Pokémon has consumed more of my brain cells than any other title. I've lost a little enthusiasm along the way, but I know that I'm still going to get a nostalgic thrill when I choose my starter and set off on the adventure in this fall's Pokémon X and Y.
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