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Boomerang Pokémon Fans: Jumping From 1998 to 2013
I was among North America's first Pokémon fans. At nearly ten years old, I was in the game's targeted demographic, and as an animal-loving RPG-playing prepubescent gamer, a shiny copy of Pokémon Red was in my hands within a month of its release. My brother bought the complementary Pokémon Blue, so we could share the version-exclusive monsters and truly, as the saying goes, "catch 'em all." We joined thousands upon thousands of fans in being enchanted by the series to the point of obsession. Game Boys were brought to school daily to trade and battle with classmates. Toys from the series, such as Burger King's promotional series, were gleefully bought and collected. Pokémon trading cards were snatched off the shelves as soon as the stores restocked.
Relaying what gripped our imaginations about the series is hard to pinpoint. A young protagonist who sets off on an adventure for glory is the oldest story there is, as much as it resonates to a child. The aesthetic variety of the "pocket monsters" themselves certainly helped - from cute, like Meowth and Pikachu, to fierce, like Gyarados or Scyther, and strange or endearing like Jigglypuff or Caterpie. But perhaps most exciting about the game was the freedom to choose are raise Pokémon as one wanted, to focus on collecting or battling, and ultimately playing a game that exceeded its own plot. The game combines a sense of accomplishment with player individuality, as well as utilizing a sense of community among fans with two-player interactions.
I played the spinoffs released around that time, including Pokémon Stadium, Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Pinball. When the sequels of Gold and Silver came out, my brother and I bought and played them as well. There were changes, certainly, not just including a hundred new monsters, but some new mechanics as well, such as gendered Pokémon and the ability to breed. Still, the game used the same system as its predecessor, and could still be played on an old chunky Game Boy, and even then, I was more drawn to the original.
That was about where my career in Pokémon ended.
It wasn't that I ever disliked it, or even pretended to dislike it as other kids my age, now entering junior high or high school, now did with their heads bowed. I admit I was a little turned off by the new Pokémon, somehow convincing myself that they lacked the spirited design of the originals. Nor could I see value in replaying what was essentially, in my mind, the same game - battle, capture, collect, trade, wait for newest installment, rinse, repeat. The original had burrowed into a place of nostalgia for me that had no need for change or updated graphics. Despite my reservations, the series continued to evolve, and scoffs that Pokémon was a fad weakened when it became clear that it had earned itself a place beside Zelda and Mario in timeless, ageless quality. Pikachu wasn't going anywhere. But even when it became socially acceptable among college-age geek crowds to play again, something done with a sort of hipster pride even among "casuals," I had no interest.
That changed about two weeks ago.
The release of the 3DS hailed a new era of Pokémon, with capabilities far beyond what the Game Boy hadn't dared to even dream. I admit it was the release of a different game that finally prompted me to buy the system. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed was lively with Pokémon statuses and requests to exchange friend codes, citing phrases and names of new Pokémon that meant nothing to me. When several close friends began to play it, I was intrigued. More than that, I felt left out. Indignant. I, who had once been the greatest Pokémon fan the world had ever known, was not included. Finally I stood before Pokémon X and Y, concealed behind a glass case at Target. $40 later, the deed was done. I was back in my childhood.
After something like fifteen years, I was returning to the world of Pokémon. I was still skeptical when I loaded the game. But that skepticism was dealt a one-hit-KO from about five minutes in. Here are some observations from the Pokémon "boomerang" player, the one that jumped from 1998 to 2013.
For one, I could play as a girl! Unheard of! I found out later that this was a feature introduced just after my retirement, but as a child I was so used to playing male characters in a time when the video game industry was convinced girl gamers were akin to the legendary Mew in rarity and I was oddly touched. Pokémon X and Y even allow players to pick their skin color, something I imagine players without light skin might appreciate as well. The character design of the game is much more than that, however. In a probably-unnecessary but incredibly entertaining fashion feature, various towns have boutiques where new clothes can be bought, all in a variety of colors and styles. One city even has a hairdresser, where players can style and dye their hair. It's an extended character creator worthy of The Sims.
Pokémon, too, have an individuality that the original game did not offer. Each Pokémon has a nature, such as "rash", "gentle" or "brave" that affects their stat growth. They also have characteristics - one of my Pokémon apparently likes to take siestas, who knew? In addition to that, the base stats vary from Pokémon to Pokémon even in the same species, and can act like genes for breeding side plot... which, according to the Internet, prompts some players to breed generations of the same Pokémon until they produce one with the "perfect" high stats. Pokémon also have abilities, some advertised on the Pokémon's summary information, some apparently hidden, that also affect what happens in battle. Outcomes in Red and Blue could be affected by your Pokémon's level, how many of those levels you yourself raised it, some variety in stats as the monster leveled up, and of course the techniques you choose to keep and use. Battles were varied. But X and Y are affected by so many more factors, many of which I don't pretend to understand yet.
A bit of a silly and kiddish feature that I'm not ashamed to love is "Pokémon Amie." You can watch your Pokémon wander around its "Pokéball" in the bottom screen of the DS, and select them and - well, those of us from the Red/Blue era probably also remember Tamagotchis and GigaPets, right? Play with the monster, feed it, pet it... everything except for cleaning up its poop (and even then, I've only played two weeks' worth of the game, so who knows?). The interactions here will affect the Pokémon's affection for you - a feature I vaguely remember from the Gold/Silver series, but undoubtedly expanded here. The details are what really makes the feature fun. Pokémon prefer to be pet in certain spots, and accidentally petting a Charmander's tail will even result in a burnt hand animation. The minigames that you can "play" are equally childish, but no less fun than a cute app game you might play on your smartphone.
Gone too are the days of a Game Link Cable - an antiquated piece of equipment that was good for Pokémon and not a whole lot else. Not only do the 3DS's have some kind of magical technology that allows you to wirelessly connect with friends sitting near you, you can also hook up to the Internet and interact with a worldwide network of players.
The repercussions of this are as "fabulous~!" as Team Rocket's replacement group, Team Flare. Not only is trading, battling, and even chatting with random players possible, Game Freak (or whoever is in charge of the series these days) has added a few useful features, such as the GTS - that is, the Global Trade Station. This allows you to search for Pokémon you want to trade for on the network, some with awesome deals, some absurd - I myself managed to procure a Bulbasaur for a Butterfree. Not bad. The other is WonderTrade, where you can pick any Pokémon you have to trade randomly with some unknown player. Results are as varied as you might expect. Depending on the other player's altruism, you could receive a level 2 Pidgey, or a legendary Pokémon, or anything in between. Adding the possibilities of getting a "Shiny" Pokémon (also, I believe, introduced in Gold/Silver but again vaguely recalled) or the "Pokerus" virus (not as bad as it sounds, if your Pokémon is infected it will grow faster, or better, or something), it's an excellent way to build your Pokédex enjoy the community the game offers.
Something that about gave me a heart attack was running into a "hoard" of Psyducks. Apparently one-on-one battles aren't a strict rule anymore, as you can encounter a group of six or so wild Pokémon in a single battle, albeit generally low leveled. Additionally, "double battles" are a possibility, where two trainers each send out a Pokémon at the same time, allowing you to send out two of your own in return - or, occasionally, fighting alongside your rival/friend/stalker who alternates between wanting to beat you in a battle and helping you.
Another new development is new types, Generation VI's premiere type "Fairy." Even old Pokémon and moves are subject to alteration, which throws a wrench in everything I thought I knew about my originals. Additionally, some Pokémon may now undergo a "Mega Evolution" in which, for the duration of a single battle, super-evolve into a theoretically more badass monster. This includes our very own Charizard, Blastoise and Venusaur, as well as other ferocious favorites like Mewtwo and new ones whose names I do not know. Both of these also shake about the battle mechanics.
Speaking of evolutions, there are something like eight Eevee evolutions ("Eeveelutions", if you will) now - but old schoolers, don't have a heart attack. You don't have to have that many friends to get them all. Similar to all starter Pokémon (but unlike the genderless legendary creatures), Eevee can breed. That means you only need to find one, then send it to the Pokémon daycare center with a special compatible friend and wait for a venerable army of baby Eevees to appear. You can also get (and trade) all those Charmanders, Bulbasaurs and Squirtles - can you imagine being able to do that in 1998?
The concept of time - both night and day, and days of the week - were introduced back in Gold and Silver. Still, to gamers like myself who still have a Red and Blue mindset, this certainly feels new. A lot of the RPGs I play do use the passing of time with a night and day scheme, with different events happening at different times - games have been doing that since the 1990s, to be fair - but it's still a little strange for a game to follow the time of the real world. As far as I can tell, different Pokémon can be caught at different times of the day, and sometimes only on certain days of the week. Additionally, some stores like boutiques change what can be bought every day. The graphics, too, reflect the time. Some Pokémon are also affected by this real-world time in terms of evolution as well. It certainly makes the game more integrative, though I imagine it is frustrating for people who can absolutely never play in mornings or on Tuesdays, or kids with early bedtimes.
It's hard for me to rate the story in comparison to that of the other games that I have not played. Pokémon, to me, is not a game that needs to or even should rely off of story - the magic is in the adventure, gameplay, and world immersion. That being said, as a lover of RPGs, I also believe games have the ability to tell stories that are just as strong and exciting as any book. Pokémon Red and Blue were certainly not without plot, but Pokémon X and Y are certainly something else all together. Both following the psychotic Team Flare in a weirdly dark subplot of war, human nature and world destruction and an eerie past with a Pokémon brought back from the dead at a severe price, and the more immediate plot of the protagonist Serena or Calem (female and male respectively) and their friends, there is certainly more to the game than just making the ultimate Pokémon team and filling the Pokédex. Is that necessary, or even good for a game like Pokémon? Too much story might detract from the freedom and self-insert adventure of the game, but on the other hand, it also gives the game individuality when there are already six generations of what could have been the same thing again and again.
Finally - and perhaps most importantly - the graphics need to be mentioned. As an "old school" gamer, I have no trouble utilizing my imagination to bring life to a blotch of black and white pixels, but the glamor and, frankly, beauty that the 3DS is capable of - and Pokémon X and Y take total advantage of - is astounding compared to the games of the 1990s. Sprites are a thing of the past. Characters and Pokémon both are three-dimensional, colored and crisp. I'm certainly not new to good graphics, as I game as much as I ever did, but seeing it in Pokémon - something that really does resemble the anime - is pretty amazing.
Do I have any gripes about the new game? To be honest, I admit my elitism about the series is dead and buried. The game does feel much easier than the original, and I've spent significantly less time leveling up - but on the other hand, I don't actually have any idea how many Pokémon exist today, though I feel like it's something over 500 and capturing them all seems pretty close to impossible. The new designs are forgiven, though some are certainly better looking than others, I remind myself not to forget about atrocities such as Mr. Mime, Jynx and the decidedly uncreative Diglet from the original game that I'm able to look back on with rose-tinted lenses. No, I don't know all the names of the Pokémon past 151, and don't expect I will, but I've made an effort to put mostly non-original Pokémon in my team.
But overall, it's like I've been warped back to 1998, carrying my Game Boy - I mean, 3DS, but it'll always be a Game Boy to me - with me and turning on Pokémon whenever no one is looking or demanding my attention, and playing whenever I have free time in between obligations. Even in this article am I embarrassed to admit how many hours I clocked in just a week. I almost think it would've been overwhelming if I had been nine years old playing it, so many side games and extra features there are in an already expanded gameplay - I can just imagine my mother's exasperation (mainly because it's a fresh memory, as she found out I'm playing Pokémon again.) Still, I'd recommend it to my fellow old school gamers if they have any inkling of curiosity whatsoever. It's a helpful encouragement that once again, we get to choose Charmander, Bulbasaur and Squirtle as our starting Pokémon (after enduring an initial set of funny looking new guys).