I just spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get the diacritic mark over the E in the blog header. If that doesn't tell you how far gone I am, nothing will.
Birthdays are often a time for reflection, second perhaps only to New Year's as a time to take stock and assess the past year and indeed, one's entire life up to this point. Today I'll be chalking up another line on my cosmic calendar and it's caused me to get sort of introspective. To wit: I'm much closer to 50 than I am to the day of my birth- why is it that I still love a "kid's game" so much? Others
have written about this, but I wanted to write about what the series has meant to me, and why I still follow it after all these years.
First a little background. I was introduced to the Pokémon series by a friend, and I was skeptical at first. I was in high school at the time, and though I'd heard of the game, it didn't really look like something I thought I'd enjoy. I'd played Final Fantasy
3/6j and Chrono Trigger
recently, and comparatively, this game looked like a blurry, ugly mess. When I first started playing, though... the realization that every creature I encountered
was a potential party member grabbed hold of my brain and throttled it. At that moment I was hooked.
For those who know nothing about the series, there are four "generations" of Pokémon, beginning with the original black-and-green Gameboy games and culminating with Diamond and Pearl for the DS, which were released in the US just over a year ago. Each generation has introduced approximately 100 new creatures, and there are now 493 separate Pokémon. Each generation after the first has been preceded by a major Game Boy hardware upgrade: Gold and Silver were among the first games available for the Game Boy Color. Both of these had a slightly altered version that came out about a year after the original games- Yellow for the originals, and Crystal for the sequels. The third generation is comprised of Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald and the two remakes of the first games, Fire Red and Leaf Green. Diamond and Pearl are the most recent, and for now comprise the entirety of the fourth generation. In addition to the main portable games, Nintendo has released games for their consoles that feature connectivity to the handhelds.
At its core, every Pokémon game is a very traditional Japanese RPG, in the style of the first Dragon Quest/Warrior. Battles are fought one-on-one, and there are only 3 possible outcomes- you can win, lose, or run away. Running is self evident. Winning means you caused all the opponent creatures to "faint." Losing means that all your creatures have fainted, and in apparent sympathy for the little beasts, you yourself faint and wake up at the nearest hostel, minus half your cash. Your party is made up of a maximum of 6 Pokémon, and each is limited to four moves. Each Pokémon can gain experience and levels up to 100, and some have the ability to evolve, gaining a stat boost and sometimes unlocking new abilities.
This was my gateway drug.
I started out playing the games on my computer, having NOT downloaded them from the internet. I soon discovered that this method had some serious drawbacks... I couldn't trade with my friends, and that meant some of the more powerful creatures were unattainable, not to mention the fact that my Pokédex would have permanent gaps. My latent OCD wouldn't stand for this... I bought a used GameBoy pocket on eBay and a copy of Pokémon Red. My younger brother started playing and had the same reaction I did, and he picked up a copy of Blue. We were soon merrily trading back and forth.
My experience with the games is probably atypical since I started playing them later in life than the average player. I only really traded with my brother and a couple of friends; I didn't take my games to school and trade on the playground like the young'ns do. That would surely have led to a richly deserved ass-kicking. I guess this means I missed out on the majority of the social aspect of the games, but I still had fun stomping six shades of hell out of the computer's AI. I didn't really know (or care) what I was missing, in other words.
I never really understood the phrase "Polishing a Turd" until I played this game.
Soon after we had both finished our respective games, I saw an announcement in one of the game magazines that Nintendo was going to release an N64 bundle that would include Pokémon Stadium, the first game to feature the little critters in 3D. What was more, we could carry over our battles to the television instead of squinting at our tiny handheld's screens. I had resisted buying an N64 up to this point, but this sounded too good to pass up, so I picked one up. I'll be honest.... it was underwhelming. The Pokémon looked nice, but the attacker and the defender never appeared onscreen together, the announcer was annoying, and the battles took a lot longer because of all the fancy effects. Fortunately, it came with some Mario Party-esque minigames which my friends and I played far more than the main game. This was the first time I really remember feeling burned by a video game. I still spent hours and hours playing it though, unlocking everything it had to offer.
As the series has evolved (hur hur) I've kept up with it, buying new hardware and software as necessary to keep up with it. I've become a little more careful in my purchases, though. For a long time I refused to buy a GBA because my old games wouldn't work with the new ones. I did eventually buy one and played the CRAP out of Sapphire... I think I've spent days in the Battle Tower. I bought a DS lite knowing that Diamond and Pearl were on the way, and it's become a mostly
reliable companion that rarely leaves my side. On the other hand, I've never bought any of the console versions for the Gamecube or Wii. I'm not saying I have a lot of willpower... but when and if I do buy them, I'll get them secondhand, and not for full price.
Not pictured: 3-4 months of my life.
So why is this a guilty pleasure? Well, there are 3 main reasons, and they all have to do with the general public's perception of the series. Most criticism leveled at the series can be boiled down to one of these:
1.) The games are casual games, and there's not much strategy beyond level grinding.
2.) They lack innovation... each generation is the same game with a new coat of paint.
3.) They're "Kiddy."
I'd like to try to dispel these notions, though there's a little truth behind each of them. Let's start at the top.
My first impression of Pokémon was that it was an extremely simplified version of the games I had been playing on consoles- that is to say, a stripped down RPG with all the depth of a rain puddle. As I came to find out, the puddle is the top of a rabbit hole- and the deeper you're willing to dive into the game's mechanics, the deeper it gets.
To begin with, combat is sort of like Rock-Paper-Scissors... but there are 18 different types of attacks, and they don't always behave as they do in other games. In Final Fantasy 5
for example, lightning works great on rock-based enemies. In Pokémon, Rock types often have a Ground-type backup, which affords them complete immunity to Electric-type attacks. The first challenge to a new player is to memorize the chart of which attacks are Super-effective against other types, as well as which creatures belong to what element type. While it's true that a single very powerful creature can be more effective than raising a balanced team, it's a certainty that you're going to run up against somebody who's using the perfect counter to your tiny god eventually.
That's me in the center panel. No lie, I've done that. A lot, actually.
Even if you decide to grind levels, there's more than just experience points to deal with. Most of the game's mechanics aren't spelled out in the games themselves... but a veteran of the games would do well to familiarize themselves with the concepts of Effort Values
, and Breeding.
You don't NEED to know these things to enjoy the game, or even to play it through to completion. I'm just using them to point out that there's more under the hood than there appears to be at first glance. To sum up, the game is exactly as deep or as shallow as the player wants it to be.
Second on the list is the accusation that the gameplay hasn't changed significantly
in the past fifteen years. While the goal of the game remains the same, I would argue that each iteration of the game has been innovative in non-trivial ways. The gameplay hasn't been tweaked all that much, but there have been additions to each generation's play style that change how things work pretty significantly. This applies to both the hardware and software sides of things... I'll start with the games themselves.
When Red and Blue first came out, there was nothing like them. As they gained in popularity, imitators sprang up, but none have ever captured the original series' success. Each generation after the first has added an entire new roster of Pokémon to choose from, in addition to some less obvious gameplay tweaks. Gold and Silver introduced Held items, as well as two new elements to balance out the 16 from the original games, and a day/night cycle that occurred in real time
The third generation brought some less spectacular changes, but did continue to refine the game. Ruby and Sapphire brought the concepts of Pokémon Natures and innate abilities (basically an additional ability inherent to the Pokémon that doesn't take a move slot). It also allowed 2v2 battles for the first time, adding another element of strategy. This brought with it a change to some of the moves- some could hit more than one opponent but were weaker, some hit both the opponent and yourself. Finally, Ruby/Sapphire introduced the notion of physical contact in battle. Moves like Bite and Scratch meant that the two combatants would touch one another, and this activated certain abilities. The latest games in the series have retained all of these changes but added just one of their own. Moves used to be classified as Physical or Special based on their element. In Diamond and Pearl each move's type is decided by the move itself, which makes it far more possible to use a high attack powered Fire type or a Flying Special attacker. None of this is going to matter to a ten year old playing through one of the games for the first time, but if you compare the first games to the most recent you can see how far they've come over the years.
The guy who does VG Cats just started up a new comic called Super Effective. I'm really looking forward to it.
The area where Nintendo has really innovated with Pokémon has generally been on the hardware side of things. Granted, some were less successful than others, but let's go down the list. The first games used the GameBoy's unique link cable in a totally unprecedented way. Other games had used the cable for head-to-head competition in various genres, but an RPG with the ability to trade party members with others was unheard of at the time. When the second generation came out for the Gameboy Color, it featured not only backwards compatibility, but frontwards compatibility as well. Silver and Gold would run in color on the Game Boy Color, and could also be played on the older, colorless Game Boys. What's more, creatures from the new games could be traded back to the old ones... and when your creatures from Red and Blue arrived in the new games they were always holding an item. If both parties had a Game Boy Color, they could point them at each other using the Infrared ports on the top of the system to recieve an in-game gift. Gold and Silver also supported the Game Boy Printer- if you caught all of the Unown
, you could print them out and make stickers with them. I said it was innovative, I didn't say it was a good idea. This generation also began the connectivity trend Nintendo's been crazy about ever since. The Stadium games came with an adaptor for your controller that allowed you to insert your GameBoy cartridge into your N64 controller to transfer Pokémon back and forth.
The third generation is where things started to get a little crazy. The GBA games saw E-reader support, where you could swipe cards through a peripheral to make different Pokémon appear. For SOME reason this didn't take off. Happily, there were other innovations. In addition to the now-expected Gamecube syncing, Emerald was the first to offer Wireless trading. It required a kludgey peripheral, but it got rid of the necessity for wires, and that's always something to cheer about. The current generation's major contribution to the formula is Wi-fi enabled trading.
It's great for social recluses like myself who still want to fill out that Pokédex.
Finally, the often repeated charge that Pokémon is aimed at kids is hard to deny. As mentioned above, nothing ever dies, they just "faint." There's no weapons, no blood, and everything is extremely cheerful and colorful. This is the antithesis of most modern hardcore games, and as a result many gamers seem to think Pokémon is beneath them. I can't argue the point that Pokémon is produced, marketed, and ultimately intended for children... it is and always has been. The rating on the box is E for everyone
, though, and those who are willing to look past the brightly colored outside may find something they enjoy. For the most part, the creatures are genuinely charming... and with nearly 500 of them, there's something there for almost everyone.
To those who claim Pokémon is a kids game, I say unto you: Behold Pikachu's gaping bajingo.
There are several metagames beyond the main quest to beat the Elite Four and become the region's Ultimate Trainer. Raising a personal team of elites to take on the world adds serious replay value, and later editions have added a series of minigames that pit your monsters against others in talent shows and beauty pageants. (Yes, really.) But my favorite part of the game (as well as the cause of most of my frustration with it) is filling in the Pokédex. If I were stuck on a desert island with nothing but my Pokémon collection to entertain me, I'd be set for years. In closing, I'd urge those who have turned up their nose at the series in the past to give it a chance, even if it means playing a NOT rom as I did so long ago.