Handhelds: Graduating as 2000’s Catchemaledictorian

[Every week, we put out a call to our Community for blogs on a specific topic. This week, the assignment was to write a blog about handheld gaming. Today’s promoted blog is from nekobun, and he has a lot to say about Pokemon. If you want to see your own work on the front page next week, make sure you write a blog for our current topic: Being Social. — JRo]

Three quarters of the way through my freshman year of high school, my parents decided to move from our reasonably suburban home and fairly solid school district to a somewhat more rural, regressed region. Between the fact that I was being handed textbooks at my new school that I’d worked through two or three years prior, and that I’d finally begun coming out of my shell socially and struggling with the sort of teen acceptance issues and talking-to-the-opposite-sex adjustments most kids go through around that time, it goes without saying that this move completely destroyed me. Embittered, annoyed, and feeling somewhat betrayed (at the very least, they could’ve stayed until the end of the school year), I quickly backslid into a shell of my former self, turning much more antisocial and having one hell of a time accepting new friends.

Not long after, however, I was enrolled in an exchange program under the CISV system, wherein I was to go to Japan for a month, a year after hosting a Japanese kid my age for a month here in the United States. There were ten of us, all in all, who made the cut from all around the greater Philadelphia area, and dealing with them went a long way toward (re-)teaching me that location and upbringing don’t necessarily dictate that people are or are not douchebags by default. But that’s not the crux of this story, so I’ll stop digressing.

While in Japan (near Nagoya, if you want specifics), we spent one day visiting my host Koji’s young cousin, who had the most peculiar game for his Nintendo 64. Knowing I was a complete nerd for this sort of thing, given that I wore it on my sleeve the entire time he’d been in Japan, Koji suggested he fire it up and show me what this “Pokemon Stajiam” thing was all about. Apparently, the mean-looking sea serpent his cousin was controlling was but one of a whole slew of “pocket monsters” from a Game Boy game, which somehow turned cock fighting into an RPG, that had been out for a bit over there. There was a card-stamp Pokemon promotion going on with the train stations in Tokyo when we visited, merchandise was everywhere, and when I dared to try and watch TV with my limited knowledge of Japanese, there’d be ads for it here and there. I had heard a bit about Pokemon in passing in some of my early internet wanderings, prior to coming over, but the saturation over the course of my trip made Pokemon a background obsession, set to explode upon the revelation that they were bringing the franchise, in all its media forms, to America.

I don’t believe I made it out to pick up the game on launch day, but it was certainly soon after the Pokes and the Mons hit U.S. shores that I snagged copies of both Red and Blue, not taking any chances on missing any color-specific exclusives as I swapped between them on my old, somehow still chugging original “brick” Game Boy. This thing was a Frankenstein’s monster of a system; the battery door had been replaced by a cut out section of a marble notebook cover and some duct tape, after the actual cover had been swapped to my little brother’s system so he could trade his in at GameStop. The screen had its fair share of scratches, given that I’d had the thing since a year after the Game Boy originally launched, and I’m pretty sure something was a little wrong with the speaker. Despite it being close to its last legs, that beast served me well, letting me cruise through the tall grass and expand my stable of personal combatants, mostly through the course of homeroom each school day and the beginning of social studies classes, since they were after lunch and the teacher was always a bit late.

Oddly enough, my absorption in the happenings in the Kanto region led to more involvement in the real world that I’d been trying pretty hard to avoid. Classmates would stop and ask me what I was doing, and while most of them wouldn’t get it, despite that they’d probably pitted two barnyard animals against one another in some sort of contest more than once in their lives, there’d occasionally be a party with whom the whole thing jived. At the time, Pokemon was little more than a new, weird Saturday morning cartoon and some C-list portable game that was taking a back seat on the cusp of the Game Boy Color, so there was a lot of ‘splainin to do. While no one ever seemed to share a desire to be the very best as I did, Poke-talk often broke the ice on the video game front and introduced me to a lot of gamers whom I never would’ve guessed played anything otherwise.

Eventually, scraping together funds from allowance and later a crappy grocery store job allowed me to get my filthy paws on a Pokemon edition Game Boy Color with Pokemon Yellow, as well as a universal link cable, and it was here that the game was truly afoot. Finally, I could trade certain Pokemon to gain access to evolutions previously inconcievable, and further my progress towards the holy number of 152 (before we all realized MissingNo was just a glitch — glad I never did try to get said glitch). With Yellow‘s offer of a Game Boy Printer-compatible certificate for completely filling out one’s Pokedex, the race was on to get every last one of the little bastards. I spent many a late night trading back and forth, partly for evolution and partly just to get them organized, the eventual goal being to get them all into the storage boxes on a single cartridge.

That’s when disaster struck. For whatever reason, I was using my Super Game Boy to do most of the box shuffling, swapping the cartridge into it after each batch of trading to get organized on a full-fledged TV screen. It also made leveling up to get new moves and evolutions a great deal easier, and saved quite a few bucks on AA batteries. Unlike the Game Boy and most of its offspring, the Super Game Boy cartridge/adapter for the SNES lacked the power button’s functionality in regards to having a nubbin to slide over and hold the cartridge in place. About 110 Pokemon into the sorting process, when it was around midnight on a school night and I was delirious with fatigue, I neglected to turn off the SNES before removing the Pokemon Red cartridge from the Super GB’s slot. This wiped the game’s save, and in the process, more than half the Pokemon I’d managed to gather.

Given that I’d been raised by JRPGs to be a perfectionist, I did the only reasonable thing that came to mind: I reset the save on Blue as well and went back to work from square one. More wandering, capturing, and dialogue-skipping in both games consumed the greater part of my junior and senior high school years, affecting my grades to some degree and affecting my sleep patterns to a much greater one. Eventually, however, it all paid off. I got all 150 and tracked down a Game Boy Printer at a decent price on eBay in order to get my certificate printed out. I’m not sure what happened to the sticker, though I do still have the remnants of a printout of Jigglypuff’s Pokedex profile on my favorite N64 controller — the ‘puff is both my totem Pokemon and one of my favorite Super Smash Bros. characters. I knew most of the original Pokemon by number, or could at least tell you what five were in either direction of a given Pokemon on the full Pokedex list, if slightly out of order from time to time.

I even went so far as to get myself a legit Mew from Nintendo. The first attempt, which involved waiting in line on Black Friday for Toys “R” Us to open, just to get a scratch card that might win me a Mew, failed, though I totally scored the last talking Pikachu plush they had on the sales floor that morning (SUCK IT). It would be months later, at an official tour/tournament (at which I had my ass handed to me by some twenty-something doucher who was bragging about how he’d won events up and down the mid-Atlantic), where I’d have my Blue cartridge jammed into a machine that downloaded Mew (original trainer LUIGI) onto it. I kept that treasured, complete original set through both Stadium games, but the magic never did quite reiterate for me in later Pokemon iterations.

Sure, I played my fair share of Gold and Silver, but I don’t believe I ever got through their respective Elite Fours, even though I could probably name any Pokemon from that era. Didn’t bother with Crystal, and while I’m still pretty solid in my knowledge up through Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald, things get super-fuzzy as soon as you try to work Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum into things, and I haven’t even touched Black or White yet. The GB Printer never saw any other use, which should surprise no one, even though I also got my paws on the disaster that was the Game Boy Camera specifically toward that end.

Even so, my time with the first couple of Pokemon games taught me a lot about the world and myself. Aside from the previously mentioned interactions with curious parties, Pokemon helped reinforce an already well-instilled work ethic, given how much of a huge pain in the ass it was to catch and level all of those bastards. Did I mention I got all of them to level 100, without the use of Rare Candies? Yeah, this obsession just got a lot creepier, didn’t it? Not only that, but Pokemon also taught me things like how to scour the World Wide Web for information, how essential it was to cross reference to make sure you got things straight, and how not to deal with IRC admins, after several tirades in a particular Pokemon-themed channel against the idea that Marril would ever be called “Pikablu” grated a bit too much on the nerves of one of the mods who was all for such a stupid name, even after Nintendo of America had confirmed its translation.

Would any of this have been possible had Pokemon been, say, an NES or SNES release? Highly doubtful. Bringing out the Pokemon games on handheld systems opened the doors for things like trading, connected battling, and the sense of community that sprung up, and it was later expanded upon by the idea that you could, and should, be able to battle your team against real people you knew personally or had just met at an event (or eventually, online), rather than the one or two friends you already knew who were also into Pokemon and didn’t fear your parents or your couch. Were it not for Pokemon and its ability to be played on the go, I probably would’ve ended up stewing in my own misery for the bulk of high school and turned out a misanthropic basement-dweller who did little more than game by himself and attempt to forcibly thrust his opinions on others around the Internet.

… The fact that 1/3 of my apartment is embedded in a small hill totally does not make it count as a basement.

The whole big-picture point I’m trying to present is that bringing Pokemon out on the Game boy, I believe, made great strides in making handheld gaming a more multiplayer format. Certainly, there were other games already making use of the link cable for competitive play, but Pokemon Red and Blue were the first titles to make such connections somewhat integral to in-game progress and to incentivize linking up with friends and cohorts through the prospects of trading and evolving Pokemon, rather than just battling. In turn, I think Pokemon was one of the biggest proponents of helping socialize portable gaming as a whole, bringing it up to speed with the living-room-with-friends experiences innate to the Game Boy’s bigger, home console bretheren, which provided many a gamer with opportunities to be more social and connect with like-minded players, and laid the groundwork for a lot of the portable wi-fi connectivity we see across the board in handheld gaming devices today.

Thanks, Game Freak! Not just for all of that, but also for keeping me from going Columbine on anyone. And for giving me something to do with an umbrella tucked under one arm during the downpour that was my actual high school graduation.