Pokémon: The Triumph and Tears of an Ex-Trainer, Twenty Years On
Pokémon has played such a large part in our lives, that it still manages to invoke emotions after all these years.
“So, he’s a mouse type…and he shoots electricity out of, um, his ears-?”
“Cheeks man, cheeks!”
“Right, right, I got you…wait, then why is his tail a lightning bolt?”
“Because he’s an electric type.”
“Ah. Wait, I thought he was a mouse type?”
It's 1997 (or was it 98?); I’m in the school playground and my exasperated friend is trying to explain this new craze to me. For some reason, I remember not quite getting it at this point in time.
I was into my Marvel, at least some parts of it, and my love of films was already blossoming. I’d particularly loved the new Disney releases, and oh boy was I looking forward to The Phantom Menace (1999).
So why was I wary of this new colourful fad? Was it the complicated names? Was it all the different power classes?
Was it because I found it difficult to grasp all the nuances? Because I had yet to purchase a Gameboy? In the playground enactments that my friends and I engaged in, I particularly struggled when it came to critical moments. Yet I was still intrigued by it.
I’m a sucker for world building and fantastical concepts, and to my pre-teen self this new thing was so diverse, with so many colourful characters who were so appealing in all their different ways.
It wasn’t until several months later when I bought my trusty Gameboy Colour along with Pokémon Red, that I truly grasped why everything to do with Pikachu and Charizard (to name but two of my favourites) was so hot right then.
I feel a bit guilty these days. I suppose I could have saved my mate the hassle of explaining the minutiae of Pokémon to me. Kudos to him for trying though. Everyone else was so hyper actively invested in trading their cards that they treated those who were non-fanatics with scorn.
Ah yes, those beloved trading cards, with the fervent hunt for the Shinies. None of my acquaintances knew how to play the actual game, but we soon became street smart when it came to seeking out the rarest of the rare.
On that drizzly day all those years ago, my mate happily displayed the muscly Machamp and a gleaming edition of Scyther.
This was before the dark times.
Before, on that very bench where we were sat, a particularly vicious series of fights broke out between firm friends, and the school banned all forms of Pokémon cards and Gameboys. It mainly transpired that someone had “unfairly” beaten them at a match, but there was an instance where one person had stolen the others’ limited edition Mew card.
In the years to come, I fell victim to this covetous desire that Pokémon inspired in those other kids; my shiny Blastoise, my pride and joy, was stolen twice by my one-time close friends; on the first occasion, "Bob's" (not his real name) mother marched him to our front door and forced him to shamefacedly hand my collection back to me.
I was not so lucky the second time, when years later my brother’s best friend (to save me naming and shaming him, let’s call him Gordon) swiped the whole collection whilst we played the excellent Age of Empires. Gordon’s dad punished him by gifting the entirety of his son’s collection to us, but unforgivably, Blastoise was not amongst the stacks of colourful cards.
It would seem that Gordon had either traded it, or “lost” it.
The little sh#t.
What was is about Pokémon that captivated us so? I’m not that much of an obsessive gamer at all; there has to be something significantly special about a game to capture my attention and make me want to play it for hours on end.
And there I was, swept up in this global phenomenon
Was it the cumulative nature of the franchise? That you simply had, as the song said, to catch them all? It definitely has something to do with the training aspect of it, that you just had to put the hours in to beat the rest.
It was like exercise, but without the lactic acid build up. I think I burned off more calories playing Pokémon Red than I did playing in the garden (yes, kids did that in those days).
With sweaty palms, white knuckles and frayed tensions I stressed for days and days as I traversed one particularly Zubat-infested cave without Flash, Repels or an Escape Rope.
”It can’t be that hard,” I had innocently thought. One week later, I cursed my foolhardiness, as another wild Geodude appeared.
Woe is me. Seriously, what was I thinking?
Though some may scoff at this following statement, I believe that Pokémon was essentially the Star Wars of the late 90’s/early 2000’s, in the way that it completely engulfed popular culture.
It had every base covered, from the games to the tie-in merchandise, the anime series and of course the movies; the second one was always my favourite, because it had the cooler scenes.
Not everyone in my family was so impressed however. I still recall the look my Dad’s nonplussed face as we stepped out of the cinema after seeing Pokémon: The First Movie (1999) for my birthday party.
Lord knows how he and thousands of other parents felt when the new games Gold and Silver, along with a fresh wave of accompanying goodies came flooding in to the country.
That’s when the craze went up a notch; the beauty of it was that Nintendo just expanded the roster, as well as the world’s horizons, and we all went mad for it, especially at school. Someone at school dropped her Gligar Tazos down a fixed shallow drain, and after a massive tantrum, her parents resorted to using two long thin twigs to painstakingly tease it upwards so that it could be retrieved by hand.
I’ve been out of touch with Pokémon since the Ruby and Sapphire games, but back then in those primary school years, you just weren’t cool if you weren’t interested in these sorts of things, like catching the Red Gyrados.
And Lord have mercy on your soul if you mentioned that you liked Digimon.
I would have been ridiculed if I had said it in prior years, but I think that the widening of the Pokémon franchise was a major backdrop for my formative years; I experienced the full range of emotions due to those quests of training and battling animals. A few of my own feature below.
My brother and I squealed in excitement when, on Christmas morning we ripped open one of our packages to find a brand new copy of Pokémon Yellow.
We wailed in desperation when we realised we wouldn’t make it home in time to watch the latest installment of the TV series.
In the wake of a frantic house-move, I looked on in wonder as one of my team evolved, when I hadn’t even realised that that particular Pokémon could change.
On a long dark coach journey in Switzerland, I hunched over my Gameboy Colour and cried aloud in triumph as I caught Sudowoodo, with scant seconds of battery life to spare, amidst frowns of disapproval from my fellow passengers.
My friends openly sobbed when (SPOILER) in the First Movie, Ash gets caught in the crossfire between Mew and Mewtwo.
Nothing can prepare you for spending hours on an important battle when we were stuck in traffic on the motorway, inside a sweltering car. I cannot describe the immense, crushing pressure that you feel, when a weakened Level 70 Lugia is wobbling inside your last Poké Ball, as your singular remaining Pokémon gazes on with a red health bar, and you forgot to save the game beforehand.
Nothing has since come close to, or can ever top that kind of stress. You weren't there man, you weren't there.
Lastly, in the sparing battles that I had with my younger brother (who was always better at the games that me), I knew true despair whenever he sent out his indomitable Feraligator.
I swear that thing was the spawn of Satan himself. My brother only had to instruct it to Bite its opponent and the match would be over in six moves.
This was the straw that broke the camel's back.
We had had a disagreement around a month beforehand, after he had somehow managed to wipe the entirety of my progress in Pokémon Yellow; I had been making my final approach to battle the Elite Four.
Yes, now you understand my fury.
We’re good now obviously. We naturally made up last year, after I discovered that his copy of Silver had deteriorated so much that it had lost all its progress. I couldn't help but grin. That meant that Feraligator was no more!
Go back to the void, you monster.
Even now the memory still rankles ever so slightly, which is a testament to Pokémon's strengths: its simple premise, yet intricate and compelling format ensures that the games remain open to repeat plays, and of course new innovations. Through the expansion of the game universe and Nintendo's adoption of new technologies, Pokémon still remains present and beloved by many.
Indeed, Pikachu was used as an icon in the 2014 FIFA world cup, and everyone my age can recite the theme song to the show. Though it can’t match the frenzied attention that it received in its heyday, here in the UK its presence is still felt.
My sister played it for many years, though with less of the maniacal fanaticism. My youngest brother was captivated like us, even though he was born just after its peak in popularity. He still keeps himself updated with news about Pokémon Go.
A close friend of mine has Ash and Pikachu, as they appear in Pokémon Yellow, tattooed on his leg.
A local Facebook post reminiscing about the struggles of those classic games still gets thousands of ‘Likes.’
Myself? The last game that I bought was LeafGreen, which I still keep handy in my bedside cabinet. I sometimes fish it out on a day off from work, or bring it along for long car journeys with my family.
After all this time I remember the personal memories, and all of those glorious days. Deep down, there is still a ten year old boy who wants to be the very best…like no one ever was…