Pokémon and Me, or: Why I Was Wrong About the Pocket Monsters

This was never about me. It was always about us. Pokémon games have never been solo affairs – they're supposed to be shared.

by Wesley Copeland
14 July 2016, 8:11am

Screencap via YouTube

It was a cold winter's day. That week had seen snowfall, but now the remnants of the flakes were clinging desperately to whatever they could, in the hopes of defying the natural order of things. It wasn't long before the once-white canvas that had consumed everything was nothing more than a grey sludge. That was the day I really got to know Pokémon, and everything changed for the better.

But I wasn't a fan of Pokémon to begin with. Like many kids of the 1990s, my days were spent listening to melodramatic rock stars singing about the evils of religion from behind faces caked in black and white makeup, and playing – if you don't know what the next two words are you've come to the wrong place – video games.

My life unfolded to the tune of beating Street Fighter II Turbo on the highest difficulty, cursing Comix Zone for its bullshit health and continue system, and mowing down Hare Krishnas in the original Grand Theft Auto.

But the '90s weren't all music and games. The decade also brought with it the wider adoption of the greatest invention of the 20th century: the internet.

For one hour a week, two minutes of which were spent listening to the modem sing as it connected through my parents' landline, I was free to do exactly what all '90s kids did online – illegally download music and pornography. Lots and lots of pornography. But one day, instead of spending my time watching a whopping 2.4MB file crawl its way down the pipes, I decided to forget about the music, forget about the porn, and do something different. For a reason lost to the echoes of time, I downloaded a Game Boy emulator and Pokémon Blue*.

It was the game all my friends were talking about. The game that spawned a TV series that conquered the world. A game so iconic, so beloved, with such dedicated fans, I had to see what all the fuss was about. I had to experience this childhood-defining game – if not just for me, but for my children, and my children's children.

And so it was, I loaded up this Pokémon Blue with an excitement only a teenager understands. "What is your name," asked the white-haired man who seemed cool with talking to a random child he'd only just met. "Why it's 'Bollockz!'." My clearly clever teenage brain knew no bounds. "And your rival's name?" "'Arseface'," I typed, looking at the copy of Preacher sat on my table.

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After that, and after picking the starter that most resembled an H.R. Giger design (Bulbasaur, obviously), I was off to have my very first Pokémon adventure. Twenty minutes later I uninstalled the emulator and deleted the ROM. This wasn't like the TV show. All the creatures made these weird synthesised noises, like a cat trapped inside a robot that's being dragged through a printer. I couldn't understand why a kid who's not even in his teens yet was allowed to go outside and roam the wilderness without adult supervision. And why in the Pokémon Blue hell was there an egg Pokémon that turned into a tree? Whatever series creator Satoshi Tajiri was smoking when he came up with the idea of pocket monsters in the wild, I didn't want any. And not because I wasn't old enough to smoke yet.

And so it was, Pokémon sucked. Give me Pogs, give me Boglins, give me that which I desire. Anything but Pokémon.

A trailer for 'Pokémon Black and White, Version 2'

But then, at 19, I met my wife-to-be and we hit it off instantly. We got on so well we decided to have a Totally Planned For baby eight months into our relationship. But my wife harboured a dark secret, a secret so monstrous, so unexpected, not even Nostradamus could have predicted it: she liked Pokémon.

My first-born son grew up liking Pokémon. They say as parents you make sacrifices. For me, it was allowing such blatant sacrilege. They were wrong, but the bond they shared over yellow rodents was too beautiful for miserable old me to rain on their Poké-parade.

This brings us to the cold winter's day in 2012. The nights were dark and full of heating bills, but the snow had cleared, and my wife and son were off to make the world a better place, by purchasing the newly released Pokémon games Black and White 2.

I stayed at home that day to look after our second child, who was then three years old. Plus I had this silly idea while in the bath a few months prior that I could become a games writer, and was convinced I could make it work with absolutely no training or any qualifications to my name. Hey, an adult can dream, right?

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That's when it happened. The buzzer rung its loud shriek, causing me to leap up from the couch and charge into the hallway. "Hello," I said into the handset, although it was more of a question than a statement. "Daddy, we've got you a surprise!" a little voice filled with Christmas glee shouted. What could it be? A new Xbox 360 game? A toy of some sort? Slippers? My mind boggled.

"Here you go," my kid said, eyes full of expectations. "We didn't want to leave you out," the wife added. They'd bought me Pokémon Black 2. "Aww, thank you, that's really considerate of you," was only a half-truth. The sentiment was lovely, but the content was lacklustre. "Now you can play it with us!" I was the angel with the scabbed wings, and they were my beautiful people.

When Christmas Day rolled round, I knew what I had to do. I had to play the game and pretend I liked it so my kid would be happy. But nothing could prepare me for what came after I plopped the DS cart in the console, picked Snivy, and named my rival 'Bellend' (some things never change). While I was playing through the first area, levelling up my team, and taking directions from my wife and kid who were further ahead than I, a realisation hit me: Pokémon isn't a single-player game, it's a co-op experience. A family co-op. A family co-op where you're all playing simultaneously, in the same room, with the same goal. We were a family, sitting around on Christmas Day, together, playing a game with each other.

Image via YouTube

That is what Pokémon is all about. It's got nothing to do with weird noises, grinding, and terrible parenting. It's about families coming together. Friends coming together. Strangers coming together. All with the same goal: to be the very best (in their respective game), like no one ever was (because it's still an experience that's unique to each player).

Oh, Arceus, please forgive my transgressions. I was wrong about Pokémon. I was but a child, an idiot obsessed with violent games and I could not see what Pokémon Blue had to offer. It was never about me. It was about us.

Fast-forward to the here-and-now and my life is littered with Pokémon stories and anecdotes. Ask me how many Pokémon I've collected and you'll be met with a shit-eating grin and the number 720. I've played through X and Y as a family, played through Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire as a family, and come November, I'll be playing through Sun and Moon together, as a family. The only downside being I need to take out a loan every time there's a new Pokémon game announced. And worse still, my youngest kid is now old enough to play, too, necessitating another copy of the latest game.

The togetherness of Pokémon is Nintendo's secret weapon. Just look at the success of the mobile-only title Pokémon Go, the so-hot-right-now augmented-reality walking simulator that's bringing people together to achieve a common goal: collect them all, but by going outside this time. Nintendo themselves have very little to do with the app, but that's not stopped its success driving the company's share price up.

A trailer for 'Pokémon Go'

Pokémon Go is bringing in people who've never touched a Pokémon game, and even people who've never touched a video game. People who aren't Pokémon fans are playing it. Why? Because Pokémon isn't about Pokémon, it's about people. It's about a family who don't know each other coming together to share their love of Pokémon, which is a love of people. It's a paradox of sorts that doesn't make any sense to the general muggle populous, but if you've ever played a Pokémon game – really played a Pokémon game – it'll all make sense to you.

Everyone is getting into Pokémon, and that makes this old codger genuinely happy simply because my Poké-family isn't just my wife and two kids – it's everyone who plays. We're all one colossal Poké-family – spread over forums, social media, and even sometimes on websites like this one. We all have our own tales to tell, stories to share. It may have been frozen outside on that fateful, life-changing day, but inside, it was hard not to feel the warmth.

(*Nintendo, if you're reading this, probably from that castle in Mario 64, I am sorry for stealing Pokémon Blue. I was a kid, a stupid kid, who got into the whole Team Rocket thing a bit too much. If it helps, I bought Pokémon Yellow on my 3DS so I hope we're cool.)


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Wesley Copeland