One of the first times I can remember being disappointed with this cruel, cruel world was the day Pokémon Snap was announced sometime in 1998. I was 10 years old.
At the time, I was already a Pokémon megafan, having begged my mom to buy me Pokémon Red at a Toys R Us because I liked the dragon (Charizard) on the cover. I played the game incessantly, sneaking my Game Boy to school and playing it under my desk and at recess. I eventually caught all 150 Pokémon (on a second save file—my friend accidentally erased my first save then erased his game in solidarity. Another formative moment.) I had a First Edition Charizard in the trading card game. I went to tournaments at my local card shop, and another, regional tournament at the Washington DC Convention Center.
I also had a Nintendo 64, which felt like magical technology at the time (any child who played Mario 64 would agree, I think.) And so, naturally, I wanted to be able to catch Pokémon in full 3D, on a home console. My imagination is not terribly good, so I figured that Pokémon on the Nintendo 64 would be something like the Pokémon cartoon, which I taped every Saturday morning and threw a fit if I missed. And so Pokémon Snap—a game where you take pictures of Pokémon but cannot catch them or do much of anything else—felt terribly disappointing.
Somehow, it’s been 20 years since I began playing Pokémon, and, until last week, there was still no full-fledged Pokémon RPG on a home console. Many diehard fans are arguing that there’s still not, because Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu doesn’t allow you to battle wild Pokémon and has some quality-of-life changes that make the game less grind-y. But Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu (and Eevee) is the game I desperately wanted when I was 10 years old. And playing it today feels almost as magical as playing Pokémon Red did all those years ago.
Save for a reporting trip down memory lane to the Pokémon World Championships in 2015, I have not played or thought much about Pokémon in roughly 15 years. I played Pokémon Gold and Pokémon Ruby, but haven’t played any other Pokémon games since then. I could not name a single Pokémon that was introduced in the last 10 years, and have only a passing memory of many of the second- and third-generation Pokémon. Until the Nintendo Switch, I haven’t seriously played any video game console or handheld since college.
When I saw that Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu was announced, I, like many other people, thought that it was intended to be “Pokémon Lite”—a game for newcomers who needed to be introduced to Pokémon for the first time—not a deep game worthy of my time. I did not intend to buy it.
But curiosity got the better of me after I saw some early reviews suggesting that the game wasn’t terrible. And so, I rolled out of bed Saturday, walked to a GameStop (so nostalgic!) and bought Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu. I have barely been able to put it down since, and I now think that the game isn’t intended for children at all: It’s intended for an old generation of Pokémon fans who have newly come back to Nintendo because the Switch is so damn good.
The game is essentially a next-generation remake of Pokémon Yellow, itself a variant of Pokémon Red and Blue (both because you start with Pikachu and because it has Jessie and James of Team Rocket.) It’s the game I always wanted as a 10-year-old, with Pokémon roaming free in the overworld, beautiful graphics, the ability to take your Pokemon out of their Pokéballs and have them walk with you. For me, the joy in this game comes from the familiarity of the weird layout of the gyms, randomly remembering that Oddish evolves into Gloom at level 21, and running into an old man who traded me a Farfetch’d named “Dux” for a Spearow 20 years ago. It comes from wandering through the SS Anne, killing Misty’s Starmie, and watching an Abra teleport away. It comes from texting my elementary and high school friends who I haven’t talked to in months to see if they bought the game (they did), and asking them to trade my Kadabra for their Graveler and back again, so they’ll evolve.
These are things that—maybe—some of the children of 2018 will find fun, but they don’t have the built-in memories that make it special to me (this hit home even more once I saw that the Pokémon Company uploaded a shot-for-shot remake of the cartoon’s opening theme, with footage from Let’s Go.)
If Game Freak had simply created a new Pokémon game and plopped me into some unknown region of the Pokémon universe with unfamiliar Pokémon, I’m not sure that I would have stuck with the game, and I’m not sure that I would have actually felt excited about Pokémon. Now that I care about the universe again, I’m more excited than ever about next year’s new entry to the series.
A note for people who, like me, were concerned that Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu is a dumbed down version of Pokémon for kids: It is, in the sense that the game is extremely easy. I never found any Pokémon to be all that hard, but you can approximate the difficulty of the old versions of Pokémon by stashing your Pikachu or Eevee—which are both overpowered world killers—in your Pokémon box (just don’t use them.)
It’s also really easy to over level your Pokémon if you start catching tons of wild Pokémon (one of the new game’s changes is that you no longer battle wild Pokémon and instead catch them like in Pokémon Go.) This can be avoided by only catching one version of a Pokémon or generally avoiding catching tons of them.