All illustrations by Amy Deer
I think every person who plays games harbors at least some insecurity about being seen as juvenile, even (or especially?) if the kind of game they love involves shooting people’s limbs off instead of collecting cuddly monsters. From the outside, though, I reckon Pokémon is probably as impenetrable a video game as you can get.
If you’re not into it, it makes no sense at all. For a lot of people my age, Pokémon is all wrapped up in childhood memories of playing the games or watching the cartoons or playground fistfights over trading cards. For others—and for pretty much everyone I have ever met over the age of 30—it is completely incomprehensible.
So this is me explaining why, as a 26-year-old adult woman with access to booze and people who will willingly have sex with me, I still give a shit about Pokémon.
The trailer for Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire
Pokémon is a classic children’s story.
This might not seem like a very good reason for a grown woman to care about Pokémon, but aren't adults capable of enjoying stories like Matilda and Charlotte's Web because they’re about children and childhood? Did you immediately forget what it felt like to be a kid the second you were old enough to walk around without a fake ID? If you did, I doubt I'll be able to get through to you here, but the vast majority of us must remember at least some of the first 12 or so years of our lives and all the complicated feelings they involved. And Pokémon, you see, is a classic story of child empowerment, set in a world that’s largely free of adults, in which kids go out into the world and make their own way.
At the beginning of every game your mom essentially gives you a packed lunch and sends you into the streets. At 10 years old. You’re given your first Pokémon by a kindly professor who’s always named after a tree, for some reason (Professor Oak, Professor Sycamore, Professor Birch), and you have your first battle. From then on, you're in charge of your own destiny and have to figure things out yourself. You go where you want, you catch and train whichever Pokémon you like, you pick fights. Your mom calls you all of about nine times over the course of the entire game and she never really seems to mind much that you’ve been setting animals upon each other for sport and following around international terrorist organizations (Team Rocket/Team Plasma/Team Magma, and so on—the games’ antagonists, who want to use Pokémon for evil).
Pokémon is an adult-free world, which is ultimately the fantasy of every adventurous kid. It’s one where children have agency and control and power, just like the Animorphs, or the Boxcar Children, or pretty much any great work of children’s fiction. That’s why it’s so powerful for kids, and for any adult who remembers being one.
Pokémon is also just an incredibly good video game
Like quite a few of Nintendo’s own game series, Pokémon has been honed and perfected over nearly two decades of very slight iteration to become a pure, polished orb of perfectly interlocking systems. There are no rough edges left. The more recent Pokémon games are basically perfect to play, to look at, and to inhabit. They are stunningly well made.
Here’s how it works on a basic level: you have your own team of Pokémon, made up of six creatures that you select from an ever-growing collection that you catch from the wild by wandering around in tall grass. Your opponents all have their own Pokémon, too, and you fight them against each other until they faint. (They never die. Nothing ever dies in Pokémon.) Each Pokémon can be trained (or levelled up, to use more traditional video game jargon), which will give it better stats and allow it to learn different moves. And each Pokémon has a Type, which makes it weak or strong to several other Types. This is where strategy comes in—you have to have a varied team that can take on anything rival trainers might throw at it.
It’s also where self-expression comes in, because your team of Pokémon is essentially an expression of you. You could have a team made up of cute fuzzy little things, or hard-as-nails rock creatures, or a mix of flying lizards, animated washing machines, electric mice, and an ice-cream cone. All of the systems work so well that, except at high-level tournament play, there is no accepted “best” Pokémon or selection thereof. You can get through with whatever you like to use the most, because the game’s systems are so flexible.
Now multiply all that by 719 different Pokémon, and you get a sense of the kind of scale these games operate on. Pokémon is an exploration-rich game that lets you do things how you want. Ironically, a lot of more adult-oriented games don’t give you that kind of agency.
Another thing: Pokémon is actually a pretty interesting competitive sport
I’m not into Pokémon to the extent that I play competitively with other grown adults. I don’t have the time for that. But I watch competitive Pokémon play, and it’s honestly pretty good as a sport (or an eSport, if we gotta be that way). Remember those basic principles I outlined a few paragraphs ago? When you go deeper down the rabbit-hole, shit gets real. Pro Pokémon players are into things like breeding Pokémon traits and personalities, Mega-Evolutions, hold items, and status boosters. They use terms like choice-locking, edgequake, and TyraniBoah. These people are serious.
But the great thing about competitive Pokémon is that you don’t have to know all that much beyond the basics of the game to enjoy spectating, and you learn the higher-level stuff pretty quickly. You see the same kinds of Pokémon and moves a lot in championship play, but every now and then someone comes along and shakes things up. This year, the Pokémon Masters (adults) division champion won the final match with a ridiculous little squirrel called Pachirisu. Nobody expected that. This tiny squirrel was sitting there among all these gigantic, intimidating-looking monsters, and he took them all down. It was great to watch.
The main thing that keeps me interested in Pokémon, though, is that it was so intensely special to me as a kid. However much I might try to explain how excellent it is as a game and as a piece of child-oriented fiction—and it is truly excellent at both of those things—I’m aware that if I hadn’t played and loved Pokémon as a kid I probably wouldn’t give a shit. I’ll probably play it with my own kids, if I ever have any and we haven’t all blown ourselves up by then.
Maybe they’d even get good enough to enter the Pokémon World Championships, which is a real thing that takes place every year. And if that happened, I think I’d faint with pride.