The Original Pokémon Game Was Social Media Before Social Media
Offering personalized, collaborative gaming and friendship, these Game Boy titles gave kids an escape from a buzzing digital age on the edge of a new century.
Something extraordinary happened in the middle of the 1990s. Nintendo, a company fiercely proud and somewhat conservative when it came to its products, took a punt on a new idea by largely unknown development team Game Freak. The Big N was under the leadership of Hiroshi Yamauchi at the time, a man notoriously harsh on external developers in order to ensure hard work and quality, particularly after the video games crash of the 80s that he had helped to fix. Regardless, Game Freak's young creative Satoshi Tajiri and his team won the patronage of Mario designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who would help them launch Pokémon.
Although Nintendo had long been carving its name into the annals of gaming history—with Mario, Zelda, and Donkey Kong in the throes of their peak years—this humble, little project, debuting in February 1996, would soar past all but one of their classic franchises. Today, Pokémon is the second-biggest-selling video game series of all time, with only Mario-branded productions ahead of it.
Offering personalized, collaborative gaming and a sense of friendship, Pokémon was social media before social media.
The original Pokémon games, Red and Green, were released for the Game Boy in Japan well ahead of ever coming to the West. By the time they did, reaching the US in 1998 and Europe the year after, Green had been swapped for Blue, issued in Japan in October '96. While they were almost identical, the differences between Green and Blue were mainly based around the Pokémon creatures exclusive to each version. Players would need to trade each other, using the Game Boy's Game Link Cable, in order to complete the Pokédex, an in-game encyclopedia of all 151 of the critters.
The charming tale behind the Pokémon concept stems from game director Tajiri's childhood, which he spent collecting bugs in the woods. When arcades began to surround his bucolic hiding spots, he aimed to reconcile his love of nature with his love of gaming, and that's when his then-fanzine, Game Freak, would start its Pokémon journey.
Upon the launch of the first Game Boy titles, Pokémania hit the world in a major way. While Pokémon still boasts a huge community 20 years later, alongside formidable sales and a vast range of merchandise, today's kids and teenagers are never likely to experience the inescapable, ubiquitous phenomenon that followed those initial games, incorporating an anime cartoon, trading card game, comics, books, T-shirts, and virtually every other product you could slap a brand name on. Tajiri tried to capture the simpler, serene atmosphere of his youth, and he succeeded, creating an idealistic world that gave kids an escape from a buzzing digital age on the edge of a new century.
By the time of the release of Red and Blue, Nintendo's consoles had played host to some of the most celebrated RPG adventures, including Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and A Link to the Past. What was special about Pokémon, however, was the extent to which players could imprint their own personalities on their party members. The sense of adventure was a lot more elastic—you chose your team of six, and then their nicknames and move-sets from the countless combinations. It wasn't as relatively linear as the role-players of old, in which you might get to choose your avatar's moniker and basic weaponry. Here in the setting of Kanto, you were in charge—the fantasy world of Pokémon was completely your own.
But an even greater part of the appeal was the aforementioned connectivity, which, in the days before WiFi, necessitated a set of physical cables. Friends could pit their Pokémon against each other in battle or exchange them in a trade, a practice that is still a staple of the series and the only way to legitimately "catch 'em all." Traded monsters carried histories, forever emblazoned with the name of their original trainer, making their way far and wide, one pair of connected Game Boys at a time. Swapping these creatures, into which each player had put time and effort, fostered a sense of widespread community, which undoubtedly helped engender a desire for the online, global gameplay that we enjoy today across various platforms. Offering personalized, collaborative gaming and a sense of friendship, Pokémon was social media before social media.
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That said, Pokémon's attractive sharing side, its sunny everyman charm, only holds up if you don't buy into the unsettling urban legends attached to the game. If there's one thing a fanbase loves, it's fiction and theories, and Pokémon has been subject to countless amounts of speculation over the years. Grown-up fans try to find grown-up themes in their childhood games, and, boy, do they find them. It's been speculated that the game subtly takes place in a post-war setting, and there's the much-repeated myth that the infamous Lavender Town music has driven Japanese children to suicide.
Looking back, Red and Blue are clunky anachronisms. Their dated aesthetics could render them unplayable in the eyes of a new generation.
But even as far back as the original lifespan of Red and Blue, fans' excitability expanded the boundaries of the humble, monochrome, 8bit land into vast realms of feverous legend, far beyond the fabled grass at the side of Pallet Town. Childlike wonderment also created tales of hidden "PokéGods" like Mewthree and Pikablu, and these were largely circulated by amateur Web 1.0 sites, the glittery animated .gif backgrounds of which will forever remain burned into the retinas of early players.
However, the real glitches and Easter eggs certainly helped perpetuate these playground stories. A mysterious truck parked by the SS Anne—which took some effort to reach—was the only sprite of its kind in the game and led to whispers of the elusive Mew hiding underneath, as though living up to its feline appearance. Then there was MissingNo., a jumbled mess of pixels that was created to serve as an error handler but would appear as a wild Pokémon when exploiting the games' mechanics. The effect of this anthropomorphized piece of coding's effect on the fertile, suggestible minds of fans was so profound that its alien presence was accepted in the canon, and it subsequently found itself the subject of academic studies.
But on that note of nostalgic fascination comes a harsh reality. Hype and sales of the recent 20th anniversary eShop ports will almost exclusively come from rose-tinted, decades-old fondness. Looking back, Red and Blue are clunky anachronisms riddled with broken mechanics and dodgy sprite artwork—Pidgeot was a winged head, and what the fuck was up with Moltres? They might serve as a sobering history lesson in the eyes of today's young players who have come to expect the comparative glitz of the DS family, but the dated aesthetics could render them unplayable in the eyes of a new generation.
The continued quality in modern games like X and Y, though, is the most fitting tribute to the phenomenon that Red and Blue spawned. The games' core concept has remained the same and their ideals exist today in an incredibly nuanced, deep, mathematical metagame, framed by beautiful 3DS landscapes teeming with fantastic creatures, regardless of what confusingly conservative genwunners might say. The beauty of the modern games is that while the competitive scene has become increasingly sophisticated, the story mode still offers a relaxing adventure for the newbies who want to Earthquake and Hyper Beam their way to the end credits.
There is a demographic of 20- and 30-somethings who still get Butterfrees in their stomach at the reveal of 100 or so new cartoon creatures, whether they care to admit it or not. They'll have felt it 20 years ago when they chose Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle. They'll have felt it recently with the unveiling of the forthcoming Sun and Moon versions. And if the next 20 years are half as exciting, they'll feel it for a long time to come.
Pokémon, we chose you. And we wouldn't change a thing.
Pokémon Red, Blue, and the Pikachu-starring Yellow are available now for the 3DS, via the Nintendo eShop.
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