Twenty Years of Pokémon: A Retrospective

It’s always an odd feeling when you find out that you’re actually older than something you’ve known all your life.

I can only just barely and vaguely remember a time when Pokémon wasn’t a part of my life, and at the time I had no inkling that I was older than the franchise. I was in first grade, a mere six years old, when I first encountered Pokémon. And it was all at once — the TV show, Yellow VersionPokémon Pinball, the trading card game (though I didn’t actually learn how to play properly until my last year of high school), I kind of just got hit with all of it in a big wave. And just like that, my life was changed. Something about this world where mysterious creatures battle for superiority took root and never left. More than any other series, be it Mario or Zelda or anything else you can think of, Pokémon has been with me through thick and thin. I was six years old, and only three years older than the franchise — well, I suppose, technically five months or so shy of three years — which turns twenty in just a few days.

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Maybe it was the friendships you build with your Pokémon that hooked me, in a time when true friends were few and far between. Maybe it was the unique game mechanics, the colorful character designs, the experience of exploring a new world. Maybe there’s no one reason. But whatever the case, there was never any going back for me. There were times when I thought I might be done with it — “I’ve out grown Pokémon,” I might have thought, “and I have no time for that with all of these other games.” But something would always draw me back in. I thought after Ruby Version that I was done. By the time the fourth generation — Diamond and Pearl, of course, and later Platinum — came around, I hadn’t touched a Pokémon game in quite some time. It was pretty late in the lifespan of that generation that I finally picked up Diamond and found myself sucked back in all over again. After that I didn’t even try to pretend I wasn’t still a Pokémon fan. I jumped on HeartGold as soon as I could, plowed through Black like a man possessed. I never actually finished Black 2 — I’ll touch on that later — but found my interest renewed once again with X. I’ve yet to pick up Omega Ruby, but certainly do still plan to. You know, when I can afford to drop $50 on a video game, that is. I’ve been through every region — some more than once — and seen every Pokémon. Maybe not in-game, as I don’t recall ever completing a Pokédex, but I’ve seen them all nonetheless. There was certainly a time when I could name all 151 original Pokémon, though I don’t know if I could manage it these days. In short, I’ve been a Pokémon fan for all but six years of my life. Trying to remember a time when it wasn’t part of my life is like trying to remember a dream.

Given this long history with the series, you might have an idea of how painful it was when I turned on my Crystal Version and found that at long last the save battery had run dry. All of my hard work was gone. To be fair, I had on some level been preparing for this for some time. I’m honestly surprised that it didn’t give out sooner, and that my Yellow Version outlasted it, despite being older. In fact, I think my Ruby Version’s battery may have died even before Crystal, though at least that only controls the clock and not the save file. At any rate, despite being ready for it to happen, it was still sad. But, by the same token, it also meant that I could experience the game all over again. Which is exactly what I’m doing. Less than a week ago, I had all three batteries replaced. I’d already restarted Yellow relatively recently, and was planning on scrapping that save and restarting anyway, since I’d forgotten where I left off. But I decided, at the moment, to prioritize restarting Crystal.

Yellow was, of course, my first main-line Pokémon game. I think I actually had Pokémon Pinball before I got Yellow, but that’s neither here nor there. Yellow will always hold a special place in my heart. I chose it specifically because it followed the TV series right down to having Pikachu follow you around. The series was my favorite show growing up. I was Ash for Halloween one year. Somewhere I still have his hat — the original, the only one that ever mattered. I wish I knew where it’s buried.

This hat right here. This exact one, actually — I remember thinking that the logo on the back was the only thing that made it less than perfect, because Ash didn’t have that in the show.

Many years after I’d stopped watching the series I was fortunate enough to meet Veronica Taylor — Ash’s original voice actress — as well as a couple of the other original voice actors. I actually met Taylor twice, and if you’re a fan, you should consider doing so as well. She frequents the convention circuit and is just a wonderful person and a pleasure to interact with.

Anyway. I have distinct memories of playing Yellow, including having a minor nervous breakdown at Brock’s gym. Remember, I was six, and I wasn’t very bright, apparently, when it came to games. I had no understanding of type advantages — I only knew what happened in the show. Ash’s Pikachu was able to beat Brock, why couldn’t mine? I swear, I had nightmares about that damn gym. Eventually, of course, I did get past it and go on to become the Pokémon Champion, like you do. But as important and special as Yellow is to me, I think Crystal has always really defined the Pokémon experience for me.

You see, Crystal is a very special game — well, I suppose really the whole second generation, but Crystal is that generation to me. Aside from all the innovations that changed the mechanics of the series — berries, special Pokéballs, shiny Pokémon, day/night cycles, breeding — the second generation games changed the entire series as I knew it. There were suddenly all sorts of brand new Pokémon that never existed before. New creatures to catch and train and battle, new places to explore, new people to meet. It was a gold mine for a young gamer like myself.

It also gave us Joey, and YES I KNOW IT'S SPELLED RATTATA, LEAVE ME ALONE
It also gave us Joey, and YES I KNOW IT’S SPELLED RATTATA, LEAVE ME ALONE

And then you beat the Elite Four.

Many gamers who grew up with the NES and the original Legend of Zelda (happy belated 30th to that series, by the way) often talk about how amazing and mind-blowing it was to get to the end of the game and find out about the second quest. Basically it was two games on one cartridge. No one expected something like that. Pokémon Crystal was my Legend of Zelda. Beating the Elite Four and finding out that the entire Kanto region and eight more badges to collect were waiting for me? That was the most incredible thing I’d ever experienced. Having played Yellow for many, many hours, it was incredible to go back to the old region and see how it had changed in the wake of the events of the first generation games. It was an entire second game at the end of the the first, and it was amazing. I’m still impressed that all of that fits on one cartridge. No matter how good the following games have been, they’ve never recaptured that magic of discovering a whole second region after finishing the first. I’d like to think that some day they’ll find a way to cram all of the regions into one game, and won’t tell anyone, and we’ll all just get to experience the surprise and joy of finding region after region and getting to continue our journeys and revisit all of the past locations. I don’t think it’s going to happen without a huge amount of work being done on the mechanics of the game — like a massively raised level cap and more moves being learned via level up — but with enough work I think it could be possible. Alternatively I suppose they could make leveling up take a really long time so that they don’t have to change the level cap, but that kind of takes the fun out of training.

But anyway, back on topic, I suppose I should address how well the game holds up. And the answer is: remarkably well, actually. As I’m writing this, I’ve just gotten past Falkner and am en route to Azalea Town. Well, Sprout Tower first, I suppose, but either way, I’m advancing. I was kind of expecting to have some difficulty with the gameplay, actually, only because I’ve gotten spoiled with the ability to run (and in X, rollerblade) all over the place, and was expecting to find myself frustrated with walking everywhere until I finally got a bike. But I’m not finding that at all. Sure, it’s slower than the modern games, but I don’t really mind. What I’m really noticing, though, is that I’m being forced to strategize a lot more than I remember, and more than I’m used to. Part of it is my own doing — I want to work with a more balanced team, rather than plowing through with an overleveled starter like my younger self was wont to do. So it takes a while to grind a team up to similar levels, especially when you don’t have access to high level allies and opponents to use for the tried and true switch-out method, and you don’t yet have an Experience Share. I’m also finding that my Pokémon are learning fewer moves than I’m used to — the movesets were considerably smaller when this game came out, remember — and I’ve actually found myself occasionally doing things like using Growl or Tail Whip or other moves that raise or lower stats to give me an edge. This isn’t a strategy I generally employ; I’ve always been more of a hit-and-run kind of player, just dishing out damage without worrying about stats. But now? Now I’m focusing on type advantages, looking up what levels Pokémon evolve and learn moves — so I can do things like stop Cyndaquil from evolving so he’ll learn Flame Wheel earlier than Quilava would — and yes, even taking stats into consideration. It’s challenging, and quite refreshing, actually.

And it made this much more satisfying.
And it made this much more satisfying.

There’s a lot that I don’t remember about the game — the plot, for instance, though I know the first two generations were relatively light on plot. Mostly “Team Rocket wants to take over, stop them,” kind of thing. Unlike the eco-terrorism of Ruby and Sapphire, or the morality issues N raises in Black and White, for instance. But even so, it all still feels familiar and right. It’s like coming home and nestling into a favorite blanket while watching a new show or reading a new book. It’s comfortable and familiar, but it’s also new and exciting.

Which brings me to Black 2. The only Pokémon game that I haven’t beaten. Maybe it was because I started it too soon after finishing the original Black, and I was tired of Unova. Maybe it just didn’t hold my interest. I don’t honestly know. All I know is that I haven’t finished it and the only things I can remember about it are that you can occasionally find N’s Pokémon, and Join Avenue. I have 6 badges and I have no idea what’s going on. I kind of want to restart the game… but I have a bunch of event Pokémon that I would lose. Like shiny versions of the Legendary Beasts, among others. I could feasibly trade them all over to Black and then send them back later on, but that seems like an awful lot of work when I can just go online and read the story and a walkthrough to figure out where I am and what I’m doing next. It’s not the same as experiencing it myself, but to be honest, I’m not that torn up about it. When I play Crystal or Yellow for the first time in years, I still feel like I’m coming back to familiar ground. With Black 2, though, it feels alien. It’s definitely Pokémon, but I don’t feel at home. I feel lost and confused. Will I go back and finish it? Probably, especially now that I’m in such a Pokémon playing frenzy. But it’s just not the same, and it’s a shame that I feel that way, because every other entry in the series I’ve loved. I won’t talk about too much, but I will say that it had some nice touches of nostalgia in it, like giving you one of the Kanto starters. And it added some fresh new elements to the game, the likes of which haven’t really been seen since Crystal. Or maybe since the third generation did away with the painfully awkward box system from the first two generations and gave the much more streamlined and easy to use system we have now. I can’t tell you how much better it feels to be able to organize my Pokémon in the computer without constant withdrawing/depositing/box switching/game saving. I probably don’t have to tell you, actually, you’ve probably experienced it yourself. For me, Black 2 was a small quality dip in an otherwise fantastic series — and like I said, there may have been extenuating circumstances. I really can’t even remember.

In the end, I think Pokémon has a different meaning and importance to all of us. But it’s also a uniting factor. People all over the world have been playing Pokémon games or otherwise interacting with the franchise for twenty years. A massive community has grown out of what seemed to be just a passing phenomenon, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. So I for one would like to give my thanks to Nintendo, Game Freak, and all of the creators behind the series for twenty years of fun and friendship. Whether you started at the beginning or are just joining now, we’re all Pokémon fans and we’e all come to it in our own ways for our own reasons. And in the end, if we’re all enjoying it, then that’s what’s really important.

Keep it 13/31 for special posts all week as we continue our celebration of twenty years of Pokémon! Don’t forget to submit your short reflections on the franchise and what it’s meant to you for our very special Friday Flashback– you can do that right here in the comments section on this or any other Pokémon Week post, or you can go straight to our Facebook page and submit there! Click here for the Pokémon Week introduction post which includes more information on submissions for Friday’s post!

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