Why we love(d) Pokémon

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Alright guys, time to use your imagination.

A nine-year-old Scottish kid finishes his weekly cricket practice (yes I know it’s a niche hobby, if you want it to be more believable pretend it’s something more relatable like whale fishing or bureaucracy) and he jumps in the car, ready to head home and play some New Super Mario Bros on his Nintendo DS. He would be playing the new Pokémon game – Diamond – but recently he somehow managed to misplace it. He feels bad, especially since it was a recent Christmas present, but these things happen and it’s good to discover the unforgiving nature of this cruel world at an early age. His mum tells him to close his eyes – she has a surprise for him. When you’re a child, there are very few things more exciting than a surprise. He shuts his eyes, and his mum passes him the gift. That’s weird, he thinks, this object is my hands sure does feel like a DS game case. “Okay,” Mum says, “open them.” The kid’s retinas struggle to adjust to the heavenly light as his vision adjusts. His gaze immediately drifts onto one magical word:

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It’s the new one too: Platinum! After a few excited thank yous and a drive home that felt like an age, the kid sprints to his room, rips the DS from its charger and inserts the game into the cartridge slot. A moment passes where the nine-year-old exclaims aloud, ‘gee, I sure am glad I don’t have to wait hours for a Day One patch to install to make the game run in an acceptable manner, what a dumb world that would be’, before the game begins. A song plays; a foreboding track, dripping with dread, a warning of the danger ahead. A logo appears – ‘Game Freak’ – before fading to black. A cinematic begins, and the music is suddenly full of excitement and wonder. The camera pans over some of the many areas you’ll be visiting in this game: a grassy path, an overcast forest, a bustling village, a city skyline. You get some action shots of the Pokémon you’re sure to find and befriend over the course of many hours in the fantastical world of Sinnoh. Then, the music takes a more sinister turn. We get a face-on look at Cyrus, the antagonist of the game. Look at this guy with his blue hair and evil eyes… what a bastard, let’s take this guy down! Then we cut to a black whirlpool surrounded by darkness. A pair of blood-red eyes appear from nothing, accompanied by a menacing smile. Is this a portal to another world? What terrible things will we find there, I wonder? The camera rushes into the dark, and we’re brought to the title screen, met with the unsettling image of Giratina, the mysterious new legendary Pokémon, bathed in an unusual light. You can only make out its shape, and its eyes appear to challenge you. Press Start, if you dare.

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Naturally, this was not my exact thought process when I booted up this game for the first time and, truthfully, when I started writing this article I did not expect to spend 300 words describing the emotional peaks and troughs of a Pokémon title sequence.  I didn’t even touch on the best part. When you hit the start button, the game plays Giratina’s sound effect, a chilling roar that never fails to give me goosebumps. What the fuck kinda sound was that? I distinctly remember that every time I’d boot up this game as a kid, I’d get excited to hear this sound. It was a constant reminder that I was getting closer and closer to finally meeting this spooky sonuvabitch. It’s the anticipation that comes with venturing into the unknown that’s at the absolute core of the Pokémon experience. Very few games have enriched my soul with this call to adventure like Pokémon Platinum did. On top of that, there was the community aspect to the journey. I heard from a friend that if you show up at the Valley Windworks outside Floaroma Town on a Friday at the strike of midnight, you could find a Drifloon and catch it, something you couldn’t do anywhere else in the game. When you’re a kid and the most exciting thing that happens in your life is finding out whether or not Jaden Yuki was gonna beat Bastion Misawa in the latest Yu Gi Oh GX episode, this shit is like a drug.

This was accompanied by a lot of in-game features, like the freedom with which you could structure your Pokémon team, or helping out Looker, a detective following up the dastardly plans of the evil Team Galactic, or the unique power-ups you could acquire throughout the game called HMs, which would let you fly to any major area in the game, or ride up waterfalls, or chop down previously immovable trees. When I learned the ability to traverse any body of water, my mind immediately went back to the time a character mentioned a rumour about a red Gyarados living in the lake just outside my starting area, so I went over there, swam around in the water and, sure enough, that red Gyarados who was once nothing but a spooky campfire story was yet another challenge to overcome. All of this culminates into this incredibly unique experience that’s simply not possible in any other art medium. My journey through Pokémon Platinum felt just that: mine. I beat all the gyms and got the badges, took down Cyrus before he could enact his dirty schemes, I travelled to the bizarro Reverse World and captured Giratina, took on the Elite Four and won with style. It was my journey and I earned it, and when you’re a kid who has to go to school, eat your greens, go to bed by 9pm and generally live by a strict set of rules, that experience of conquering the world and being the very best is beyond liberating.

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Unfortunately, this is where we transition from the cozy warm nostalgia blanket to the real world, you fucking cowards (sorry). With the recent release of Pokémon Sword and Shield, I caught myself harkening back to my reaction upon the release of Sun and Moon. Despite being beyond excited to play it, having not properly sunk my teeth into a Pokémon game since Platinum, I found the whole experience to be kinda grating and difficult to connect with. Two unfortunate truths started to spring up about how Pokémon is designed: these games are extremely linear and they are aggressively hand-holdy. When you’re nine and the only other games you’ve played are FIFA and Shrek 2, you don’t ever consider the intricacies of game design (shocking I know, darn kids these days etc etc). However, after seven years of growing up and twelve hours played in Sun, my dumbass teenage brain was forced to come to a tragic conclusion: Pokémon games are made for children.

Now, it’s absolutely fine if you’re an adult and you enjoy Pokémon; I know plenty of people like that and it’s completely valid. In fact, when I went back and played a bit of Platinum for this post, I found myself absorbed for two hours straight, entranced by the gameplay loop and the promise of cool new Pokémon just around the corner. However, it is irrefutable that these games are made for kids. Every gameplay feature is painstakingly spelled out multiple times, there are very few chances to break off from the beaten path and, perhaps the most obvious point of all, you literally play as a child. The random encounters and lack of actual freedom of movement, while not noticeable as a dumb idiot kid who sucks at video games, became immediately frustrating playing it today. I can’t say the game is poorly made because it really isn’t – there’s clearly heaps of love and care dripped into every detail of Platinum – but it’s definitely not a game for me anymore.

When I was so heavily disappointed by Pokémon Sun back in 2016, I threw a lot of criticisms the game’s way. I chalked my reaction up to the fundamental changes to both the gameplay and the narrative. The characters and world around you are so oppressively positive it made me want to stab myself in my edgy teenage heart. Hau, your rival, was so supportive, a far cry from your rival from Platinum, who appears standoffish and cocky, but still remains a friend to you above all else. Furthermore, the gym battles I’d come to love as a kid were replaced by “island trials”, which substituted one all-important battle against one other trainer with this weird gauntlet of wild Pokémon enemies, and these were bad changes because obviously they were, why change something that works just fine!

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However, I’ve come to realise over time that these weren’t objective wrongs the game had committed like I thought back then. No, despite my unwillingness to admit, these were preferences, infected by my nostalgia for a simpler time, back when I was exploring a strange new world in 2009. I wanted to be that kid again, sat under my duvet late into the night, cautiously avoiding making any noise so as not to wake my parents. I yearned for that experience, that simple joy. I think even if Sun was a carbon copy of Platinum and changed nothing about the formula, I would’ve had the same reaction. The sad truth is that I outgrew Pokémon; I started seeing through the facade, realising just how restrictive these games actually are. I look at the intense backlash towards Sword and Shield and I remember my own anger towards this series I once connected to so strongly. I developed this weird ownership of the games, expecting them to cater to me and only me, when that was simply never going to happen. While there are obviously still valid criticisms to be made about Sword and Shield, I still see so many non-issues treated as damning evidence that the games are bad and should be cancelled or whatever. If you’re one of these people, I have only this to say: I love Pokémon too. Reciting my fond memories playing Platinum had me seriously tearing up. I will always cherish those moments, but I’ve accepted that these games aren’t made for me anymore. I’ve learned to move on to other incredible gaming experiences, and I feel better for it.

If you’re like I was back in 2016, vying for that feeling of wonder at this treacherous new world of gods and monsters again, I don’t think you’re gonna find it in this series anymore. As the saying goes, if you love something, sometimes the best thing you can do is let it go.

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