Before the Pokemon’s series rapidly expanding ascendance had become an exhaustive manipulation of popularity and subsequent commercialised degradation, it was solely reliant on content of it games. It still surprises me just how many people aren’t aware that it was the games rather muffled arrival on the Gameboy that it inspired the relentless abuse of its name, rather than the excessive trading card aberrations or the seizure inducing animations. But at that age we were all heavily involved with it. Playgrounds had become communities that yielded to the deep analytical discussions concerning the rarity of certain Pokemon cards. You and your friends were hooked, whether you liked it or not. Everyday you’d bring a selection of your most prestigious acquisitions, bound by double looped elastic band to formally boast about your shiny Charizard, much to the jealous scrutiny of your classmates. There was always that suspicious looking kid too who you never saw in class, who took up residents in that one part of the playground that seemed just a little too seedy, offering shiny cards like some delinquent drug dealer. “Got any shiny Dragonite’s mate? Come on man, just one more hit….. Point!”. I still have all of my accumulated cards, packets and those peculiar pebbles that I have no clue as to their use stored in my loft, awaiting the day that they can be sold for millions to the most discerning of collector’s. But like all fads it slowly edged its way out of public consciousness through months of global saturation that no amount of savage marketing or celebrity endorsement could ever revitalise. Yet the games continued to flourish despite the economic brevity of its other branded products. Why? Because it was much more than just a fading trend. The trading cards were fun but limited whereas the games offered enhanced game-play, exploration in handheld form and the exultation of battling the Pokemon you had caught.
Despite the Gameboy’s advanced age – having been 6 or 7 years old by the time Pokemon Red and Blue was released, this lethargic device felt revolutionary because of Pokemon. I’d never played a game that exhibited the kind of mutually beneficial convenience that the Gameboy partnered with Pokemon had. It felt so right. To integrate a fully exploitative world into a device I’d almost forgotten I had, with black and white presentation that could be taken with was incredible. These games demonstrated the integrity that was never replicated by Pokemon’s other endeavours, nor the enduring appeal that has seen the series maintain a consistent stranglehold over the mobile gaming system for over 20 years. My best friend and I had dedicated months to the accumulation of the original 151 Pokemon in Red, Blue and Yellow. Unfortunately I never quite reached that prestigious number, falling short by a mere 8 Pokemon. Though my best friend did and expressed great relish in my failing. I was however the more accomplished combatant having bested him in 6 of our 9 encounters. We bonded over our delusions of being the single greatest Pokemon trainers in the world, simply because we had bested all the automated trainers in the game. We considered ourselves tactical geniuses because we utilised the rudimentary system of type advantage, which was and always has been the basic principle of the games. Having completed Red, Blue and the slightly superior Yellow between us our appetite for more banquet filled Pokemon titles could not be sated. And it was Silver and Gold that promised to be the main course in this tortured metaphor.
“I still own the same game I purchased over 15 years ago….over half a life time ago!”
For months we’d been researching every conceivable detail we could from magazines. We’d dissect previews, analyse every image (which had now advanced to a colour screen!) and speculate to the novelty of the proposed night and day cycle that was to be the games intrinsic new feature. I had saved every penny I could, bolstered by birthday money I’d hoarded in preparation for Gold and Silvers release a month later. Between us we had decided which version to buy; he chose Gold while I was more than happy with Silver. It was a brisk Saturday morning when I headed into town. We had met at a designated spot and endeavoured to buy our copies together to commemorate this momentous occasion with mutual solidarity. This was a game we knew would change our lives, because we were 13 and at that tender age a new flavoured bubble gum would’ve been life altering. We went to the till tentatively clutching our respective games, paid and left swiftly back to my mates house. I remember just sitting in his room just staring at the shimmering box art, glimmering like some kind of ornate jewel. Eventually we both moved to open them, remove the shiny cartridges from their corrugated sleeves and play them. One of the things I remember most is my mate showing me that “Karl” was one of the default names you could choose for your character! I remember thinking that it was in recognition of me and my greatness. It was fate. Karl was even spelt correctly which is extraordinary considering there were family members who couldn’t do that! And the game itself was nothing short of perfection. Pokemon Silver is still one of the few games that exceeded my high expectations. On that day alone I had already amassed 30 or so Pokemon in my Pokedex and defeated the first 3 gym leaders.
To me the game defied belief. How could such an expansive world, with such embellished themes and dramatic battling system not only be conceived but facilitated by such a compact device? The essence of the game was really in its simplicity. You’re a kid from a small town that catches stray creatures in tiny prison balls and forces them to fight against other incarcerated beasts. It sounds cruel and I’m sure animal welfare organisations have their work cut out for them in Kanto and Johto, but it was fun. Besides Pokemon don’t die, they just faint. Basically your goal was to become the very best, like no one ever was. You just travel from town to town battling your way through the gyms, receiving the respective badges until it was time to face the Elite Four – which oddly required you to defeat five resilient trainers but whose counting, while also engaging with other compelling tangents along the way. Whether it was defeating a resurgent Team Rocket, displacing anthropomorphic trees that obstruct your route, staying in on Friday nights with the express purpose of catching an illusive Lapras, quelling the aberrant behaviour of a shiny Gyrados, taking rides on the S.S Aqua on a sedate Sunday Afternoon, winning bug contests, visiting the day specific children for unique rewards, spend cash gambling at the casino (which is particularly age appropriate), visit the daycare centre to breed yet another Eevee with Ditto or defeating the grossly overpowered character you portrayed in Red, Blue and Yellow.
Gold and Silver were bigger bolder and more expressive with the kind of identity it was trying to create. It made my friend and I feel like we were on an adventure for ourselves, in a self-contained world that didn’t force us to compete against online players or fight some omnipotent being that threatens to destroy the earth. We weren’t heroes ordained with some great purpose to preserve the world from total annihilation, but kids who had dreams of winning a contest and eventually achieving those dreams. I’ve played various iterations in the series since; Ruby & Sapphire. Diamond & Pearl. Black & White. X & Y. Ant & Dec (I may have made the last one up?!). Yet most felt like diminishing returns that merely expanded on the number of Pokemon rather than core of the game. For me nothing before or since has ever captured my imagination to the extent that this did, generating almost euphoric anticipation as well as delivering on the promises it made. By today’s standards it may seem sub par, but on that day in 2001 (when it was finally released in the UK) I was part of that world. And that’s why Pokemon Silver is and continues to be the most influential game I’ve ever experienced.
What games have had the most profound effect on you? Let me know in the comments below. Cheers.