I was an avid gamer back then. Really just hitting my gaming prime. The Fall of 98′ was when Pokémon-mania swept into the US. I had an ice blue Gameboy Pocket and a copy of Pokémon Red that set me out on my very first adventure from Pallet Town. My neighborhood friend had a copy of Pokémon Blue and together we were going to “catch em’ all” for the very first time. Before I knew it I was waking up at 6 AM to catch the anime before school on the local FOX affiliate, then the next year I would be playing the collectible trading card game. I had a toy Pikachu that lit up when you touched two contacts on the bottom and said his classic catchphrase “Pikachuuuu”. Yet really I was just a tourist to the Pokémon craze. I never did really catch them all (or even get close), I may have battled my neighborhood friend a few times and maybe got a few of the exclusive Blue Pokémon but I never got a Pokémon to max level or tried my hand at tournaments. I stopped collecting the cards after the first expansion came out and stopped watching the anime after the fist movie hit. About the most notable thing I did in my first tour with Pokémon was catch Mewtwo and thats not saying a whole lot, I think I used a Master Ball. I wouldn’t really think about the series for another 17 years. What could possibly make me want to give Pokémon another go after all these years. Basically timing is everything. I was looking to play something on my 3DS and Pokémon X/Y was launching. All the sudden I’m back in the Pokémon universe full bore and it feels like I never really left.
So what’s the appeal of a Japanese RPG targeted at kids? With Pokémon that question has dozens of different answers. First and foremost the collection aspect of the game hits all the right notes for me. When the series first launched there were 151 pocket monsters to collect. With the latest release of X/Y that number has been pushed up well north of 700. For a lapsed Pokémon “master” like myself who didn’t really pay attention to 500 or so new Pokémon released since the original game it’s quite frankly overwhelming, but in a good way. Almost every encounter I face in the game I’m going up against something I haven’t seen before, I’m wondering what “type” of Pokémon I’m fighting, and which creature in my own arsenal I should counter with. These types now are so varied I’m running into Steel or Ghost or Dragon or Fairy, it’s a lot fun filling in my pokédex which creatures I’ve never seen before. When I see a Pokémon that looks especially interesting I do my best to capture it and maybe mess around with it in my party for a few minutes. It’s just as addicting as I remember and as simple as “gotta catch em all” is to understand, it’s a blast to actually undertake with at least a “gotta encounter em all” mentality.
The actual battle system is so solid and all in black and white for the player to understand. Stats are 95 percent out in the open to understand and theorycraft and presented in an easy way to understand. It has one of the greatest trademarks of all great games and thats the easy to understand difficult to master hook. When you start out learning how your basic attack and defense works but then quickly start realizing the value of speed, and then status ailments, and then how types are strong and weak against each other and then how how attacks are strong and weak when paired with types, it really just balloons into a deep and elegant system that is really one of the best examples of what a classical Japaense battle system has to offer. When you start going down the rabbit hole even further, breeding Pokémon to be of a particular nature or to have a particular set of hidden IV stats (to give each creature its own little bit of flavor) its easy to see why this series has stayed relevant for almost 2 decades while its contemporaries have come and gone.
Another little thing this series has going for it is just good ole fashioned nostalgia. There are certain moments in gaming that when they happen they are truly revolutionary. These often aren’t the first games that tried something or even the ones that do it best but for whatever reason they reach the broad audience and forever redefine a genre. In recent years I’d say it was something like the experience system in CoD or maybe the Morality “choice” system in a Bioware RPG. When Pokémon hit it changed the genre and the idea of collectible creature battling. Dozens of clones popped up from Digimon to Yu-Gi-Oh! and all had their own various levels of success but nothing has come close to having the broad appeal of Pokémon. X and Y double down on nostalgia , going as far as to giving the player the option to pick one of the original starter Pokémon ( I went with Squirtle) and yes I even had a Pikachu in my party only 15 minutes into the game. This game has the ability to take you to that happy place of your youth and it does so unapologetically.
So I touched on a few things that make this series so damn good after all these years, and I didn’t even mention how the game actually looks like the anime now with flawless toon shading or how the music has some best in breed RPG tunes. The presentation has been amped up beyond anything the series has ever offered and its easy to see the thoughtfulness that went into creating a sense of world. I’m not sure if I’ll stick around for the next game or maybe there will be another 15 year hiatus from the series, but I do know I’m digging what I’m playing right now on a lot of different levels. There is a level of comfort and innocence when I curl up with my 3DS and battle some pocket monsters that I just haven’t got a lot of this year in gaming. I already caught myself watching the latest anime movie on tv the other night. What I really need is a child, a mini me, to have a better excuse for all of this but right now my inner child will have to suffice. Bravo Nintendo and Gamefreak, bravo.