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The 'true' story of a Pokémon game that turns you into a murderer

There are two versions of Pokémon Black: the one you know and the one that will make you a cold-blooded killer.

The former is the first game of the fifth generation of the series, first released alongside Pokémon White in Japan in 2010. The other you is quite different. Rumored to be found in a flea market in 2005, the small chunk of plastic and circuit boards looked like any other copy of the Pokémon Game Boy games, except for one key difference: the cartridge was jet black.

And its purpose is to make you kill, kill and kill again.

The story of Pokémon Black

Pokémon Black — so an unnamed author says — starts as Pokémon Red and Blue do, with Professor Oak outlining the practice of capturing, training and battling Pokémon, and with the player character waking in their own bed. But where Red and Blue offer three starter Pokémon to new players — Charmander, Squirtle or Bulbasaur — Pokémon Black adds a fourth: GHOST.

Pokémon Black's purpose is to make you kill, kill and kill again

Should you select GHOST, you'll find that unlike the other Pokémon, which start the game at level five, it is level one. Its attacks are different, too. Where Squirtle and friends begin the game with Normal-type moves such as tackle or growl, GHOST is only capable of one move, "curse."

Battles are simple affairs for players who select GHOST. Opposition Pokémon are "too scared to move" against the creature. But stranger is what the ghoulish Pokémon's single attack does to its enemies. Tiny Cartridge quotes the nameless author describing the effects:

"When the move 'Curse' was used in battle, the screen would cut to black. The cry of the defending Pokémon would be heard, but it was distorted, played at a much lower pitch than normal. The battle screen would then reappear, and the defending Pokémon would be gone. If used in a battle against a trainer, when the Pokéballs representing their Pokémon would appear in the corner, they would have one fewer Pokéball."

Once all Pokéballs had been removed and the trainer defeated, players had one more selection: they could "run," leaving the battle as normal, or use curse again. Use curse and the trainer would disappear. Return to that spot again in the future and their sprite would be replaced with a gravestone.

Pokemon Black

Much later, once you defeat the Elite Four, the game changes. The author describes the shift.

"A box appeared with the words 'Many years later...' It then cut to Lavender Tower. An old man was standing, looking at tombstones. You then realized this man was your character. The man moved at only half of your normal walking speed. You no longer had any Pokémon with you, not even GHOST, who up to this point had been impossible to remove from your party through depositing in the PC."

Pokémon Black's post-game world is empty of people. The only signifier that they might've once existed is their tombstones, left on the ground where you cursed them. Eventually, you can head back to your home, in Pallet Town.

If you walk back to your house and step onto the tile you began the game on, the screen fades to black. The darkness lifts after a few seconds and Pokémon sprites begin scrolling past. Then trainers appear, Young Boys and Fishermen and Super Nerds materializing on screen for a moment before flashing past.

Every living thing, Pokémon and person, that you had cursed. You and GHOST killed them all.

Stranger is what the ghoulish Pokémon's single attack does to its enemies

Finally, GHOST appears again, this time on the other side of a trainer battle. As an old man you're limited to one move — struggle — which chips away at your health until it's down to almost nothing. Once low enough, GHOST uses curse one last time, aiming the attack at the player. The screen fades to black again. On rebooting the Game Boy, your save game is gone.

A serving of creepypasta

Pokémon Black is a creepypasta: a tale born on the internet, designed to be repeated and re-pasted around the web. Most creepypasta — the Russian Sleep Experiment, Anansi's Goatman — are campfire stories that happened to find their home online. But there's a growing subset of stories embedded in video games, scares made more scary by their familiar virtual context.

Most of these stories draw their power from a sense of rarity. Pokémon Black was a single copy found in a flea market.

Another example: jvk1166z.esp, a mod for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, was reportedly only distributed to "the chosen few" several years ago. The mod was apparently difficult to use, but players who were able to run it said their characters would lose health if they stood still for too long. If they let their health bars whittle down to zero, they'd find the cause of the problem: a spindly humanoid figure dressed in untextured black armor that would apparently chase the player to the ends of the game world. The ‘Assassin,' as the figure is called by the creepypasta's unnamed author, seems to be designed to stop the player from waiting in place long enough to discover what's behind a mysterious door.

Pokémon Black is a creepypasta

Morrowind is eminently moddable, making jvk1166z.esp a believable possibility. But other video game creepypasta set themselves in older console games, worlds that appear immutable and stuck inside cartridges. In 2010, a YouTube user called Jadusable started uploading videos of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask after he apparently received a copy of the game from an old man. The videos were unnerving. They showed a glitchy version of the game in which Jadusable was tormented by the Happy Mask Salesman and repeatedly met with the phrase "You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?" In the final videos, Jadusable was met with two save files — BEN and DROWNED — purportedly spelling out the fate of a neighbor who had died years before.

Breaking into the real world

Like Jadusable's videos, Pokémon Black twists a well-known and well-loved game, exploiting our familiarity with Pokémon's Kanto region to amp up the creepiness. It's an approach well used by a slew of Japanese horror movies released at the turn of the millennium that helped break the boundaries between the virtual world and our own. The Ring's Sadako broke the fourth wall by crawling through it, forcing her way from videotape to her victims' living rooms. Video games are meant to be safe worlds we choose to inhabit to get away from our own, places we can check in and check out of at will. But movies such as The Grudge began eroding that safe space, putting monsters under your bedclothes and hiding pale, glassy-eyed children under tablecloths in crowded restaurants.

Pokémon creepypastas have exploited the cultural differences and language barrier between Japan and the west to turbocharge their spookiness. An early version of the music that plays as you walk around Pokémon Red and Blue's Lavender Town was said to spark a spate of suicides in the game's home country as Japanese school children, lured by high-pitched tones in the music, jumped from rooftops across the nation. No such death cult existed, and the Lavender Town music was never shown to subliminally drive kids to kill themselves, but the difficulty in translating Japanese news to English lends the rumor a powerful mystique.

An early version of the Pokémon music was said to spark a spate of suicides

Unlike The Ring's Sadako or Lavender Town's brain-melting music, Pokémon Black doesn't threaten your life. The worst it does is make you consider the consequences of willful slaughter, something thousands of video games are all too keen to both encourage and ignore. Even the cartridge itself, supposedly purchased from a peculiar flea market like so many horror movie tchotchke, could be fairly easily reproduced out in the real world. It's much easier to imagine the process by which someone could hack a Pokémon Red ROM and transfer it to a Game Boy cartridge than it is to picture how a doll, or a car, or a monkey's paw is imbued with some dark magic. And still, the story of Pokémon Black is unsettling.

It's unsettling because for so many people playing today, Pokémon Red and Blue are untouchable. Both games are as much products of the collective youths of modern video game players as our first bikes or our first plush toy. If something messes with these permanent fixtures of memory, tweaks them and turns them into something insidious and dark and maybe even evil, then what else is safe? What if GHOST was haunting our games, hiding in the long grass as we played long into the night, waiting to take us to the empty, dead world of Pokémon Black?

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