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Pokémon will always be the perfect Game Boy game

The world of Pokémon wouldn’t have been this big of a success on any other platform

Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

The world of 1998 — the year the first Pokémon games were released in the United States — was so different that it’s hard to remember what life was like back then. This was a time before we carried computers around in our pockets, and long before many of us began careers where the only difference between being on the clock and being at home was a matter of which screen we were looking at.

The Game Boy was 10 years old when Pokémon Red and Blue launched in the United States in September 1998; the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy’s first true successor, launched two months later. By then, Nintendo had so thoroughly dominated the world of portable gaming that “Game Boy” had become a catch-all term for any kind of handheld video game system. The competition had crashed against Nintendo’s power like an ocean tide lapping at rocks on the shore. Even the timeline of these releases now feels alien and anachronistic; when was the last time a console lasted a decade before a hardware update or refresh?

The Pokémon franchise has, in part, the longevity of Nintendo’s hardware to thank for its ubiquity and power in the gaming space. Would Red and Blue have taken off in the same way on a system that wasn’t portable? Nintendo’s newest home console at the time was the Nintendo 64, which didn’t seem like the place that Pokémon would thrive. It was built on the idea of keeping these monsters right in your pocket, after all.

Pokémon exemplifies what made the Game Boy great

Which is why it’s impossible to separate the early success of Pokémon with the ongoing reign of Nintendo’s portables. These were games you could not only take with you anywhere, but also connect with friends to battle each other’s pocket monsters with ease. Your Game Boy was no longer just a Game Boy anymore: It was also a Pokédex, and the home for your (adorable!) ensnared beasts. Game Boy hardware seemed like something that could exist in the game’s own world.

Your silent trainer was all about going wherever the wind took him to find Pokémon, and so could you. Even if you were otherwise at your parents’ every whim, the first Pokemon games on Nintendo’s portables provided a private world where you were in control. And although the multiplayer trading and battling required the slightly-more-complicated additional expense of a link cable, the offline nature was essential: When you were free to do what you wanted, you met your friends and rivals face to face, just like in the game.

Ash and Pikachu stand at the beginning of a gym battle
Playing Pokémon always made us feel a lot like these guys.
The Pokémon Company

That local play remains at Pokémon’s heart. Truly offline gaming now feels like a relic, but Pokémon exemplified its brilliance: a deep, ongoing game with a competitive aspect that felt seamlessly connected to the single-player game and the schoolyard pride of winning your battles.

I can’t make the success of Nintendo’s Game Boy line and the Pokémon series into two different things, and I would never want to. I can’t think of the series without flashing back to its first year of existence, when my best friend and I purchased Game Boy Color systems and complementary copies of the game so we could collect and trade all the Pokémon. We played relentlessly, often in the backseat of our friends’ cars, likely annoying the hell out of anyone who was driving us wherever we were going.

But it felt like nothing else; like freedom attached to conquest attached to the open world. It was a dream that fit in your pocket, a power fantasy of strategy and grinding. The game was brilliant, but it was the hardware that brought it to life. I’m not sure it’s worth dissecting how much worth the match would have without the candle.

Game Boy cartridges for Pokemon Red, Blue, Gold, Special Pikachu Edition, plus Game Boy Advance cartridges for Pokemon FireRed, Sapphire and Ruby Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

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