When I was a child, being able to pick my own games — especially full-price, new ones, and not just Blockbuster rentals — was a treat, and an especially rare one. I was the youngest of four, and the only girl; the baby of the family usually didn’t get to make big-kid choices.
So when I was told I could get my own Pokémon game, I was blown away. I still remember standing in a store, agonizing over whether I would pick Red or Blue. This was an adventure that was for me, a window into a world that I desperately wanted to explore, and every decision, from the version of the game to my starter (Bulbasaur, obviously), mattered.
I wasn’t allowed to collect the cards while that fad consumed my grade school back in the ’90s, so I threw myself into catching ’em all on my Game Boy. I relied on my brothers to beat Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time for me, but Pokémon Blue didn’t ask my slow child-hands to react quickly or overcome platforming challenges. All I had to do was build friendships and make the right choices. I was captivated.
Pokémon, as a series, has stayed pretty closely to the path forged by titles like Blue since it launched stateside 20 years ago. Now that we’re older, a lot of players my age who grew up with the games want the games to grow up, too. They ask for the series to evolve; they want more options, more complexity, even more moral explorations as to what it means to live in the world of Pokémon.
I’m not immune to the series’ stasis either. I’ve lost interest in playing the new titles — but the last thing I want is for them to change for my sake. I’ve grown out of Pokémon, and I think that’s perfect.
Stagnation or satisfaction?
Pokémon adventures aren’t the exact same, but they share a similar DNA as they go over some of the same beats. You are a young trainer starting out in the world; you choose one of three starter Pokémon, get a Pokédex from your mentor, and set out to build up a Pokémon team, win allies, maybe ride a sweet bike, earn gym badges and eventually save the world.
Sometimes, the games get a little more ambitious. Sun and Moon have a lot of fun playing with the basic formula, and give you a whole squad of friends and a more prevalent mystery centering around your pal Lillie. The upcoming Let’s Go will be a more humble Yellow remake that goes back to the basics of Team Rocket and the original 151 Pokémon.
Throughout it all, Pokémon has remained so perfect as an “entry level” game, something that I could hand to a less accomplished player or a young relative, knowing they could still enjoy it. There’s a very real value in that, in having a game that acts as a perennial gateway for introducing someone to a hobby you love. There’s the potential to sink dozens or hundreds of hours into the game, sure, and the highest level of Pokémon battling is one of the most competitive arenas of gaming ... but the game starts with a simple choice. Which one of these three Pokémon will you pick as your companion?
Everything unfolds from there, and it’s a start that doesn’t need to be any more complex or nuanced. Sometimes, things can just be simple, an oasis of calm in an industry that demands constant scale and scope and innovation. You pick a cute friend, and you go on an adventure. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Bigger isn’t always better
As time passed, I stopped picking up every addition to the Pokémon series, and I stopped getting so far. I beat Pearl, while my then-boyfriend beat Diamond, but a few hours in, we stopped trading with each other and trying to round out our Pokédex. I gave up during the end-game of Black when I whiffed an Elite Four fight. Sun was my last attempt at the series, and I gave up trying to navigate the winding, flooded roads on the way to the next gym. Every generation, the game got better, but the core was still the same. My imagination had more fun filling out the black-and-white, cramped world of the original game than it did with the increasingly elegant and stylized successors.
The developers hadn’t done anything wrong, or lacked any kind of critical ambition. I had simply grown up. I bought an Xbox 360 with my first part time job and fell in love with games like the first Mass Effect. I built my own gaming PC and started chasing server-first records in MMORPGs. The quest to collect them all just didn’t speak to me anymore. There’s a moment of sadness there, sure, but there’s also liberation in the realization that not everything has to be for me.
In the age of social media and pro gamers getting magazine covers, it’s easy to see seasoned gamers mocking the kids who play games with full, open hearts and earnest enthusiasm. Kids who mimic Fortnite dances or talk at length about their favorite Overwatch heroes are the object of scorn in many corners of social media. The phrase “cringe” is roundly applied to kids playing games with childlike abandon and glee.
Would I perhaps prefer a Pokémon series more tailored to my tastes? Would I love a game with MMORPG levels of depth, complexity, a longer story, or many of those other popular demands from older fans? Of course I would on some level, but I’m also 27 years old. I’ve had plenty of games that are crafted for me. I don’t need Pokémon to abandon its formula and chase my interests. I’ve already learned the most important lessons the game has to offer.
When I was a kid, my copy of Pokémon Blue was one of the few places I had where I could competently exercise mastery, explore a world that was consistently kind to me, and just have a grand old time. I’ve grown out of Pokémon, but I hope it continues to inspire a new generation of trainers to realize that they, too, can be the very best.