I missed the Pokémon tidal wave.
In the early '90s, my Game Boy and I were inseparable. Days could disappear while I played pea green Tetris and Super Mario Land and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan. The living room, my bedroom, the back of the family's green Ford minivan headed to Myrtle Beach — where I went, the Game Boy went, too.
And then, suddenly and without much fanfare, we parted ways. I guess I grew up or found other distractions. I didn't get back into handheld gaming until 2003, when The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker persuaded me to buy a clamshell Game Boy Advance, which became a Tingle Tuner when I connected it to my GameCube.
I missed a handful of popular games during that break. Another weirdish thing about me: If I miss the first stop on the hype train, I have trouble hopping on board down the line. (I'm looking at you, Kirby.)
Point is, in the mid-to-late-'90s, while I was putting all my eggs in the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation baskets, I missed a wildly successful game (or pair of games). Now, almost two decades late, I've decided to fix my mistake. Join me as I trip backside-first and nearly 20 years late into Pokémon Blue.
TO BE A MASTER
The first thing you need to know is what I knew going in, and that was about as close to nothing as possible. I understood in the vaguest sense that Pokémon was a role-playing game about catching and fighting monsters. At one point in 1999, a friend of mine was into the cartoon in the life-consuming obsessive way that only a child or an upper-middle-class 40-year-old man can be. I on the other hand thought that Pokémon was Digimon, and I was dumbfounded when we went to see the movie. That experience is my only context with the brand.
I decided early in this adventure that if I was going to play Pokémon for the first time, I was going to do it as authentically as possible, and that meant between my hands.
It's not difficult or expensive to go retro. Within a few days, and for less than the cost of a retail console game, I had a beautiful red Game Boy Pocket and a copy of Pokémon Blue. Also Tetris. How could I not buy Tetris?
With a fresh pair of AAA batteries, I turned my new old handheld on, watched the Nintendo logo cascade down from the top of the screen and heard the indelible Game Boy chime. My mission was under way.
First up: my in-game name. The choice was easy. It was also my first reminder that I was doing something very old.
I saw Summer School, the high school comedy starring Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley, in a theater in the summer of 1987. That fact, I reasoned, made me about the coolest kid I knew. (I was, like, 8, and I didn't get to the movies that often, OK?) From that day on, in every game that gave me the opportunity, I named myself Chainsaw after the coolest guy in the movie, a slacker movie buff with a good heart nobody ever called by his real name, Francis. This creates something of a problem in Pokémon Blue, which only allows seven-character names. Thus christened, Chainsa entered the world with his Pokémon Trainer's license to become master of the pocket monster.
My second consequential choice was to select my companion. I had three choices, none of which made any sense to me. But one had fire. And fire sounds powerful. Though I didn't know it at the time, just as a silly '80s film had inspired me, so had fire. I became a Charmander dude.
This seemingly innocuous selection almost instantly taught me a lesson about Pokémon: Its players are territorial. If you're a fan, my selection likely meant something to you. If you're on the Charmander train, we're instant buddies, bonded over a fake animal. If you're more into Bulbasaur or Squirtle, you are dumb. This is the way of Pokémon, and I am one of you now, defending my choice with a stubborn authority. Based on my conversations these last weeks with old-school Pokémon fans, it'd be about as easy for me to convince you of Charmander's supremacy as it would to convince a non-fan to like Creed. Ain't gonna happen.
So I've got the best starter, and I'm off into the world. The next several hours are basically a long and super interesting tutorial, as much about acquiring knowledge of specific Pokémon as acquainting myself with turn-based Japanese role-playing games.
The experience, at first, was intimidating. Pokémon Blue sets you free almost at once, save a simple goal-oriented quest for Professor Oak. I'd learn later that Pallet Town was small by comparison to the world's other sprawling metropolises. But it sure seemed big and confusing. The world appeared massive, and I had no good idea about what to do. So I did what I always do when I get stuck in a game: I bumbled around looking for clues, hoping to stumble my way onto the right path.
For as long as I can remember, I've tried to figure out what developers want to tell me with their designs. When I get stuck in a game, and I often do, I assume that there are subtleties I'm missing — clues, design-focused triggers, things that will tell me what's going on, if I only pay enough attention.
It's interesting, trying to sync your mind with what the developers at Game Freak were thinking two decades ago, in part because I had to forget some of what I'd learned in the intervening years. I suspect that, if I were playing something like Pokémon Blue today, it would include a detailed map for every corner of the world I visited. Not so in 1996. There's no real map to speak of, except the oddly named Town Map, which is actually a world map.
At a certain point, I realized that there was really only one path open to me, and I headed north.
THE GOOD PART
My next dozen hours were spent discovering how to play the game and being awed at the size and depth.
Once I paid enough attention, I saw how the flow of Pokémon Blue is straightforward: Make your way to all of those areas on the Town Map you haven't been to yet. Beat a trainer. Attain supremacy. Wash, rinse, repeat. But for the first several hours, it was the spokes connecting the town hubs that drew me forward. And the only way to move forward in these areas was to fight.
Fighting is kind of weird in Pokémon. I mean, if you stop and think about it, what you're really doing is training a pack of feral beasts to fight on command. At your whim, the beasts in this world attack others with ferocious intensity, beating and hypnotizing and pulverizing their prey. Then, when your adversaries teeter within an inch of their lives, you hit them one last time to knock them unconscious. It's a little brutal. But, hey, I like boxing and professional wrestling, so I can roll with the punches.
The hardest part in the early hours was learning what was what. Because I had little frame of reference, I had no idea what my moves were. I get what Scratch is without explanation, but what's the difference between Screech and Growl, and how can I tell? At first, I avoided what I didn't understand and stuck to the obvious. But Pokémon Blue is a game based on diversity. You can command a herd of up to six Pokémon, and the game makes it obvious why you should.
I hit my first brick wall when I tried to fight Misty at the Cerulean Gym. The odd collection of creatures I'd equipped myself with were no match for her Water-type Pokémon, against which even a relatively powerful Charmander is doomed. I walked up to her, started to fight, and she handed me my ass. I had no choice but to leave, find better Pokémon and return after I'd leveled them up to competency.
This is the way of Pokémon Blue. Nothing really tells you what to do. But there are hints everywhere. I had to stop and think about what random, non-playable characters told me and extrapolate strategy from that. From then on, whenever I found myself at an impasse, that loop served me well.
As I progressed through the game, its size continued to astound me. This is 2014, I reasoned. Pokémon Blue was released in 1996 in Japan. How big could the world possibly be? Far larger than I gave it credit for, it turns out. Pokémon Blue's sense of scale combined with its sense of place remains my favorite part of the game. The longer I played, the bigger it got. I won't soon forget the towns and the caves and the towers and the department stores I climbed through, let alone my adventures on the S.S. Anne, a luxury cruise liner docked at port and filled with adversaries. Each seemed to bring new abilities and new options for me to use and kept the game feeling new right up until the point that it didn't anymore.
At some point around my 25th hour in the game, what once felt fresh began to feel stale.
At first, I tried to shrug it off. I concentrated on my goals, rather than my exploration. But getting from town to town felt old because of the turn-based combat. I was tired of reading the same text. After my 200th encounter, I'd grown weary of fighting Pidgeys and Spearows and Zubats. Even though I was often powerful enough to best them with one hit, I didn't care to do so. Encounters — the very things that had once drawn me into the game — became a nuisance. Game Freak even seems to have realized this and included potions in the game that ward off less powerful foes. But including something like that to prevent the entrap loop in the game feels less like help and more like an admission of some kind of failure.
On paper, the time I spent in the far reaches of the map don't seem significant. I suspect I actually spent less time there than I did in earlier areas. But when I think back on the hours between, say, 25 and 30, I feel dread. I feel like I devoted entire days to them alone. I felt slow as molasses. I felt bored.
Everything that once worked started to fail. Everything looked the same and felt old. Figuring out where I was felt like a chore. The tension between quickly defeating an enemy and investing the time to level up my Pokémon felt like homework. Leveling up new Pokémon seemed entirely superfluous, because I had a core team of four obscenely powerful fighters. There was no need to invest my time in other characters. And even when I tried, the kludgy menus meant that I spent more time navigating them than actually fighting.
I wanted progress. When I should have felt like a Pokémon Master, I got process instead.
I liked lots of Pokémon Blue very much, but that was no surprise. It's a Nintendo franchise, and I've long maintained that Nintendo has, pound for pound, some of the best and most consistent developers and properties in existence. And I want more Pokémon.
Where do I go from here?
Look: I know me. And what I know about me is that the investment — both in terms of time and expense — that it would take for me to truly catch up with the series, game-for-game, is too high a cost. It's unlikely that I'll play much of what came after. But that doesn't mean I'm done with the franchise.
Last year, I bought the new Daft Punk album out of sheer spite. It's nothing I'd ever buy on my own. But in the weeks after its release, it seemed to be all anyone was talking about. So one day, I got fed up, and I bought it just because I had to know what everyone was talking about. I'm glad I did. Random Access Memories is one of the best albums I've purchased in years.
Later that summer, I did something similar with a video game to less mind-blowing results. Based largely on Polygon's review, I bought Pokémon Y. I played for a grand total of 17 minutes before I put it down in total confusion and never returned. I remember almost exactly nothing about it.
But now I know Pokémon. When people talk about it, I finally have a frame of reference. When I read articles about growing your own Bulbasaur, I know what that means. I understand that a big part of the appeal of Pokémon is the attachment players make to the pocket monsters they raise, evolve and carry with them. I watched episodes of the Pokémon animated series on Netflix, and I actually understood what was going on.
I have fought and thwarted Team Rocket. I have ascended and conquered the Pokémon Tower. I'm no longer an outsider. I fell in love with the threadbare excuses to fight. "Hey! You're not wearing shorts!" and "You looked at me, didn't you?" A fisherman aboard the luxury cruiser S.S. Anne once told me to "stop by and chat" and then immediately threw his Pokémon against me. (To be fair, I barged into his room uninvited.) "Darn!" he said in defeat. "I let that one get away." Because he's a fisherman. I loved them all, even when I rolled my eyes.
In the beginning, the assignment was clear: Play Pokémon, finally. But the larger goal was really to understand Pokémon. I do. I'm am one of them. We are an us now. And I am happy.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a Nintendo 3DS to boot up. I need to see what Pokémon are like in 3D.