My first Pokémon was Chary.
You can probably guess which Pokémon it was. But to refer to Chary just as “my Charmander” feels disingenuous; Chary was much more than that, more than just another Charmander. Starting way back in Pokémon Red, all of my Pokémon were my friends. We were bound together, and those bonds were cemented by something many players choose to overlook: names.
I think of my team as more than a fighting squad, something I make clear as soon as I catch them and spend several minutes considering which name would suit them best. When playing Pokémon Red as a six-year-old, I was less creative with my nicknames. I miss Clefa the Clefairy and Pichu the Pikachu (I was anticipating gen two already), and I remember naming a Zubat after a kid in my class, because his name was cool. I even can recall the names of some of my friends’ Pokémon, when I normally wouldn’t remember a single thing about anyone else’s team.
In later games, I was a bit more adventurous. I had an Azumarill I loved, and her name was ... Michael. It felt right at the time. She was on a team with my right-hand starter, Kazu, whom I raised from a Mudkip all the way to a high-powered Swampert. In high school, playing the Pokémon DS games, I’d often dub at least one ’mon after whatever celebrity dude I thought was cute at the time. (I’m semi-embarrassed to admit that I had several Pokémon named after Jesse Eisenberg and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) In Sun and Moon, I of course named my own baby Cosmog after the one who featured in the story, Nebby.
Even if some of those names are relics of a youth I try hard to forget, naming Pokémon has always been a crucial part of the game for me. Giving my starter a nickname is key to forging the connection Pokémon is built on: friendship. Training feels more important when it’s with a friend you’ve grown with, not a hired hand that you picked up solely for stats. This felt right to me even as a second grader booting up Pokémon Red, the first video game I ever owned.
Whether nicknaming a Pokémon matters is one of those debates I’m surprised to have so often. What I have always considered to be an obvious part of Pokémon, the other kids at school — and now, the other people at work — thought was a waste of time. There was no point in expending the energy to come up with a nickname for that Geodude they were only raising to evolve, because Golem was a good party member pick, they told me. Naming Pokémon was a pointless endeavor, taking time away from the real meat of battling.
But I stood my ground then, and I stand my ground now. There is nothing more significant to me than settling on the perfect name to give to a Pokémon you’re determined to raise to be more than a fighter, but a friend too. Chary the Charmander and I grew close over our time in Pokémon Red. Even when he became a standoffish Charmeleon and an intimidating Charizard, he was still my baby Chary, no matter what level he was. Why would I sacrifice that by calling him by his species?
There are millions of Charmander out there. There’s only one Chary; there’s only one Pokémon with a name you picked out just for it. It’s one of the many things that makes the games special, dating all the way back to the Game Boy era. Sure, you don’t have to assign a nickname. If you don’t, you’ll just be missing out on the heartening satisfaction of finding new best friends in your Pokémon collection.