I very vividly remember picking up my first Pokémon game — probably with more accuracy than most people. That’s because I started my first Pokémon adventure when I was 19, instead of eight.
It’s a fact that surprises most people. After all, my love and passion for Pokémon is no secret: My desk is covered with plush Pokémon, I have 10 favorite episodes of the original anime, I regularly pull out Pokémon Go on my phone, and I pitched this story while wearing a Pokémon t-shirt. Most assume that I’ve been a lifelong Poké-fan.
It wasn’t that I never wanted to play a Pokémon game before; I just grew up in a house where a lot video games weren’t allowed. My friends in school would gather around with their games to trade on the bus, and I’d peer over their shoulders, trying to figure out what was going on. I caught a few episodes of the anime while at friends’ houses, but still never got a chance to play until many years later.
My own Pokémon journey officially started when I was 19, with an old copy of Pokémon HeartGold that my best friend very generously gave me. It was Dec. 28, 2014. I even took a picture of my starter’s first battle in order to commemorate the moment.
There are certain pieces of media that build such a passionate and devoted fanbase from their release, that entering said fanbase later in one’s life is often met with indignation from the hardcore. Just ask anyone who’s openly admitted to never reading the Harry Potter books.
Before I played my first Pokémon game, I feared that getting into the franchise so late would result in that same sort of side-eye — and, added to that, almost 20 years’ worth of content to catch up on. It was something I missed out on when I was growing up. I don’t have memories of trading Pokémon on the school bus or waking up early to catch episodes of the anime. Even though I had the opportunity to play a Pokémon game once I got a handheld gaming console (a Nintendo DSi shared between my two siblings, also relatively late in life, at around age 15), I stayed away because it just seemed like I missed out on it.
But with that copy of HeartGold, I quickly and very easily entered the world of Pokémon.
Pokémon is designed to be easy to get into. It’s not a book series whose final book was published 10 years ago; it’s not a show that stopped running after season three. It’s a game series with a new game released every three or four years, specifically made to be a good entry point at any step.
It’s great for children, but it’s also great for older people, stragglers who maybe didn’t want to — or couldn’t — get into the franchise when they were kids. There’s no reason to play every single Pokémon game, the type match-ups become intuitive after a few battles, and even though there’s certainly ways to make the game more complex, especially in the competitive sphere, there’s no need to.
The beauty of Pokémon is that it is as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. If you want to battle with elite trainers; if you want to limit your revives and your potions; if you want to breed that Eevee with that specific trait; if you want to collect every single Pokémon in the Pokédex — you can definitely, most certainly do that.
But just getting into the series, I was focused learning the Pokédex, learning type-match ups and cooing over my Quilava as it followed me around. After three Pokémon adventures, I now play Pokémon with my own set of difficulty standards: I pick my team based on how cute it is, type matchups be damned.
Just kidding. (Mostly).
Still, I play Pokémon the way I want to and find it satisfying to build up my team, catch as many Pokémon as I can, and follow the light-hearted storyline with genuine investment.
There are still times where I feel a little weird about how I approach Pokémon, especially compared to people who play it more competitively. But for every person I meet who scoffs when I say I primarily pick my starter based on how cute it is, there’s dozens more also gushing about their favorite cute pocket monsters. It’s what makes Pokémon approachable and welcoming: Most of us are in it because we really like these creatures.
When I do encounter those few people who may be a bit snobbish about how they play, I remember Elite Four Member Karen’s quote in HeartGold.
“Strong Pokémon. Weak Pokémon. That is only the selfish perception of people. Truly skilled Trainers should try to win with the Pokémon they love best,” says Karen, right after you defeat her.
That, I believe, is the biggest takeaway of Pokémon.
Thankfully, my Pokémon experience has been relatively free of these particular encounters. I feel like I’ve more than made up my non-Pokémon years — though honestly, soon after I started getting more into it, I realized there was no need to make up for it. Because Pokémon is for everyone: old, young, competitive, casual, newcomers, seasoned fans.