A co-worker and I at a former job I once held mutually agreed that we wouldn’t want to be born at any other time. This came from sharing stories about being a kid when the NES came out and growing up with classics like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and countless other games that debuted around that time. One exception I would make to this is that I would’ve loved to have been much younger when the Pokémon phenomena entered this side of the world. I’ll admit being very envious of people even a few years younger than me telling stories of bringing their games to school, discussing the anime, playing the card game and all the accompanying playing and trading that’s inherent with the franchise.
When the first two Pokémon games arrived in North America, I was in ninth grade, and being overly enthusiastic about something that your classmates think is for children doesn’t win you many popularity contests. There’s a certain sense of irony though as people asked if I worshipped the devil because I wore a shirt to school that was for the band Korn. I guess no one saw the yellow Pokémon Pikachu step counter clipped to my belt, or when I sheepishly tried to shake it when the teacher wasn’t looking to get a few more “steps” in.
Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters as it’s referred to in Japan, is a game developed by a company named Game Freak and published by Nintendo. When it was originally released overseas, it came in two flavours, Red and Green, later renamed to Red and Blue for the North America launch, which were more or less the exact same game. The objective of the goal is to wander the country, capturing Pokémon which you then raise and battle to earn the title of Pokémon Master. A big component is catching all the creatures – hence the tagline “Gotta catch em’all” – which is impossible to do with just one version. In order to collect every single Pokémon, you’re encouraged to trade with friends who owned the different version that you did.
From its humble beginnings as a pair of Game Boy titles, Pokémon prolonged the life cycle of the dated handheld and spawned an empire that has crossed into everything from a long-running anime series, films both animated and live action, toys, merchandise, a collectible card game and countless other mediums to the tune of close to one-hundred billion dollars in revenue. Just a few summers ago people who had never touched the franchise in their lives probably found themselves walking down the street with a mob of people, collectively staring at their phones playing the free-to-play mobile game, Pokémon GO.
Pokémon entered my awareness through the pages of Nintendo Power in early 1998 where they did a lengthy piece on the Pocket Monsters craze that had overtaken Japan and was about to migrate westward. The concept behind the game sounded innovative and like nothing I had really played before, but I wasn’t exactly sold, not yet anyways.
Closer to the September 1998 release of Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, Nintendo Power started including inserts in the back of each issue called “Pokémon Power” that when assembled, created a full strategy guide to aid you in your quest to capture all of the elusive creatures. Not only did it help you through the game and showcased the adorable, and sometimes bizarre, creatures that made up this world, it also informed you of all the additional media that was to accompany the launch of the game. The first issue for example included a list of television stations that were set to carry the anime so you could find out if it was going to air on a channel you had. This was what we had to before the days of Netflix and other such services. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
This add-on was meant to build up hype for the Pokémon launch and it sure as heck worked on me. Even before I had the game, I was reading strategies on which type of Pokémon I wanted as my starter, the differences in types and which ones were better equipped to beat others and what version I wanted to buy – Blue, if you’re asking – based on what Pokémon were exclusive to what version. I was a teenager at this point, but Pokémon made me feel like a kid again. I would go swimming at Rocky Pond or riding around town thinking about what it would be like to live in the world of Pokémon.
I never thought about it much until now, but I think a large part of that had to do with the basic story of the Pokémon games, especially the first one, where you play a young kid who gets to leave his hometown to go on this amazing adventure. It was essentially what I wanted to do. You don’t have to worry about school or bullies as a Pokémon trainer, you just had to concern yourself with knowing about Pokémon, something that I was more than getting an education on.
The days leading up to the release of Pokémon Blue just dragged as I grew tired of reading about Pokémon and staring at an ad from Wal-Mart that had the game’s cover on it, I just wanted to get my hands on the game itself. Once its actual release date hit, I begged whoever brought me to swim team everyday to leave early so we could stop into Wal-Mart in Carbonear to see if they had a copy. There were many excited dashes to the electronics department that ended in disappointment when I found the slot where it was to be empty. One day someone asked if I wanted to check to see if they had it, and I replied with a beaten “I guess” because I was worn out by all the let downs. That was the day that Pokémon Blue came home with me.
It was maybe one of the longest swim team practises I ever had because while I was physically there, in the pool, my mind was thinking about how I wanted to be home, huddled under a lamp with my Game Boy, wandering through tall grass hunting Pokémon. For the next few weeks when I wasn’t at school or swim team, I was playing Pokémon Blue, Pokémon Power issues close by my side. I was consuming the game faster than what Nintendo Power was putting out issues, so it didn’t take long until I was on my own not knowing what was ahead which just made the game more exciting.
I knew my obsession with Pokémon got a bit too much when one night instead of studying for a math test, I was playing Pokémon instead because I found a new area after finishing the main story of the game called the Unknown Dungeon, a cave filled with Pokémon I had never seen at the end, a powerful creature called Mewtwo. When I got the results of that test back, I received a mark in the ‘50’-s and it was the first time I had ever gotten that low on a test. It was then when I learned I really had to learn self-control with my hobby as I didn’t ever want to disappoint my parents like that ever again. When mid-term exams came around in January that year, my parents didn’t take my video games away from me, I boxed them up myself, vowing to not play a single second until they were over.
Pokémon was an inescapable craze in its early days and it was incredibly exciting to be a part of it, even though I did have to hide my love for it for fear of what kids my age would say. You would read in magazines, even see news reports on television, about how the toys and games didn’t last long when they were placed on store shelves and it wasn’t just major cities, it was even in my hometown too. My brother had a Game Boy of his own, and for Easter in 1999 I wanted Pokémon Red such that I could finally capture all one-hundred-and-fifty of the critters but good luck finding a copy at Wal-Mart.
When the toys finally started to come land on shelves, you would get to the mall to see nothing but a small rubber ball with a Pikachu as everything else had sold out. I was supremely bummed that the apparel that was produced did not fit my teenage frame. I very much wanted a jersey style t-shirt with the number “99” on the back but with the name Kingler on it, the 99th Pokémon. Being a Canadian, the number “99” was sacred as it was the number of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. I didn’t have much time for hockey though, but I had more than enough of it to give for Pokémon.
I went down to Wal-Mart one day and saw a end display full of the starter deck for the trading card game but left it there as I wasn’t sure if I wanted it commit to it or not. Later that day I decided I wanted it only to find out the section was completely picked clean. Luckily for me I managed to find a copy that someone had hidden behind some Barbie toys because I refused to believe that they were all gone. If you were that person who hid that deck and came back to find it gone: sorry, but finders keepers.
My personal level of Pokémon hype started to burn out in the early months of 1999 because of another major pop culture event: the first new Star Wars movie since 1983, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Pokémon would begin to take a back seat as action figures, collectible cans and other pieces of merchandise featuring the faces of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul started to pile up in my room. I still managed to keep myself engaged with the Pokémon franchise throughout that summer, taking turns playing rounds upon rounds of Pokémon Pinball with my brother and renting the Nintendo 64 game, Pokémon Snap, though I sadly had no Blockbuster to visit to print off my stickers.
The fires of my passion for Pokémon would being to be stoked anew in the fall of 1999 due to the release of Pokémon Yellow, a remake of sorts of the game where the art style for the creatures and characters resembled that of the anime and Pikachu followed you around. I was fortunate enough to enjoy this on my new dandelion Game Boy Color that my parents bought me in consolation for staying with my grandmother while my parents drove my brother to university. The bigger event though was that Pokémon was coming to the big-screen that same fall.
Anime was something that was easy to like as a teenager who still tuned into Saturday morning cartoons, and because of the success of Pokémon, it was getting much easier to find. Unless you had satellite television, you couldn’t get access to Cartoon Network where we lived, but local stations like YTV, essentially Canada’s Nickelodeon analogue, began to air Dragon Ball Z which became appointment viewing everyday and a new station, Teletoon, starting showing feature length anime movies during the late hours on the weekend. The first Pokémon feature film, aptly titled Pokémon: The First Movie, an extension of the show that aired on television, would be my first chance to see an anime film in theaters, something I’m sure was true for a lot of people.
The opening date for Pokémon: The First Movie, was November 10th, a day that fortunately fell on an annual pre-Christmas sale at The Village Mall that my mom regularly took trips into St. John’s to take advantage of. This meant that I didn’t have to hint that someone should make a trip to the city as there was already plans to. Pokémon: The First Movie was also playing at the B-theater located in a strip mall called the Sobey’s Square, now called Mt. Pearl Square, instead of the Avalon Mall which was also lucky because it was closer to The Village. We left Harbour Grace early to beat the inevitable crowds and it’s a good thing that we did as any later and the movie would’ve been sold out.
Pokémon: The First Movie was one probably one of my most awkward movie going experiences. Here I was, a fifteen year old in the tenth grade, by myself, trying to find a seat in a sea of parents with their young kids, all excited to see Pikachu and company light up the silver screen. I remember finally finding a seat that wasn’t being held for either a parent or child and a small kid seated next to me asked what I was doing there. I guess it was odd to them to see someone who wasn’t their own age not accompanied by a child to see a cartoon.
Equally embarrassing was trying to choke back the tears I had shed during the end of the movie when Pikachu is trying to shock Ash, the defacto main character of the Pokémon anime, who had turned to stone after throwing himself between a blast fired by battling Pokémon. These emotions remained after the movie when my mom came to get me and asked if the movie was any good and I had trouble saying yes because I still felt like I was going to cry.
Pokémon: The First Movie is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, and if you went into it blind having never seen an episode of the show, you wouldn’t be able to make sense of all the nonsense, albeit colorful nonsense, that was being thrown at you. As someone who had spent a year with the franchise and the show, I was more than willing to forgive its shortcomings and allowed myself to be excited when the iconic theme song to the show is played towards the beginning of the feature, though sung by Billy Crawford and not Jason Paige who provided the vocals for the show.
Many thought that Pokémon would be a fad that would go away, but it’s been a franchise that has been run incredibly smart. Loyal players stick with the game from generation to generation while newer entries become the gateway for new ones to get in on the series. I would not be one of those who would stick with Pokémon, for despite having a white hot passion for the series, it burned out pretty quickly. I simply wasn’t up to the Sisyphean task of essentially starting over from scratch with each new entry in the main series after pouring so much effort into the first game. Besides, I had lots of other video games to play, and not all of them new.