The last videogame I played to completion was Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s also the last videogame I could afford to buy. I love gaming, but as far as hobbies go, it isn’t cheap. I also love fantasy and roleplaying games, and have since my mom grounded me for playing on her save file of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening on the original Game Boy. As a kid who never could keep up with the most popular games as they came out, RPGs offered two things that were invaluable: long, meaty quests that were worth what little money I could scrape together, and huge, expansive worlds that I could lose myself in for months at a time.
I’ve always been in love with the narrative craft that goes into what I play, the creation and expansion of worlds that encourage players to learn as much as they can about their surroundings, the history that led to the circumstances your avatar is meant to deal with. I’m sidequest and loot obsessive, and experience a very real pleasure in the grind of leveling up. The first time I popped a copy of Skyrim into my PlayStation, I spent three months wandering the towns, mountains and fields, never doing much more than collecting bugs and running away from monsters. I still don’t know what happens in the main plot of that game.
Last week, on a lark, I downloaded Magikarp Jump for my iPhone. I’m not much into mobile games, but I was stuck at a friend’s house while she was packing her bags and I needed something to pass the time. There’s a simple, familiar cartoon charm to the game’s design, taking place, as it does, in the world of Pokémon. But unlike the games and cartoon I was familiar with from the years I spent vainly trying to catch them all on my Pokémon Yellow cart, Magikarp Jump has smaller goals: Instead of seeking to be the very best at the entire gamut of things Pokémon wants you to be the very best at, all you’re trying to do is get your poor, weak Magikarp to jump high enough that honor is restored to the town that brought you in.
You’re a wanderer, a traveling shooter if you will, a Pokémon trainer whose way with Pokémon is so renown that despite your being a 16 year old boy or girl (this is left intentionally ambiguous), Mayor Karp, the mayor of Hoppy Town, brings you in and puts the resources of his Magikarp-obsessed village at your disposal. With his help and the help of other townies, mad scientists, companion Pokémon, and ridiculous methods of training, your avatar’s goal is to get their Magikarp to leap as high as the text in the PokeDex has claimed they could jump since Pokémon Red & Blue.
I love this game. Truly. I’ve lost hours to it, though it doesn’t offer much more in terms of skill and technique than tapping a finger to the screen to get your Magikarp to eat the berries that power it up. It distills what I like about roleplaying games, Pokémon in particular, to their core mechanics: There’s a thing you have to do and there’s the things you have to get better at to accomplish it. Magikarp Jump is one long grind, from the first Magikarp you haul out of Roddy Tackle’s pond to the end. The idea that watching the weakest Gen 1 Pokémon jump higher than the others can be exciting is an odd one, but, I kid you not, the first time I lost a particularly close match, I felt a profound sense of failure, like I’d taken a wrong step on the road to immortality for both myself and my scaly pal.
Would I be as engaged if Magikarp Jump took place in a world I wasn’t already familiar with? It’s hard to imagine an aquarium-simulator-cum-training-montage catching my eye had my friends not posted their accomplishments on Facebook and Twitter. But familiarity breeds fondness, and without the means to purchase a copy of the new generation of Pokémon titles, Magikarp Jump threw me back into a world whose quirks and humor have informed my conception of popular culture for the better part of two decades. There’s the humor the game throws at you (like how “training” your Magikarp often means instructing it to ram itself into a tree or the blades of a fan), and the humor you bring to the game through the nicknames you give to your Magikarp. When my Sissy’s everstone broke and he evolved into a Magikarp, I screamed. That three out of four of my champion Magikarp are named after the women in Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wildside” is something that makes me smile. That I lost my beloved Rocky, a beautiful, golden Magikarp, to a Pidgeotto that flew by as he leapt up for a berry in a tree was as traumatizing to me as the loss of his Raticate must have been to my rival way back in 1997.
I haven’t finished Magikarp Jump and don’t know that I will. Halfway through the Luxury League, Flop Floppington’s color commentary has repeated itself too often, and I know the only thing standing between myself and the top of the heap is time spent in-app. But Magikarp Jump has got me wondering what I’ve been missing in the year I’ve not played games, in the years I couldn’t afford to put much time or money towards this hobby. I’m looking at PCs I can build and systems I can afford, indie games that are charming and deep and without the benefit of Pikachu standing by my avatar’s side. I’m looking at all of these things excited about the mountains I’ve yet to climb. Maybe, one day, my Magikarp will be strong enough to leap over those, too.
Colette Arrand lives in Athens, Georgia, where she runs Fear of A Ghost Planet, a zine press. She is the author of Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon, a poetry collection about love and pro wrestling.