Learning to Embrace Pokémon on its 20th Anniversary

Happy 20th Birthday to My Favorite Adorable Warrior-Slave Minions

Games Features
Learning to Embrace Pokémon on its 20th Anniversary

It’s taken me 20 years to come around to Pokémon. When it first hit way back when on the Game Boy, I was pretty eager to see what all the fuss was about. What I discovered was a bizarre game where small, unattended children ran around capturing poor creatures in the wild and then forcing them to fight each other for money.

Essentially, one of Nintendo’s biggest sources of income is actually cock fighting for children dressed up as a fun role-playing game and an endless series of tie-ins, from animated programs and toys to the collectable card game and more licensed paraphernalia than anybody could keep track of. That Pokémon spawned a whole generation of clones begging to cash in on Nintendo’s cash cow just made the whole thing feel even weirder.

I’m still not down with the whole (frankly, disturbing) concept of Pokémon, but when I recently decided to take a step back and actually try to experience the series from the shallow level of “it’s only a game,” something weird happened: I discovered that I like it.

I’m certainly not the ideal demographic for Pokémon. I won’t be getting Pokémon bed sheets and action figures, and I’d rather stab my own foot than play a collectable card game of any sort. Yet there’s no denying that the core gameplay to Pokémon is a brilliant way to construct a role-playing game that compels you to explore every nook over and over without the need for absurd and clichéd fetch quests and other mainstays of RPGs. In Pokémon, the only real goal is that you, as the kids say, “Gotta Catch ‘em All!”

What’s considered a horrifying and usually illegal activity in real life—catching wild animals for sport—is turned into the simplest and most effective player motivation ever in a game. As the player—a would-be Pokémon “trainer”—capturing rare animals is the greatest achievement, which basically means you spend all your time stuffing endangered species into tiny Pokéballs so they can be your gladiatorial slaves. It’s terrible when you overthink it, yet shamefully fun.

Pokémon works on the most basic rock-paper-scissors level. Pokémon can be air, water, earth, etc. types, and certain types work better against other types. Figure that pattern out and you’ll be beating the crap out of other people’s enslaved animals in no time. More than that, they evolve and earn new abilities, which you strategically control. So, in a hilarious twist, that useless goldfish thing you cruelly captured will, if you keep letting it get beat up, eventually transform into a bad ass water-based weapon of mass destruction.

Pokémon has always been full of these amazingly refined little touches. It’s not just crass marketing, where Nintendo intentionally releases two slightly different versions of each game just to piss off parents. Pokémon is a flagship game for Nintendo’s various portable gaming systems because it fits that platform so perfectly and it’s just fun.

To celebrate 20 years, however, they’ve gone all out with branching the captured-animal fighting saga into a straight up fighting game called Pokken Tournament. Made in conjunction with Bandai Namco, it’s an amazing mix of that company’s classic arcade fighter Tekken and Nintendo’s own Super Smash Bros. What it’s not is a big screen version of the standard Pokémon game. Instead, it’s really a more focused version of the utter chaos that is Smash Bros., where the action is fast and furious, but frequently feels random. It’s a smart move for Nintendo, but like all Pokémon offshoots, merely a diversion from the main attraction of whatever iteration of the RPG is hitting the 3DS this year. In this case, that would be Pokémon Sun and Moon, coming later this year.

And for those who want a hefty dose of nostalgia, Nintendo was kind enough to re-release the original Pokémon games—Red, Blue and Yellow—as digital downloads on 3DS recently so you can see how far the series has come.

I’ll never really be comfortable with the basic premise for Pokémon, or the fact that the little creatures seem to enjoy their lot in life. Yet I can no longer deny that Nintendo knows its stuff when it comes to the series. Worse, in all likelihood, once I get through this past year’s iteration, I’ll almost certainly be ready for the Sun and Moon releases this holiday season. So, thanks for that Nintendo.

Jason D’Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.

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