The world has been full of Pokemon for about as long as I can remember. I was born in 1994, so I was two years old when the orginal games, Pokemon Red and Blue, hit store shelves in 1996. Obviously, as a two-year-old, I couldn’t really comprehend what a Pokemon was, but as I grew up the fervor around what would become a decades long series phenomenon continued to grow along with me. There was a tv show. There were toys and movies. With dozens of distinct creatures of all different sizes, shapes, and colors, Pokemon quickly became an universally beloved franchise.
I didn’t really start playing video games until I was about six, at least that’s when I received a Nintendo 64 console of my own. My parents did what any parent should; they monitored what I played and how often. As a kid, you definitely don’t understand why your parents meter content, but as an adult I can appreciate the fact that my parents wanted me to have a balanced childhood. However, Pokemon was not one of the parent approved games and somehow that really affected me. The “Pokemon ban” was like prohibition for me; instead of just disregarding the game and going on with my life it, I tried everything I could to sneak a taste of that Pocket Monster goodness. I don’t really know why I became so obsessed with playing Pokemon, maybe it was because most of my friends got to or maybe it was just how the brand saturated pop culture, but being told, “No, you can’t”, affected me more with Pokemon than any other game or toy or really anything else a kid might value. Pokemon was like the Holy Grail of video games for six-year-old me.
I sought out Pokemon wherever and whenever I could. My grandparents used to take me to the bookstore on a pretty regular basis, and I remember leafing through some encyclopedia of the different Pokemon species like it was a blessed manuscript and I commited all of their forms and names to memory. I could name all 151 original Pokemon, in numerical order, without ever actually playing the game. Friends would give hand me down Pokemon cards and I kept my tiny five-card collection in a hidden place. Target became a sort of speakeasy for me, as they had a Pokemon Stadium (N64) demo in their electronics department that I played over and over and over again. Looking back, the most entertaining of my early Pokemon exploits involved me smuggling my friend Chris’s yellow Gameboy Color into my house. I hid in my room, an alcove upstairs far from the rest of my family, but I only allowed myself to play it in the dead of night. This was before handheld game systems were backlit, so I hid myself under my covers and played Pokemon in one hand while pointing a reading light at the screen with my other. In my rush to break the rules, I hadn’t bothered to think about the fact that there was no feasible way for anyone to see me play the game in my little corner of the house, and I could have committed my crimes in a much more comfortable way. Regardless, I would play into the wee hours, only stopping when the batteries would wear out. My actions, no matter how well I thought I was hiding them, eventually drew attention, but not from my parents. At a parent-teacher conference, one of my teachers confronted my parents, “I was clearly allowed to play too much Pokemon”. My parents just looked at each other and laughed: I wasn’t allowed to play Pokemon at all. My very limited access to the series had a big enough impact on me that other people just assumed I was some sort of superfan.
When i was a little kid, my perception was always that my parents wanted to keep Pokemon from me for some unknown, insidious reason. In reality, the restriction was much more practical. Pokemon was a game series that primarily lived on the Game Boy and other handheld systems, and purchasing another piece of hardware just so I could play one game was an expense that couldn’t be justified at the time. I get the impression that as a parent you’d really like to give your kids whatever they want, but in practice you have to use more discretion than that. But, there’s no real way to explain economics to a 6ish-year-old, so my parents did the next best thing and forbid Pokemon entirely which, from a kid’s perspective, is the least heartbreaking option of the two.
The Pokemon embargo would eventually be lifted in 2005 with the purchase of Pokemon Emerald Version. I was eleven when I got the game and it had been a whopping nine years since the release of the original two Pokemon games. Main series Pokemon games always release in pairs: Red and Blue Versions, Gold and Silver Versions, etc. Each pair of games is referred to as a “generation” of Pokemon and each generation adds new creatures to collect, new mechanics, and typically a new part of the Pokemon games to explore. Typically, a third game is released a year or so after the initial pair of games and is sort of a “definitive” version of that generation of games. Pokemon Emerald is third game in the third generation of the series and is the follow-up to Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire. I loved every minute of Emerald; I fondly remember it being the first game I ever played for more than a hundred hours. It’s still one of my favorite games in the series, but when I first loaded up the game I certainly didn’t view it as some sort of liberation from the Pokemonless wasteland of my youth. It was just a game, albeit a really good one, and ultimately I didn’t feel like my parents had unfairly kept me from some sort of forbidden knowledge. I would continue to play most of the Pokemon games as they came out, but my overall zealotry for the series had died down. I was certainly still a fan, but not the kind of fan who would memorize the names of all 802 currently released Pokemon
Flash forward to the summer of 2016, mere weeks before I turned twenty-two. I awoke one morning in a very different world, a world where Pokemon was suddenly a lot more real than it every had been. A game called Pokemon Go had come out for phones and, using your phone’s camera, would allow you to catch Pokemon that appeared to be in the real world. Pokemon had always been popular across the entirety of its 20 year tenure, but the response to Pokemon Go was nothing short of titanic in size. Practically overnight, Pokemon Go became one of the biggest mobile games of all time. People all over the world were getting off their couches and wandering through their towns to catch as many digital critters as they could. It was a true and utter phenomenon; throughout the entire summer you could see dozens of people actively hunting Pokemon in just about every public place imaginable. It was a magical time of community and cooperation: players actively worked together to track down rare Pokemon and shared tips freely with one another. The game itself was kinda barebones, but we didn’t care one bit: this was the closest we could get to being real life Pokemon masters.
Pretty early in Pokemon Go’s life cycle, my dad ended up downloading the game too. He obviously saw that I was really enjoying the experience and he was aware enough of Pokemon to be interested enough to play the game for himself. I think his initial motivations for participating were as simple as “this is something I can do with my son”, but my dad was pretty quickly struck by Pokemon fever. We spent a lot of free time together that summer running around my hometown catching all sorts of Pokemon and generally just having an absolute blast. For me, it was extremely rewarding to share my love for Pokemon with my dad, and I feel like he really enjoyed being a part of this grand adventure. There was one evening where we just doing our thing downtown catching some Pokemon where he just stopped and took it all in. We were down by the courthouse, and there were three or four large groups of people just hanging out and chatting about all the creatures that were running around us in the digital world. My dad just turned to me and said, “I get it. I understand why people play these games”. I wouldn’t say that my father ever actively disliked Pokemon or frowned upon my enthusiasm for the the series, but there was so much acceptance in that simple statement that I was just filled with this almost zen-like joy. I had shared a lot of gaming experiences with my dad, from playing Banjo-Kazooie with him on my new Nintendo 64 to sharing an Animal Crossing town with him during the Gamecube era, but there was something about being on the same wavelength about Pokemon that will always be a defining moment in my relationship with my father.
My dad’s remark about Pokemon sparked an idea in my head and I quietly went about making it a reality. My plans came to fruition on Christmas day, 2016 when my dad picked up a small, bound collection of gifts labelled from me to him. He opened up the largest present of the three and just kinda looked up with this sort of immense disbelief. Inside the torn wrapping paper lay a shiny and new Nintendo 3DS: the latest and greatest piece of handheld gaming technology. You see, Pokemon Go was not the only major release for that franchise in 2016; that November the seventh generation of Pokemon games came out: Pokemon Sun and Moon. I had just given my dad the brand new Pokemon game and the means to play it, and he could barely process the immense amount of meaning surrounding this simple act. I had given him a copy of Pokemon Sun and a stuck a copy of Pokemon Moon under the tree from “Santa” for myself. My initial thought was just to create an opportunity for my dad and I to share more Pokemon adventures, but in reality it was a moment that was more like my Pokemon adventure coming full circle. Here I was, a grown adult giving my dad the very thing I craved so much as a child, and there he was, a father filled with childlike wonder towards this wild thing called Pokemon. It’s good to turn the tables every so often, and the look of pure bewilderment mixed with just the right amount of joy on my dad’s face that Christmas morning is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Now, I think it’s safe to say that my dad’s appreciation for Pokemon never reached the same apex as my six-year-old self’s did, but he definitely put in a lot of effort towards his very first real Pokemon game. I would answer all sorts of questions and we worked through our copies of the game together. He would call me fairly frequently, sometimes when I was in the middle of work, to ask for pointers to take down a certain boss or find a rare creature. His enthusiasm was genuine, even though he routinely butchered the names of just about every Pokemon imaginable. In some ways, he’s a more devoted Pokemon fan than myself, having played Pokemon Go far more consistently than I have over the last two years. When I was telling him about the new Pokemon games for the Switch, Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee and Pikachu, he quietly asked how much a Switch cost. He never outright said he was wanted to play the new games, but I think we all know what he was really asking about.
Pokemon is one of those series that is an undeniable global presence. I think a lot of older fans like myself look at the ever growing library of titles and have a tendency to say things like, “Oh, this series hasn’t evolved in twenty years” or “I wish these games weren’t so obviously made for kids”, but I’m not sure about how true those statements really are. Pokemon has always captured the hearts of the people who play it, regardless of age or creed. But, it hasn’t gotten as big or as popular by accident. There’s this sense of universal accessibility that runs throughout the entirety of a core Pokemon game that let’s absolutely anyone pick up a copy and find something in there that they like and that speaks them. “Gotta Catch Em’ All” can come across as just marketing buzzwords, but ultimately it’s a testament to the feeling you get when you play; this sense of becoming the very best, maybe even the best there ever was. For some of us we’re living in the seventh generation of Pokemon, but for someone else, whether it be a wide-eyed 6-year-old or curious fellow well into middle age, it’s the first generation of Pokemon. So get out there, trainers. Gather up your Pokeballs and collect those gym badges, because it’s a beautiful day in the world of Pokemon and it always will be.