I have to begin this post with an awkward confession: These days I can pretty much take or leave Pokémon games. There’s nothing wrong with them – I’d never even jokingly suggest the series has unfairly earned the stratospheric levels of popularity it’s enjoyed since 1996 – I just don’t have the free time or level of sustained interest required to try and put a hundred or more weird animals, sentient household objects, and actual Poké-gods inside little red and white balls. The games exist, I exist, and bar pleasant runs through Pokemon Sun (largely spurred on by Rowlet’s adorable form and what felt like a more welcoming attitude towards new and lapsed players) and the charming Detective Pikachu neither of us tries to bother the other. But in spite of this general apathy I do still hold warm – if increasingly vague – feelings towards Pokémon Blue, formed all the way back when it was nothing more than some weird new Game Boy game put on local shop shelves with little fanfare: So new nobody was quite sure whether the title was pronounced Poke-mon, Pok-e-mon, or Pokémon, if you can still believe there really was a time before Pikachu and his highly merchandisable friends captured the minds, hearts, and wallets, of game-playing people everywhere.
I was actually a little nervous about heading back to Blue: After all these years would I still find myself playing through a cheery journey across the Kanto region, or would the passage of time reveal those happy recollections of old monster catching adventures through tree lined routes to new towns were nothing more than an animal-collecting novelty grafted onto an intolerable enemy encounter rate now Pokémon’s no longer an unique idea that somehow escaped Japan? Was I still overwhelmed by genre fatigue, tired of having to make a conscious effort to avoid crummy handheld RPG-lite adventures released in two slightly different yet cross-compatible variants using the same sort of uninspired static battle art? Was I still capable of caring about Thunder Stones, the Elite Four, finding a Pokémon to dump all my HM moves on, and the thousand other little things that go into Being The Very Best, Like No-One Ever Was?
I needn’t have worried. From the instant Professor Oak appeared on screen to welcome me (back) into the world of Pokemon the game wasn’t just familiar – it was as if I’d never been away.
Playing Blue again was like flipping through a dusty old photo album that’d been left in the attic for decades, all sorts of half-forgotten memories popping back into my mind at the turn of every pa-Fishing! Yes! I used to love Poké-fishing – how do you get the rod again? And the magical thing was remembering I could fish meant more than adding one more fun thing to my list of available tasks; in that instant every body of water was no longer a nice little wavy back-and-forth animation to give towns and routes a bit of variety, instead I was suddenly surrounded by potential Poké-spots teeming with Poliwags and Magikarp just waiting for me to catch them. Wait, there was a ship too! The big one… the.. the S.S. Anne! That was it, wasn’t it? When do I visit that – and what happens when I’m there anyway? The vast gulf of time or technology between Blue and now did nothing to diminish the feeling that choosing my first Pokémon is the most important decision I’ll ever make in my whole life (I’m on Team Squirtle always and forever, by the way), and watching my rival walk up to the table and deliberately pick the Pokémon my first forever friend will struggle with the most still stings like a slap to the face even though there’s never any doubt my starter will easily become an unstoppable force of nature regardless of the moves I teach them or the type of Pokémon they find themselves battling against. I find myself wading through the long grass searching for new wild Pokémon amongst the endless supply of Rattatas and Pidgeys as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, and the same goes for putting the Pokémon I want to level up in the top slot of my team and then immediately swapping them out for my toughest brawler so the little guy gets a share of the XP but none of the danger. Holding down and B to help a Poké Ball snap shut on a fresh prize (Yes, it really works! …OK it doesn’t work at all but it, um, doesn’t not work, right?) feels like an instinct rather than a memory, the Pokémon Center jingle that plays as my team gets healed up yet again is etched across my soul, and the moment I set foot inside I cave I just know exactly what’s coming next – Zubats. So very many Zubats. Many many many Zubats. Far too many Zubats. Please no more Zubats. Make the Zubats stop. Please.
Reawakening fuzzy fragments of old memories makes for a lovely weekend although there’s really only so much fun to be gleaned from repeating something I now know for a fact I already did years ago, and if a few nice reminders had been all this replay of Blue had given me then I would have smiled for a little while before politely putting the game away for another twenty-ish years without giving it a second thought.
There’s no question Pokémon is more than that – more than a superficial novelty wrapped in cozy nostalgia – because the glee I felt the very first time was still in there, and it’s a sentiment shared by every NPC I met too. I don’t think I really appreciated it the first time around (I would’ve been adult-teen at the time so…) but it’s hard not to notice that every last person in Blue, from kids obsessed with bugs to scouts, swimmers, and scientists are bursting with enthusiasm for Pokémon and can’t wait to trade them with me, battle my party, or gush about how great they are. The easiest thing to do here – especially as an adult making their way through 2020 – is to react with cynicism, to see this relentless encouragement as one more sneaky marketing tool – “Oh that Pokémon’s great, you say? The one I can buy twenty different plushies of? I’m shocked.” – and keep it at arm’s length. The trouble is I honestly don’t believe Pokémon is being insincere here and the constant praise – for me, for Pokémon itself – actually made it much easier to reconnect with the game: It’s just so keen on marking off my latest gym triumph on my very own trainer card and keeping a close eye on how well my Pokédex is coming along, so effusively positive every catch becomes a personal victory, every goofy nickname and carefully chosen fossil my own little mark in this new world.
And so I get swept along on this passionate wave: I’m itching to visit the Safari Zone, I’m checking charts to see where some old favourite Pokémon can be found. I’ve set my sights on catching a Vulpix and a Horsea if I can, just because I’ve always liked them. It’s just such a pleasant way to spend some time, a place where dogged determination is rewarded and pleasant surprises await the curious. I’m also eager to make up for some past regrets too: Long ago I used to try and have a sensible and balanced team that had an answer for everything and I would evolve Pokémon whenever the chance came up because a big powerful Pokémon was more likely to win than whatever it used to be. I didn’t know which were the best moves or when they were learned or anything like that (quality reference materials were quite hard to find at the time) but I still made a vague effort to be “good” and to play “properly”. And to be fair this approach got results – I remember crushing everything that came my way, caught my own Mewtwo inside the game’s solitary Master Ball, and didn’t have any problems with anything. But I realise now that there’s no need for me to play like that if I don’t want to – it’s not that Pokémon doesn’t care if I play well or not, more that it’s happy so long as I am. I can take it all in at my own pace, use whoever I like so long as I over-level to compensate for any weaknesses, and try any weird combination of anything I can imagine without any real penalty. Blue’s a better game for letting me play this way: I’m happier with a cute Squirtle on my team rather than a powerful Blastoise, to keep the Caterpie I can’t quite bear to shove in a PC box hanging around, to put a a Sandshrew in my party for no other reason than because their Pokédex image looks so darned cute. Are they the best team for the job? Heck no. Am I having more fun using Pokémon I like? Absolutely.
After much cheering on, one gym leader, a few hours of play, and far too many trips back to the Pokémon Center I emerge from the other side of Mt. Moon – I didn’t even see a Clefairy in there, never mind catch one… and as I mull the trek over in my mind I realised I’m actually quite happy about that in a funny sort of way. The excitement of finally seeing a Pokémon appear is fuelled in part by the knowledge that the game never promises me I’ll ever find anything (other than Zubats), and not finding one, or finding one and then accidentally making it faint or discovering I’ve run out of Poké Balls at a crucial moment, become tall tales of the one that got away passed on to friends. That unwritten social aspect transforms every copy of Red and Blue all over the world into a new trainer’s personal story, blurring the boundaries between the game as a fixed series of predetermined events and a worldwide network of shared experiences: “You caught an Oddish where?!” “Did you remember to grab a Jigglypuff before..?” “What’s your favourite starter?” “Oh you’re struggling? I could loan you my Venusaur! They’re perfect for that fight!” “What are you going to evolve your Eevee into? I always liked Flareon… hey! Would you like to see mine?”. Everyone knows what it’s like to fail to catch a sought-after Pokémon, which means everyone can genuinely sympathise with your losses and everyone can sincerely congratulate you when you finally succeed. Pokémon is a true cultural phenomenon that defies all the traditional pigeonholes of age and interest, a nigh-universal gaming experience built upon foundations of mutual support and sharing, a thoroughly upbeat adventure in a world longing to raise you up to its highest heights that also makes passing that positivity on to someone else feel as effortless as breathing.