Be the Ball: For the love of Pokémon

I wrote this for my university course Computer Games and Simulation. Within a 1,500 word frame, I discuss obtaining Pokémon … sort of.

Since 1996, the children of Japan have striven to be the very best, like no one ever was. In 1998, the rest of the world was introduced to this idea: Pokémon were precisely the creatures that needed to be caught.
In 2007, players are no longer told that they’ve “gotta catch ‘em all”, but those that have stuck with Pokémon through the years still feel the intense need to do so. Pokémon, with its apparently simple and almost infinitely customisable game play, is one of the ultimates in immersive gaming experiences. With the recent release of Pokémon Diamond and its near identical partner, Pokémon Pearl, the Pokémon have swelled in number to 493 and have taken their trainers to a new frontier: the internet.

Each entry in the main Pokémon series has followed an exact formula: the player assumes a character, picks a “starter” Pokémon (cute and marketable creatures for training and fighting) from a selection of three base elements, then takes their companion on a tour of the country, defeating gym leaders in each major city, catching new Pokémon along the way and, eventually, being named Champion of the area.

Unusually for a video game, Pokémon’s players appeared to have a fairly even gender divide. It was not until 2000’s Pokémon Crystal that players could choose to play as a female character. With this mechanic in place, Pokémon truly became the game of the “every person”.

Pokémon caters to every sort of player: the achiever, the killer, the socialiser and the explorer get equal reign from the team at Game Freak. The default choice for the player is to take on the Elite Four, but beyond that they can choose to complete their Pokédex (an index of their Pokémon) by hunting down every Pokémon in the land; to train up a team for their own benefit; to create an unstoppable force of six to show their friends; or, now, to share either their Pokédex or their fighting prowess with the world at large via Nintendo’s WiFi Connection and Global Trading Service.

From the very beginning, Pokémon is an exercise in imprinting. The first Pokémon that you choose is likely, despite its total lack of personality, become your friend. The most popular Pokémon toys at the peak of the Pokémon craze were those of Charizard and Blastoise, the evolved forms of the Red and Blue starters Charmander and Squirtle. The whole team that the player devises will almost certainly, initially at least, feature one of these. The imprinting of the friend, and the desire to make your team the very best, ensures that most people who get into Pokémon at the start will be hooked until well past the game’s story is over.

The fourth generation of Pokémon is no different than the halcyon days of the first. The game mechanics have been thoroughly reworked, but the game is absolutely recognisable as the same. Featuring the best starting Pokémon since Squirtle, Charmander and Bulbasaur, Diamond and Pearl are designed to somehow entice, despite each game’s confusing decelerating initiation.
The basics of Pokémon battle are described, in the game’s manual terms, as a “rock-paper-scissors” equation. Each Pokémon and each attack have “types”. There are seventeen types, and some are effective or ineffective against each other.
The starters are always Grass, Fire and Water. Grass is effective against Water, Water against Fire, and Fire against Grass. From the beginning, however, each Pokémon that you meet is saddled with Normal attacks.
Normal attacks are not effective against any Pokémon, but by that token they are not ineffective either. As the game promises fights of balancing types against one another and springing surprise attacks (for instance, a Water Pokémon springing a Ground attack on its Electric opponent), the first stages of the game are fairly dry.
The model of fighting is borrowed from many turn based Role Playing Games before it, which involves levelling up through defeating opposing Pokémon and gaining experience. One must gain a fair amount of experience before their own Pokémon learn these “good” moves and are able to take on battles that involve variety.
This sort of incentive, making a game “boring” before it becomes interesting, is a risk.

Fortunately, Pokémon presents itself as a series of potential. The Pokémon look appealing, and one wants to find what can be unlocked within each individual creature. The thrill of discovering new varieties, of finding that a Pokémon evolves at a certain stage into an even more interesting variant, is something that is sought across video game genres in slightly different terms. Pokémon entices with the idea that there is always something new to be discovered. To this end, after the first generation, each generation’s boxes have featured artwork illustrating the franchise’s elusive “Legendary” Pokémon. Each of these beasts is featured one to a game, and the efforts that one must go to in order to obtain them are nothing short of epic. This is where the Explorer’s mentality kicks in: gotta catch ‘em all. The dropping of this slogan in between the second and third generation of Pokémon games was never explained; the majority of players probably did not notice that it had gone. For those who have been playing since 1998, the idea has been so far ingrained that it is hard to ignore. Catching Pokémon is a compulsion to many, far above the level grinding required in order to take on the world in battle.

This is a tough compulsion to deal with, however, as Game Freak has become perhaps overly ambitious in their efforts. The reason that “gotta catch ‘em all” has disappeared from human memory is possibly because Game Freak has made it almost a certainty that you will not be able to. Certain Legendary Pokémon are available only through Promotional Events. These work well in Japan, which is the homeland of Nintendo and Pokémon, in addition to having significantly centralised populations.
In America, one must sometimes go to Nintendo World in New York to obtain these Pokémon, or drive long distances to reach malls or Toys R Us stores that participate in Nintendo’s dealings. Australia has not featured a Pokémon promotion since 2001, when second generation gamers were given the opportunity to obtain Celebi.

So how does one play a game in which one wants to complete their Pokédex but is not actually able to? The games recognise the limits of the unobtainable, and Pokémon has become a more social game than ever before in its fourth generation incarnation. If one catches all that they can reasonably be expected to catch, then that is cause enough for celebration. Several Pokémon are sadly available only through playing games outside of the main tier Pokémon titles, such as Pokémon Colosseum and Pokémon XD: Gales of Darkness for GameCube and Pokémon Ranger for Nintendo DS. This level of interfacing means that Nintendo has harnessed Game Freak to take on every one of their platforms in order to satisfy the completists in the audience.

Democracy has struck the franchise in ways perhaps not quite foreseen by Game Freak. As Pokémon is seen as a childish pursuit, few people in the Western world would admit publicly to owning them, let alone meeting up to battle and trade. This is despite the fact that many people have been playing Pokémon since its inception, becoming newly addicted with each generation.
The Global Trading Service and WiFi Connection have permanently altered the face of Pokémon trading. Since the beginning, interacting with other people who own corresponding Pokémon titles has been the only way to complete a Pokédex . Now, in the relatively anonymous world of online gaming, one can search for a Pokémon that they want (granted, one that they have seen in game), and investigate what other people want for the Pokémon in question. The addition of breeding in the second generation combined with this internet connection means that the market is flooded with starter Pokémon. No longer are people restricted to one of the three per game; they are able to obtain the Pokémon of their choice for an exchange that they deem reasonable.
Despite the reduction of commodity in a world economy that is populated by friendly people (explorers and socialisers running contrary in the Pokémon world to achievers and killers), the rush of having obtained something otherwise unobtainable is gratifying to even the most jaded of trainers.

The thing about playing Pokémon is that you are the trainer. Except when the games have hiccuped by ascribing character traits to your in-game parents, the silent protagonist of the games is a perfect avatar for oneself. Taking this to the world stage, sharing what you’ve found and benefiting from the shared knowledge of others, the Pokémon are an extension of the self.
In this internet age, the world of Pokémon is ever stratified. If one were to run in the right circles, then they would be liable to find a team of kindred spirits not experienced since everyone in the playground would discuss trades and compare progress (and, unique to the playground experience, blatantly lie to one another). By allowing their franchise onto the next frontier, Nintendo and Game Freak have brought Pokémon full circle. At last, we all live in a Pokémon World.

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