Red, Blue, And Where It All Began
Much like many people of my generation, our first exposure to Pokemon came in the form of Red and Blue. We may have seen magazine advertisements and commercials hyping it up and possibly caught a glimpse of the anime, but for many people I know (myself included), our interest began when somebody we knew, and trusted, showed us the video games.
For me, it was my cousins. We were visiting southern California one summer to hang out with family and go to Disneyland. My cousins were playing this brand-new GameBoy game that I hadn’t heard of. Interestingly, the cartridges were colored according to the version, which immediately stuck out to me since GameBoy cartridges were typically an NES shade of gray. I watched one of my cousins battle wild Pokemon in the tall grass outside of the Elite Four area, trying to level up in order to take his cursed rival down.
While I was no stranger to RPGs at this time, something about being able to play a game like this on-the-go struck all the right chords with me. In many ways, it reminded me of all the amazing memories I had watching my oldest brother play Link’s Awakening at 2:00AM. Instantly, I knew that this was a game that I had to own. I made the decision to try to “wheel-and-deal” with my cousin to get their copy of the game… until my oldest brother did the exact same thing and procured that blessed copy of Pokemon Red.
To say I was crushed would be an understatement. Thankfully, not all was lost! He agreed to let me play the game as long as I made sure not to save over his file or ruin his precious Mewtwo by teaching it non-attacking moves. I had to accept these prerequisites, naturally, if I wanted a Pokemon fix. I do not think I would be exaggerating to say that for once a week, for several months, I would boot up a new game and see how far I would get before I had to turn it off. I became so proficient at those first several hours that I am almost entirely convinced that I could run through Mt. Moon with a blindfold on. Maybe. I don’t know, there are lots of Zubats there.
While I was no stranger to RPGs at this time, something about being able to play a game like this on-the-go struck all the right chords with me.
Eventually, though, the time came for me to get my own Pokemon game. Pokemon Yellow was released in October of 1999, and I knew I had to get it. Using the precious money I had been saving from working with my grandpa, I successfully purchased a brand-new copy of Yellow along with a strategy guide that I still own today. It is difficult to describe what a magical experience that was when I booted up the game on my Super GameBoy for SNES (so I could see everything in its big-screen glory) and heard Pikachu actually say his name at the title screen. Voice clips? In a GameBoy game? No matter how robotic it sounded, it still seemed like a technological marvel.
This first generation, in many ways, was both novel and familiar. Anybody who spent time playing JRPGs would be familiar with the Dragon Quest-esque graphical style, the Zelda-esque overworld and tall grass, and the turn-based combat. JRPGs weren’t even a terribly novel idea on the GameBoy. But the way that Pokemon pulled off making such an approachable role-playing game – one that even my younger six-year-old brother was able to comprehend it and do well – is nothing short of amazing. All of a sudden, millions of children around the US were RPG fanatics. No better way to really indoctrinate an entire generation of kids into a specific gaming genre, right?
Were there controversies? Absolutely. My parents came home one day expressing concern about the games and what they might be doing to me. Being part of the independent Baptist culture at that time, speculation about the supposed “satanic origins” of the game were rampant. Popular preachers railed against it and likened it to witchcraft. Radio personalities condemned the mania and frenzy at that time, believing that Japan was – in an almost sinister way – trying to control the minds of our youth (I’m pretty sure there was even a South Park episode about that).
Popular preachers railed against it and likened it to witchcraft.
Was it decidedly anti-Christian? Were there elements of the games that didn’t necessarily comport with Baptist piety and fidelity? Like all controversies, nuance is key to understanding. Pokemon certainly has its share of supernatural elements; there is even a tower in Lavendar Town dedicated as a Pokemon graveyard where channelers and ghosts like to congregate. The supernatural and spiritual elements are not in dispute. I can see why there were Christian parents at this time who were fearful of what they saw as corrupting influences; after all, the Satanic Panic was still in recent memory and Harry Potter had very recently hit book shelves in the US.
Do I have an answer to these questions and concerns? Not particularly, to be perfectly honest. I explained to my parents that it was made-up and fantasy, not unlike Disney movies, Arthurian stories, and even Narnia and Middle-Earth. Pokemon, in comparison, is actually more tame than some of these other stories, and taking time to explain the plot and characters to my parents (with an accompanying Pokedex guide book, naturally) demonstrated to them that I was knowledgeable enough about the themes and could see them for what they were: fantasy. Ever since then, they supported it as long as I could demonstrate that I wasn’t sinking into a corrupt fantasy in any way.
Memories and Rumors
Pokemon was EVERYWHERE, and kids and adults were eating it up.
There are so many memories one could share about this first generation. It really felt like something special, something that wouldn’t just be a passing fad, even if the social commentary at that time dismissed it as such.
The cross-promotional media blitz was absolutely genius. Putting out the games, the anime, the card game, and all manner of different toys all around the same time was a way of getting kids hyped up in every area of their lives. Pokemon was EVERYWHERE, and kids and adults were eating it up. I personally feel like it would not have had the staying power if there wasn’t such an explosion of avenues and media for kids to experience it in. This certainly helped to cement the series in their mind as something significantly important to their childhood, which in turn carried over into their adolescence, teen years, and young adult years as more and more games came out and evolved with them.
One of the notable aspects of the original Red and Blue (which was, unfortunately, fixed in the Yellow version) was the odd existence of Missingno. Everybody knew about Missingno and the crazy way it could duplicate the item in your sixth inventory slot, making infinite Rare Candies and Master Balls a reality. The way to see it sounded so convoluted and weird that it was easy to dismiss out-of-hand. Actually seeing it happen is both wondrous and eerie. Almost like reading a Lovecraftian novel and grasping the sheer horror you are actually looking at. I was one of those players who was always tempted to catch it, but had heart palpitations whenever I remembered that catching it was rumored to destroy your entire save file!
In fact, glitches and information about glitches, whether true or false, were thoroughly proliferated for years due to the internet making it easier to share such information. All of a sudden, weird tricks and rumors that would seemingly sound ridiculous at first glance became plausible because we live in a world where Missingno exists. If terms and phrases like “Pikablu,” “Mew and the Truck,” “PokeGods,” “Bill’s Secret Garden,” and “MewThree” trigger a long-lost fragment of a distant memory, then you definitely were exposed to these internet rumors at some point. The methods described were so ridiculous (beating the Elite Four 30 times in a row, catching all 150 without a GameShark, etc.) that it seemed like nobody could have ever found this out on accident… and yet, who would have thought that talking to the old man in Viridian City would lead to infinite items in the game and a glitched out Pokemon? The fact that the method to get Missingno was so easily testable and duplicated made every single one of these rumors possible, even if they sounded completely ludicrous.
In the end, it is hard to separate the games from the entire cultural phenomenon that it became at the time. It is a wonder that this franchise became so popular so quickly, exploding onto the scene and taking the world by storm in a variety of different ways. Some believed it was lightning in a bottle that would pass quickly, much like Tamagotchi, Furby, and Beanie Babies; yet, with the release of the second generation of games, Pokemon will prove that it not only has staying power, but that it can reinvent itself for a new wave of players every few years and catch their attention. Truly, this must be the hidden meaning behind the phrase, “Gotta Catch ‘em All.”