Gotta catch ’em all! What better expression of the completist urge is there? But, for reasons I’ll go into later, this is something of a cruel joke applied to Pokémon.
Let’s back up a moment. Even though it’s well-known, or at least well-heard-of, Pokémon requires a little explanation. A lot of people know of it primarily from the cartoon show and the card game, unaware that the Gameboy cartridge came first. I suppose this is because it only came first in Japan. By the time it hit the West, it was already a multi-channel media phenomenon that would change the way videogames are developed and marketed. A phenomenon, moreover, that the original game didn’t fit into all that well. The original Pokémon game was released in two versions, Red and Blue , essentially differing only in their wandering monster tables. (I have the Blue version.) After the cartoon became such a hit, a third version, Yellow, was released, which altered things a lot more in order to make it more similar to the cartoon based on the Red and Blue versions than the Red and Blue versions themselves: changing the artwork, adding characters, giving the player Pikachu right at the beginning, etc. An unusual development indeed! The only thing similar I can think of is Earthworm Jim 3D, which drew more heavily from the Earthworm Jim cartoon show than the original game. (And, as with Pokémon, I’ve encountered people who didn’t know that Earthworm Jim was a videogame first.)
In format, Pokémon is basically a party-based RPG with abstract turn-based combat. You play the part of an 11-year-old pokémon trainer, wandering from town to town in a tile-based world (conspicuously similar to Zelda: Link’s Awakening in graphical style), fighting monsters for treasure and experience points. Except you don’t fight personally — you have monsters of your own for that. And sometimes the treasure is the monster itself. There are two types of encounter: against wild pokémon, and against other pokémon trainers. When fighting a wild pokémon, you have the choice of vanquishing it for XP or attempting to capture it for your collection, from where you can swap it into your party.
There are 150 species of pokémon in the original game, although sequels have expanded this greatly. There are 15 broader types that the species belong to: normal (which seems to just be the null type, assigned to any species that doesn’t fit any other types), fire, water, electric (that’s Pikachu’s type), grass (plant life in general, really, but they call it grass), ice, fighting (they all fight, but this means martial arts stuff), poison, ground (dirt-based or burrowing animals), flying, psychic, bug, rock, ghost, and dragon. A species can belong to either one or two types, so you can have flying bugs and poisonous vegetation and the like. You’ve probably noticed that several of the types are traditional RPG “elemental damage” types, and yes, the various types determine the kinds of attacks the pokémon can do, as well as their special vulnerabilities: a fire pokémon is weak against water-based attacks, a flying pokémon is nearly immune to ground-based attacks, and so on. Psychic pokémon seem to be really strong against everything except bugs. There’s a chart in the manual. So it’s an extended rock-paper-scissors, except that the difference can be overwhelmed by sheer force of experience level; instead of “paper covers rock”, it’s “paper covers rock, unless it’s a really big rock, in which case it can slowly grind the paper into pulp”.
Speaking of slowly grinding, there’s enough XP-farming in this game that I’ve decided to continue from where I left off years ago rather than starting over from scratch. I was pretty far advanced in the game, having beaten four of the eight Pokémon Leaders that form the game’s other overall goal. It really is a pretty well-designed game, and I can see why it was such a hit with the junior high set. It’s got complexity to master, if mastering complexity is your thing. If not, you can just level up your favorite pokémon until it’s nearly unbeatable. It’s designed for a lengthy campaign, but can be played in short sessions, with tangible progress each time. And it’s social. If you really want to achieve the stated goal of catching ’em all, you can’t play alone. The red version provides the possibility of capturing pokémon that are never seen wild in the blue version, and vice versa. The only way to get the ones not in your version is to trade with other players (which you do by linking your Gameboys together). Even worse: one of each cartridge won’t do it. There are multiple points in the game where you have to choose between three different pokémon, so unless you have a friend who’s willing to play through a large portion of the game twice in order to supply you, or are willing to buy two Gameboys and play through the game three times yourself, you need multiple friends who are playing Pokémon at more or less the same rate as you. So there’s an abnormal incentive to get people around you to play it.
Alas, this is easier for its target audience. When I was first playing this game, I was well beyond normal pokémon age, but was fortunate enough to be working at a game-oriented dot-com, where two other people were also curious enough about the Pokémon phenomenon to give it a try. But I’m far from catching ’em all, and have more or less lost the opportunity for casual lunch-break trades. This is what I dislike most about social games: the difficulty of resuming them years later. Maybe I’ll put an ad on Craigslist. In the meantime, if anyone reading this blog is in the San Francisco area and has both the will and the equipment to do some trades, feel free to post a comment.