Pokémon and me: A personal history with a media giant

Pokémon has always been there for me. That’s a weird thing to say about a multibillion-dollar media franchise, but it’s true. I imagine Star Trek or Lord of the Rings fans feel the same way about those properties, especially if they first got into them as a kid.

These franchises exist far beyond the limits of whatever medium they started on. They have different moods in different eras, and different ways to interact with them depending on where you’re at in your life.

This isn’t a deep, heady analysis about that though. This is a diary entry about me! I’ve been a Pokéfan since it was possible to be one, and my relationship with Pokémon has shifted as my life has changed.

Recently, it shifted again, so now seemed like a good time to reflect on where I’ve been with Pokémon.

The competitive years, Part 1: Gaming

I’ve already written about being in elementary school when Pokémon hit the scene. Go read that if you want to start this memoir from the true beginning. I’d rather start in my university years, after an unremarkable six-year stretch in which I was “too cool” for Pokémon. Especially since I yadda-yaddaed over that part in the last article. Here’s the context I gave then:

In first-year university, my friend group decided one day in 2009 “fuck it, we’re playing Pokémon”. One guy drove us all to a local pawn shop so we could buy copies of the latest games, which then were Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum.

Pokémon became an important way for me to connect with people in a new, unfamiliar social setting. My friends and I were constantly playing or discussing the games, and it’s how we bonded.

Eventually, we found new ways to experience the games. One of us discovered the Nuzlocke challenge, and a bunch of us took part. But almost all of us joined in when one friend shared the arcane secrets behind competitive battling.

That’s not hyperbole. It really is best described as “arcane”. Each monster has several hidden stats, some that you can affect and some that are innate, that determine how strong it is relative to other instances of the same monster. That’s on top of the stats and abilities you can see. To affect these hidden stats, you had to breed Pokémon in certain ways and battle just the right monsters hundreds of times. To determine the stats, you had to type a bunch of stuff into an online calculator, and it would give you a range that each hidden stat could be. There were margins of error!

You only have time to do this sort of nonsense in first-year university, prolonged periods of unemployment, or retirement. And make no mistake, this was time-consuming nonsense. You had to take notes and records for each monster to track your progress. I inexplicably kept a bunch of these notes, and they look completely unhinged. I need to dispose of them before I die or I’m going to end up at the centre of some weird internet conspiracy theory.

The competitive years, Part 2: More gaming

Here’s another quote from that article I mentioned above:

Black and White got rid of a bunch of features [HeartGold and SoulSilver] brought to the table and I took a break from the franchise for a while.

It wasn’t much of a break. I still followed the series, I just avoided competitive battling. University, after first year, commands a lot of your time. Conveniently, new games came out the fall after I graduated when I had a little more time on my hands.

While I loved X and Y, I didn’t get back into the competitive scene until Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby came out. By 2015, my stint in the world of student media was up and it was time to look for a job … in a decaying city that had not adjusted well to post-industrial life (i.e., a southern Ontario city outside the Greater Toronto Area). And we were in a small recession. I needed a low-cost way to spend a lot of time, and raising competitive teams fit the bill.

By this point, the game designers had pulled back the curtain a little bit on the arcane stats that defined your Pokémon’s competitive power. For one thing, you could see (rough estimations of) your monsters’ hidden skills without using an online calculator.

One of my roommates at the time was just as unemployed and interested as me in building interesting teams. We battled each other to test out new teams, and we even took part in official events. We were both summarily crushed by the competition, but damnit those were a fun couple of weekends.

Even better, there were new games on the horizon to potentially pour hundreds of hours into.

The competitive years, Part 3: Life happens, then Pokémon cards

Sike! My roommate got a job in another city, and I moved to another one too to look for work. Without someone to battle against, I had no incentive to keep building teams. Plus, this transition happened just as Pokémon Go came out. Walking around with friends to catch monsters in real life beat crunching numbers alone to figure out whether my Charmander was any good.

Also during this time, I had begun collecting Pokémon cards again. This was long before the current craze. It was trivially easy to walk into a store and buy whatever set you wanted. It’s hilarious to me to see which sets from back in those days have aged the best among collectors. People go wild for Evolutions, for example, but basically, everyone hated that set in 2016. The Pokémon Company had printed way too much of it, so every box set came with a pack or two for years afterward, something people would loudly decry online. Now, boxes of the set sell for several hundred dollars on eBay.

My lack of time to train competitive teams and overabundance of cards led me to play the actual game part of the trading card game. After all, I had always regretted not getting to play much with my old cards back in childhood.

Conveniently, there was a digital client I could play on, and each pack of real cards came with a free digital pack. Soon, I had tons of decks to battle with, and I got pretty good at it. I eventually got over my social anxiety and competed in a couple of in-store tournaments, where I did okay.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the Sun and Moon era, the game’s design pivoted in a way I strongly disliked. The game became extremely fast and centred on who had the best draws. I left the Pokémon TCG for Magic: The Gathering, a game I need to complain about in-depth on this blog at some point.

Battle’s over, time to relax

At this point, it was early 2019. I was done with the TCG, but not with Pokémon as a whole. Trading card games are expensive hobbies, so it was pretty easy to put the brakes on those purchases. Sword and Shield was on the horizon, so it was time to get hyped up about new creatures coming in the fall.

I had also gotten back into Pokémon Go. It made the 15-minute walk to the subway station less monotonous. Plus, there were way more creatures in the game than when it debuted.

My relationship with Pokémon for about a year was all about chilling out. I played the games strictly for fun.

Like every other aspect of life, that changed a little bit after March 2020. From that point on, as I’ve discussed here before, Pokémon Go became a sort of coping mechanism. It went from a thing I did while chilling to a thing I relied on to chill.

I put my head into the game during the daily walks I started going on to stay active and break up the monotony of seemingly endless lockdowns. It has been a rough year and a half, but this game is one of many that have gotten me through.

And now, more Pokémon cards

Lots of people say we’re on the other side of the pandemic. I’m skeptical of that given how the past 18 months have gone. I won’t wade into that debate here, but I do hope I’m wrong and this pandemic ends soon.

One thing we are definitely on the other side of is the Pokémon card game design that drove me away back in early 2019. In September of this year, all the offending sets rotated out, and the game returned to a style that I enjoy. I’ve been playing again digitally and loving every minute of it. I think this format might be the most enjoyable I’ve experienced. After more than a decade, Pokémon is releasing a new digital client too, so it seems I returned just in time. Although I plan on playing on a more casual basis this time around.

I still bust out Pokémon Go on my daily walks too. I plan on keeping those walks up as long as I can, and I imagine that game will be a part of that journey.

And I’m again awaiting the fall release of new Pokémon games. Well, remakes of games anyway. Nintendo is finally remaking Diamond and Pearl, the games that reignited my love of this franchise. Early next year, they’re releasing an action-based game set in the same region but 100 years in the past. I’m excited to play both of them, and I foresee my journey with this franchise continuing well into my adult life, wherever it may take me.

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