As with many folks in my generation, Pokemon was a major (MAJOR) part of my childhood. Its initial blitz and dominance of youth culture during the late ’90s wasn’t isolated to the isles of Japan – it was bloody everywhere, in every school, upon every television set, showing in every theatre…
For those of you unfortunate enough not to have lived through it, my baby sister amongst them, let’s summarize it with “it was kind of a big deal.” I remember my first exposure to it – crowding around some long-forgotten classmate one recess with dozens of other kids, wowing as he played through Red version. I remember later buying a copy of Blue at a long-since gone Electronics Boutique, using a huge chunk of my saved-up allowance in the process, thanking whatever odd twist of fortune it was that found myself with an old, classic Gameboy that a family friend had gotten bored of and given to me.
(The rumors are true – the damn things ARE unbreakable.)
My first real Fandom – one that I had an identity with, a reputation amongst, and friends made in – was with Pokemon. I actually met my second girlfriend via that community (a memory that I can recall wryly now, but caused a lot of heartache and headache during my, ah, hormonal years). It was amongst them that I learned something about the pleasure of writing – and for good or ill, via them I developed a means of dealing with and channeling drama, both in and outside of the literary sense.
It’s maybe a little weird to talk of a game franchise in such poignant terms. Maybe. You’d have to have been of a certain age, I think, to understand – this is bedrock stuff for me. This was the communal culture for me, while I was growing up.
I’ve ignored it since Generation I. Never could afford a Gameboy Color or SP or subsequent models – and by the time Generation IV came about, emotional baggage and simple Time had turned me away from the franchise. At best, I can say that I was dimly aware that it was unusually popular amongst the college crowd. That there was, apparently, a competitive scene, and it was fairly evenly split between young (so very, very young) newcomers, and those that, like me, had grown up with it. I was aware that it had become progressively more complex with every iteration – friends uttered, almost out of hearing, about stats and breeding regimes, event collectibles, generational differences… hundreds of new Pokemon had been unleashed, at approximately 150ish or so per generation, not that I had known anything but of the original 150+1 (only those specifically of my age range, I think, can really remember all the hype and misinformation about how to acquire Mew, back in the Geocities and pre-Wiki era).
It’s only recently that I’ve taken a gander at the franchise again. People seemed, oddly, to talk more and more of it every year, and there was, you see, a cheap copy of Platinum at Gamestop. And I had a DS, and I had a bit of money.
And upon finishing it, to make a long story short, I found myself wanting more. A lot more.
It wasn’t nostalgia anymore – not nostalgia alone. They’d done something to my childhood. Weeded out all the bugs, for one (can I explain the devastation I felt when I found that my savefile in Blue had been erased by Missingno? I don’t think I have the skill). Added layers upon layers of complexity, for another – Psychic, notably, wasn’t the king of elemental typing anymore, though it still retained a nasty edge to its blade. While it was overwhelmingly familiar in so very many ways, from its nearly unchanged gameplay to the story progression (to the GODDAMN BATS IN EVERY CAVE AHHH HATE ZUBAT HAAATTTEEE), it wasn’t the same Pokemon I’d grown up with.
It was better in many, many ways.
But Platinum, for all of its heavy symbolism and philosophical undertones, lacked something. This was still a game about a pubescent youth (of either gender) out in the world to learn something of strength and purpose from a rather obvious set of Shinto-influenced kami stand-ins (along with worrying overtones of cockfighting). While the backdrop had grown thick with meaning and nuance, the foreground had been left nearly unchanged in both its simplicity and absurdity – both in graphical presentation, and in a thematic sense.
As it turns out, Gamefreak was fully aware of this. They’d simply waited for the next generation to address it.
I want to gush about the story changes they’ve made – first and foremost being gym leaders that don’t simply sit back and let preteens fight criminal organizations (first, you’re supposedly 16 in the game now; second, well, at least they shoulder SOME of the burden this time…). They address, or at least touch upon and acknowledge, some of the more troubling Fridge Horrors inherent in the franchise – even making it the centermost focus of the plot this time.
Don’t get me wrong – this is still a mainstream kid’s game, marketed at kids (if slightly older than with past iterations), and made for those kids. This isn’t going to change Roger Ebert’s rather eggheaded belief that video games can’t be art. But it isn’t just a step in the right direction – they’ve made their way deeply into more mature territory and more meaningful discourse, and not by accident. If Generation I was defined by its stark simplicity, being nothing more than a thin eggshell of a story wrapped around an autistic programmer’s desire to create something new to collect, then Generation V is defined by its ambiguity, where the role is reversed, and the game itself is merely the dressing around the enigma of the relationship and exploitation between Mankind and the world around us.
Some spoilers here: the dragons featured prominently on the cover of Black and White represent Truth and Ideal respectively. To add to the ambiguity of the story’s intentions, the main difference between the two games, in terms of the story, is which one you end up with as part of that version’s canon – while the other goes to support the game’s antagonist in his messianic goal of liberation and justice.
At no point, no point at all, are you ever explicitly told that you’re entirely in the right. Or that your enemy’s entirely in the wrong. The game has actually be criticized for this – its antagonists said to be too wishy-washy and hippie. Well, maybe. I can’t deny that Team Rocket had cojones the size of the moon – creating mindboggling powerful bioweapons, infiltrating a massively powerful corporation, even influencing the very League you sought fame within… they weren’t exactly subtle, but subtle was never the point. Team Rocket, at least the game version, has fans because they’re brash.
Plasma has converts, because people on 4chan’s /vp/ can’t entirely agree whether they were really wrong.
There’s a significant difference there.
Also? Updated graphics engines. The more familiar you are with the franchise, the more you’ll jawdrop at Skyarrow Bridge. Updated music too – having played a few emulations recently, I can tell you that the music’s generally been okay, if generic, for the genre and demographic the franchise targets.
Black/White takes it to another level entirely.
The climax. THAT GODDAMN CLIMAX.
I restarted the game. Why? SOLELY so that I can reach the main arc’s climax again.
I’m going to enjoy myself immensely.
Get the new Pokemon game. You might never be able to reclaim the innocent joys of your childhood, but that doesn’t mean that a riff on it can’t be better than the original.