Today’s Nintendo announcement about Pokémon X and Pokémon Y has piqued my interest in a way that a Pokémon title hasn’t managed since the announcement of the original Blue and Red games. Here’s why.
In the summer of 1999, I spent two weeks on holiday in a villa in the south of Portugal. Surrounded by family members (several cousins and my only brother of the time), mornings in the villa were dedicated to two things: swimming in the pool before things got too hot and watching the Pokémon anime through a Sky satellite dish, owned by the villa’s expat host.
Until I returned to the UK and went back for another term at school, I did not know that the series was based on a game. When I returned, the guys in the year below had started discussing that Red and Blue were going to be released before Christmas. And for the first time ever, I wanted to play a videogame. That’s right – I hadn’t played any videogames before then.
The beginning of the end
Come October, I was eagerly anticipating the game’s launch. I went down to my local Electronics Boutique on launch day, picked up my pre-order and a new Game Boy Color and spent an entire weekend getting to grips with Squirtle and figuring out how to build a balanced team. Those first few months with Blue taught me a lot about playing games and two rules that I hold true to this day: save often and look everywhere.
And I was determined to collect all 150 Pokémon. I bought a copy of Red after completing Blue so that I could orchestrate complex trading schemes using a friend’s Game Boy and my link cable. I traded back and forth between the two until my copy of Blue had a complete Pokédex. Then I fooled around on Red, which included using the Missingo cheat to unwisely raise the levels of my Pokémon (I didn’t fully understand the stats system at the time). This must have taken until about a month or so before the release of Yellow, which I bought as eagerly as Blue.
While all of this was going on, Squaresoft released Final Fantasy VIII – another protagonist in this story – for the PlayStation. But I was unaware of this and I didn’t know then that this game would completely change my perception and appreciation of Pokémon.
Happily still playing my three Pokémon titles in 2000, and a failed attempt to enter a real Pokémon tournament under my belt, something unexpected happened. My grandmother won a PlayStation in a competition. It was given to my brother, not because I already had a Game Boy, but because it seemed more like a boy’s thing due to it coming with Army Men 3D. I gave the game a go, but was otherwise disinterested in the console until Christmas of that year.
Because before Christmas, I saw the box for this:
Narrative and graphics
One Saturday, I saw a copy of the platinum version of Final Fantasy VIII sitting on a shelf in EB. My dad was with me. While he was looking for a game to get my brother, I began reading the back of the case. The set-up sounded a lot like Pokémon, but with far more story to it. I held the game up to my dad and asked if I could have it for Christmas. I was the right age for it, so he said okay. It’s not as if I was extremely excited for the game, so I happily continued playing Pokémon.
It wasn’t until Boxing Day that I had a chance to go on Final Fantasy VIII – having your hands glued to a PlayStation controller was seen as far more unsociable (by my family) in comparison to me chilling with my Game Boy. And so I booted up FF VIII and was greeted by a presentation of sound and moving images that I wasn’t use to. I was falling down the edge of a cliff that I didn’t even know existed. No longer did Pokémon hold its sway over me. Until now.
Over ten years have passed since I had any real fun while playing a Pokémon game. Having tried out more recent titles, I found them lacking – part of this was down to story, but mostly it was because of the games’ presentation. I just didn’t like sprite-esque graphics anymore or the lack of visual depth to the all those regions in Pokémon. I had a minimum visual threshold that the series just wasn’t meeting and it got in the way of me feeling any sense of immersion.
This is why even though I could play lots of retro games, I often don’t. Because I find that I just can’t push my suspension of disbelief enough: I need to be closer to the side of the Uncanny Valley. Not necessarily tumbling down into it, but certainly close enough that I can almost touch it.
Though the above may seem cartoony, it is the depth that it depicts which has captivated me. With the coming of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, I’ll finally be able to interact with a fully developed world of Pokémon that has all the underlying mechanisms that allowed me to enjoy the much earlier games plus brush my hand against the side of a valley that I have been long searching for.