Monday, November 10, 2008

Polly Pocket Monsters (Call me, Mattel)

I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was. To catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause.
I will travel across the land, searching far and wide. Each Pokémon to understand the power that's inside.
Pokémon! Gotta catch 'em-just you and me. I know it's my destiny. Pokémon! Oh, your my best friend in a world we must defend.
Pokémon! Gotta catch 'em-a heart so true. Our courage will pull us through. You teach me and I'll teach you. Pokémon.
Gotta catch 'em all, gotta catch 'em all. Pokémon!

And I haven't seen the show in at least five years! This is all from memory! This is the legacy of a craze that captured the minds and wallets of a generation. And you know what? Rampant consumerism aside, Pokémon was pretty cool. (I may have some lyrics wrong; I didn't check them. Feel free to comment and correct me.)

Many people will reasonably object to me using the past tense, as the cards and games are definitel still coming (the latest being Pokémon Platinum for DS), and there are definitely still hardcore Poke-fans out there. I myself dropped out when the number of Pokémon was still at 151, and as far as I'm concerned, the 50,000 Pokémon that have come since are not cannon.

Okay, I do think a couple of them are cool. Cyndaquil is just so darn cute, and there are a few more that came out after I stopped collecting the cards that I do think are kinda neat, but I also think somewhere along the line it all started to get stupid. I mean, the whole idea was that these things were supposed to be like real-world animals but weirdly different, and in the first batch of 151 there were only a few archetypes missing: we didn't have any dolphin/shark/whale Pokémon, and we didn't have a penguin Pokémon. That was about it. Nintendo could have released a mini-expansion with these Pokémon and called it a day (haha, good one).

But noooooo, instead we now have a complete Pokédex of 493 different Pokemon! And some of them are just stupid! What, prey tell, is a Drifloon? What is it, and how did it get in my Pokémons? And this one, Luvdisc, this is just a shape! Or what about Ludicolo over here? It looks like something the Taco Bell Dog would have a nightmare about after eating some bad taquitos! My point is that the standards for becoming a Pokémon seem to have gotten a bit lax. I mean okay, I'll be the first to admit that the first 151 weren't all gems (Magnemite and Magneton were always a bit inscrutable, and Voltorb and Electrode were pretty much a Pokéball and then an upside-down Pokéball. Cool.), but most of them were cool, and what's more they embodied the innocence and simplicity that was Pokémon.

But I suppose it was to be expected. You can only expect a fan to buy so many Pikachu baseball caps, and eventually you want to introduce something new into the franchise. But that's the thing, the gameplay hasn't changed, the plot of the TV show hasn't changed, they haven't taken any risks or broken any new ground, they just keep pumping out new Pokémon. And you have to catch them all! With this simple mantra, Nintendo either brilliantly or unwittingly set the franchise up in a way that has allowed easy expansion with minimal risk. It doesn't matter if some of the new Pokémon are terrible (or are just shapes!), you have to catch them all.

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Alright, enough ranting. Chances are you either already know all of this or you don't care (or possibly you are plotting a death for me involving your stupid Nosepass or whatever), so I'll move on to what I think was cool about Pokémon and the stuff I sometimes get nostalgic about.

First of all, the concept is just so weird. I mean, I've come to accept that anime is weird, but although Pokémon wasn't the first Japanese cartoon to be shown on North American television, it was the first exposure that many of us had to it. The whole thing was so delightfully foreign. Videogames had sort of just reached the point where you could portray a living, breathing world to the player, and man was this one weird. This is the conversation I had in my head when I thought about how one might try to explain Pokémon to someone who had never heard of it before (though this person probably would have had to have been living in a fallout bunker with no contact with the outside world for the past twelve years or so):

"You see, Pokémon is like the real world except that you can capture animals and train them to fight each other... wait, you can do that in this world!"

I suppose in the real world that sort of thing is discouraged (for good reason), so in Pokémon the main difference is that the governments of the world condone this behavior. Also, there are magical devices called Pokéballs that you can put a Pokemon inside and release it whenever you choose. In real life we call them cages...

Oh, one more important point is that in the Pokéworld (Pokéworld?), when a Pokémon gains enough battle experience from knocking smaller animals unconscious, it "evolves" into a bigger, meaner version of itself. Just to make this perfectly clear: THIS IS NOT HOW EVOLUTION WORKS! I won't harp on this point, but sometimes I think it's things like this that lead creationists to disregard or misunderstand the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin did not go to the Galapagos islands and beat a turtle with a stick until it evolved wings and flew away. As far as I know, this has never happened.

So I think that we've established that Pokémon is kind of weird, but that was what was so neat about it. It wasn't your average kids fantasy story of brave adventurers fighting evil, it was a world eerily like our own but inhabited by a very different variety of fauna. And sure there were bad guys (Team Rocket or the rival trainer, I guess), but they weren't the center or the driving force of the narrative. It was all just a bunch of kids striving to become better and learning about themselves along the way. And there wasn't the imposed sense of authority you have in the real world. I could challenge you for your fire badge, and it didn't matter that you were older or bigger than I was, if I'd trained my Pokémon better than you and was better at deploying them, you had to give it to me. And if I hadn't, well that was that. I lost. No ifs, ands or buts about it. It removed all the grey area of the real world, and what's more it gave people an arena in which to solve their differences. There was no war in the Pokéworld, people solved their problems like gentlemen: with duels. Except that instead of the people getting hurt, just the animals get hurt... Okay, that suddenly seems bad again.

Point is, Pokémon was rad, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I may have outgrown it, but if they ever made a version of the game where I got to actually fight as the Pokémon in real-time, I'd buy it in a second. I also think the card game is quite good, mechanics-wise, and though I haven't played in years, I wouldn't turn down a game. (I also have a near-mint-condition Charizard from the first set, which could be my children's college fund some day if I can just convince the world that Pokémon is awesome again.) I never did manage to catch all 151 classic Pokémon, I only made it to 148, but I had a lot of fun along the way. Once I heard that if you catch them all, Satoshi Tajiri comes to your house and gives you a real-live Pikachu, but I'm pretty sure this is just hopeful speculation.

By the way, if you or anyone you know has Dragonite, Bulbasaur or Ivysaur, I want to talk...

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