It is an exciting time to be alive, ladies and gentlemen. Western websites are reporting that a Japanese website leaked a picture of a page of a magazine which has a picture of a new Pokémon. A brand new Pokémon! Of course, nothing has been officially announced by anyone at the Pokémon Company or Nintendo, but it looks like we are rolling forwards with a new generation of Pokémon games.
All we’ve seen is this page, which shows new monster Magiana, a man-made creature hundreds of years old who will feature in the newest movie. All the creatures buried in the code of the previous games have been revealed at this point, making Magiana appear to represent a new generation. Revealing one or two monsters in the animé to whet appetites is a familiar pattern, as is tying a new round of games to a new Nintendo handheld. The timing feels right.
As a 90s kid who grew up surrounded by Pocket Monsters, and feels more deeply connected to the animal sprites on a game cartridge than most of the people I meet in the real world, I love this feeling. The build-up to a new Pokémon game is the only time, in this age of internet news and data-mining, that the games are surrounded by the air of mystery that made them so appealing to me as a child.
Like most people my age, Pokémon was a defining part of my childhood. I loved Star Wars and Transformers and Harry Potter as well, but this is the one that felt all my own. Like most children’s crazes, a big part of the appeal was knowing that adults could not, and would never, get it. The other big appeal, like Harry Potter, was the feeling that it could really all be happening to me. Ash Ketchum wasn’t a grown adult flying a spaceship; he was a kid in a baseball cap venturing into the woods with his pet.
These aspects haven’t gone away, and are what continue to attract new generations of children to each new Pokémon game; albeit not on anywhere near the same scale. But for me, jumping in each time and playing along, they’ve never fully captured the appeal of Pokémon Red and Blue on the Game Boy.
There a number of reasons the early Game Boy and Game Boy Colour Pokémon games are more appealing to return to than their sequels and even their own remakes. The lack of hand-holding, the less obvious railroading, the simpler animations and the lack of loading all contribute to a much quicker pace.
I know what you’re thinking, and I’m sure it has some merit; I’m just being nostalgic. There’s an element of that, I’m sure, but there’s more to it than that. Pokémon Red was a product of its time and that time was shaped by Pokémon Red.
Most important in those games was the sense of mystery. We were told there were 150 Pokémon, but in small, unexplained, actually quite dark diaries we learn of Mew. Then, low and behold, Mew turns out to be a secret 151st Pokémon. Schoolyard rumours about Pikablu or Pokégods are fuelled by legitimate glitches like Missingno or animé cameos like Togepii.
As a child at the turn of the millennium, anything was possible. There was no wiki, no overarching idea of what was or was not in the game. To a kid, every two-bit fan website seemed as legitimate as the official home page. Rumours at the back of magazines and stories on the playground could turn out to be true as often as they were lies.
This sense of mystery was integral to the game’s internal design as well as its place in the whole phenomenon. Mewtwo, the legendary birds, ghost types, actual ghosts, kidnappings and criminal underworlds were all hidden on the fringes, making that world larger and scarier, making us itch to explore and find out more.
The games do still hold an element of that; the curious case of the sixth generation’s ghost girl, this slow drip feed of information. But the colourful graphics leave so much less to the imagination than the simple sprites of old. Detailed three-dimensional cities leave nowhere for monsters and mysteries to hide.
Maybe I’m just too old? Games like Dark Souls keep that sense of a grand mystery, of the community coming together to solve and speculate, alive. Is that feeling impossible to replicate in a game that also has to appeal to children? I don’t think so. One only has to look at the biggest hit for modern children, Minecraft, to see that they have no problem with open-ended adventures, with seeking out peripheral content on Youtube.
It is an exciting time to be alive. I’ll be exploring twitter and youtube, keeping my eye out for each nugget of truth that sneaks out over Pokémon’s twentieth birthday, desperately trying to recapture my youth so I don’t notice that oh my God Pokémon is 20 and I am getting old. As I’m hunting for screenshots, scouring for Pokémon Go locations, mastering Pokken combos and watching dodgy subtitles on animé trailers, I’ll feel alive. But maybe, just maybe, Nintendo will find a way to make me feel like that when I actually have the game in my hands. Wouldn’t that be a time to be alive?