Saturday mornings started with Pokémon and school days ended with it. At the crack of dawn on the weekend I’d be up, my Pikachu plushie in my arms, ready to catch the first of two new episodes that day– if my dad had fallen asleep on the couch the night before, he’d relinquish the TV and the couch, knowing it was one of the only things I watched faithfully and couldn’t miss. I’d often sit on the carpet in the front room playing Pokémon Red on my Game Boy Color between episodes of the anime, working extra hard to train my Charmander because I was at a type disadvantage against Brock and then Misty and had to be at the top of my game to win. (Now you know what decision I always make when faced with the choice between the three original starters!) Homework after school could be set aside for that blissful half an hour when Pokémon came on at 4:30– I have memories of watching the anime on the floor in the front room mixed with hearing the sounds of dinner being made in the kitchen.
As much as I loved the Pokémon anime, I loved the cards just as much, if not more. My first-ever holographic was Blastoise from the Base Set. I was sitting in the backseat of my aunt’s truck when I opened that booster pack, filled with excitement because I finally had one of those shiny cards that my friends had. At the height of Pokémon frenzy, when concerned parents were trying to understand the phenomenon that was enrapturing their children, I was nine years old, a third-grader at Washington Elementary School where Pokémon cards had been banned because they were such a distraction. At recess we would gather behind the giant redwood tree on the grounds, away from the prying eyes of the yard duties, to trade cards; at the time, Lunchables was printing its own line of Pokémon cards on the back of the cardboard packaging (which my parents refused to buy but my aunt would gladly spoil me with), so I distinctly remember complex transactions of both official TCG and Lunchable Pokémon cards that only the frenzied minds of elementary school children could navigate.
I didn’t like Lucky Charms growing up (and still don’t care for them)– never been a big marshmallow fan– but I could somehow rationalize my way into liking Pokémon cereal (which was the exact same cereal as Lucky Charms but featuring Pokémon-shaped marshmallows) because Pikachu was on the box and Pokémon was in the name. From food to clothing to a four-cover spread on TV Guide, the Pokémon bomb exploded and its shrapnel had buried itself into numerous aspects of American pop culture, and I was one of those ’90s kids that didn’t stand a chance against the blast. I remember the excitement of waiting in line in K.B. Toys for three pre-release cards from the Team Rocket expansion set for the TCG, surrounded by kids waiting for the same cards– we wouldn’t know until much later that we were the generation that started it all, the kids who would look back on those Game Boy Link Cable trading, Pokémon: The First Movie watching, MissingNo. fearing days and feel confident in the fact that today’s kids would crumble under the intensity of a furious game of Lickitung’s Sushi-Go-Round while we would stand victorious.
Pokémon has always been more than merchandise, though. There’s a reason why, 20 years later, it continues to prove that it was no passing fad destined to be memorialized in a VH1 special about the ’90s. What always appealed to me about Pokémon, particularly Generations 1 and 2, was the idea that humans and Pokémon coexist, and our world is filled with these creatures that are as much our companions as a human friend might be. Pokémon Red and Blue— based in the Kanto region of Japan– do such a fantastic job of realistically incorporating the fantastical aspects of Pokémon, including the Pocket Monsters themselves, into our reality, playing with an alternate universe in which a Mr. Mime might work at your local coffee shop or you see your neighbor on a morning run with their Growlithe, and all of this is quite normal. The idea of having a Pokémon as a constant companion and true friend is incredibly appealing to a ten year old, especially because the franchise has always emphasized the importance of strong bonds between trainer and Pokémon. I’ve always found the criticisms of Pokémon accusing the series of being reminiscent of cock or dog fighting to be guilty of completely missing the mark of what the series is all about; when Red discovers Team Rocket’s terrible abuse of Pokémon in Red/Blue/Yellow, it’s not only obvious from a moral standpoint that they should be stopped, but the thought of people treating Pokémon like tools and forcing them to do the terrible deeds of terrible humans is awful, and Team Rocket comes across as especially heinous because it’s hard to play a Pokémon game and not feel genuine attachment to your team. The importance of friendship, kindness, and love toward Pokémon is constantly reiterated in the series, and anyone looking to do harm to Pokémon is unquestionably in the wrong.
I remember the impression Pokémon: The First Movie left on me because of how strongly it pushed this idea of the bond between trainer and Pokémon. If you didn’t cry when Ash got turned into stone and Pikachu stood over him, desperately trying to shock him awake and then softly breaking down into tears, you’re either lying or you didn’t see the movie. But in all seriousness, that pivotal moment in which Ash sacrifices himself to defend all of the Pokémon against Mewtwo embodies everything Pokémon is about: friendship, trust, and a mutual respect between humans and their Pokémon. Mewtwo himself is a living example of the wrong humans can do by Pokémon and why it’s wrong to treat them like property rather than as companions. Ash’s love for not only his own Pokémon, but all Pokémon, really touched me as a kid and was one of the many times in the anime and the games where the heart in the franchise really shined through.
(On a sidenote, I’m gonna take a moment to acknowledge how epic it was in Pokémon: The First Movie that, while the Venusaur and Blastoise of two of the trainers trapped on the island got blasted away effortlessly by Mewtwo, Ash’s Charizard came out swinging by enveloping Mewtwo in its Flamthrower. Though Mewtwo breaks the wall of fire and dismisses Charizard by telling Ash that it’s “poorly trained,” you could tell he respected Charizard’s power, and he didn’t try to attack it. So cool!)
Last July, I attended Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions and marveled not only at how many people my age (and older) were eager to take that trip down memory lane with the games central to our childhoods, but also at how many kids much younger than us were there, too. The fact that nearly every single person in the theater that night knew the lyrics to the original theme song of the Pokémon anime and came together to sing it loud and proud really drove home how much the series means to so many of us, whether we’ve been Pokémaniacs since the beginning or are still Youngster Joey’s training our first Rattatas in our comfy, easy to wear shorts. Though Gens 1 and 2 have long since passed, Game Boy has long been obsolete, and I’ve been removed from childhood for quite some time, there’s always going to be a little girl out there somewhere, her Pikachu plushie glued to her hip, getting lost in the world of Pokémon on her 3DS or whatever will come after it, trading cards with her friends, learning about the power of friendship through Ash and Pikachu, and growing up a Pokémon kid.