When it comes to advertising, and most other things in general, I consider myself a skeptic, cynic, and an all around sourpuss. Most marketing ploys come off as inane and completely unconvincing to anybody with half a brain cell; but Nintendo once managed to break me– hard. Like a collection of fine china crushed by a ten ton weight dropped from the moon, I was hopeless, hooked on a product many months before it was even released. Such was the intensity of the marketing blitz that made Americans just as addicted to Pokémon as the Japanese.
Believe it or not, but there once was a time when the Internet wasn’t the go-to place for absolutely everything, video game news and reviews included. Instead of having access to a constant stream of up to date info, gamers generally had to wait for the monthly release of their favorite magazines; and for gamers like us, Nintendo Power was the end-all be-all for all things Nintendo related. While Nintendo Power has always been owned and operated by Nintendo, it has done a good job of being a legitimately sincere and helpful source of gaming information, and not just a biased, company mouthpiece. And then there was Pokémon Power.
Pokémon Red and Blue were released in September of 1998, two years after the games had already conquered Japan. In order to help build up hype for the series for North America, Nintendo started to include a mini-magazine of tips, walkthroughs, and comics called, quite creatively, Pokémon Power. These inserts started to show up a few months before the game’s release and they effectively blew my young, middle school attending mind. Now I realize these magazines were obvious marketing ploys; they weren’t objective examinations of the game’s quality and the comic was just the cartoon turned into still images and speech bubbles, but back then I didn’t care. Pokémon, the game, TV series, franchise and toys were just about the coolest thing ever and nothing in the world would stop me from getting hooked on this wonderful drug.
Can you still name them all?
I studied Pokémon Power as though it contained the meaning of life in some complex, cryptic code that could be deciphered if read enough. Before the games came out, I already knew what my party was going to be, where to go, what to expect from my foes, and I could have redrawn the types’ strengths and weaknesses matrix while blindfolded. Pokémon was my religion and it was my divine duty to spread it to all my friends, and maybe even a few enemies. I was never the most popular kid in school, but I was able to start one trend in my time there and that was Pokémon. Before the game came out or the show aired, I had dozens of people foaming at the mouth with rabid anticipation. That is one way you can tell a marketing campaign has been successful, when people go out and spread the word out of sheer excitement.
As much as I anticipated the game there was still one significant hurdle preventing me from reveling in the assumed awesomeness– I didn’t have a Game Boy and I was a kid with very little money. The cheapest, most efficient solution to this problem was a little thing called the Super Game Boy, a SNES cartridge that had a slot for Game Boy games so you could play them on TVs with the addition of a couple colors, aside from black and white. Many of the features that make the Pokémon franchise so worthwhile are centered around its portability, but I was effectively addicted and needed to get my fix. Once the game was released I had my Super Game Boy ready to go so I immediately jumped on in and Pokémon became my life for longer than possibly could have been healthy.
Now, chances are you have glanced at a supermarket tabloid or caught a few minutes of some biographical show on some Hollywood has-been, so you know that addictions generally come with negative side effects, and my reliance on Pokémon was no exception. Between playing the game and watching recordings of the show, I had very little time or interest to devote to my schoolwork so my grades suffered and my parents were none too pleased. They never really liked the amount of time I spent on video games to begin with so they never hesitated to pull me away from the game for weeks at a time.
However, I was addicted so I would do whatever necessary to get my fix, such as volunteering to do more chores or giving up other vital necessities, like The Simpsons, just for an hour or two with my team. The cartoon aired during school, and they eventually stopped taping it for me as punishment, so I had my babysitter record it for me so I could watch it every morning. When I finally got a Game Boy Pocket, I would bring the game to school and that presented more distractions as I would always bring it out when we were supposed to be reading or doing work. The severity of my obsession really showed when one of my classmates stole my Game Boy during gym class so I grabbed him by the neck and pinned him against the wall until the teacher had searched his locker. This method might have been harsh, but it most certainly worked.
And then came the card game, which was really a completely new and different beast. School really frowned on bringing video games into class, but they never really cared about the cards or the small economy that grew up around them. When the cards came out, they were impossible to find because they sold as soon as they hit the shelves, so I would call every store in the area several times a week to see if anybody had them in stock. I finally found a store on the other side of town that had three booster packs, and my parents, quite surprisingly, were even willing to drive me there. Of those three packs, two of them had Charizards, the rarest, most powerful cards of the original series, so at school the next day I felt like the king of the card collecting world. I don’t remember what I traded one of those Charizards for, but I do know that I had plenty of offers going back and forth as a bidding war broke out that included both cards and cash. That’s the big thing to take out of all this, people were willing to drop good money, or at least good money for a middle schooler, to get the cards they wanted. My friends and I learned a great deal about portion control and we hoarded our lunch money to get every possible extra cent to put towards cards. I once spent five dollars for a Blastoise that was in terrible condition simply because I was the kid in the group that always chose Squirtle as my starter– I actually still have that card.
Trading cards are one hell of a drug
One inescapable truth about being young is that you grow out of it, and even your obsessions ultimately fade. I remained a fan of the games and still get excited about them to this day, but I learned long ago how to balance my real life with my imaginary life as a Pokémon master and that I actually had more time to devote to the games when I wasn’t constantly being grounded for ignoring my more “real” responsibilities. The show was, of course, always meant more for children and quickly became less cool as I grew up; while the cards are still interesting, I realized years ago that my money was best spent on other things… such as more video games! Yes, I was once a helpless Pokémon addict, but I would be lying if I didn’t say some good came from this youth-consuming obsession.
Pokémon is what turned me into a serious gamer. Sure, the contemporary “hardcore” crowd might try to act too tough for this family friendly franchise, but it has always been a serious commitment for the dedicated gamer. Before its release, I turned into a bloodhound, always trying to sniff out the latest bit of news from various magazines and even that fledgling little Internet, which was still a 56k connection for me at the time. This not only helped me understand the Internet better as a tool for learning, but it made me seriously interested in the world of video game journalism, which has become an obsession in its own right for me.
Once I got the game, it was probably the first time I really delved deep into the entirety of the experience and the mechanics. From a design perspective, the Pokémon series is the product of very thorough planning and precise balancing, so by getting very serious about it, I was learning more about how to view games critically. Instead of simply booting the game up and killing time, I realized every how all these pieces fit together to create an experience that was not just enjoyable, but challenging and captivating. Prior to Pokémon, I played video games, but once I delved into its wonderful world I really became a gamer.
Looking back at my history with Pokémon, I am shocked to realize that it all started 13 years ago, and it makes me feel old at 23. Back when I was preaching the Poké-Bible at school, there were the usual “cool” kids who ignored the series for being for little kids and now I kind of feel sorry for them and how they missed out on something so fun and, at least in my case, personally valuable. Then again, I also feel a little self righteous and vindicated when I get the chance to talk to people like me who have remained fans for all these years, or even with kids to whom Pokémon, and video games in general, is pretty much a ubiquitous experience across the board.
Now that Pokémon is a multi-billion dollar media empire with no sign of slowing down, I take a small bit of pride in knowing that I got in on the ground floor, before that even. That’s right, I tunneled into the basement and the foundation alone was enough to turn me into a lifelong fan, so I guess I wasn’t too surprised to see such a skyscraper to grow out of it. I might have been duped by glitzy marketing featuring cute creatures and infectiously cheesy cartoons, but I am kind of glad that my cynicism wasn’t so thick back then, because I might have missed out on something amazing.