Why I’m Still Enthusiastically Playing Pokémon, 20 Years Later

Welcome to the world of Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu from 2018, Pokémon Yellow from 1998

I got the notification at work — Victoria, you have a package. I knew what was inside, of course. I’d signed up for Amazon text alerts, got tracking emails, and had the window up in incognito mode on my work computer to refresh throughout the day. I sped-walked home, eager to get back, tore off the packaging, inserted the game cartridge, and I have done little else but play Pokémon since.

Though the newest entry in the series, reentering the world of Pokémon feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket. Saying that Nintendo has been releasing the same game for twenty years is hyperbole, but strikes me as not by much. Unlike your Zeldas or Marios, there have been no major shakeups to the form or format of the Pokémon games since Red and Blue. Outside of a handful of spin-offs, it has been a linear, top-down adventure game built on the same premise — there are Pokémon, your job as a Pokémon trainer is to collect the strongest and, by proving yourself through battling, become the Pokémon master.

To be clear, the game is not quite a remake as it is a revisitation — but it’s the not quite bit I’d like to focus on.

The game, yes, has gotten more 3D over the years. But minor updates, such as adding in contests or Z-moves or tacky Pokémon riding gear (aside: am I the only one who remembers the bike safety gear?) do not have a major affect on the format of the game. So why is Pokémon selling millions of copies now if it’s functionally a graphical upgrade to a game from twenty years ago?

Short answer: because it’s still fun.

Welcome to the World of Pokémon

The beats of Pokémon Let’s Go should be muscle memory to anyone who has played a Pokémon game, to the point of trying to speed through the new trainer mandatory tutorial the first time you try to head into tall grass. Catching Pokémon is new, adopting a Pokémon Go type system instead of the usual “fight a Pokémon to lower their health stat so you can catch them” tried and true of the last twenty years. That particular change, along with all of the Pokémon in your party gaining experience at once feels a lot like Nintendo putting the training wheels on for the early game, but this is a game for children meant to welcome in newcomers from the Pokémon Go boom — and I won’t begrudge it that, no matter how much time I spent walking up to random NPCs and clicking them to try and desperately coax literally anyone into a battle with me in the first three hours.

And, honestly, I wonder if that isn’t a symptom of adults coming back with childhood strategies. Everyone I’ve seen play the game so far who played it in youth, from myself to a handful of Twitch streamers, tends to start the same way, the way we were taught twenty years ago — grind, grind, grind. We are used to taking battles at every step of the process, training up because we are afraid of our own shadow, and, yes, if you do that you’ll easily reach level ten or fifteen before you reach Viridian Forest — where the trainers you fight all boat level threes and fours. After Cerulean City I let go of that grind, grind, grind, gotta catch em all of the next trainer will pound me into the dust after I fight literally everything in this cave, the difficulty curve caught up with me and I felt like there was a challenge again — a fun challenge, with minimal to almost no grind. I can’t bring myself to say that’s a bad thing just because it’s different.

My theory on new Pokémon features is this — if I could go back in time and hand this game to eight year old Victoria, would she be over the moon? I think the ability to simulate throwing a pokeball at Pokémon would have blown my mind. More so that I could carry every Pokémon I caught with me at all times without having to go find a PC (another good move, and one illustrative of the fact that in 1998 we didn’t all have PC’s in our pockets).

Besides, even this (positive, if jarring at the start) change to a fundamental core mechanic does not alter the formula too much — you still have to catch Pokémon, you still have to battle Pokémon, there’s just more of a decided focus on catching. There are still Pokéballs, Greatballs, Ultraballs… All the familiar beats are there. The catch, bond, train, battle beats remain mostly unchanged from what I remember as a child, just with less grind getting in the way of the fun. Pokémon games were my entry point into video games, and it is nice to see that the game literacy training points are still there (even as I speed through them). I think that is part of what makes Pokémon so special, to me personally and to the kids of the 90s that grew up with it — it’s not just our game, it’s our first game.

There Remains a HUGE Global Market for Nostalgia

If Pokémon Let’s Go is not a remake but a revisitation, then it can’t be understated that the main reason for it selling this well is nostalgia. I may be inclined to say “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” about the Pokémon games, but it is interesting to note that for example the Zelda games, starting much like Pokémon did as a top down adventure back in the days of 2-D, have essentially thrown out the old format in favor of releasing games like Windwaker and Breath of the Wild which approach the same story through vastly different gaming genres. So why did Pokémon get to stay the same and Zelda games had to change?

Much of this is probably due to the fact that Pokémon games were first, second, and lastly handheld games. Zelda was a big console title and thus had to keep up with (or make a passing attempt at mimicking) what Sony and Microsoft were releasing to compete for the same market share. The downward spiral of Nintendo home consoles, from Wii to WiiU, allowed Zelda games to develop different strategies for tackling the in-home market, whereas the endless line of Gameboys and DS’s and 3DS’s were kept fairly maligned and to the side. It was only with the release of the Switch, a console that combined both the in-home and the handheld devices Nintendo had been co-producing for so long, that Nintendo hit a winning console and the stark differences between their franchises came into sharper relief.

The three major Nintendo releases on the Switch are Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Pokémon Let’s Go. All three franchises started as 2-D, Mario and Zelda had to adapt to being in-home games, but despite a camera tilt and 3-D models Pokémon Let’s Go is functionally the same game as Pokémon Yellow. It will be interesting to see if, now that Pokémon is in the home, the formula changes and we, say, get an open world Pokémon adventure instead of the nostalgic formula.

Regardless, Nintendo has not made a secret of the fact that their business plan is capitalizing on people’s nostalgia. Pokémon Let’s Go is just another entry in that quest, and one that has gotten me hook, line, and sinker. I think that the fact that the formula has remained unchanged has made it pack that much more of a punch, because I don’t just remember that music or that animation — no, I remember that specific tree and the item hidden out of sight behind it.

I remember playing Pokémon in the car driving back home from swim practice, screen held up desperately to the window to catch the passing streetlights because my screen wasn’t back-lit. I remember walking into Brock’s gym for the first time, only a single level nine Pikachu to my name, and getting pounded into the dirt. I remember the back and forth grinding, figuring out that I could evolve a Caterpie into a Butterfree that knew Confusion and go back and pound Brock into the dirt (hah!). That feeling of pride, the ability to figure things out for myself and the rush of excitement to have discovered something new, is something that has stuck with me. Pokémon Yellow was the first game I put over three hundred hours into. Pokémon Yellow was my first game period. I was eight years old, looking for something that I could do and be proud of what I accomplished, and Pokémon was it for me. The fact that these games have stayed the same for so long has felt like a blessing, if only that I get to remember being that eight year old little girl feeling her way through Mt. Moon or walking straight into my rival by surprise or finding a hidden item that is still there in 2018 when I went looking. More than games with any “chosen one” narrative, Pokémon games make me feel special. They make me feel unstoppable. They make me feel like I’m eight years old again, walking into tall grass for the first time, and knowing that I got this.

And I can’t wait until my little brother comes down for Thanksgiving this week so I can introduce Pokémon to him too.