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Pokémon Will Never Get Old

The video game franchise has hung onto its core fans for nearly two decades while bringing in new ones every year. How?

Nintendo/The Pokémon Company

On a pleasant summer day in 2001, my 9-year-old fingers were wrapped around my grape-colored Game Boy Color, and I was inside, pouring hour after hour into Pokémon Gold.

“Jeez, your brother’s outside playing basketball with his friends,” my mom said. “Get out there and play.”

I barely heard her through the invisible wall spawned around me by my ironclad focus, but I got up and walked through the front door. I strolled past my older brother and his buddies, sat on the fence that bordered our driveway, and, Game Boy in hand, began technically playing outside.

Like virtually every other kid my age, I was obsessed with Pokémon. There is one day I remember where I woke up, grabbed my Game Boy, and a day’s worth of hours later, I saved my game, turned it off, and went to bed, barely breaking for so much as life-sustaining food. Today, there are millions of kids who are like I was then. But now I’m 24 years old. And I still love the game.

When Pokémon Sun and Moon were announced in February as the newest installments in the series, I was, minus the childhood sense of wonder and innocence, as excited as when my brother first taught me how to play Pokémon Red. I’m far from alone in this: Tons of my peers also got giddy when the new starter Pokémon were revealed, when the tropical new region of Alola was made public, and when we finally found out what the names of the new legendary Pokémon were.

It’s been a long time since Pikachu and company entered the lives of many fans, so why do players who have been with the franchise since the very beginning (the game was first released in the U.S. in 1998) still care, especially in a time when we’re so collectively impatient that any video longer than six seconds feels like a Judd Apatow movie?

When I first started playing Pokémon Red, I needed my brother’s guidance, but once I figured out how to move around and interact with my environment, the game’s world and my place in it became second nature. I was about 7 or so at the time, and the game’s objectives, and how to achieve them, were laid out well enough that my young mind could complete the game without becoming too frustrated. It was pleasantly challenging.

As the franchise grew and subsequent editions of Pokémon were released, the game’s creators knew they still had to appeal to their aging fan base, so they gradually introduced new variables. Just as we got used to the 150 creatures in the original game (151 if you knew the Mew glitch or had a GameShark), the second generation (and each one following) introduced new species, along with the concept of breeding.

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As the series grew, the games became a legitimate platform for fierce competition: Since 2009, The Pokémon World Championships have pitted the world’s best players against each other in pursuit of the ultimate title, and these players have to make use of nuanced strategies and perform precise in-game adjustments, requiring an attention to detail usually reserved for elaborate and ultra-competitive card games like Magic The Gathering. Pokémon is fueled by statistics, and it takes a pharmaceutical knowledge of how these statistics will interact with each other in order to be elite.

As the internet has become a larger part of our lives, the same has happened to the games, as online battling has been a key feature since the series made the jump to the Nintendo DS with Pokémon Diamond and Pearl in 2007. As we, the OG Pokémon masters, have grown, so has the game, right along with us. What started as a relatively light and bare-bones role-playing game has become a tremendously deep experience that can be approached in a variety of ways, none of which are incorrect or any less valid.

But how would 7-year-old me approach playing Sun and Moon—a far more multifaceted experience than Red and Blue—as my introduction to the series? Here’s why Pokémon still works today: it’d be the same.

Contemporary Pokémon gameplay is capable of great expanse, but it doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of the finer intricacies of breeding strategies and the statistical benefits of certain Natures. It’s completely possible to play through the game’s main plot just by raising your Pokémon in a non-obsessive way, talking to the in-game characters you’re supposed to, and completing whatever mandatory tasks make themselves known. Once you’ve mastered that part of the game and you start wanting more out of it, that’s when you can introduce yourself to the more nuanced concepts meant for the experienced portion of its audience.

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So often in game development a choice must be made about which demographic the title should appeal to; Pokémon has chosen everybody. The light Pokémon aesthetic is decidedly aimed towards children, but for the game’s older players, it’s a nice appeal to nostalgia. There’s no reason to feel ashamed or like you’re being talked down to while getting that fix of childhood glee, because tasks like catching all of the 700-plus Pokémon that currently exist rely on tons of dedication and know-how.

Pokémon is simple and it is complicated. So many of the people who have played the game still care about it because it feels like the game still cares about them. The Game Boy Color is smaller in my hands today than it was in 2001, but it feels exactly the same.

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Derrick Rossignol

Derrick Rossignol

Uproxx, Nerdist, and others. http://derrickrossignol.com

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