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The Undying Lure of the Pocket Monster

With a pair of new Pokemon games on shelves, I found myself facing a familiar conundrum. On the one hand, there was the unquestionable desire to play; to collect, level, and explore; to bask in the familiar glow of a growing Pokedex and a troupe of friendly creatures with which to kick the ass of cuddly things the world over. Simultaneously, a curmudgeonly part of the back of my brain was yelling to get that children’s game off of his damn lawn and go do something more productive. 

“Pokemon games haven’t changed in twelve years,” he said with an air of cranky authority. “You played it back then when you were only knee-high to a Charizard. Now you’re grown and out of college and you want to do it all over again? I understand you’ve got a lot of free time on your hands. A return to “simpler” days might sound refreshing, but Pokemon? That’s just desperate. Grow up and go play something for adults.”

I tried to remind him that I actually played Pokemon Diamond a couple of years ago and rather enjoyed it for a while, though I had to give it to a roommate to finish after losing interest. He mumbled a series of indecipherable grunts and the only words I managed to make out were “dang blasted nostalgia” before he trudged his way back into the recesses of my mind and let me stop talking to myself. 

This particular brand of desire is not unfamiliar to me. It is the allure of being drawn into an epic game combined with the excitement of collection and leveling up, growing ever stronger and exploring every corner of a vast world. It’s also laced with that nagging feeling of guilt that comes with believing that I’ve done it all before, with thinking that there must be better ways I could be spending my time.

It’s a situation eerily reminiscent of my rocky history with MMOs. I kept quitting them only to inevitably return, getting bored but only temporarily, cursing the genre for its base addictiveness while wondering why I wasn’t “better” than these games, why I couldn’t keep myself away.

Not long ago, with the release of the Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft, I had an epiphany. I was finally honest with myself. I figured out what it was I loved about the genre and what it was I hated. I found a way to enjoy WoW in what I think is a healthy fashion. I now no longer feel the guilt I once so strongly associated with Blizzard’s world, only a joy that comes from exploring its vast reaches until I grow tired of the grind and put it down until desire strikes again. Finally letting myself enjoy the escapism of those games with no strings attached was a major relief.

I believe it might be time for another epiphany, this time with regard to Nintendo’s adorable Pocket Monsters.


I pretty much dropped out of the Pokemon world after the initial three games had run their course. I played Pokemon Red until my copy got stolen. I dabbled in the occasional episode of the TV show and amassed a decent collection of trading cards I rarely used. I eventually moved onto Yellow to replace my stolen copy of the original, but that was it for me. It should come as no surprise to anyone that knows me that my attention span might not be enough to support long-term addiction to a series like this, and I was far worse about such things as a kid. 

With the release of Diamond and Pearl for the DS, my interest was renewed. Something about this particular update caught my attention. I suppose it was primarily a matter of timing. The new game was just modernized enough and I was feeling just nostalgic enough that it worked for me when none of the other sequels had. I bought a Pokemon game for the first time in many years and had a great time with it.

The Pokemon games are in that same insidious category as Farmville and, it could be argued, most MMOs; that gray area of gaming that relies on little more than the pure mechanics of addiction to keep luring players back in. You can practically hear the machinery clanking to life inside of the little cartridge with perhaps the same satisfying thunk as the pull of a slot machine. It’s a game of numbers, of variable reward systems and artificial scarcity and all sorts of other terminology that would have any good casino manager drooling. 

In its defense, Pokemon has always been relatively upfront about this. A casino doesn’t want you to know about its devious plot to steal your time and money through well-worn tactics of manipulating the human psyche. They want you to believe that it’s possible to win. Pokemon, on the other hand, puts the truth right there in its marketing slogan.

“Gotta catch ‘em all”. 

Genius, isn’t it? Nintendo has successfully combined gambling, an obsessive desire to collect useless crap, and adorable fuzzy things, thus ensuring that generations of children would be hooked on its steady stream of accessible, iterative games.

Myself included.

The fact that it’s impossible to literally “catch ‘em all” in modern Pokemon games only makes the compulsive desire to do so that much more brilliant.

To describe Pokemon in such cold, calculating terms feels wrong somehow. There’s more to it than that. Sure Nintendo’s accountants are weeping with joy and the developers seem positively allergic to meaningful change, but something about it is undeniably appealing on a deeper level than the sum of its individually addictive parts.

The presentation helps. Ok, the graphics may be inexcusably ancient. Even Black and White’s foray into true 3D feels more like what a developer in 1995 would have done when discovering the third dimension for the first time.

“Look! Look! Our camera can go in multiple directions! Check out this huge bridge sequence we jammed in there just so we could pointlessly swing the camera around! Wheee!”

Fortunately, graphical horsepower isn’t exactly the series’ calling card. The creatures are the draw and they are as appealing as ever, save for a few massive duds here and there that are inevitable when introducing so many new designs in one game. The animated sprites look pixelated and dated, but still better than anything the series has seen yet. Even their cries sound far better than the bleeps and bloops we’re used to. The games are infused with an old-school charm, which might help to explain why we’re able to forgive some of these dated elements when we don’t in other games.

Most of the draw has to be that simplistic gameplay. Love it or hate it, this kind of evolutionary iteration is what Nintendo excels at. It’s what they’ve built their empire on. The number of times they’ve “upended the tea table”, to borrow a Japanese phrase, is few indeed. Each of these rare revolutions has been supported by a solid foundation of trotting out sequel after sequel to their beloved stable of franchises. They find a core mechanic that works and tweak its edges over the years to make it better and keep it fresh. The pace can seem glacial, but it works. The sales charts have spoken.

It’s easy, and increasingly popular, to look down on Nintendo for this. I certainly have my share of problems with the company. I’ll also be the first to admit that not everything has to be a revolution to be fun. Solitaire was invented at least a few years ago and it’s still around, right? Video games have their roots in board and card games that could remain unchanged for decades or centuries. The close bond between video games and technology has made the public, and especially the critics, eager for constant change, but I think there’s plenty of room for taking things a bit slower, which is exactly what Pokemon does.

This is not an excuse for those elements of the game that have remained maddeningly static even in the face of clear evidence that they are a giant pain in the ass. I’m looking squarely in the direction of Pokemon’s inventory management here, to mention one example. I suppose even the game’s outdated presentation can be forgiven in light of the series’ sheer scale and depth (making 649 all new animated sprites, even lackluster ones, must be no small task), but not all its issues are brushed off so easily.

Still, there’s no denying that in a world filled with increasingly complex titles, self-serious JRPGs, violent attention whores out to boost unit sales by provoking angry Fox News editorials, and plenty of other off-putting crap, there’s something refreshing about coming back to the familiar charms of the Pokemon series. I was part of the first generation to grow up on it. I know well its addictive lure, especially if you have friends taking the plunge with you. I have grown more jaded since those heady days trading critters in the cafeteria, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. 

Perhaps some things just don’t need to change all that much to remain pleasurable.

There’s no denying that the games are well constructed. Simplistic as they may be on the surface, there’s a staggering amount of depth hidden underneath; a depth that grows with every release. 649 Pokemon. At least 18 different types. Countless attacks. Enough hidden secrets to keep you busy until the next Pokemon game comes out. Every time I dive into some of the online guides for these games I am simply amazed at how much there is to them. They put Final Fantasy to shame.

Pokemon is your classic example of simple to pick up but hard to master. It might as well be the definition for the damn phrase. What begins as an innocent quest to collect a few creatures and mash one of the measly four attack slots can quickly become a never-ending rabbit hole of obsession and strategizing and planning. 

This is also the reason Nintendo is afraid to change it. Let’s face it, the series isn’t hurting for sales as it is. It shows no signs of slowing down or of growing discontent among its legions of fans. To change such a massively successful, and insanely complex, formula simply for the sake of it would be, frankly, unwise to say the least. As much as I’d love to see the series get a kick in the pants, there’s no reason for them to do that yet because what they have still works for millions of people. There will come a day when change is necessary. Rest assured, when that day does come, or perhaps slightly before it comes if they’re lucky and feel like avoiding disaster, Nintendo will attempt to protect their dear franchise and shake things up a bit.

In the meantime, we shall have to make do with modest changes to a core game that’s still a hell of a lot of fun, however much we may hate to admit it.

Luckily, thanks to my horrendous attention span, I seem to be immune to the long-term addictions that have had many players essentially playing the exact same game three, four or more times already. Maybe my tone wouldn’t be quite so favorable if I had gone through the motions as many times as true long-term fans have. I played the first games and then pretty much ducked out until Diamond and Pearl. Then again, the massive sales figures point to a happy public. 

The series’ brush with modernity that started with Diamond and Pearl and has continued into Black and White has renewed my interest in the clacking machinery of the Pokemon franchise. There’s still a part of me that can’t take my eyes off of that insidious mechanism in the background; that still views the whole affair as a guilty pleasure to be avoided with the effort of a little willpower in favor of something “worthwhile”.

Thankfully, I’m not yet quite jaded enough to trick myself out of enjoying something as pleasurable as Pokemon. No matter the reason, I’m having a blast with Pokemon White, obsessing over it to the same degree as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, or any number of other games I might place in the “worthwhile” category.

What it comes down to is that I think I have arrived at the same conclusion for the Pokemon series that I did for World of Warcraft. The point of playing games is to enjoy yourself. Both of these games continue to bring a smile to my face and tickle that part of my brain that likes a good epic adventure. To brush them off simply because of some high-minded concern that they’re not pushing the boundaries of the medium or exploring uncharted gaming territory would be missing the point.

Pokemon is damn fun.

Simple fun has a lot of competition these days. It gets harder to justify the cheerful escapism of Pokemon when I check that backlog list of mine and find Red Dead Redemption, Fallout: New Vegas, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and so many other titles waiting, abandoned and sad, on my shelves for that glorious day when I shall make the time to give them their due. I do have concerns about the Pokemon series and I think it’s healthy to keep these in mind. Nintendo has so far managed to avoid obsolescence by constant, if slow, evolution, but there are still plenty of areas left wanting for improvement. It’s important to remember this and keep the company on its toes, demand more of them with each installment, and hope for better things.

In the meantime, it cannot be denied that, flaws and all, Pokemon remains undoubtedly one of the most compelling portable RPGs on the market. It scratches at pleasure centers of the brain that few other titles do. As I continue my adventures in this newest Pokemon title, I am reminded once again of an important truth.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in analysis; to over-think and criticize; to ignore the obvious because the complex is more exotic and appealing. As my Pokedex grows and more gym leaders fall to my team’s superior Pokeskills, I remember that sometimes that base part of your brain knows what it’s talking about. Sometimes it’s ok to play a game that sounds fun simply because it sounds fun. Losing sight of that isn’t advancing some ethereal line in the sand between “good” and “bad” gaming, it’s simply depriving myself of the reason I enjoy the medium in the first place: playing fun games.

I urge older, jaded gamers out there to look inside themselves for a bit. You just might come to the same realization that I did. Wake your inner child up from its long slumber and go pick up that Pokemon game. It may be familiar and it sure isn’t perfect, but it is fun. 

Sometimes that’s enough.

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