Imagine a world without Pikachu. Not very nice is it? A drab, post-apocalyptic wasteland that has had all the cuteness nuked out of it by homogenised buzz-cut war blokes, their brains algorithmically engineered with the un-science of violence. Yes, I know, I'm a grown-man and Pokermonz is for little babies what poo themselves. But you know what? It takes a real man to admit that he loves Pikachu. At least that's what my mummy always tells me.
Above: A world without Pikachu cosplay? I'd rather not
Admittedly, my love for the mouse with lightning in his cheeks has waned somewhat since we exited the last millennium. The novelty of communicating in Pikachu speak ("Pika-Pika" etc) wore off long ago. And my vibrating Pikachu plushy is now safely in the hands of actual children where it belongs. At the time, though, as editor of various rogue Pokémon publications, I was fully submerged in the world of Pikachu and all his jolly pocket monster chums. And I loved it. Pure brilliant. At the shining core of that brilliance was one game. Or rather, one game cunningly marketed as two games. Pokémon Red & Blue for the Game Boy.
In the beginning
Have you heard the one about the little kid that liked collecting bugs and insects and grew up to create one of gaming's most successful mega-franchises? Chances are you probably have. The story of Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri's childhood habits manifesting in later life as the founding concept behind Pokémon has been told around a million pixellated camp fires over the years. It's gaming lore.
For me, knowing that the games weren't just the contrived product of grubby marketing men accidentally stumbling upon a seemingly bottomless pit of Yen really endeared me to Pokémon. It made me see it as something other than an insatiable money machine. It was an insatiable money machine with a heart.
Above: It might have happened something like this
I loved the idea that everything - the games, the cartoon, the trading cards, the toys, the whole damned flea circus - originated from one man's vision and his belief to see it come to fruition. Making Pokémon Red and Blue (which was actually Red and Green in Japan, but let's not confuse things) took six years and almost finished Tajiri's Game Freak studio in the process. It was a struggle. Hardships were endured. But, in 1996, the games were completed.
At this point I like to imagine Tajiri standing on the steps of the Game Freak offices, carefully cupping the very first, newly born Pokémon Game Boy carts in his hands. The sun is shining. The breeze carries the scent of cherry blossom. He pauses as if contemplating an invisible question. Then, in one single expression of euphoria, he throws his hands up to the heavens and releases his babies into the wild. It is time. He watches them flutter away. He turns and walks back inside the building with a proud smile on his face. Somewhere in the distance, a cash register rings out.
I choose you, Pokémon Red and Blue!
So why exactly did I - and a few bazillion other people - spend an unhealthy amount of time at the end of the 90s not doing designer drugs or watching Lethal Weapon 4 or pondering what colour iMac G3 to purchase, but choosing instead to stare into a screen the size of a post-it note? By now that doesn't even need to be a question because it's obvious. It was written on the box - 'Gotta catch 'em all'. And I literally did. Everyone did. Once people started playing they absolutely had to catch them all. Every last one of them. With their funny names and digitized screeches and zero frames of animation.
Above: Gotta catch 'em all! Suggestion, command or health warning?
Anyone that's played any of the core Pokémon RPGs knows how it goes. It starts with a quick Pidgey here, maybe a cheeky little Weedle there. And that's it. Hooked like a stupid Magikarp on the line of a Super Rod. Gateway Pokémon to a simple-to-pick-up, yet beautifully impossible game to put down. From Pallet Town to Victory Road. Keep exploring. What better incentive than the promise of discovering new creatures? Creatures that I could catch and collect. Creatures I could give names to (and imaginary personalities). Creatures that would fight but never die. Imagine that.
Above: Pallet Town. Where it all begins. All roads lead to ADVENTURE!
Every successful new capture meant another gap filled in the Pokédex. And abducting the beasts was just the start. Once safely impounded, if you wanted them on your team they would have to be levelled-up. That meant the grind of battles. But the reward was worth it. More powerful attacks and, in some cases, the next stage of evolution. That meant a new Pokémon to add to the files. It's the perfect bait. Crack for the obsessive compulsive geek disposition. It's no wonder that the fundamentals of this magic formula haven't changed in 15 years. New layers are added with each iteration, but the foundations are rock solid and remain the same.