Despite my frequent protestations, several people I know flat-out refuse to play Pokémon games. They give me stubborn head shakes and plenty of reasons for not wanting to even try. Reasons like 'it's for kids' or 'I hear it's always the same' or 'I don't like the look of that yellow thing, I think it killed me in a nightmare'. Well, this is it. This is my last shot at trying to convince them, you and anyone else who'll listen, that Pokémon is actually worth playing. And, naturally, with Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire coming soon, now's a great time to get involved.
OK, so let's pretend for a moment that there aren't any cartoony 'pocket monsters' at all in this turn-based combat game and that you do the fighting yourself. Know what the game is? It's just a top-down RPG with battle scenes. I don't mean to make it sound simple or generic, but rather that there's nothing sinister or unexpected here. Just level-upping, potion-guzzling (well, if you're crap), story-progressing fun in the style of Final Fantasy VII, or Persona. For all the anime series, films, plushies, cosplay horrors and questionable merchandise, Pokémon began life as a video game. A video game is what it is.
There's good reason that the template hasn't changed fundamentally since it arrived in 1996. It doesn't require a great deal of prior knowledge to grasp, allows for additional characters to be added without diluting the experience, and means new and old hands can feel right at home. And if you don't actually like JRPGs, I'm totally with you on that, too. I don't love them either. But I do like Pokémon.
But why is that? Why is it more accessible? Why is this turn-based RPG recognised the world over, while almost all others only manage minor success? That's easy. It's the fact that it isn't just you that's doing the fighting. And unlike most JRPG parties that let you switch out occasional characters, your entire team is always yours to manage completely.
The fact that they are monsters based on real animals isn't just for aesthetic appeal. Each 'pocket monster' is an exquisitely-crafted and masterfully-balanced creation that draws on real-world characteristics as inspiration for its fantastical move-set. Birds can't be hurt by ground-based attacks. Squirtle is a turtle that squirts water. It's simple, it's fun, but it's also grounded in clearly-defined rules and logic. And don't think for a minute it's all saccharine-sweet. There's some dark stuff in this universe.
And the variety is wondrous. The original 151 Pokémon were arguably enough, but there are now well over 600 to catch and train. Don't worry, you don't have to train 'em all (and it isn't compulsory to catch them all either, though that is the ultimate aim of the game), but you do have to choose which ones you have on your team, and how they develop.
This development is where things get deep, and ultimately the most rewarding. You either raise a Pokémon from the state it was in when you captured it in the wild (which is itself a moment of extreme accomplishment), or from an egg once you unlock the Daycare (breeding) service. So you can literally raise it from a feeble level 1 oddity into a deadly level 100 beast, watching (and sometimes influencing) its physical evolution as you go. Eggs carry moves and traits from their parents, meaning you can sculpt the perfect warrior over generations. The depth is immense, comparable to Disgaea and it's 'dungeon in every weapon' vastness.
You can carry a maximum of six of these potential-stuffed entities with you at any time. They are your team and you can rotate, recruit and drop members from the line-up whenever you make it back to a town. You can give them nicknames. Each one is personalised and owned by you, letting you form a bond with your core team. So what if there are a thousand other Caterpies around the early towns? 'Colin' is yours and he is yours forever.
Unless you trade him. Your 'Colin' might be going for a ride in someone else's pocket. You can trade with as many different people as you like, making for not only a viral epidemic of gamers eager to get in on the hot trading action, but a genuine social experience. Pokémon works on its own as a 60-hour RPG (and that's just to beat the main story), but it's also one of the best multiplayer experiences ever conceived.
Of course, you can battle your friends too. Your best team of six vs their best team of six. That means training up your team and learning how to use them. Pokémon is built on a Rock/Paper/Scissors formula of Water beats Fire, Fire beats Grass, etc, but this has been expanded into Fairy Type, Dragon Type, Ghost Type… there's so much to learn and massive rewards to be reaped by learning when best to use each move and each Pokémon at your disposal. You can boost your Pokémon's defense stats or speed depending on the kind of enemies you beat and which moves you use when you do. Like I said, mega-depth.
But all of this complexity is hidden beneath the ultra-simple premise of one boy or girl travelling from town to town, catching monsters and fighting others with just four moves to choose from. Want to learn a fifth? You've got to lose a move from your existing set. Ooh, decisions, decisions.
The series is getting on for 20 years old, but its core values and gameplay never change. The music is always excellent, the moments of euphoria and progression perfectly-spaced, the drip-feed of new information and techniques never overwhelming, the sense of personalisation right up there with… well, nothing else. You make Pokémon your own and your save file will be as important to you as your Trophy or Achievement list. Probably more.
It may look cute, but it's ultra-hardcore. It may be complex, but it's brilliantly simple. And you know how sometimes you wish there was another game series as engrossing and rewarding as the one you've just been playing? It's Pokémon. Seriously, it's great.