Fifteen Years On, Pokemon Still Holds Power Over This Thirty-Something

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While iPhone launch days and big gadget reveals represent some of my most anticipated events because I’m a tech blogger, a day like today can still awaken just as much excitement. Today is the launch day of a new Pokemon game, you see – the newest installment of the “Catch ‘Em All” franchise, Pokemon X/Y for the Nintendo 3DS, hits store shelves and is being delivered to pre-order customers everywhere. Kids are choosing from three new starter Pokemon, and beginning a familiar adventure all over again. And a fair amount of adults like me are, too.

I’ve played every single Western-release Pokemon title in the main franchise (not all of the spin-offs, sadly) since Pokemon Red and Blue were introduced back in 1998. When those games made their North American debuts, I was 15 years old – probably a little above the target age group of the games, but a lot closer to them than I am now, starting Pokemon Y at the ripe old age of 31.

To prepare for this new Pokemon arrival, I did two things: I bought a Nintendo 3DS XL, and I picked up a copy of Pokemon Black 2, the one main franchise title I hadn’t played so far. Did I buy the 3DS console only because of the impending Pokemon release? Yes. Am I alone in finally getting on board with Nintendo’s most recent mobile gaming console specifically to roam a virtual world capturing strange, often adorable little creatures to complete some kind of grand and tedious menagerie? Definitely not. Pokemon is a killer franchise for Nintendo, one that has the power to ship hardware as well as sell games.

Recently, I’ve been asked why I like Pokemon, and continue to play the games, including by many of my coworkers on our weekly gadgets podcast. I’ve seldom stopped to think about what parts of the Pokemon experience I actually find enjoyable. Surprised with the request to be self-reflexive about a game I’ve been playing for well over a decade, I surprised myself by coming up with some fanciful crap about how playing each successive generation of Pokemon — and replaying the games through all of their minor variations — is a little like a classical musician playing through symphonies that have been played by countless other artists, and themselves, time and time again. Each play is a variation, and enjoyable to fans and appreciators, no matter how small or subtle the differences.

Pokemon has a basic recipe, a set of notes on paper that make it identifiable for what it is, but it also offers a lot of variety in terms of how it can be played. For instance, I’ve never battled or traded with others, despite that being a core component of Pokemon gameplay. Sometimes I feel religious about having to stick with starter Pokemon; other times I ditch them quickly and never look back. Each playthrough can focus on using a different kind of team, which completely changes how you battle and how you collect and train.

But ultimately, Pokemon is a game for those who find routine comforting, and who enjoy obsessive tabulation, statistics and strategy analysis. Its proponents could just as easily be avid baseball fans, huge Settlers of Catan enthusiasts or even coin collectors. It’s a game that manages to scratch a number of those itches at once, too: If you’re soothed by repetitive action, but also want to flex your brain with something slightly more involved (but not terribly different from) Sudoku, you’re probably a Pokemaniac, whether or not you realize it.

In the time I’ve been playing Pokemon, I could’ve had a child and raised them to young adulthood; I could’ve built a matchstick model of a North Sea offshore oil rig; I could’ve built a nation’s fighting force into a professional standing army; instead, I’ve been trying to catch them all. I never have, and I don’t even think it’s possible without superhuman effort, but I imagine there’s still another 15 years at least left in my Pokemon infatuation.