Reminiscing about Pokemon for the Game Boy’s 30th Anniversary

By Alex Donaldson, Sunday, 13 October 2019 13:30 GMT

1989 might be one of the best ever years for video game hardware. It had some duds like Atari’s infamous Lynx and Mattel’s memeable Power Glove NES add-on – but it was also the first Western release of the Sega Mega Drive and the debut year of one of the most famous and brilliant games machines ever made – the Game Boy.

That means the Game Boy is now thirty – just like me, and I can’t help but reflect. I have strong memories of lusting after the machine after seeing one that belonged to an Uncle. Later I got one of my own – in bright yellow, of course – and later still upgraded to the Game Boy Pocket, which I vividly remember getting thanks to the bundled copy of the recently remade Metroid 2, my first encounter with Samus Aran’s adventures at their most obtuse.

The Game Boy has since become a symbol of its era; if you make something referencing the nineties, you reach for the Game Boy as quickly as you’d feature a blockbuster video packed with VHS tapes. That’s just how it is. There’s a lot iconic about the Game Boy, too – that green hue, the chunky design, the endearingly simple sound chip. The same is true of games – Tetris is the Game Boy game, obviously, but Wario and Kirby made their debut here, and it’s home to a couple of the best-ever Zelda games. But, really, the most lasting legacy of the Game Boy is obvious: it’s Pokemon.

With apologies for diving back into another personal anecdote, my memory of getting my hands on Pokemon Blue for the first time is incredibly vivid. My mother had been away somewhere, and returned with a gift from her travels. Knowing I probably would’ve found something interesting from wherever she’d been boring, she came back with a game that the sales assistant in some game shop abroad had told her was the hottest new release. At that stage, it wasn’t yet out in the UK. That was Pokemon Blue. Thank god for the Game Boy being region free.

There is something really special about going into a game blind, and it’s sadly something I don’t get to do very much any more thanks to my choice of career. It’s also something practically impossible to experience with Pokemon now; those who haven’t seen Pikachu or a Pokeball on Nintendo platforms have probably seen Ash’s adventures on TV, Ryan Reynolds’ turn as the mascot, or – most likely of all – they’re one of the millions of people who first encountered Pokemon through the screen of a mobile phone.

Pokemon is obviously something rather special, but it’s one of those games that I think was immeasurably enhanced by not really knowing very much about it. In today’s age of social media, every newly revealed Pokemon is celebrated and dissected within moments of being shown. In the late nineties, there was little of that, especially early on. Each new area in the game would provide a chance to encounter new creatures – critters that sent the imagination of a ten-year-old off on wild, brilliant tangents. By having so many creatures, Pokemon was more able to do that for me than almost any other game series.

Over the years, a lot has been said and written about Pokemon’s ability to capture the imagination of children, and of how powerful a slogan like ‘Gotta Catch ‘Em All’ is – but to posit a theory, the design of Pokemon, its world and its creatures is so compelling that it’s really no surprise at all that kids like me became so obsessed with it, marketing aside. This is probably why it continued to work on the second generation of Game Boy games, then onto the Advance, the DS and beyond. It’s practically impossible to catch ’em all now – but it doesn’t matter. There’s just something special about the structure of these games.

This is something we could all do with remembering, too. As we approach Pokemon Sword and Shield’s release on the Nintendo Switch, a descendant of which the Game Boy can be proud, some older fans are in uproar about the series changing and specifically cutting content they’re familiar with. We’d all do well to remember that first feeling upon encountering the creatures of Kanto, or Johto, or Sinnoh or Kalos or whichever you first ventured to – because while some of that surprise is dimmed by Pokemon’s practically omnipresent nature in 2019, for many it’ll be a first journey into a universe that will hopefully grab them as fiercely as it grabbed us.

In partnership with Nintendo, we wanted to find out some of your favourite Game Boy memories as the seminal handheld celebrates its thirtieth birthday… and that led me down the path of the thoughts above. But also, here’s a few of my favourite Pokemon Game Boy memories more specifically…

  • Running out of Battery midway through trying to catch Zapdos: this one is perhaps more of a traumatic memory than a best memory, but boy is it seared into my mind. Zapdos is my favourite of the Kanto legendary birds, because it’s objectively the best one, and it was the only one I actually cared about catching. I ground it down on a car journey – there it sat, my bounty on a tiny slither of health. Ball after ball was thrown. It refused to go in. I’d been told on the playground that rhythmically tapping A in time with the Pokeball shaking gave you a higher chance of catching it. That was a lie, but I still do it – it makes me feel better. Then the battery ran out. No!
  • Becoming Champion for the first time… and realizing it wasn’t over: Pokemon Red and Blue obviously didn’t invent the concept of the post-game quest, but most of the RPGs I’d played up to that point, like older Final Fantasy games, were all over once the credits rolled. Realizing I could then go and catch Mewtwo was a special moment. I just ended up wishing I’d saved the Master Ball for that encounter my first time around – because I didn’t know about Mewtwo, I didn’t know to save the Master Ball until it was too late…
  • Revisiting Kanto in Pokemon Gold: By the time Pokemon Gold and Silver rolled around, I was of course a fan. Because of this I knew where the quest was going – but that still didn’t quite prepare me for the wave of short-term nostalgia that hit me on returning to the map from the first game. I also don’t think I’ve ever been quite as pumped as I was when I faced down Red, the first game’s protagonist, in the final encounter. It remains one of the most pumped-up final battle encounters in any game ever.

What are your favourite Pokemon memories on the Game Boy? Let us know by replying to the tweet embedded in this article for a chance at winning a Nintendo Switch Lite and a care package of Pokemon goodies including a copy of Pokemon Sword – all shipped when Pokemon Sword comes out. A winner will be picked from replies made before Monday 14th October.

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