On February 27, 2016, the Pokémon series celebrated its 20th anniversary here in Japan. While Pokémon wasn’t released in the U.S. until September of 1998, Japan saw the first two entries, Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green, in 1996. In the 20 years since then, the series has continued to innovate and expand its goal of giving players a fun, challenging way to interact with each other. The series’ trademark mixture of serious battling and adorable charm has managed to attract players across all ages, genders, and nationalities in a way that few other series have achieved.
In honor of the 20th anniversary, the Pokémon Company has released a series of classic Generation I goodies in the form of 3DS Virtual Console games. Today, I’m going to review these releases here in Japan, as well as tell the story of how the Pokémon series impacted my life and opened my mind to new worlds.
What was your first Pokémon game? For me, it was Pokémon Blue on the original Game Boy. The game released on September 28, 1998, just a few days after my 15th birthday. So many people—including my neighbor—were talking about these new games that I just had to go spend my birthday money on it. I quickly bought the game, chose my starting Squirtle, and jumped into the full experience. What I didn’t realize then was that I’d gotten into something that was about to cause a massive shift in the culture of gaming, and to a lesser extent, the world.
At that time, I was still a lonely gamer, an outsider in a class of 18 students at a private school run by Fundamental Baptists. Nothing I did fit in, I wasn’t popular, and my feminine personality and love of games made me the “weirdo” and “freak” of the school. In a way, this was ironic, as this game made by a developer called “Game Freak” became such a popular global phenomenon.
As I kept playing my game, delving further and further into the depths of the Pokémon world, people around me were suddenly playing it, too. More than that, they were talking. Before this moment, gaming had been a mostly solitary experience for me, with few games that I enjoyed being multiplayer. Even those games that did have it were mostly party experiences—something you did as a once-off with friends. I didn’t have any siblings growing up, so it was usually just me and the game.
Pokémon was the series that changed all that. The creators, looking into a surprisingly accurate future, imagined a world where gaming was a part of a larger social network. While they perhaps couldn’t have envisioned today’s hyper-connected social media world, they struck on a point that fit with the very core of our current society. The Pokémon games have engrossing single-player stories to them, but the heart of the series is the idea that you need to meet, trade, and battle with other real-life players in order to really complete the game’s full experience. At that time, this meant plugging in a slightly cumbersome link cable and sitting near your friend. Because everyone wanted to collect and master the game, people who were otherwise too shy to interact would start talking the moment they saw a Game Boy.
For me, this meant that I had people to talk to and play games with for the first time, and that was huge. As an LGBTQIA+ teen struggling with depression, building fantasy bonds with game monsters as well as real bonds with other players meant I had a place where I could be myself and meet other people. It meant hope, a feeling of connection, and light in the darkness. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but it was changing me ever so slightly inside. I remember battling my neighbor with my trusty, game-breaking Dugtrio and winning every time. We would compete, explore, look at books, and talk to other players. I remember memorizing all the Pokémon and then taking quizzes on them just for fun. I even went out and bought the Pokémon Pikachu Edition imported from Japan before it was released in the U.S. It was all in Japanese, and I couldn’t trade with anybody, but it was amazing to see. I remember the box being gorgeous, and seeing Pikachu running around with me was super cool.
When I went to college in early 2000, all my games were taken by my parents, and I wasn’t able to play Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal, and for a few years, my interest waned. After college, though, I was stuck back at home, having left due to depression and an inability to get therapy as a transgender person. I had a job and a car, but no friends around and nowhere to go. I was once again stuck in a world of isolation before my old neighbor convinced me to get a Game Boy Advance. I went out to the local K-Mart and bought a GBA and their last copy of Pokémon Sapphire. I was instantly blown away by the massive amount of progress that the series had transitioned into, and I was immediately hooked. Furthermore, a tabletop gaming store had opened near my house, and there I met other players and began to play the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG).
Over the next six years, I became completely engrossed in the world of Pokémon. I took over running the local Pokémon League, played in many tournaments, and even won a spot in the 2004 Pokémon TCG World Championship. Then, I became an official tournament judge, helping to organize local, state, and regional championships. While my life at work was getting less and less interesting, my work with children at the league and at tournaments was getting more rewarding. I was able to completely break out of my shell, be myself, and start living my own life because of the social networks Pokémon had helped create for me. These experiences led me to quit my job and go back to college in the hopes of one day working in Japan.
Ever since then, Pokémon has stayed a powerful motivator in my life. While I no longer have the time to play the card game, I still collect and play the video games themselves. I studied Japanese in college, and was thrilled when I was finally able to visit Japan on a two-month study trip. During that time, I stayed in the area of Japan where Pokémon Sapphire took place and began to really understand the region they had reproduced. I got to see the mountains and the hot springs that were in the game, learned about Kyushu’s real volcano, and discovered that there really is a Japanese space program that launches from there.
In the end, all of these experiences finally paid off. In my application for the teaching position I have here in Japan, I was able to turn these fun moments into a strong argument for myself as a teacher. In particular, the ability to work with kids, teaching and guiding them in a fun way with Pokémon, was influential in helping me get the job. In more ways than I ever could have imagined, the ever-optimistic world of Pokémon and its dream of bringing people together globally helped shape me into a strong person, able to race for my dreams despite my challenges.
I believe that no series in the history of gaming has done more to bring love, courage, and interaction to kids than Pokémon—especially to young girls. When Pokémon released their announcement video for Pokémon Sun and Moon last week, I was thrilled to see boys and girls of all ages and nationalities playing together with different generations of Pokémon games. In this way, Pokémon has promoted more diversity and inclusion than anyone could possibly have expected from a simple video game. From the earliest days of link cables to global WiFi interactions, the past 20 years have sent endless happiness around the world.
To honor those feelings (and let’s be honest, collect stuff), I went out and bought the Japanese special edition Pocket Monsters Green 2DS bundle, as well as the boxed Pocket Monsters Blue download code. While the U.S. got a limited edition New 3DS with Pokémon Red and Blue faceplates, Japan got special 2DS systems colored after each of the games. The red, green, and yellow 2DS’ were released in retail stores across Japan, but the Pocket Monsters Blue 2DS is limited to the Pokémon Centers. For me, this would mean a 2-hour trip to Tokyo, when in reality, Pocket Monsters Green was more what I wanted anyway. Also, while most convenience stores in Japan are selling the games as a simple download code on a card, several retail stores have boxed versions of the card.
The boxed version of Pocket Monsters Blue comes with the normal download code card, but also a box designed with the original artwork from the Game Boy release. The box itself is an exact replica of the original, other than minor changes to the front and back where “Download Code Version” was added in Japanese. The box’s size is so perfect that you can actually take the instruction manual and cardboard casing from an original Pokémon game and put it inside. This could be an interesting alternative for people like me who have the original games, but not the box. Inside the box, there is a fold-out town map, a sticker set, and a magnet with the front of the original cartridge on it. When placed side by side with the original, you can see that the magnet is an exact replica in shape and art, which is a really cool thing to have. The amazing part is that all this comes in at only about 100 yen, (a little less than a dollar) more than just buying the code by itself!
The 2DS comes with the game pre-installed to the hardware, as well as the fold-out town map, the sticker sheet, a code to get a 2DS menu theme, and a code to get Mew in the current Generation VI games. I was slightly sad that it didn’t come with the cartridge magnet that was in the boxed version, as that was easily the coolest part. Still, it’s a pretty complete set of items for a download game, and the only way these could have been better is with the original instruction manual. However, I did find that the Pokémon Green menu theme was a wonderful addition, as it balances well and sounds great. Some themes have music to them that just grates on you after a while, but this one has a charming Game Boy era Pokémon song that will get stuck in your head.
The 2DS itself comes with an A/C adapter, which is actually a little surprising for Japan. Living here long enough and going to the recycle stores’ large bins full of A/C adapters, it makes sense that Nintendo doesn’t include them in some of their “upgrade” models. The 2DS system is surprisingly beautiful with its translucent, dark green shell. Unlike other clear plastic gaming devices, this one has just enough opaqueness to the plastic to give it depth and color. The result is easily one of the most stunningly sharp, clean, and gorgeous systems Nintendo has ever made. Make no mistake, though, this plastic is tough and durable with a nice texture that makes it kid-friendly. You won’t have to worry too much about fingerprints or scratches with this system.
The most impressive part of all this is actually the games themselves and the new features Nintendo put into them. In a move that once seemed highly unlikely, Nintendo actually devised a system to emulate the Game Boy link cable wirelessly within the 3DS Virtual Console software. This allows users to make a room and link up the way they would in a modern Pokémon game, and then interact the old-fashioned way in the classic Cable Club room. Furthermore, when Pokémon Sun and Moon are released later this year, Nintendo has confirmed that the Pokémon Bank software will be able to import Pokémon from these Virtual Console versions. Never in the 20-year history of Pokémon has there been a way to transfer Pokémon from Generation I or II into the modern games.
There are a few minor downsides to all of this, though. For one, because of these transfer abilities, Nintendo had to remove the save state feature that is used in all the other VC games. If they hadn’t, people would be able to easily clone their Pokémon by sending them to another game and then reloading the previous save state. Another downside, which I expected, is that these games and the 2DS system are region-locked. Unfortunately, the original Game Boy versions of the games couldn’t handle trade between regions due to limitations with Japanese and English letter systems. When releasing the games on the VC, these limitations were left intact, as it would require heavy edits to the original games’ coding. The plus side of this for fans is that the lack of edits means glitches like Mew and the infamous MissingNo are still in the game. My own theory is that Nintendo will design Pokémon Bank to somehow detect and safely import a MissingNo into Pokémon Sun and Moon, which will become a major plot point. Then again, maybe not.
Lastly, I’d like to leave you with a few tricks that might make the game a little more nostalgic for you. When starting the game, it normally comes up in a slightly pixel-stretched mode that fills the height of the screen. If you’re playing Red, Green, or Blue, the game will be in a monochrome grey, while the Yellow version will come up in Game Boy Color mode. On all the games (and all Game Boy/Color games), if you press and hold either Start or Select before loading the game, it will switch to a mode that creates a Game Boy border around the game, and sizes the screen to where it matches pixel-by-pixel. If you’re playing in 3D (not possible on the 2DS), it will actually move the screen slightly inset from the border, giving it the same depth of the original Game Boy screen. Also, for the monochrome Game Boy games, if you hold down L+R, then press Y, you can switch between the Game Boy Pocket grey and the original Game Boy yellow/green monochrome. Combined with the border, this is extremely nostalgic, and looks very sharp, though somewhat small.
If you’d like to see a video of my unboxing these two games, you can check it out here. Also, I’ve made a video detailing some fun stories behind my Pokémon game collection, which you can also check out here. Feel free to comment on what your first Pokémon game and starting Pokémon were, and keep enjoying Pokémon!