“Do We All Live in a Pokémon World?”
By Joseph “Maniac” Cirillo III
As someone who was a child of the 1990s and owned the first model Nintendo Game Boy, I was well aware of Pokémon Fever as soon as it swept through the United States. While I never owned my own copy of any of the Pokémon games back in the day, I will admit to watching the dubbed anime series when it was on the WB Kids broadcast block and enjoying it quite a lot more than I was willing to admit at the time. I don’t know if they simply aired it at the right time, or it was on the right channel, but the more I watched it, the more I got into it. I thought the first season of the show, while they embellished and extended a few things for the purposes of television and for meeting episode quotas, was a fantastic adaptation of what was in the first generation games.
However, it was my friends that were the ones that were playing it, and they were sure playing it a lot. A Game Boy was as ubiquitous a tool my schoolmates would bring to school as kids would nowadays bring their cell phones. As far as I can remember, the only game they played together was Pokémon. I can’t tell you how many lunches I can recall in high school where I would just sit and watch my friends connect their Game Boys with a link cable (anyone remember those?). That’s what our lunches were like. They would eat, link their Game Boys, and battle and trade their Pokémon. That was just my first exposure to the beloved franchise, but as you can tell it left an indelible mark on me that can’t be forgotten even after fifteen years.
For those of you who need a little history on this game if you’re unfamiliar with it, Pokémon was a game series created by Satoshi Tajiri. It was released in the late 90s by Nintendo for the original Game Boy. In it, you play as the Pokémon Trainer, a young boy with the intention to be, well to put it simply, the very best like no one ever was. To do that, he catches and trains Pokémon he finds in the wild and uses them to battle other trainers. Pokémon, short for Pocket Monsters, are creatures that inhabit the game’s world and are made up of everything non humanoid. They can be animals, rocks, bugs, ghosts, fish, robots and a bunch more I can’t even describe. Armed with his trained Pokémon, he travels across the game world from town to town challenging the best Pokémon Masters in each town at the town’s gym. If he can defeat the Town’s Gym Leader he will earn a badge. If a trainer can earn all eight badges offered in a specific region, he is deemed worthy to challenge the region’s final Pokémon Masters, called The Elite Four, and the current Pokémon League Champion in succession to win the game and earn the title of Grand Pokémon Master.
Since the original games were released, many new Pokémon games have shipped over the years and saw commercial success. While the platforms they have appeared on have changed as Nintendo released newer hardware, the game’s spirit remained and they are still some of the biggest selling games in Nintendo’s library. It has become clear that Pokémon, with its wide appeal across tons of different mediums ranging from animated movies, toys, collectible trading cards, printed manga and a TV show is one of the most successful gaming franchises in the world.
With the release of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire to the Nintendo 3DS last year, the Pokémon ‘Bridged Series, the AWESOME movie review series by the dude formerly known as That Dude in the Suede (now known simply as Suede), or the Pokémon Rusty series on dorkly.com, Pokémania is back in full effect again! But what is it that has made this series so popular and helped it to endure for so long?
I think what really drew me in to the game was the world that the Pokémon Trainer inhabited, and perhaps that’s what also drew me into the anime. It wasn’t like traditional RPGs of the day which would take place in a fantasy world or far in the past. The game’s world was almost exactly like ours was, only with Pokémon in it, and that made it a lot cooler. I’m a huge techie, and it was great to see the technological advances this game world had due to the accomplishments possible by these fantastic creatures. It was also a unique game world. Most games at the time went for either a purely mythical world with little real world logic, or a wholely futuristic world with technology far beyond what we would be capable of in my lifetime. Pokémon’s grounded world with a modern-day setting stood out.
For the rest of the article I’ll call the Pokémon Trainer by the name Ash for simplicity’s sake. I know this is a bit controversial, as he had a different name in the original Japanese version of the game, is referred to as Trainer Red in later games, and could be named anything the player chose if you didn’t like the default names. Since Ash is the name he’s most known as in the North American region I’ll call him Ash.
So, if Pokémon’s world is exactly like ours, just how does it function and why do gamers enjoy visiting it so much? It works because Pokémon completely drive the game world’s economy. Everything revolves around the capture, training, breeding, and battling of Pokémon.
First, lets talk a little bit about how the government seems to function in the game world, or at least how government programs would affect regular people. When you look at all the in-game resources offered to players in the game’s world, Pokémon Trainers seem to have almost socialist-level of government assistance at their disposal. With that said, we never really see a government in the game, just plenty of things that could be credited to government creation. Before I go further I just want to preface this with the notice I’m making no comments whatsoever about the merits or problems with socialism here, I’m just trying to figure out how a fictional game’s world functions.
The schools we find early in the game teach young students all about Pokémon. You can walk into any school-house, take a look at a book or talk to the students and get some great trainer’s tips. It works well as a great way to give game tips early on to the player, but it begs the question what purpose would it serve to teach all these school children about the little creatures that live in the grass unless the entire game’s world revolves around Pokémon, and people living in this world would need to be well-versed with them in order to be successful in their lives, even if they weren’t planning to become Pokémon Trainers. While we in reality have classes that teach us about the biology of animals, unless a person has a pet or plans to become a veterinarian, it’s not essential information. In Pokémon, their classrooms are full of lesson plans that teach the possible status effects that Pokémon can receive and how to properly treat them. This information is essential for the player to know in order to do well in the game’s later areas, but there must be a major demand for this information to be known by ALL young people to have it be taught in schools so consistently.
Pokémon Centers exist in every town in the game world. In it, the Pokémon Trainer has access to a health center and can heal all the Pokémon they have on them at the time. They also have access to a computer system linked to the world’s web, and can access other computers remotely, like their own at home. This computer access allows the player to move Pokémon or in-game items into data, and data back into physical resources. You can also join the “cable club” which is a cute way for the game to give you access to the link cable so you can trade or battle Pokémon with your friends who have the game on their own Game Boys. By the way, this is all provided to any Pokémon Trainer free of charge.
The closest thing I could compare a Pokémon Center to in the real world was probably a library. There’s a library in almost every town, just like a Pokémon Center. In a library, citizens are provided with free access to books, magazines, media, and in the more recent years computer access. Who pays for all this? Well, the government does, in our world at least. It would be reasonable to assume that Pokémon Centers are able to operate in the game because of subsides by the Pokémon Universe’s government.
However, the Pokémon world is not some socialist people’s republic. The game’s world must have a successful capitalist economy. There are major corporations which became so successful due to their manufacture of major Pokémon goods. Bookshelves are crammed full of books that somebody would have had to write, print and publish. The TV channels air programs that are entirely Pokémon-centric, along with movies that could possibly have been based on books by Steven King. But major companies aren’t all that’s out there, this is a great world for small businesses too. Small, independently operated convenience stores called Poké Marts can be found in every town!
The Pokémon world also has appreciation of art, history and culture. Museums operate across the land and they can be visited by Pokémon Trainers, school children, scientists, and civilians alike. The museums can focus on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the history of the land you’re in, the Pokémon who inhabit it, or the rare elements you’ll be able to find while there. The goal of these museums are to fill the player in on the land’s unique history, and prepare Pokémon Trainers for what’s ahead. Some in-game museums could be government funded, and may allow you to visit for free or just a small one-time donation, but not all of them are. It’s great that even privately owned museums are able to flourish in the Pokémon world’s economy.
The Pokémon book printing industry must be very lucrative in this game world, as there are tons of books that have been written about Pokémon. Take a look at any bookshelf and it will tell you that it’s “crammed full with Pokémon books”. If EVERY person’s bookshelf and every school was full of books on Pokémon, that would mean that the print media was completely Pokémon-centric. The popularity of Pokémon in this world must be either extremely lucrative for the book industry, or Pokémon were so popular in the game world, it was the ONLY content you could find books on. As a writer, I would have loved to actually read some long-form books on this world’s history and culture in this world. Plenty of RPGs contain books that the player can read which tell the history of the game’s world. In Pokémon, most books, if you can read them at all, read like in-universe textbooks and serve to give player tips. This could have been due to space limitations in the game cart, so I should probably let that slide.
On a side note, not all media is Pokémon-centric in the game world. The movie “Stand by Me” seems to exist in this universe. In the first generation games, when you take a look at the first in-game TV, Ash makes a comment that there’s a movie playing on it with four boys walking along train tracks. Ash took it as a sign he should get going. If that isn’t the movie “Stand by Me” I don’t know what it could be.
However, the in-game Pokémon commercialism doesn’t just stop at books. All stores in the game world exclusively sell items for Pokémon Trainers. Go into any Pokémon Mart and find tons of different supplies to help you in your journey. PokéBalls, potions, and cures for various status effects are readily in stock at every store across the land. Where people in our world will go to a convenience store to buy a soda and some chips, in the Pokémon world they’re essential stops for all the supplies you’ll need when traveling from town to town.
A Poké Mart’s interior looks almost identical to a convenience store in our world. Since there is a Poké Mart in every town selling these wares, it must be very financially beneficial to the game world’s economy to sell these items. In fact, they’re so successful there are people who wander the countryside doing promotion for these Pokémon Marts! You’ll usually find them giving away free samples. That’s less common to find here in the US, but there are stores located in heavily trafficked metropolitan locations that would station employees outside the store to encourage potential customers walking around to enter the business and shop inside.
Later games would start to integrate Poké Marts inside of Pokémon Centers. While this was likely done as a practical matter from both a game design and gameplay perspective, this merger could have been met with earth-shattering ramifications from an in-universe perspective. It could be argued Pokémon Centers represented public interests while Poké Marts represented private commercial interests. If a privately owned company is now operating inside a public building, could this represent a possible government takeover of a private industry? Well, that’s one way to look at it but I think this was more of a practical decision made by a private company to saving costs. Private businesses are allowed to operate in public buildings, as long as they obtain permission to do so. Knowing that their potential customers would be the same people who would frequent a Pokémon Center, business owners could have made the decision to open new stores inside those locations. This would save the businesses a lot of money in having to build and maintain new locations, and guarantee customer traffic. In return, Pokémon Centers could finally begin to generate income in the form of rental fees from the Poké Mart, which could contribute to maintenance and upkeep costs. This would be a win-win for both public and private interests!
Almost every town also has a Pokémon Gym. They look pretty similar to the gyms we have here in the real world. In the animated show, they are depicted as big open indoor areas featuring a large floor space. The Pokémon Gym’s floor would have similar markings on it to what you would find on a real-world gym floor or sports arena. Each Pokémon Gym has a Gym Leader, and the appearance of the Gym would be totally up to them. For example, if they preferred water type Pokémon, their Gym floor could look more like an olympic-regulation pool instead of a basketball court. The only difference is that this area would be where giant creatures could battle each other opposed to human beings.
This was a whole new way to look at athletic competition, and in something called a Gym no less. Instead of athletes being judged by their own physical attributes while battling each other, they’re judged by the merits of creatures that they have trained. On top of that Ash does have some kind of physical connection with the Pokémon he uses in battle, as he will faint if all his Pokémon are defeated.
Just like in reality, there are even issues with crime in the Pokémon world. Yes, we’re going to talk about the most loveable of rogues, Team Rocket. By all accounts, Jessie and James should be arrested immediately on sight and probably charged with a laundry list of crimes against humanity, but they’re so completely incompetent at the bad things they want to do, they either fail miserably at their goals at the best of times or end up helping Ash complete his goals at the worst of times. Team Rocket’s leader is Giovanni, and he is revealed to be the mysterious Gym Leader of the Viridian City Gym, who very rarely runs it. Giovanni is clearly a caricature of a mob boss for organized crime. That would make Team Rocket mirror a crime organization, and here in the real world the mob was a major problem. You don’t have to look too far back in our history to read about the exploits of men like Al Capone and how successful they were up until they were convicted.
Fortunately, crime is not allowed to run completely rampant in Pokémon. The fact that Officer Jenny exists means there must be a police force, and the police must be doing a very good job in the Pokémon world. Other than the problem of Team Rocket, there’s very little crime going on. In a capitalist economy you could easily imagine that desperate individuals could try to rob Poké Marts, especially if the goods they sell are so valuable, but I don’t remember seeing anything like that happen in the game. Even gambling is allowed. The closest stretch to other crime I could imagine would be other trainers ambushing you in caves or forests and challenging Ash to a battle. This could be interpreted as a random assault and mugging, especially if you lose. But a random trainer challenge didn’t seem much like a crime to me, and more like what my friends would do over lunch. It could be something quite socially accepted in the game’s world as well.
I also want to talk a little bit about the Pokédex, which I first saw in the animated show. The Pokédex was a little handheld device that stored a full encyclopedia entry on every creature in the game’s world. Now, all jokes (and internet memes) aside that the foremost expert on Pokémon, who spent his entire life studying them would give you a Pokédex that was completely blank, the Pokédex is just AWESOME. In the first game the Pokédex is physically depicted as a paper encyclopedia with blank pages. This early design could have been for artistic reasons. The game’s menus treat it more electronically, and it can update itself in real-time as you catch ’em all.
In the anime the capabilities of the Pokédex were greatly expanded from what it could do in the game. It could talk to Ash and would provide all kinds of relevant information to him about the Pokémon he encountered in the game world. It also served as his Pokémon Trainer identification and license in case an Officer Jenny that didn’t know him questioned who he was or what he was doing with Pokémon. In the early version of the Pokémon animated show it looked a lot like a pocket calculator with a digital screen, speaker and similar buttons to a Game Boy. Over the years the Pokédex has been adapted to look more like a DS does than the original design from the anime, but it seems to be acknowledged that the Pokédex is actually a personal digital device.
As someone who was always fascinated by new technology when growing up, I saw what they were doing as something groundbreaking. Nowadays we wouldn’t bat an eye to people sharing a game on their handheld devices, or trading data with each other on their portables, but this was eight years before the smartphone revolution, and the early personal digital assistant devices like Palm Pilots didn’t last long in the mainstream. Portable game systems were the earliest devices I can remember to push technology, and since they play games, they immediately attracted young people who would use this as a launching pad to start a love of new technology. Nowadays, the ability to play games can define how successful a portable device can be. Part of the reason I believed the iPhone was so successful was it provided a new innovative way to play games, and some very interesting exclusive games to play on it to boot.
Now, the Pokédex is actually real. It’s the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS actually had a 3D Pokédex program that was available for free download off the Nintendo eShop. On it, you could unlock Pokédex information on all the new Pokémon introduced in the Black and White games. It was pretty in-depth for a free program and was one of the first things I downloaded onto my 3DS XL at launch. Well, now Nintendo has released the Pokédex 3D Pro for the 3DS. For $15 US, you can get a complete encyclopedia with every Pokémon on it from all of the games, effectively turning your 3DS into a Pokédex. This program’s release could be an example of real life being directed by fiction, or the new TV show’s DS style Pokédex could be the an example of life directing fiction. Either way, we have our own Pokédex now, although the 3DS application has not been updated to add the new Pokémon created for the generation six games.
It is my opinion that we do in fact all live in a Pokémon world, and that is the reason why this game series has thrived for over a decade. It spurned the conventions of most RPGs and delivered something quite fresh and unusual. We saw our own world, just a whole lot cooler.
As I wrap all of this up, I would like to take this time simply to thank Nintendo for finally offering to sell the original Pokémon games on the Nintendo eShop’s Virtual Console. While I may start purchasing all the recent Pokémon games I can still obtain for the Nintendo DS, the lack of a Game Boy Advance slot makes playing the original generation Pokémon games (the ones that I remember from my childhood) impossible on the new hardware. On top of that, the internal batteries which kept the memory intact on the original games have long since died with age, so even if players could find an original Game Boy version of one of the games to play on an early Game Boy, they wouldn’t be able to save on them. February 2016 can’t come fast enough.