While bored and recovering from some wisdom teeth extraction, and having seen a marathon of films ranging from Beetlejuice to Rocky IV, I decided to replay Pokemon Red, the classic Game Boy game that I’m depressed to realize that a lot of kids nowadays have probably never actually played. Now older and more cynical, I’ve realized some things.
Pokemon, at its core, is a story about a child with an absent father who travels the world seeking validation, hoping to be the very best, the best that ever was. Like any sound person, the child decides to accomplish this goal by taking advantage of the most abundant resource in his world: slaves, or pocket monsters, as they’re politely called. This child – let’s call him Red – begins his journey in his room. He walks around and takes in the sights. There’s a PC, SNES console, TV, bed, desk, plant, and poster. Behind the poster is a hole, filled to the brim with absolutely absurd amounts of obscene pornography. Red makes a mental note to pay a visit to the His Favorite Hole if nothing in his life changes that day. Well, Red, be careful what you wish for.
He puts on his red hat and walks downstairs to find his mother, who quickly directs him to Professor Samuel Oak, the local eccentric. Know that Professor Oak begins the game by literally forgetting the name of his own grandson, Gary.
Oak is only fifty years old, lives in a small town with maybe fifteen inhabitants, and can’t remember the name of his own blood relative. Professor Oak is kind of like the Doc Brown of Pokemon: he befriends an impressionable youth, sends him on an unbelievably dangerous mission with no clear set of instructions, and kind of just stays back and waits for news of the youth’s death. And so, this feeble middle-aged man, likely stricken with the early stages of dementia, looks to you to actually name his relative, which I find hilarious because it implies that the grandson either had no name at all to begin with, like Jet Li’s character in Hero, or that you, the player, actually retconned someone’s identity, just by planting a suggestion in someone’s mind. You literally performed an inception in the first five minutes of the game.
The first five minutes of Pokemon Red
I was about eight years old when I got Pokemon Red, and so I named Gary Oak, “Fudd”, as in Elmer Fudd. I…watched a lot of Looney Tunes. Imagine my surprise when I grew older and realized I could have named him anything at all, and he would totally deserve it, because Gary Oak is an incredible asshole. An incredible asshole. The Professor presents you with a choice of three Pokemon to begin your vague journey of self-discovery. Most people chose Charmander, mainly because he was clearly the coolest, breathed fire, and evolved into a dragon. Gary, being incredibly shrewd and Machiavellian for a child, intelligently picks whatever Pokemon can beat yours. You pick fire, he picks water. You pick grass, he picks fire. You pick something, he picks nothing, and wins by virtue of accepting the existential superfluousness of it all.
Gary Oak is literally your mirrored opposite, and still he’s slightly better than you. The Godfather to your White Chicks. The PC to your Mac. The Hunger Games to your Twilight. Of course, you probably do manage to beat him the very first time – you did technically name his ass – and then set out on your adventure, much like an aspiring prostitute: with a bit of cash, a handful of balls, and no sponsor. Sooner or later, you’ll have to walk in the tall grass and battle your first wild Pokemon. If you win, they faint. Now this following point has always disturbed me about the series. What happens when Pokemon faint? In the cartoon, Ash’s Pikachu passes out and Ash personally takes him to the hospital and everything’s cool. It’s strangely dramatic for a kid’s show. In the game, however, they simply…cease to be. Your Pokemon are fine, just unconscious, but wild Pokemon just disappear. They don’t simply rest on the road, unconscious – which is pretty cruel to begin with, knocking a wild animal out and leaving it there defenseless – but their bodies disappear altogether. Therefore – stay with me here – the only reasonable explanation for this is that you, the player, walks around in tall grass, gets attacked, beats the living hell out of a Pokemon, and then feeds its carcass to your team, as sustenance, like grisly Poptarts.
Totally unrelated, but things was getting kinda dark
Extreme? Of course. But I didn’t make the rules. This has to be the only possibility, because how else is it, that when you attempt to catch a rare Pokemon, and you K.O. it by accident, it just disappears, and that’s it. You blew your one chance. That Mewtwo isn’t there anymore. You killed it. You monster.
On that subject, why is it that a Pokemon can be paralyzed and asleep and still somehow manage to burst out of a Pokeball? The answer is simple: no seriously, Pokemon is about slavery. These Pokemon don’t want to be captured so bad that even when essentially comatose, the sheer force of their will is enough to resist your balls of injustice. That magical feeling – that click that signifies a catch – is followed immediately by you naming your new pet. Probably something silly like “Your mom” or “R. Kelly”. So yeah, you finally caught that rare bastard, but right after is pretty much the “Your name is Toby!” scene from Roots.
It’s tough to see, but there’s a whip in his other hand
Eventually you arrive in your first major town, replete with its own Pokemon Gym. A Pokemon Gym is a baffling industry. It produces no tangible goods and consists of like five to six people who stand around, available at apparently all hours of the day, waiting – and yes, even relishing – the chance to crush the dreams of young people. Gyms, in a lot of ways, are the most realistic components of this whimsical world. They sustain themselves by the shady fact that after a trainer loses a battle, they “mysteriously” “drop” a chunk of their cash, which is code for, “whoever won jacks your shit and leaves”. There don’t really seem to be any banks in this universe, so an industry that thrives on basically hustling a sizable amount from a young person’s life savings when they’re already at their lowest seems inherently cruel. And if you win, all you get is a damn badge.