Retrogamer: An Objective Reality and a Croconaw

Cyrus is a boy with a friend named Totoro. Totoro is an animal who follows Cyrus around like a puppy, but is most assuredly not a puppy. Totoro is blue and has a tail like a dinosaur and is round and hairless and unbearably cute, as animated sprites often are. Totoro has big eyes and tiny fat fingers and sometimes Totoro squirts water from its mouth powerfully enough to knock out the dozens or hundreds of other little monsters it fights. They’re all cute too: cute bees and cute spiders (!) and adorable eagles and chickens, everything with big eyes and smiley faces. Everything is so cute it needs to be hugged and squeezed.

Cyrus and Totoro are best buddies. I’m not sure why, but they are. And their world is bright and colorful. The trees are all uniformly green and their tops are round. Humans walk around with cheery smiles. I want to like this world because Cyrus and Totoro are clearly having the best time ever, and since I’m playing as Cyrus and I chose Totoro, I should be having the best time as well. I should be having the best time ever catching them all.

There’s a problem, however. I will never catch them all. I will never find out how many there are because, ten hours in, I’m never going to play Pokémon again.

When I was in my late teens, my then-girlfriend Michelle waxed poetic about the band Tool. “They’re so good,” she said. She had long black hair and anime eyes. “You should really listen.”

As I was half in love, half in lust with her, I gave Tool a hard listen. For those unfamiliar with late-90s, early-00s rock music, Tool was popular for melding the sludgy sounds of 80s industrial with the screechy guitars of metal while retaining a kind of pop sensibility. They also made creepy videos of melting puppets on conveyor belts.

I tried to like Tool. I wanted to please Michelle and, besides, cool people liked Tool. I tried so hard to like “Numb” and “Sober,” and every album Michelle gave me. But try as I might, I hated Tool. I hated their angsty lyrics and their half-tuned guitar sound. I loathed their creepy, pretentious videos and CD inserts of mud-colored tragedy. Most of all, I hated Maynard Keenan’s voice. It was screechy and pompous and reminded me of sweat and the misery of playing right field in Little League and not understanding geometry and everything else I’ve ever hated.

That was the first time I allowed myself to hate a piece of pop culture that was “objectively” good and critically adored, if I believed in an objective universe (which I might not). Later pieces of the gestalt that have found their way into my “I don’t care if other people love it, I still think it sucks” pile includes The Lord of the Rings, Soundgarden, everything by Elton John (except Tiny Dancer), Bridesmaids, Jane Eyre and Gwen Stefani.

When I told Michelle I didn’t like it, she rolled her eyes and said, “Fine. Let’s go smoke,” and that was the end of the conversation. That’s it? It was freeing, to know my taste on something had no impact on the world.

This is a roundabout way of saying that Pokémon is the biggest time waste I’ve encountered in a long time. And that’s just fine with me.

The Pokémon series of games is about capturing monsters. That, to the best of my knowledge, is the entirety of it. Oh, there are puzzles and the battle system is dope. I love the cycling of your team based on strengths, weaknesses, and experience needs, but that’s all incidental dressing. The story, the tutorials—everything is about capturing monsters.  

In my brief journey with Pokémon SoulSilver, I encountered three or four dozen of adorable little sprites: bugs, worms, turtles, badgers, beetles, eagles, mushrooms, vampire bats, even a “bulbasaur.” There are hundreds, if not thousands, more. It’s right there in the tagline: “Gotta’ catch em all!” In all fairness, developers and marketers are hiding nothing.

In ’02, I was home from school on break and hanging out in my brother’s basement apartment with my buddy Brian. We were probably drinking, probably sneaking out the basement door to smoke.

“What do you want to do?” he asked. I had not thought much about it and said so.

“Want to watch Pokémon?”

“I thought it was a card game,” I responded. I’d heard of the card of course, though I had never picked it up. When Pokémon came out I was deeply immersed in Magic: The Gathering and had no room for another nerdy, time-consuming game. I eventually stopped playing Magic when I was in college, and I had no time or desire to replace it.

“It’s a TV show, too,” Brian said. “And now, a movie. And we should watch it.”

And watch it we did. Pokémon: The First Movie was a jaunty, oddly morose cartoon feature film. There was a bipedal-ish Pokémon named Mewtwo who was, I think, the anti-Christ, metaphorically speaking. And there was a kid with a red cap; a team of villains who were drawn with high cheekbones and revealing clothing; and there was a dark-skinned fella who looked perma-stoned. The movie was cheery and kind of funny and I had no problem watching it. Afterwards, I felt Brian’s stare.

“What?” I asked.

“Well what did you think?” He smiled and scratched the skin beneath his wispy beard.

“It was cute,” I said.

“No. What did you think? About Pokémon?”

This time I realized he wasn’t asking me what I thought of the movie. He wasn’t asking a question at all. He was doing the same thing I did every time I made someone watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What he was really saying was, “Validate me.”

And I was at a loss. I said, “Let’s watch Breakfast Club.” And we never discussed it again.

Fast-forward to 2015. Now that I’m back on the video game train, I ask Brian to loan me a Pokémon for the Nintendo Developer’s System (DS). He gives me options: new versions or old. I bring Pokémon SoulSilver home. According to cursory Wikipedia research that—deliberately not updated—it had initially been two separate games for the Gameboy and merged and updated for the DS release. This may not be a strictly accurate, but it’s good enough.

I know there’s a problem shortly after I turn it on and pick a water Pokémon because cuteness. Pokémon has cuteness in spades. I love the animation, the bright colors, the retro-futuristic homes and towns, the ridiculously cuddly-looking animals. It’s a world without identifiable illness or old age or homelessness. It’s the idyll of Earthbound without the deep cynicism and pain. I name my Croconaw Totoro and happily wander off to experience a story.

For over a week, whenever I’m on the light rail or right before bed and other downtime, I wander the map on my handheld screen, solving rudimentary puzzles and capturing well over a dozen little buddies: Vlad (a bat), Chicky (some egg-shaped creature), Murder (a rat), and Pudge (a chicken). I beat two gyms and smack around dozens of little pissants that try to step to my avatar. Little Totoro is level 20 and most of my main team is leveled to mid-teens.

But by the time I clear the second town, Azalea, the difficulty curve has spiked and I realize that I need to get my guys competitive. It will take a little grinding, but afterwards I’ll be ready for the next town and the next showdown with my nemesis, Teo. He almost beat me with his little grass monster and a couple nobodies leveled to 18. Those few levels were the whole reason for challenge. Time to grind. An hour passes before I’m satisfied.

When I succeeded in leveling all my buddies, it occurred to me that I was only ten hours into the game and had spent over 10 percent of that time grinding. I’m not opposed to grinding in theory; I spent dozens of hours doing the same in Final Fantasy VII to beat Ruby Weapon. I’d spent even more hours beating the main boss in Paladin’s Quest on the SNES. When I was in my teens, I must have spent a hundred hours wandering the dinosaur forest leveling mindlessly until I wondered why I was doing it. If there was a reason, and if I was using my time effectively.

After that first hour of grinding in Pokémon, I had a revelation: Why? Why was my nemesis my nemesis? Why was I even wandering around? And who was I, anyway? What exactly do I need more Pokémon for? I like my 6-monster team. But maybe they’re not that good. Should I swap more out? How am I supposed to know? And do I need to level them all?

Those is daunting, existential shit. I have enough of that in my life. I don’t need it in my games. And on a pure mechanics level, my guys take several hundred exp to raise levels. Wild Pokémon give 30 experience points. That’s a lot of grinding. And again, why am I even doing it? Am I enjoying myself?

There’s, like, ten million versions of Pokémon. It’s sold millions of copies. There are half-a-dozen movies about it, and a television show. The gear is everywhere. I played for ten hours because there had to be something there, some quality. Sometimes three billion smokers are right. Sometimes, Nirvana is #1 on the Billboard charts and everything is peaceful and right in the world. Sometimes Tool fans know what they’re talking about.

Here’s the thing, Pokémon is awesome. It’s perfectly designed. The ultra-obsessed collectible-hunter will never put this down. Pokémon hide in grass, under boulders, in trees, in houses—everywhere. You just have to check everything if you want ‘em all.

And the game is deep, complex. There are hundreds of abilities, monsters in the triple-digits, an online something which I couldn’t bring myself to explore, items out the wazoo, scads of secrets and hidden areas. The combinations that you can put together seem limitless. It’s a perfect game in a lot of respects. And it’s brilliant in an insidiously Pavlovian way.

But here’s the other thing. It might be perfect, but it’s not for me. Why? It’s the same reason why I’ll always maintain that the Rolling Stones are unlistenable. They offer the kind of fun I don’t want. Culture is about taste and to me, Pokémon tastes like the underside of a shoe. A designer shoe, yeah, but it still tastes like shit.

In the late ’90s, I adopted a feral kitten, an orange ball of fur I named G-Money. And for a short time, everything was bliss. But because life isn’t fair, our little kitten died six months later. I buried him in the backyard by myself. Later, I poured beer on his grave because he would have wanted it that way.

Around the same time, I played Monster Rancher 2 on the PSOne, because I thought it was Pokémon. And that game is no less a grind, but it’s different. You raise your little creature from birth. You train them and give them treats and yes, make them fight other monsters. Sometimes they get injured, and they all die eventually. When I beat that game, it was joyous, and then a month later my little G-Money died.

When my Monster Rancher pet died, I felt a little twinge that reminded me of my cat. In Pokémon, I felt nothing for little Totoro. It wasn’t the same. That’s not Totoro’s fault, or Pokémon’s, but it’s indicative of a missing connection, a missing heart. That the game was good—great even—was entirely beside the point. It offered something I didn’t want and lacked something I needed.

Quality guarantees nothing.

I don’t care that the Rolling Stones are arguably the GOAT. I don’t care that Tool is critically acclaimed. I can acknowledge the craft and still be uninterested. Pokémon is great for people named Not-Me. And I’m fine with it. I am liberated from caring.

In the world of Pokémon SoulSilver, I played as a boy named Cyrus and got a best friend Pokémon because of a reason I couldn’t decipher. And there’s a boy named Teo who stole another Pokémon because evil? I’m not sure. A good story might have coaxed a couple more dozen hours from me, especially if I could have power-gamed to get to the end. But I had no incentive to continue besides catching them all. What would I do once I caught them? I collect lots of dumb things I don’t need; I don’t need my lunchbox collection and I certainly don’t need my vintage Star Wars collection. But I could sell them or set up Luke and Leia in compromising positions and giggle. What can I do with a hundred pieces of data in a game I’m bored by?

Shut them all off, I suppose.