Pokemasochism: The quest to catch ’em all in Pokemon’s modern era

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Seven hundred and twenty.

Not 150, like the song of old. Not 251, like the last version of Pokemon I played. Seven hundred and twenty. That’s what I signed up for, though I didn’t know it at the time. “Gotta catch ’em all” has a very different meaning these days.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Pokemon, and in preparation for Pokemon Sun and Moon, which will drop this holiday season, I decided to revisit my favorite handheld franchise. I wanted to see how the Pokeverse had changed. I wanted to know what had stayed the same.

I had no idea what I was in for.

***

Six.

Six years old, and I got my first GameBoy. I can’t remember if it was for my birthday or Christmas, but it came with a copy of Pokemon Red. I liked the dragon on the cover. It looked cooler than that stupid turtle.

Back then, Pokemon seemed hard. How do you beat Brock with a fire-type as your starting Pokemon? Just how many ultra balls does it take to catch this freaking Zapdos? Why is Blue so ridiculously fast and capable of beating me to every. Single. Gym?

You only needed to coordinate with three friends to get all 150, then wait on a special event for No. 151: Mew. Three starting Pokemon, three Evee evolutions and four Pokemon that evolved via trade — strikingly simple compared to today’s cornucopia of creatures.

Here comes the old-man rant from a 25-year-old. Now, there are Pokemon that only evolve at a particular time of day while holding a specific item. There are Pokemon that only evolve when it rains. There are Pokemon that only evolve when you flip your Nintendo 3DS upside-down mid-battle and keep it that way until after the fighting’s over.

There are 53 legendary Pokemon (five from the first generation of games), 18 types of Pokemon (15 originally) and, well, 720 of the little monsters themselves. The game’s battles are in 3D now thanks to the power of Nintendo’s handhelds, and the past few generations of games include Internet capabilities that allow players to trade with and battle trainers worldwide. There’s a metagame now, and a community of competitive players who track stats, movesets and items that best accentuate each Pokemon.

Do you see it yet? Pokemon has evolved. And I, unfortunately, have not.

***

One hundred.

A hundred damn hours between Pokemon Omega Ruby and Pokemon Y, and I’m still about 250 Pokemon shy of a full Pokedex. Yes, I still stand by the red-ish colored boxes. Don’t ask me why. I just do.

Already, I know I won’t be able to finish the thing — not completely, anyway — because of event Pokemon. I can only get these during certain periods of the year, and Nintendo is only releasing one per month in 2016. That scratches a few off the list, but it doesn’t affect completing the normal Pokedex. The in-game ’Dex tracks only non-event Pokemon, so I can at least finish that if I ever figure out which of the little guys and gals I’m actually missing.

Bulbapedia, Pokemon Database and Serebii, embarrassingly, all become favorites on my iPhone because I use those sites as references so often. I look for walkthroughs on how to catch Regigigas (what?) and other legendary Pokemon, most of which are luckily available in Omega Ruby. The Global Trade System quickly becomes my best friend, and the people on there who try to trade Caterpie for Ho-oh quickly rise to the top of my hatelist.

After visiting my local GameStop on Feb. 23 and finding they are out of promotional codes for Mew, I frantically call my girlfriend to see if she can rush to one near her house. Tonight is the last night to get it, I say: The codes stop working Feb. 24. She does it. I express my eternal gratitude. I check another slot off.

***

Twenty.

Twenty years. What kind of legacy does that leave? What does that staying power mean?

Resident Evil has its 20-year anniversary in 2016. Diablo does, too. But Pokemon transcends those two because of its Everyman quality, its E-rated content and the way it’s transcended gaming. There’s the ever-popular show, the movies, the action figures, the books. Six generations of games later, the core gameplay is the same, but the way people play Pokemon is still changing and growing. Catching them all might be harder than ever, but for many, that’s what makes it all the more appealing.

You think Justin Bieber is an icon? Nah. Go to a Pokemon convention. Look at the fanfiction world dedicated to the pocket monsters. The longtail effect of Pokemon transcends the popularity of any pop star, author, sports figure or other luminary you can name.

Anyone who knows The Eagles likely knows the Pokemon name, and that goes for Future fans, too. No other brand over the past 20 years can claim that kind of generational recognition.

***

Seven hundred and ten.

That’s where I’m at now. That’s where I’ll be until next month, when Darkrai is available, from May 1-24, through GameStop promotions. My most recent catch, via the Nintendo Network, was Jirachi. It’ll take until at least Dec. 1 — right around when Sun and Moon will come out — to wrap this thing up for good.

Pokemon reflects the progress of technology and culture. The game changed because it had to: Developers created more monsters, more things to do, more regions and opponents and evolutions and types of battles. The TV series reflected these, or in many cases served as a preview for them.

Pokemon survives, and thrives, because it improves its aesthetics without compromising the core of what its users want. It innovates, first with Pokemon Stadium and Pokemon Snap, recently with Pokken Tournament and soon with Pokemon Go, a mobile game adapted to real-world Pokemon hunting. It takes a catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all,” and turns it into a marketplace. I can still hear those words to the tune of the show’s theme song. I’m sure plenty of others my age can, too.

I WANNA BE THE VERY BEST, LIKE NO ONE EVER WAS

TO CATCH THEM IS MY REAL TEST, TO TRAIN THEM IS MY CAUSE

I WILL TRAVEL ACROSS THE LA–Alright. I’m done now. Sorry.

One hundred and 94 hours and 40 minutes, from Mudkip to Jirachi. A couple hundred forum pages. About four months in the real world. That’s how long it took to get here, to 710.

And all I got was this damn shiny Clawitzer.

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