Through a combination of uninteresting coincidences, Pokémon has almost entirely passed me by—I’ve never played the games, seen the show, read the manga, watched the movies, or collected the cards. Last month I decided to rectify that by trying Pokémon X.
This is the third time this year that I’ve been a newcomer to a Nintendo franchise, after Fire Emblem: Awakening and Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Both of those games felt like they made conscious efforts to broaden their audiences. Pokémon X seems to do the same, although for whatever reason it hasn’t been as effective on me.
My Pokémon-playing friends say that the series’ usual tedium has been largely smoothed away in X/Y. That may be true, but every indication is that the game is still presuming more familiarity with, and affection for, the Pokémon than I actually have. For example, there are a number of small mechanical details that either go unexplained or are only mentioned in passing by random NPCs. (I had to look up what “HM” and “TM” stand for, what the difference is, and why I can’t unlearn one of them.) It’s not enough to impede my progress, but it does make me constantly wonder if I’ve missed something.
A more egregious example is the in-game celebration of Pokémon, which borders on overbearing. NPCs talk almost exclusively about Pokémon. All of the examinable objects are Pokémon-themed: bookshelves are full of Pokémon books, hutches are full of Pokémon knickknacks, and TVs show Pokémon programs. Historians study Pokémon history, scientists study Pokémon sciences, and gyms are related to Pokémon in ways that I am still trying to understand. (They’re still real gyms, right? Kind of? I mean, one of them has a rock-climbing wall…)
Pokémon are neat, but I don’t feel the same compulsion to collect them that fans do. I’m willing to accept that this is because I have no preexisting attachment to the series; if I had a Game Boy and played Red/Blue at an impressionable age, maybe my imagination would have let me project more personality onto the Pokémon. Or, if I had grown up watching the TV show, I would feel more warmly towards, say, Pikachu. As it is, though, I feel about as much attachment to the various Pokémon as I did to the similar Familiars in Ni No Kuni, which is to say: some, based on how cute or silly or useful they are, but not really that much.
In practice, this is all fine. Professor Sycamore makes a point of saying that completing the Pokédex is not the only way to become a Pokémon Master, and encourages trainers to find their own paths. Still, when I come across a debate about which Pokémon some fictional character would use, and I see the degree to which fans can ascribe significance to such a choice, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something fundamental about how to relate to these games.
All of this is not to say that I’m not enjoying myself, because I am! I’m a particular fan of the relentless cheerfulness. The RPGs I play are too often gloomy and portentous affairs, even when there are lighthearted elements mixed in; it’s refreshing to have the balance tipped the other way and see a focus on friendship and self-discovery. Everything from the music to the encounters with other trainers to the clothes shopping give the game a pleasantly saccharine quality that makes it seem strange that there are actually antagonists.
I guess I’m just a little sad knowing that I’ve missed the boat on Pokémon. Even though I’m enjoying it, I no longer have access to the fandom I might have cultivated if started when I was younger.