We’re pairing 8-bit music thematically, rather than based entirely on series. You can find this track and more Tater-Tot Tunes on YouTube! Stop by and jam to some great tunes.
Normal Happenings is proud to present The Characters That Define Us, a year long collaboration of 52+ incredible bloggers!
The great Andrew Turnwall returns! The last time we saw him around these parts, he was adding his excellent contribution to Tracking Shells. We’re so excited to have him back for this collab.
Andrew, thank you so much for sharing your amazing Pokemon memories with us!
“I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was…:”
The year was 1998. Tom Hanks was saving Private Ryan, Aerosmith didn’t wanna miss a thing, and life as my generation knew it was about to change. It all happened with those eleven words above. In September of 1998 the Pokemon anime aired for the first time in the US, and Pokemon Red & Blue launched three weeks later. The cards were becoming the hot new toy, and I’ll bet they introduced a lot of us to TCGs for the first time. It was a phenomenon.
I remember my first pack of Pokemon cards, purchased in an airport gift shop on a field trip because I suspect my dad wanted me to have something in common with the other kids. I remember watching Ash Ketchum and Pikachu form a grudging bond that grew into something more. I remember my little brother and I starting our first games together, him with Blue, me with Red. That first pokeball, hearing that theme for the first time, it was the start of something magical.
I’ll be honest with you reader, Red isn’t the only character from the world of Pokemon I took inspiration from as a kid, and still do. Whether it’s Ash and his stubborn determination, N from Pokemon Black/White and his crusade for ethical treatment of Pokemon, Lugia from Pokemon 2000 and its concern for the environment, I could go on. But Red was my gateway, my first avatar into the wide world of Pokemon, and all the great moments it would contain.
And man there were moments. You have to remember, dear reader, that this was the first game, where every Pokemon, heck the concept of Pokemon was fresh and new. It wasn’t “Oh man ANOTHER Pidgey,” it was “WHOA COOL A BIRD LETS CATCH IT.” Getting to fight Brock and Misty and everyone from the anime, taking that know-it-all Gary (Or Blue or whatever you named him) down a peg, getting creamed by the Elite Four the first time I fought them then leveling my team up and clawing my way to the end of the game…ah, memories.
Ask anyone my age who was into Pokemon about their first time through all the varied caves and their deep and abiding hatred of Zubats. Or about where to find the legendary birds, who were very much not on anything approaching a critical path in the game. Or just how powerful you felt using Mewtwo for the first time. Man psychic Pokemon were messed up types of powerful back then. This was a time when the internet was a baby, and we were all kids, and shared video game knowledge made me some lasting friends. One of them was even my best man last year. Pokemon was something that seeped into all of us. It didn’t matter who was friends with who in the world before Pokemon. If you knew the old man glitch, you were cool.
So, back to Red. Our quiet protagonist. Our training, catching, kid friendly Gordon Freeman of Kanto. He’s a bit of a blank slate isn’t he? But that doesn’t mean he’s without character. You can see it in the way the NPCs talk to him. How after every meaningful battle there are lessons to impart. How gym leaders and champions see Red, and the incredible bond he forms with his team, and are moved by it. And that resonated as a kid. That passion, and friendship, and love weren’t weird. That being the sensitive kid was a good thing. The best trainers in the world of Pokemon weren’t necessarily the ones that trained the hardest or whose Pokemon were most powerful, it was the cohesion of the team that mattered. It was a game that said know your strengths and weaknesses, work with your pokemon, trust each other, and believe in yourself.
That was a message I could get behind.
I get really bad anxiety. I get depressed. And at the age of thirty it’s something I’ve really only started to address in the last few years, mostly because I’ve made incredible friends and have an incredible wife that understand, and give me space when I need it, and comfort when I need that. They get on me for my shit, and let me know that it’s ok to feel that way, and that I’m not alone. I love them for that. But it doesn’t mean that the low points don’t come. Video games and books and card games always helped me cope. They let me escape and zen out to a place where, at least for awhile, nobody minded what I was like, especially me. I didn’t have the language to address my anxiety as a kid. I’m just barely starting to now for Heaven’s sake. But I felt something powerful in these stories, something cathartic that was fun and encouraging and that I was pretty damn good at.
I poured hour after hour into Pokemon in a way I never had in a game. I wrote in a collab about Mario Kart how that was the game that taught me how to study games, and how to learn them, and how to improve by more than rote practice. If that was the game that started the fire, Pokemon was what forged it into a skill, a weapon, something I could use in life. I remember thinking the timer had glitched when I hit a certain point. Only later did I realize that it was no longer capable of counting higher, past 255 hours. They didn’t allocate more storage space to it than that. I scoured the game for every missing ‘mon in the Pokedex. I compared with friends strategies and type weaknesses and strengths. I learned about different movesets and Pokemon that had inherently higher stats than others. I was a machine. This was, probably come to think of it, my first real obsession.
I trained and beat the Elite Four again, and again, and again, until I had a team of level 100 pokemon. I became a Pokemon Master. I was also promptly flattened by that same friend who trounced me in Mario Kart, because to this day I am ride or die for damage only moves, and stat alterations be damned. I think the lesson here is play hard, take yourself and what you do seriously, but for the love of the gods have fun. If your favorite pokemon are your favorite because they look cool, use them! If you dress weird in real life or have a unique aesthetic and aren’t afraid to NOT have a guilty pleasure, I love you for that. I’m learning that for myself. It’s been liberating.
A year or so back the bookstore I work in hosted a Pokemon TCG event. It was ostensibly for little kids, especially for kids who had never played. People who were the same age now as I was when Pokemon first graced my life. I was excited to share something I so loved with a new generation. I was nervous they wouldn’t like it like I did; nervous their parents would worry about someone my age so excited by this game. But we got a crowd, and I was thrilled to see that the love of Pokemon is alive and well.
It’s been twenty years now since Pokemon first came into my life. And I’ve played through most of them, a fair amount of the spinoffs, seen a bunch of the movies, and checked in on the anime from time to time. While much has changed, so much more has stayed the same. The world of Pokemon is still waiting for eager and excited people of all ages to find it. And every time I go back, like Narnia or Middle Earth or Hogwarts, it’s like I never left. New creatures, new enemies, new challenges, same old message. Believe. Trust. Love.
I’ve been shaped by Pokemon over the years. From Red & Blue, from Crystal, from Black & White and the First Movie and Pokemon 2000, hell from Detective Pikachu. Pokemon has been a big part of my life, especially at a time when I didn’t have many friends and spent a lot of time alone in my room. In it I saw a world where children were acknowledged as people. Where the villains were in it for the money and power, and the heroes loved animals and the environment and each other. And now that I have friends (And a steady raid group for Pokemon GO!) and am thinking about starting a family with my wife, I can’t wait to one day pass my love to my own kids.
So maybe this essay isn’t all about Red. It’s about the world he helped create. About the safe harbor he helped me find. About the skills and knowledge and beliefs that he helped me discover within myself. Red was the avatar that first properly introduced me to a new world to explore, to love, to learn. He didn’t need to speak, he didn’t need to do anything other than exist. But he gave me the tools to succeed in Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and beyond. In life. It’s poetic I think, when you find him in a cave in Pokemon Gold, and all he has to say to you is “…” and everyone still knows just what kind of fight they’re in for. Now twenty years on I can finally say, thanks for everything Red. I’ll see you again soon.
Adventure Map! *FINISHING UP!*