You Can’t Go Back

[Author’s Note: This was originally written as a personal essay for one of my uni classes. Originally written May 2016, minor edits]

 

Preamble

“[Nostalgia] is a compound word, consisting of nostos (return) and algos (pain).”

– Sedikides et al., Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future

Pokémon was everywhere when I was a kid. It was on early morning TV, kids squabbled over trading cards in the playground. I don’t remember ever seeing a kid playing the games on a Gameboy, the handheld system that Pokémon helped sell with its first releases. Pokémon is one of the highest selling video game franchises to this day. Before Angry Birds and Minecraft, Pokémon was the killer app of the late 90s. Every kid was playing Pokémon in 1999.

Not me though. I only picked up a Pokémon game in my adult life. The reason for this is simple. I never had a Gameboy or the other gaming systems that Pokémon was on. Could I have saved up and purchased one? Sure, but I was never very frugal with my money and other things interested me more. Besides, I had a Microsoft Xbox. I was into gaming but I was in the wrong ecosystem for Pokémon.

But, last year when I had some money saved I finally took the plunge and bought a Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS is the current successor to the Gameboy of the late 90s and is the system for the most current games of the Pokémon series. Pokémon releases two ‘versions’ of their games each time they release a new game. The reason given for this is that there are exclusive Pokémon, the catchable creatures that give the game its namesake, on each version and the intention is that the two versions encourage sociability via trading Pokémon between games.

So, I bought Pokémon X, the most current game in the series released in 2013. Pokémon X and its companion game Pokémon Y are seen as spiritual successors to the original Pokémon games, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue. Excellent place for a newbie to jump on board. Pokémon X and Y have a few things that distinguish them from those that came before though. Games in the series up to that point had featured 2D graphics. X and Y were the first in the series to feature 3D graphics. They also allowed you to level up your group of 6 Pokémon at the same time instead of prior games where you could only level up one or two at any given time.

After playing these new games I became enthralled with the games and sought out a larger Pokémon community. The most active parts of the Pokémon community I’ve found tend to be people around 20 to 30. Soon after finding my community I stumbled upon a particular mindset that was common in the community. There were those who professed that the original games were the best and everything after them was a slow decline. There were no good Pokémon designs beyond the 151 included in the first game.

This mindset was infuriating to me. How could these people not see? The old games were fine for their time but had not aged well. The new games were objectively better in every way. The old games, while revolutionary in their time, were a broken mess of programming. It was just blind nostalgia, surely? I devised a plan. The first games have since been re-released on modern hardware. I was going to play the original games, document my findings and show definitively that the games didn’t hold up.

 

Pallet Town

“Nostalgia – longing for the past – is intoxication, a cloying elixir, and a romance with one’s own fantasy. Despite derision and peril trailing the expression, nostalgia persists.”

– Jennifer Kitson and Kevin McHugh, Historic enchantments – materializing nostalgia

So, I boot up the game, ready to tear it a figurative new one. The music starts. Oh man, the music. I will grant the original games this one point. Those opening chords rendered in the simple robotic chimes of the original Gameboy’s limited soundscape were pretty bloody iconic. In some way the original music sticks in my head more than the current orchestral tones of the current series. Damn you, original Pokémon fans you’ve got that one on me!

Now into the game proper. I choose my name. Notably, I don’t get to pick my gender, a feature that was added in later games. The default protagonist is a 10-year-old boy going on his very first adventure. The premise of Pokémon is thus: You are a 10-year-old child who upon turning 10 is given their very first Pokémon. This Pokémon is your companion on your journey to travel the land, a game world roughly the size of Melbourne, and use you Pokémon to fight and capture other Pokémon in an attempt to become the strongest trainer in the land.

I begin my journey in the character’s home town of Pallet Town. I pick my first Pokémon, the one that accompany me on my quest. I pick Charmander. Charmander is a fire salamander. I name it Carmen. You can name all of your Pokémon. I don’t tend to think about what I call my Pokémon but naming them makes them more real. Each Pokémon has one of 15 types. These types exist in a sort of Rock-Paper-Scissors system. Pokémon of a particular type are weak against some types and strong against others. Carmen and I set off from Pallet ready to beat up as many other animals as possible in order to get stronger and win the game.

 

Viridian Forest

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The origin of Pokémon is an interesting one to look at with nostalgia in mind. One of the creators of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, used to catch bugs in his youth. He did this in the forests near his hometown. In the years since then rapid industrialisation meant the disappearance of the forests near his home town. The forests of his youth were gone. All he had were memories of bug catching. Years later he saw some kids playing on their Gameboys connected by a cable for playing with friends. He imagined bugs travelling through the wires and thus, Pokémon was born. Now millions of people have the same nostalgia for catching creatures in a forest, albeit a virtual one.

Our first stop is Viridian Forest. Viridian Forest has birds, bugs, and mice. Of particular note is the mouse Pikachu. Pikachu is the mascot of Pokémon. He has yellow fur, red cheeks and long point ears. Pikachu looks particularly huggable. Pikachu is everywhere. He’s on the kid’s cartoon show, he’s in every ad for the games, he’s on all the merchandise, he’s got his own spin-off game where he’s a detective, and he’s even in the goddamn Macy’s Day parade every year. There’s just something about this marketable face that annoys the hell out of me. I don’t like Pikachu. I despise it. And now, I have to catch one.

I have to catch one because I know what bosses are coming up. The second boss, in Cerulean City, has water Pokémon. Carmen, my fire type salamander, is weak to water. However, Pikachu is an Electric type. Electric is strong against Water. With so few Pokémon before that boss Pikachu is the only one I can catch to help me fight my way through it. So, I find a Pikachu and fight it enough that it becomes weak. Then I throw one of my capture devices at it. This is my only chance to catch a Pikachu because once I leave an area I can’t go back. The game keeps pushing me forward. I catch Pikachu first try.

This Pikachu needs a name. I’m going to get rid of it after Cerulean City. I look at my letter count. 10 letters, just enough for my idea. Later games could detect when you had named your Pokémon something dirty. Not these games though. I name it ‘Fucknugget’. Petty, but satisfying revenge for being saddling with this Pokémon.

 

Pewter City

“We are reminded thus that nostos is not home, but homecoming, and nostalgia by this etymology is not a yearning for home, but for homecoming”

– Leswin Laubscher, Of Odysseus and Abraham: Nostalgia, Heimweë, and the Ways (of) Home

Nostalgia was first described in the Odyssey and was linked to the idea of homecoming. The idea of return. However, the melancholy of nostalgia is seeing what was lost along the way to the present. Recently I returned to the site of my old high school. It’s all been pulled down now. The campus has moved on. I spent some time walking the old grounds, trying to recall where the old buildings used to be. Trying to find where my memories existed in the real world. The places were gone. All I had were the memories now. My unreliable memory was the only record of those moments. The stories would be repeated, and shifted to their most essential form and something would be lost. Perhaps nostalgia is about returning to preserve the past. The past that can never truly be returned to.

I arrive in Pewter City, town of the first boss. I’ve spent some extra time fighting other Pokémon to get more experience. This process of defeating lots of low level enemies is known as ‘grinding’ and because of the generally easier nature of the later games this largely isn’t involved in the newer versions of the game. I level up my Charmander enough for it to transform into its next stage, Charmeleon. Most Pokémon have one or two of these transformations. Despite being more of a metamorphosis, they’re called evolutions and they’re an integral part of the games because when a Pokémon evolves it gets much stronger.

Now onto the first boss. I heal up my Pokémon and head to face the boss, Brock. Brock has Rock type Pokémon. I knew the bosses would be a hard match but I had a plan. My Charmeleon is weak to Rock types, but it’s strong enough after its evolution to overcome that weakness. I claw my way to victory against Brock and continue on my path. I head towards Cerulean City and the true early game challenge, Misty the Water type boss.

 

Cerulean City

“Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in”

– Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Here it was. The moment I had prepared for. The reason I caught Fucknugget the Pikachu in Viridian Forest. My biggest challenge with my Fire type companion, the Water type boss, Misty. I’m ready to face her. I quickly dispatch her minions and make my way to her. Her first Pokémon is about equally level with Fucknugget. I strike with an Electric attack. It takes me a couple hits but I defeat her first beast with relative ease. Now onto to the second. The more powerful one.

I use my Electric attacks against Misty’s Pokémon. To my surprise it hardly makes a dent in its health bar. It comes at me with a Psychic attack, a beam of energy directed at my little Fucknugget. Of course, this Pokémon of her has a second type, Psychic. I had no idea. Psychic is overpowered in the first games. She hits Fucknugget and he goes down. I use some of my weaker Pokémon. I have some Bug type Pokémon that I caught along the way. Bug is strong against Psychic. But all my Bugs are way too weak and don’t know any strong Bug moves. They’re quickly dispatched by Misty’s Psychic attacks.

I have one Pokémon left. My Charmeleon, Carmen. I didn’t want to have to use Carmen but fate forced my hand. I bring Carmen out, hoping that a couple good strikes will finish her Pokémon off. No such luck. She strikes with a Water move and it’s all over. I retreat and lick my wounds. I’m not going to let this game beat me. I go back down the path and try some more grinding. It’s tedious but I level up my Pikachu and my Bugs. The bug Pokémon are still under levelled but hopefully Fucknugget is all I’ll need. Nope, I’m spat right back out again, defeated.

I quit. I can’t beat this game. This game was designed for 10 year olds and I’m struggling with it. 10 year olds have more time to master the game I guess. I’ve got other, better, newer games that I can play instead. Those older fans might find returning to the past slightly easier but for me, the future awaits. I’m just going to wait for the next games in the series that are coming out at the end of this year. Best to leave this game to the past.

 

Epilogue

So, it looks like I set out to do what I wanted. I wanted to prove that the old games aren’t so great and I was proven right and yet, there is something of merit in these games. Since the games were released I’ve seen tonnes of community posts about old fans wanting to try the new games because the re-releases of old games prompted them to get new hardware. The simplistic twangs of the games original music had me nostalgic for a game I had never played. Perhaps there is something to the simple charm of these games. Perhaps there was something I missed in my furious anger. After all, these original games difficulty did leave me with a story to tell. The story of my playthrough of my first Pokémon game isn’t quite as entertaining as this because there was no challenge that I had to overcome like Misty. It was because of the challenge that I had a story to tell. The sequels are still far superior games but perhaps there’s space for both worlds in the community.

As for nostalgia, through my hunting I found so many fascinating studies of nostalgia. Psychologists wanting to know how the brain created nostalgia, linguists tracing nostalgia to the homecoming of Odysseus, marketers wanting to know if nostalgia affected purchasing of products. The most alluring idea of nostalgia was the return-pain at the root of its name. Nostalgia is the desire to return, but the pain of being unable to truly return to the past. The great tragedy of humanity I guess. Time marches on and so must we. We can’t go back.

 

Bibliography

  1. Batcho, K 2013, ‘Nostalgia: The bittersweet history of a psychological concept’, History Of Psychology, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 165-176, Available from: 10.1037/a0032427 [29 May 2016]
  1. Fitzgerald, F 1925, The Great Gatsby, 3rd edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York
  1. Kitson, J & McHugh, K 2015, ‘Historic enchantments – materializing nostalgia’ Cultural Geographies, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 487-508, Available from: 10.1177/1474474014549946 [29 May 2016]
  1. Laubscher, L 2012, ‘Of Odysseus and Abraham: Nostalgia, Heimweë, and the Ways (of) Home’, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 214-224, Available from: DOI: 10.1037/a0029077 [29 May 2016]
  1. Midnight in Paris 2011, film, Gravier Productions, New York
  1. Sedikides, C, Wildschut, T, Ardnt, J, & Routledge, C 2008, ‘Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future’, Current Directions in Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 304-7, Available from: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00595.x. [29 May 2016]

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