Pokémon: Is This Real Life?

20 years ago Pokémon was introduced in the United States with the release of Pokémon Red and Blue.

At the time I was 15 years old and probably skewed a little old for the games target audience. (Nintendo was clearly trying to corner the 10 year old asexual Venusian subterranean crabling demographic, of which I was obviously not a part of.)  Regardless I quickly came to love the game and its concepts and have been a huge fan ever since!

The original Gameboy games were genius, entertaining, strange, and fun.

The first cartoon series was goofy, endearing, and hilarious. (Also quite a bit was lost in translation which only seemed to make it better.)

The wave of countless Pokémon merchandise which followed was impressive, of course including some great toys which I also partook of.

The Team Rocket Meowth Balloon vehicle.  Which I personally own.

My personal interest in Pokémon can be traced back to a single specific moment which I distinctly recall.  I was in my bedroom at my childhood home and was reading a magazine or comic book (most likely an X-Men title) and I turned the page to a distinctive full page ad.  On that page I saw a crowd of small impish animals clustered together while a giant cartoon net was falling down over them.  In parenthesis the phrase ‘Got ya!’ was scrawled nearby and in the bottom corner of the ad was the (now synonymous) title and phrase, ‘Pokémon: Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

I instantly found the image very intriguing and I actually remember stopping to examine the ad, which was very odd for me at the time.  As a kid when I was reading comic books the ads would, at most, get a brief aggravated eye roll as I disappointedly realized that my storyline had been interrupted.  But there I was inspecting the cartoonish designs of these unknown creatures.

At the time I had no idea what any of them were.  There was a little barking rat, a squat yellow squirrel, some sort of floating rock creature, a fire breathing dragon, an evilly grinning purple spiky thing, giant insects, a tortoise with guns on its back, and a large stoic faced teddy bear.

I immediately loved the designs and style of these things and whatever Pokémon was, I was already sold.

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Pokemon really made me appreciate the aesthetic of ‘Demented Pet Shop’ 

That image was particularly difficult to find online and I have still been unable to find a clean image of it anywhere.  Everything I can come up with is either a scan, or like the image below, a picture of the ad itself.  (It is still one of my favorite Pokémon images and I’d love to one day get a print of it to hang in my office.)

Looking it over in my youth I saw that Nintendo was listed in the small print at the bottom of the ad I realized it was a video game of some sort which was exciting, however at the time I didn’t have a console, only the handheld Gameboy.  So alas I thought I’d have to wait until a friend picked it up in order to see what it was about.  Thankfully of course, that wasn’t the case.

From there it was a whirlwind of Pokémania!

I picked up Pokémon Blue first.  However once I realized I’d have to trade between the Red version in order to follow the mandate of the game, and indeed catch them all, I wound up buying the Charizard emblazoned Red Version as well.  (And although I eventually had several friends who played the game, initially I wasn’t sure I’d find anyone who was interested.)

Soon the Pokémon cartoon was in full swing as well, which became my first real experience with anime and the various tropes and staples of that animated genre.  I found the show really zany and hilarious, I loved all the characters, and it helped to flesh out the pixelated world of the games.

For years Pokémon was steadily on my radar.

1998 – Pokémon Yellow launched, essentially combining the continuities of the cartoon and the first two games.

August 1998 – Pokémon Stadium hits the Nintendo 64.  Probably my favorite Pokémon spin-off game ever made.  Not only could you upload and battle your Pokémon with friends on glorious 3D rendered battlefields, you could also play the Gameboy games on the big screen.  All that AND there were a ton of GREAT mini games that were fun, challenging, and really quite funny.

December of that year the Pokémon card game made its way into the mix joining the other card games I geeked out with, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Magic, and then Pokémon!

1999 – Super Smash Bros. hit the scene featuring the quintessential Pokémascot Pikachu.  With whom I would regularly use to provide a Smash Bros. smack down.

November 1999 – Pokémon Gold and Silver hit the scene and a new Pokémon adventure was under way, beginning a regular pattern of Poké games which have found success and innovations to varying degrees through the years.

With the most recent Nintendo 3DS games the handheld Pokémon world has been completely rendered in 3D and fully animated.  Pokémon are traded across the globe on international servers.  And friends can talk smack directly through their 3DS, in real-time, from across the country when battling online!

It really is impressive to see how the Pokémon franchise has . . . . EVOLVED! (Get it?)

Well now we have Pokémon Go, the franchise’s first foray into the mobile gaming market.

At first glance Pokémon Go appears to be a bit of a downgrade in terms of gameplay, essentially a simplified cell phone version of the Pokémon Card Game.  However upon closer examination it is much more than that.

From my experience with Pokémon Go so far, it appears to be a real world expression of the long established Pokémon universe and the best kind of fan service.  I mean this property is now 20 years old and there are very few people, children and adults alike, who don’t at least know who Pikachu is and Pokémon Go lets you bring that world out into the real world.

Part of the enduring appeal of the Pokémon games is the universe in which the game and show take place.  Across the various islands of the setting Pokémon and Pokémon training is a prevalent way of life and a common bond which the citizens of that world actively embrace.  The Pokémon are fantastical companions, champions, and partners in that world.  In the games there are people around every corner eager to show off their favorite Pokémon and put them to the test in battle.

Throughout the adventures of the games there are clumps of NPCs waiting to square off against you and your Pokémon team.  There are ill-prepared school kids with weak little Rattatas and Caterpies that they’ve caught in the school yard.  There are construction workers in hardhats working around cities with steely Magnemite companions.  Groups of swarthy leather clad punks may try to jump you with their poison types.  Cyclists and swimmers will challenge you along the way.  Criminals, old folks, librarians, shop keepers, EVERYONE has Pokémon in the Pokéworld, and because everyone has them everyone has something in common.

It’s just one of those quaint, fun, fictional universes where any individuals who try hard and do good will win, and eventually defeat the evil shadowy organizations like Team Rocket and others who secretly work against the ideals of that world by exploiting Pokémon for their own greedy ends.

I’ve had several conversations with friends over the years that involved, in some form or another, the phrases “Wouldn’t it be great if Pokémon were real.” OR “If I could live in a video game universe, it’d be the Pokémon universe.” OR “If I could just have one actual Pokémon it would be X, Y, Z.”  And watching the show those feelings are reinforced as you see the young idealistic trainers go off and adventure across the globe.

Now let me tell you a little story about Pokémon Go.

The other night at around 10pm I was letting my dogs out (my real life Pokémon, apparently I’m a terrible trainer though because they never battle for me.) and as the puggles were sniffing around I flipped out my cell phone and switched on Pokémon Go just to see if I might catch a Weedle or Bellsprout while I stood there in the backyard watching them pee.

Looking through the game I noticed a Pokémon silhouette nearby (for those who aren’t in the know that means there was a type of Pokémon lingering around which I had not yet captured.)  Being the Pokémaster I am I immediately knew that shadowed figure was the shape of an Electabuzz, a fairly rare find and something I hadn’t even seen yet in the game.

After the dogs had completed their business I ushered them back inside and set off to find this fabled electric type Pokémon.  Although navigating the in-game radar of Pokémon Go can be a bit tricky I was able to determine that the Electabuzz seemed to be on the next street over.

So I briskly began walking down the street and around the corner.

I could see the Electabuzz footprints diminishing, meaning I was moving in the right direction and getting closer.

As I approached the darkened corner I saw two other guys on bicycles come racing toward me up the street.  They were maybe in their mid to late twenties from what I could tell and their sudden appearance put me slightly on edge.  Although there wasn’t anything necessarily threatening about them, it was 10 at night, dark, the middle of the week, and I was now outnumbered.

However before I could let my fears get the best of me one of the guys held up his cell phone and circled around the end of the street on his bike.

“You playing Pokémon?”  He called out to me cheerfully.

“I am actually!”  I said relieved.

“Are you looking for the Electabuzz too?”  He followed up.

“I am!”  I quickly replied.

Both of the cyclists chuckled and again held up their phones.  “It’s about three houses down this street!”  They informed me.

I thanked them and they rode on their merry way while I marched down the street, ran into that Electabuzz precisely where they said it would be, and captured that sumbitch right then and there!

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My Electabuzz cries himself to sleep every night because he knows he’ll never capture a gym

As I was smugly walking back to my house checking out the stats on my most recent catch I had a thought.

“That was a very Pokémon-esque interaction.”  I thought to myself.  “Just walking down the street hunting rare Pokémon, when suddenly I run into a pair of other trainers on bicycles, we have a brief encounter that sets me up for the big catch at the end.”

It was like something straight out of Pokémon Red/Blue like riding down Cycling Road or climbing the Pokétower.

“Maybe Pokémon finally is real?”  I concluded.

Well done Niantic.  Well done Nintendo.  Keep it fun fellow players.

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Friday Funny Pages: Watch Your Mouth Red

“Oh . . . . shoot!”

You’re soaring through the air holding on for your life dangling from a haphazard chain of pokemon as they desperately attempt to escape the suction of a raging typhoon below.  I’m sure if any of us were in this situation we’d have the exact same response.

I am a huge Pokemon fan.  As much as I love the various games, I think the real gem of the franchise is the cartoon series, especially the original production which was brilliantly goofy and hilarious.  I always liked that, from start to finish, Ash never really had his shit together and in many respects was a horrible trainer, as Brock and Misty would often point out.

I’m not well versed in many other anime series, or manga for that matter, but because of my huge devotion to Pokemon I long ago bought the Pokemon Adventures manga collections written by Hidenori Kusaka with art by Mato.  There are some major differences between the cartoon and the comics.  Firstly there is the whole reading flow of manga which still confuses me on occasion.  Secondly the main character Red.  Despite his general appearance Red is not Ash.  Red is not simply an alias for our pal Ash, and the storyline of the manga is pretty intricate, not just a black and white take on the show.  Taking some main points from the games and the cartoon, the comics really expand upon those familiar touchstones and blow up Pokemon into an epic saga that sees rivals uniting against a common enemy, widespread conspiracies slowly unraveled, begrudging respect earned for the main character, and an alliance of unlikely heroes brought to bear on a villain who was attempting to suppress the inherent goodness and pleasant competitive spirit of the pokemon trainer lifestyle for his own personal gain.  Oh, and it’s still goofy and amusing.  Trust me it’s pretty entertaining, and a bonus: Red doesn’t arbitrarily throw his Pikachu into every fight.  You actually get to see a much wider array of pokemon taking it to the streets then you ever do in the old cartoon.

The above image comes from Pokemon Adventures Volume 3, towards the end of the entire arch when Red, Blue (Red’s rival who is still pretty much Gary, verbatim.), and Green (an original chick trainer who is not based on any other familiar characters) find themselves in the deepest of the trouble they get into.  We can see that Red is having a time of it here.  I just think it is incredibly amusing that they decided to translate this with simply “Oh . . . . shoot!” and not just a scream, or maybe a “Hang on!”

Just “Oh shoot!”

Funny.

Anyway until next time go find the old Indigo League Pokemon series and watch through it, you won’t be disappointed.

That is all!

Test Poll: Favorite Babylon 5 Species

So I was sitting here today while my wife was watching something awful on TLC and I decided to goof around and explore some of the options on my blog.  As I poked around I came across the polling feature that is available here.  I had set up the polls awhile ago, but I’ve totally forgotten about it until now.  So bored, and interested to see how this works, I decided to give it a try and make a test poll.  So take a look below, and add your vote!

In my continuing mission to bring Babylon 5 back to the sci-fi cultural forefront I decided to throw together a B5 poll.  Just a simple opinion poll in order to determine what alien races were among the favorites for fans of the show.  Of course there are probably only about three of you out there who actually watched the series enough to even know what the hell I’m talking about, but oh well.  This is only a test anyway I just want to see how it goes.  So regardless of how familiar you are with the show, if you’ve read this post this far than just do me a favor and pick one and vote.

That is all!

Rivals Playing Chess

So I have been following the promotional campaign for X-Men First Class because the movie intrigues me.  I was initially really looking forward to this X-Men prequel, then a few details were revealed and I thought it sounded kind of goofy, then they’d reveal a few pictures from the set and I was interested again, until they would show some footage which looked questionable and then I was off the wagon once again.  This has continued for some time now until I’ve reached the point where I am now, basically feeling that this movie will simply be whatever it has become.  Obviously it doesn’t stick to the comics, and they say it doesn’t necessarily stick with the previous X-Men movie continuity but at this point I am just looking forward to seeing this movie if for no other reason than to find out if I will actually enjoy it or not.

All of that not withstanding there is one image from the various promo shots that I really like, and that’s the picture of Xavier and Magneto hunched over a table playing chess.  I like this image for several reasons; First I think it captures the Professor X/Magneto vibe pretty well, Second it harkens back to X-Men 2 (best of the X-Movies) when the two rivals are playing chess in Magneto’s plastic jail cell, and third, and most importantly, it is simply a classically composed iconic image of two great figures caught up in an epic struggle of dark vs. light.  The archetypes of the black and white knights not only physically waging war but mentally and idealistically clashing as well, are ones that can add depth to characters without having to utter a single line of dialogue.  Of course this imagery has been used countless times in every genre and medium imaginable and though it is perhaps overdone and on the verge of cliché, I want to take this time to share with you some other images of other minds coming together over the chess board.  Behold this gathering of great rivals dueling it out on the checkered field of kings!  I start you off with the previously mentioned image from X-Men First Class!

Wizards, Jedi, and Vorlons: The Golden Age of Card Games

So over the past few weeks I’ve undertaken the task of organizing my collection of various card games I currently and formerly played.  A couple of weekends ago I was sorting through my Magic cards and this weekend found me extensively organizing my Babylon 5 cards.  (If those sentences haven’t made me sound like a complete dork then just wait for the next couple.)  As I was going through my B5 cards I remembered how awesome that game was and it also reminded me why I love that show so much, but it got me thinking about a time when collectible card games were king.  A time that has come and gone, when innovation and creativity were the banners held high for such games and their creators.  A day when several giants of the card game industry roamed the earth, unlike today where a single giant lumbers along with a few lesser known shrimps riding its coattails.

I have some experience with tabletop games.  I haven’t ever really successfully played Dungeons & Dragons or anything like that, but board games like Risk and Axis and Allies are a good time, most of the Cranium games are great, and I have discovered a few lesser known games like Zombies!.  Each year my New Years Eve festivities entail alcohol mixed with many board games with my wife and my entire family.  (Good times!)

During my college years I got into HeroClix, the superhero based miniatures game where four players build teams of superheroes from the Marvel and DC universes and then battle it out across a giant game map.  HeroClix is a personal favorite of mine because it is more or less a huge game of chess, but instead of the pieces moving in different ways, the pieces have super powers and they take clicks of damage, and . . . . well, it’s better if you just play it to see what I’m saying.

An example of a HeroClix game piece. Superman is a really good one to have, just FYI.

My first loves of table games however are card games.  I started in middle school with Magic: The Gathering, of course.  When that game was first getting started it spread like wildfire!  Nearly everyone I knew was playing Magic and it really is the game that started it all as far as collectible card games go, but let us fast forward several years to a time that I consider to be the peak years of card games: 1997 – 2001 The Golden Age of Card Games!  It was during these years that my geek culture and gaming interests collided in an epic fashion.

Magic: The Gathering is neither “Magic” nor a “Gathering.” Discuss.

This period saw card games expand in scope and complexity and brought us two more big games which would join Magic at the top of the stack, the Star Wars Collectible Card Game and the Babylon 5 Collectible Card Game.  For me, being a geek and a fan of both those properties, it was a glorious time.  Magic had set up the culture of card games and with the addition of popular franchises into the mix, card games were taken to a whole new level.  Players of the Star Wars CCG could watch the Empire Strikes Back while they defiantly reworked the movie’s plot on the table before them, having the rebels successfully repel the Imperial attack on Hoth.  Babylon 5 fans did not simply follow card text and use strategy to win the games, they had to make alliances and cut deals with their fellow players if they wanted to make any headway because many of the cards in that game relied on voting and political intrigue to succeed, just as you might expect for a card game based on a television show about intergalactic space politics.  For those who remember reading Scrye magazine back in the day, you will remember these three games dominating the covers of that bimonthly publication.  And as if these three games weren’t enough this is also the era that gave us the Pokemon Trading Card Game, the Star Trek CCG, and saw the beginning of the Lord of the Rings card game.

But let’s take a moment and examine what made each of the “Big Three” card games so great.

Magic: the Gathering The King of the card games, the Duke of decks, the sovereign of shuffling . . . . you get the idea.  Magic was and still is the number one card game of all time.  It’s broad fantasy setting and ever expanding library of cards has a wide appeal.  The single pile deck, straight across layout, and simple rules make it easy to learn, understand, and play.  Magic was unleashed onto the world in 1993 and was eagerly taken up by young and old alike.  The deceptively easy rules are offset by the wide variety of cards which a master player can assemble in swift and crushing strategies.  Overall Magic has endured because its original concepts are so brilliant and concise, and because of its general fantasy vibe which can change and evolve unlike games based on various movie and TV franchises.

This is Dr. Steve Brule’s favorite card.

Star Wars CCG– The loss of this card game still brings me down.  After its release in 1995 the Star Wars CCG was a solid second place in terms of sales behind Magic.  A smooth well crafted game that effectively captured the excitement and mythology of the Star Wars movies.  Somewhat more complicated then Magic, Star Wars still pitted two players against one another in a familiar linear layout but added the brilliant touch of having the deck itself be the “life” of each player.  In Magic each player starts with 20 life points and through battling that total is whittled away.  In the Star Wars CCG however each deck must have no more than 60 cards, which are then depleted through gameplay and damage from the opponent.  The main decks were cycled through three piles on each player’s side that would ebb and flow every turn like the Force.  This game mechanic was a practical solution to the problem of the “bad shuffle.”  The crisp, clean look of this game and the exquisite attention to detail made this card game not only fun, but a true homage to the Star Wars movies.  This game at one time held such great sway with Lucas that it was allowed to name and flesh out the history of several previously unnamed characters they depicted on their cards which have gone on to have some prominence in the Star Wars EU, which I suppose is the real legacy of this game.

C-3PO was included in the initial limited edition of the Star Wars CCG

Babylon 5 CCG-The Babylon 5 CCG had the smallest audience without a doubt, but surprisingly held onto the number three spot for popular card games for quite some time during this period.  Introduced in 1997 the Babylon 5 card game did not have the highest production value.  Whereas the Star Wars card images were heavily cleaned up and digitally enhanced, the B5 game often lacked such finery and was decorated with several fuzzy and grainy images from the television show.  This however was made up for by the intricate gameplay.  It wasn’t necessarily true to say that the Babylon 5 game was complex, because the mechanics were pretty straightforward, I would instead describe it as involved and strategically demanding.  Also Babylon 5 by far had the most accoutrement accompanying the game.  To play Magic and Star Wars all you needed were the cards, but to play B5 there were a few accessories.  I suppose you could play without some of these accessories, but they helped clarify a few things.  In the game each player represented an alien ambassador from the show who was representing their species aboard the Babylon 5 station, ala a UN in space.  During the game you had to keep track of political tensions between the races which could lead to peace or war.  You had to track your factions influence and the influence of the Babylon 5 station and other races that were not playable but which could affect the game and individual factions.  It all sounds very difficult and for a first time player or someone who knows nothing about the Babylon 5 show it doubtlessly was difficult.  However this was a unique game in that it was meant to be played by more than two players, it of course could function with only two players but then things would be rather dull.  This game did a good job of keeping their card mechanics in check, unlike Magic and Star Wars which seemed to introduce some new rule or card ability with each expansion.  Babylon 5 kept true to its original game concepts while continually encouraging action through the players and their own politicizing.

The Narn were one of the more adaptable factions to play as in the B5 card game.

In 2001 this personal golden age of card games came to a screeching halt.  In 1999 Hasbro bought up Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic: The Gathering which was a big deal at the time.  Hasbro is also the manufacturer of Star Wars toys and collectibles and is the long time holder of those production rights.  In 2001 Lucasfilm decided to consolidate their merchandizing, and did not renew their contract with Decipher, the producer of the Star Wars CCG.  Instead they handed the gaming rights over to Hasbro to produce a new series of games with their newly acquired Wizards of the Coast.  None of those games however matched the level of detail and quality of the Decipher game, or matched the success of Wizards of the Coast other big seller, Magic.

Later in 2001 Warner Bros. did not renew the Babylon 5 rights with Precedence, the card games developer.  Most likely this was due to a waning lack of interest, the namesake show had reached the end of its five season story arc and the cancellation of the spinoff series, Crusade, which was unable to match the tone and scope of Babylon 5 meant there was little in the way of future expansions for the card game.  The Babylon 5 CCG slowly winked out of existence like a dying star in the night sky.

Magic is still going strong and constantly making new innovative changes to the design of the game.  The Star Wars CCG though no longer in print, still has a large fan following, typical of Star Wars fans, and boasts a sizable online player community who still produce online “virtual cards” for the game and hold tournaments.  Babylon 5 however, like the show itself, has unfortunately gradually slipped further and further away from the public eye.  Immediately after the game was cancelled there was an online fanbase that took up a movement similar to that of the Star Wars CCG, but it lacked the numbers and the momentum of that game and is, as far as I can tell, all but dead now on the web.

That’s not to say that it’s too late for a resurgence of these games!  I still play Magic occasionally, but if anyone has any interest in playing some Star Wars or Babylon 5 let me know, I’m game!  Ha!

That is all!