Wednesday marked the 23rd anniversary of Pokemon, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. The worldwide mania the first games sparked has inspired everyone from artists to preachers equating Pikachu with the devil.
And it's not hard to see why. "Pokemon Red and Green," the games which were released in the U.S. as "Pokemon Red and Blue," were designed to get players to explore and conquer the world around them with cute, lovable and sometimes downright scary creatures they could summon at will.
It's a great expression of what it's like to be a kid. Your character is always a preteen Pokemon trainer who meets an older Pokemon scientist, who charges you with exploring the world and capturing as many Pokemon as possible (for science!) while you're just happy to go on a journey.
Future Pokemon games took that formula and repeated, ad nauseum, to great success. If you're a kid playing these games, it's cool to think you've been given the responsibility to explore your surroundings and brave digital danger. If you're a teen, it's a reflection of your own soon-to-start journey after high school. And if you're an adult, it's a nostalgic trip down memory lane when things were simpler and you didn't have to scrape by after earning whatever educational degree you went to school for.
And let's face it: Pokemon games are catchy, pun fully intended. The best kind of video game design inspires you to want to explore and complete as much as you can, and Pokemon makes that relatively easy.
Here's a list of goofy-looking animals, here's a whole bunch of Pokeballs, go wild. You want to raise your Pokemon to battle other trainers? Sure, but if you want to beat the really good players around the world you're gonna need a lot of patience and math. Just want to explore the world? Here's a 40-hour adventure. You can feed your Pokemon, enter them in fashion competitions or take part in other competitions and mini-games.
That's part of the simplistic-yet-deep magic of Pokemon, and it's why I've fallen in and out of love with the franchise since I first played "Pokemon Red" on my mom's old original GameBoy.
I'm old enough to remember when you had to use a link cable, basically an early USB cable, to connect GameBoys with your friends so you can trade. And it was a blast. My friends and I in elementary school loved to play, although I don't remember battling others all that often back then. I did get to see the first Pokemon movie, "Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back," in theaters with a buddy, my first time going to a movie without family around.
It was a blast. But I got bored with it eventually, just as many players do. What surprised me, however, was how popular Pokemon would become.
In middle school, long after the initial Pokemon craze had worn off, I had friends who were still obsessed with the games, the cartoon and the trading cards. In high school, when you could trade Pokemon wirelessly via a Nintendo 3DS, I knew people who had caught 'em all, as the song went. (I was, of course, jealous of this.) And in college, I could bond with pretty much everyone over Pokemon as there were a ton of people in my classes who played.
It's just a part of the culture now. It's ingrained itself into our society. That's why Ryan Reynolds is moving past the "Deadpool" movies, the most successful R-rated superhero films ever created, to voicing Pikachu in the upcoming "Detective Pikachu" film coming out later this year. And why there are seven generations of the main Pokemon games (the eight generation games, "Pokemon Sword and Shield" are set to release this fall on the Nintendo Switch).
That's not to say it's all sunshine and roses with Pokemon. Despite the fact they're well-regarded games, the Pokemon franchise has been embroiled in plenty of controversy.
The first Pokemon cartoon series is infamous for an episode that caused epileptic seizures in more than 600 Japanese children in 1997. This is a true story and Nintendo has repeatedly been lampooned over the years because of it.
And let's face it, Pokemon gets weirder as we get older, if you think about it. You're purposefully capturing animals and forcing them to fight. Michael Vick got convicted and blackballed from the NFL for a few years for close to the same thing.
In the fifth generation main games, "Pokemon Black and White," I empathized more with the protagonist's rival than I did with my own character. In those games, your rival, N, grew up alongside other Pokemon and decides to crusade for Pokemon rights by forcing trainers to give up their Pokemon. It was weird to fight him, as the entire time I'm beating N's Pokemon up I couldn't help but think, "Dude's got a point."
Still, despite the awkward social mores and the inevitable certainty that everyone gets burned out playing Pokemon sooner or later, I'm excited for the upcoming games. It'll be fun to see how the Pokemon experience comes across on a console for the first time, rather than a handheld gaming system. And it'll be fun to take another nostalgia-filled journey across a land full of possibilities.
At the end of the day, you and I still gotta catch 'em all.