It spread like a virus. First of all it contaminated Japan, and festered like the plague there for two years, until being unleashed upon the wider world, spawning innumerable variations, rip-offs, and wannabes. It evolved even as serious-faced analysts wrote it off as a fad, branching out in tentacular, insidious style, to infect other entertainment industries - toys, games, TV, film. It corrupted and transfixed all who stood before it with the same four word mantra, repeated ad infinitum:
Gotta catch 'em all.
I remember a kid at school who wept when it became apparent that his sparkling Charizard Pokemon card had been carried away by thieving hands, and I recall the playground uproar that bubbled over the surface as Pokemon cards, Game Boys, and trading - just as Tamagotchis, Pogs and yo-yos before them - were banned.
An enormous Nintendo fanboy at the time, not to mention a subscribed to ONM, the need to get involved was burned into my brain even before the first round of games releases. My sister had Red, and I had Blue. An enormous turtle with cannons built into its shell? Yes please.
Here was the story of Ash (well...technically Red/Blue), a young boy from Pallet Town, who sets out on a quest to become the very best Pokemon trainer around, entrusted with a documenting device by the kindly Professor Oak, and given three Pokemon from which to choose a companion for the journey ahead. There were villains of the piece too - that douchebag Gary Oak, the nefarious Team Rocket - riddles to solve, problems to fix, caves and cities and oceans to explore, exotic creatures to be found and nurtured and grown, and fellow trainers against which to test your strength, with a view to eventually taking on the very best in the land and becoming a part of history.
This was the 90s, back when it was still safe to play in front gardens as a little kid, back when innocence still prevailed, before the numerous high-profile kidnappings that the new millennium would bring, before every national treasure turned out to be a paedophile. Here was innocence writ large: a mother waving goodbye to her young son, marching off in to the world to be at one with the creatures of the world, to care for and nurture them...not to mention capture a bunch of them and then engage in a bunch of cock-fights for money until the Pokemon pass out from being beaten.
Hmmm. It's ok though, they were really cute.
Thing is, back then, at the age of 12, you didn't really think about the cock-fighting bit. It all seemed so perfectly normal, particularly given the beguilingly charming nature of the Kanto region, stuffed as it was with weird an wonderful folk, always willing to give you the time of day, provided you bested them in a Pokemon battle, of course. They'd come out with little vignettes of absurd dialogue that couldn't help but raise a laugh, such as "I like shorts! They're comfy and easy to wear!", or marauding sailors greeting you with "I like feisty kids like you", or when a Lass on Mt. Moon sidles up to you and interrupts your pleasant walk by yelling ""Eek! Did you touch me?".
Pokemon nailed the youthful appeal with cute sprites, quirky sound effects, and some really affecting moments - I cried the first time I finished the little Cubone/Marowak story arc. That Team Rocket are so abominably cruel to these delightful creatures is terrible! And Gary is such a douche, he really is. “I heard there was a Cut Master on board, but he was just a seasick old man," he says after you've fought your way through the entire crew of the S.S. Anne and taken pity on the poor Captain, offering him a little back rub because he's feeling poorly. You just want to punch Gary in the balls.
But the reason we play it today, aside from the whimsy and the nostalgia, is because its mechanics were really good. Battles were really tactical affairs, and the level of grinding required to reach the endgame often hilarious in scale. The progression was spot on, though. You wanted your Pokemon to grow and evolve and learn cooler moves. We craved those badges, we enjoyed the purity of purpose (151 Pokemon looks like a small number now, but back in the day just hitting triple figures was a feat), we felt empowered taking down the boss of a huge crime syndicate, and spurred on by the constant re-emergence of our rival (always one step ahead) and the thoughts of our names on that Hall of Fame roster.
I still maintain, though there will certainly be many who disagree, that 151 Pokemon was actually the perfect number. Challenging, and yet achievable, there was still a uniqueness to each of those creatures, with little to no hint of overlap. Enough for everybody to have at least six favourites (often more, heartbreakingly), enough to be able to plot a dream team, unless the sense of loyalty to our early creatures proved too overwhelming, which it often did.
We've already seen that there are champions for pretty much every generation of Pokemon when it comes to picking a favourite, and I suspect that often comes down to which game proved to be your entry point for the series. Gold and Silver are probably the critical darlings that mark the highest peak for the series before over complication, especially when you consider the sheer value that those games offered, essentially doubling the size off the game, and giving you a chancce to earn the Kanto badges after you'd ploughed your way through Johto. But for me it'll always be Red, Blue, and (after watching the first season of the TV show) Yellow. Perfectly sized, perfectly paced, and with peerless potential that, as we've seen over the past decade or so, has been milked for all it's worth.