The Pokemon Phenomenon 

This piece was going to be an unabashed paean to Pokemania, explaining what a cracking game it was and how the mass tweener hysteria which greets every fresh Pokegame, cardset, pillow-case, or doily was a good thing inasmuch as ten-year-olds are natural obsessives and it wasn’t like they were wasting their time on trash like pop music or something. And yeah, I do think Pokemon on the Game Boy encourages a certain amount of co-operation and strategic thinking and (really really basic) problem-solving and – massive stretch – respect for the environment. But the problem is this respect is won by obliterating the real environment from your mind entirely, because Pokemon also encourages you to spend a beautiful Mediterranean evening hunched over a transparent box, blithely ignoring the play of light on water in favour of the play of Geodude’s Mega Punch on Zubat’s ugly fanged face.

Any lingering doubts about Pokemon’s compulsive nature are dispelled by the time-elapsed counter that the concerned/sadistic Nintendo people cause to flash up every time you save a game. At last count I’d spend 50 hours playing the thing, which is about a quarter of the total time since I bought it. Very few of those hours I can directly remember, which is scary: but of course when your Ivysaur learns Razor Leaf it all seems so worthwhile.

Those happy readers who have no idea what I’m talking about may need a quick introduction. Pokemon is a rough abbreviation of ‘pocket monster’, and the idea of the game is to collect all 150 varieties of said beasts. Your little character is a “Pokemon trainer”: what he trains them to do is to beat the shit out of each other. The genius of Pokemon is how it combines character cutesiness with this excessive violence, a pairing which has helped it win unprecedented cross-gender popularity, despite the fact that most of the female characters you encounter are presented as simpering milksops who use only the puniest Pokemon.

This summary makes Pokemon sound like a fighting game, which it is only in a really basic symbolic fashion. The ‘action’ of Pokemon is basically not too far removed from the action in the first game I ever remember playing, Wumpus on an old Texas Instuments thing. You wander about some grass/caves/sea. The screen flashes. Whoa! A wild Pokemon appears. The creature shows up on the screen and your lead Pokemon does too. The two of you then ‘fight’ each other by picking types of attack from a list. The screen flashes again. A feeble animation follows. Both Pokemon lose ‘health’. Repeat to fade. At its very very best you could say that Pokemon is a schematic of Tekken for kids who can’t hack the real fighting-game thing, but the solution to that problem is for everyone playing to drink lots beforehand (Okay, this doesn’t work for minors) or to, well, improve, not to spend fifty hours of your life pressing ‘A’ and getting ‘Your attack MISSED!’ in response.

There’s also exploring, strategy, ‘problem-solving’ and plot. The exploring aspect is spoiled a little by the fact that a double-spread map of the gameworld appears in the manual. That same manual cheerfully admits that the strategy is a slightly more complex version of Rock-Scissors-Paper. The problem-solving aspect wouldn’t trouble a hamster. And the plot is classic videogame, inconsistent and lurching between numbing and manipulative. At one point you come across a tower haunted by the spirits of dead Pokemon, murdered by the evil Team Rocket, who seek to exploit the creatures for financial gain (like, oh, Nintendo or someone). Since even in Pokemon fights where you have demolished an opponent using the charmingly named Hyper Fang, the result is only that your opponent ‘faints’, the player’s reaction to this slaughter is not “The swine!” but “How the hell did they manage that?”

So far, so damning. But as Steven Poole suggests in his magnificent Trigger Happy, none of the above need stop a videogame being very good (or at least very efficient). Poole’s working definition of a good, involving videogame is one which features a high degree of ‘semiotic richness’. Now the way he describes it, writing as a player who finds process or strategy games boring, the best way to achieve this is through fast-moving action-based narrative games like Zelda, Tomb Raider or Metal Gear Solid, which manage a sophisticated interaction between a player’s interpretation of game events, their understanding of the game’s rule structure and their immediate physical response to the ongoing action. At the same time these games balance all this with an involving game tempo and the ability for the gameplayer to achieve mental ‘flow’ states – a kind of gameplaying Nirvana.

But aside from the physical response stuff, there’s no reason all of this shouldn’t apply to a slow-paced game like Pokemon either. In the 80s, videogame criticism intuitively grasped that traditionally artistic qualities weren’t what was needed in a good game, with product being rated on variables like ‘addictiveness’ or ‘gameplay’. Pokemon may not be moment-to-moment challenging, and seems even to be almost unloseable, but despite what appear to be massive shortcomings it’s a deeply involving entertainment, even as you’re aware of how repetitive and dumb what you’re doing seems to be. The “catch ’em all” theme appeals to the anal listmaker in the player, the characters have cute appeal for children and kitsch appeal to adults (witness how keenly my office has embraced ‘Pokemon Of The Day’ e-mails), and on top of it all the game foregrounds a heavy social element: the only way to complete it is to trade and trade again with fellow players, and this trading (unlike with the horrible card game) requires no additional financial outlay.

The rush to demonise the Pokemon craze based on its less appealing aspects – young children tearing each others’ limbs off for a Charizard card, plus all the rest of the unapologetic flood of Pokemerchandising – ignores the rudimentary but genuine merits of the original game. In regulated doses it’s easily as educational than, ooh, Harry Potter, and seems to fire kids’ imaginations across classes, to boot. As for me, since I got back from holiday I’ve cleaned up my act and haven’t touched the damn thing for several days now: occasional dream of Pidgey and Haunter aside, I figure I’m safe until October, when the sequel game emerges, during which you will be able to make your Pokemon mate. I suspect the furore has a way to run yet.