I love Pokémon just as much now as I did in 1998. Every time a new title is released, I play it obsessively, ignoring everything else. Every generation has had at least a handful of critters I adored. But even though my love for Pokémon is enduring, I enjoyed the game more when I didn’t understand it.
In the early days, I didn’t give any thought to team building. I used my favorite Pokémon, and that was that. I steadfastly refused to evolve my starter — a Squirtle, of course — and just did some grinding if I found a gym I couldn’t get through. It didn’t matter that Pokémon like Jumpluff, Ponyta, and Teddiursa had lousy stats. They were cute, and that was all I cared about.
Then online battling hit, and I realized everything I was doing was wrong. My adorable starters were destroyed instantly, and even the stronger Pokés in my party didn’t last long. I was playing against people who’d spent hours thinking about balance and type coverage, who only used Pokémon‘s best and brightest. After a long string of embarrassing battles, I took the same tactic.
One of the best parts of Pokémon is that its complexity is hidden. You can play through every one of its six generations without thinking about EVs or IVs, and can take down champions with any group of Pokémon. Players can carefully construct the perfect team, or use only their favorites.
But once I knew that complexity was there, I couldn’t make myself ignore it. I had to evolve all my Pokémon, even if I adored their original forms. I could no longer bring myself to use Pokémon like Cherubi and Sandshrew when there were stronger creatures in my roster.
In a weird way, I’m envious of those NPC trainers who use nothing but Skittys or Pichus. They may not be real, but they’re content to use the Pokémon they love even if that means they’ll lose. I hate that there are great-looking Pokémon I’ll never try, and that Pokémon I’m less than crazy about are sometimes a part of my team.
I don’t want to go back to playing Pokémon the old way. Team building is tons of fun, and competitive play greatly extends the lifespan of the games. Still, I can’t help but think Pokémon lost a little of its magic when I realized how it was meant to be played. Once upon a time, I only used Pokémon I adored, and I’ll never be able to get that back.