Coming Home to Kanto
It is Christmas of 1998 and I am eleven years old. Video games are part of my life, a pastime shared between my Papi and I, for as long as I can remember. My parents won’t allow consoles into the home and I am restricted to computer games. To me, this is no loss. As far as I’m concerned, virtual worlds hold more beauty than any physical one. Myst Island leads to my second home of Britannia. By the age of eleven, half my life has been spent clicking at a keyboard.
But at Christmas, it isn’t a computer game that appears. This time, it’s a Game Boy Pocket. Somehow, I still remember staring at the red plastic, testing the keys under my fingertips. I am fascinated with with this tiny screen compared to my computer, but no overwhelming interest. Not yet, at least.
Then Papi hands me a small, cardboard box with a dragon on it. Pokémon Red. I’m not sure what this is. Opening the box gives me a physical map to hold, much like my maps of Britannia, and now my interest is piqued. This is a world to explore and it’s time to explore it.
I’ll never forget the first few moments of Pokémon Red; the sheer thrill of Professor Oak sending me on a journey. Time passes quickly, spending hours that Christmas morning, until Papi finally admonishes me to “not take it too seriously!”
It is one request I’ll never honor.
Having never had many friends, Pokémon Red becomes not only my place of safety, but also a place of emotional connection. My Pokémon are not my battle companions; they are my friends. I’ve little desire to battle these creatures. What I want is to collect, explore, build the bonds with my little friends.
So many hours spent at a video game have burned into my memory. I’ll never forget the sound of it. To this day, the soundtrack of Pokémon Red is the soundtrack of my life. Moving quickly cues the bicycle theme. Confrontations cue battle music. Resting cues those familiar beeps we all know well.
It is difficult for me to explain what Pokémon Red gave to me because my life is defined by two phases: before receiving the game, and after. Having never before felt a connection to anyone, or anything for that matter, my bond with my Pokémon is perhaps bizarre. It is easier to understand that, for once, there is a world that doesn’t pressure me. It understands my need to connect with something and it gives me that. As I proceed at a leisurely pace, I never do collect them all but it never quite seems to matter.
There are friends in Kanto. There is safety. That is enough.
While I do play Generation II and eventually Generation III, my connection to Pokémon falls away with time. My parents encourage me to give up this childish thing and focus on important games. But it is a lonely road without friends, and at times I wonder if I should return to it. I catch myself wondering if my Squirtle misses me. That question remains unanswered when all my childish toys, including my Pokémon games, systems, and cards, are given away without my knowledge. It seems too much of a final blow. Saddened, I turn away from it all.
When I finally return to the world of Pokémon, it is a very different place. My then-boyfriend, now-husband, asks me if I’ve ever played these games, then admits he has a few. Briefly, I return to Pokémon White but the world isn’t mine. This isn’t my Kanto. I’m tempted to put the game down, but entering a Pokémon Center gives me that familiar sound and click. I smile. This isn’t my Pokemon, no, but I’ll return one day. It’s only a matter of time.
Pokemon is more than a game to me. It is a concept that never quite leaves you. There will be a Pokémon again for me and I’m fully aware of that.
Advertisements for Pokémon X intrigue me. This seems closer to my Pokémon. When I play it it is a little unfamiliar to me. So many mechanisms have come and gone. But then, there, are the familiar moments. The thrill of a Poké Ball as it whizzes through the air. The joy of riding a bicycle downhill. It is comforting and safe again. It is my home again.
Still, I miss my first Squirtle, but perhaps there are new friends to be made.
Over fifteen years have passed since I first entered Kanto. I’m presenting my Master’s thesis on video game archiving with a focus on versioning. My case studies focus on Pokémon. Mami and Papi are in the audience. As I open my presentation, I pause and note that there is a man in the audience who told me not to take this world too seriously. Clearly, I did not listen. He smiles. I tear up. Then, with a deep breath, I channel the Professor of my childhood and take us on a marvelous journey.
Years after that, my now-husband gives me a reminder of my past with a Poké Ball anniversary ring. It calls me back, but it isn’t successful. A year after that, I find myself in the deepest depression of my life. I’ve no idea how to escape it. My husband places a Nintendo 3DS in my hands. I open the top and hear my chosen Pokémon Center theme. A smile, then, I open Pokémon OmegaRuby. For a few moments, for a very few moments, the depression flies away. That joy returns. And even when I return to my reality, it is to the sound of victory music.
Twenty years have passed since this phenomenon started. It is almost time, so very close, for me to return to Kanto again. Even typing that sentence gives me goosebumps. My fingers itch to return to my childhood space, all grown up, but still feeling like a child on a journey. I’ve lost so much all these years, become more Professor than Ash, and yet...
Despite it all, I know I will open that screen and I will see Professor Oak. I am going home again. This will not be my Squirtle, as he is gone, and there can be no replacement. Still, I will love this Squirtle as if my childhood never passed, and I will go home again.
At the end of the day, Pokémon is a journey, not a destination. This journey has come full circle. I’m giddy at the thought of going home.