Guys!” I shout from my bedroom. “My Weedle’s evolving!” I had just found my old Game Boy Color and had started a new game of Pokémon Crystal. This is my first Pokémon evolution of my new playthrough.
“Why would you use a Weedle?” my roommate calls back, unimpressed. “They fucking suck.”
“I knowww, I just wanna catch ‘em all.”
She is unmoved. “I never felt the compulsion to catch ‘em all.”
“Oh,” I reply. “I did.”
I got my Game Boy in the same year I got my first pair of glasses: 1999, when I was in fourth grade. I remember because in fourth grade we had weekly spelling and vocabulary tests and, once a week, the teacher had each student stand up and use a vocabulary word in a sentence. Almost everyone’s sentences were about Pokémon.
I used to think it was a combination of reading after lights out and the tiny text on my fourth grade teacher’s slide projector that ruined my eyes, but now that I’m holding my old Game Boy Color again, I think there must have been another culprit too. My eyes hurt just looking at the small font – Pokémon, like any RPG, requires a fair bit of reading – and the lack of backlighting on my Game Boy screen.
My Color feels light in my hands now. It’s roughly the size of my smartphone, and, including the phone case, about as heavy, but the Game Boy’s screen seems outrageously small. I quickly find a redeeming feature, however: I can play Pokémon Crystal one-handed with ease, since the distance between the directional pad and the A and B buttons is less than the length of my thumb. This, I have found, makes the handheld an the ideal game platform for standing in a crowded subway car.
“I was just thinking about the image of you playing an old-school Game Boy on the subway in Brooklyn,” my boyfriend texted me the other night. “People must think you’re just being a hipster.”
I played lots of games on my Game Boy, but the only two I own are Pokémon Red and Pokémon Crystal. Between my two brothers and I, we each had a Pokémon game from the first generation: Greg had Yellow, Kevin had Blue and I had Red. I named my trainer Ali (emphasis on the first syllable, as in a nickname for Alison) and pretended that the little androgynous figure on the screen was a young girl. If I looked hard enough, I could even imagine I saw a bun of hair just below the baseball cap.
In the second generation, Greg had Silver, Kevin had Gold and in 2001, when I was 11 years old, I got Crystal. Mine was the first Pokémon game in which you could choose to be a girl or a boy. In fact it was probably the very first videogame I played that let me be a female character. I named my trainer Kris (the default girls’ name), chose Cyndaquil as my starter (fire Pokémon for life!) and I was off.
Pokémon Crystal puts a serious emphasis on the importance of treating your Pokémon kindly. Right from the start, the game makes clear what separates you from other trainers is your overwhelming compassion for your non-human friends. I had forgotten that detail before I started up my new game of Crystal a few weeks ago. Looking back, though, it makes sense. It’s probably part of why I wasn’t able to finish the game.
For this playthrough I’ve chosen to play as a girl trainer named Darcy. “Okay, Darcy,” I say to my little blue-haired avatar after I’d chosen another Cyndaquil (fire Pokémon for life!), “We’re gonna beat this game this time. Right?”
The first few towns breeze by. I build my team and I stick to it: Cyndi the Cyndaquil is joined by Bye-Bye the Pidgey, Lil Killer the Hoppip, Khan the Gastly and Geolady the Geodude. You aren’t “supposed” to use more than six, apparently, because that means trainer battles aren’t enough to train more than six Pokémon to high enough levels. You’d need to stop and grind, fighting wild Pokemon over and over again to reach the necessary levels.
But I do use a few others, just for a short while: Buzzkill the Weedle and Metaphor the Caterpie. (Just until they evolve, because it’s easy and it’ll fill out my Pokédex.) I figure, why not? I’ll put them back in storage as soon as they evolve. Ignore the little prods of anxiety over their lack of evolution, tapping like a finger at my heart. It’s just Pokémon, after all.
“You know,” my boyfriend says as I play Crystal on his couch while he cooks dinner, “speedrunners beat these games in like an hour or two.”
“Well, what’s the point of that!” I snap. He laughs. I do too, but in my head I’m surprised at the sudden slight tightness around my heart.
It takes about a week of intermittent playing, most of it one-handed on the subway, before I reach the Sudowoodo. This wiggly tree blocks Route 36 just outside Violet City (the third town you visit), forcing players to circle around through Union Cave, Azalea Town and Ilex Forest in order to approach the Sudowoodo from the other side and remove it.
My heart sinks when I see it. I had forgotten the tree appears so early in the game. All I had remembered was that, during my first playthrough at age 11, I hadn’t gotten much further than the Sudowoodo loop. Apparently I hadn’t gotten very far at all.
By the time you reach Sudowoodo, players have been given the chance to catch about 20 different types of Pokémon, and between 30 and 40 by the time you complete the loop and get to tree’s far side. Players can only have six Pokémon with them at any time; the rest are stored in a computer called Bill’s PC. I imagined that for Pokémon being in storage was something like suspended animation.
When I was playing Crystal for the first time, this seemed like a raw deal for the Pokémon I wasn’t using. Out of all the aspiring Pokémon masters, wasn’t I supposed to be the one who was a compassionate trainer? Clearly, catching ‘em all wasn’t enough – it was my sympathy that would make me the very bests. I decided that Kris wasn’t going to go past Route 36 until all her Pokémon were the same level.
I decided to repeat the loop that the Sudowoodo had forced on me, this time with a new group of six less cared-for Pokémon. I’d travel back through the long grass, through Union Cave and Azalea Town and Ilex Forest, fighting wild critters and slowly increasing the levels for these fresh six. When every Pokémon in my party finally reached level 20, I’d planned to deposit them back in the PC and withdraw a new group. Then start back down the same loop.
I don’t have to tell you that this took an insane amount of time. Eleven-year-old me poured hours into Pokémon Crystal, scrupulously training each and every Pokémon I came across. Battle after battle. Watching the blue experience bar tick slowly upward on that tiny screen. Most other Pokémon Crystal players probably beat the game in the time it took me to get my third badge.
In the beginning, I didn’t see a problem with it. After all, Kris was in no hurry – she was living the dream, kicking it with her Pokémon, making sure they were all healthy, strong and nurtured. After a while, though, my friends had beaten their Pokémon games. They wanted to battle, but my strongest Pokémon was a level 21 Quilava. They’d crush me.
There were other games coming out, too. My family bought a GameCube in early 2002 and it came with Ocarina of Time. I have never seen anything like that before. I didn’t want to keep playing Crystal when Ocarina was sitting right there.
I had to persevere. I had already put so much time and care into the game, I couldn’t really stop now, right? I had to keep doing the loop. Just a few more Pokémon, a few more levels. Then I could finally move to the next city…and start the process all over again.
It had started as a game undertaken out of role-played love. It became a task undertaken out of role-played responsibility. Eventually it became a chore undertaken for reasons I couldn’t understand anymore.
I had gotten into this loop because I made up the story that my Pokémon were unhappy in storage. I got out of it by making up another story: I decided that, when I wasn’t playing the game, time stood entirely still. Therefore, my Pokémon weren’t unhappy when I wasn’t playing.
A few months after I stopped playing Pokémon Crystal, Greg asked if he could have a turn. I said yes. In a few minutes, he had restarted the game and all my beloved Pokémon whom I had spent hours and hours training – all of them were gone.
In 2011, ten years after Pokémon Crystal came out, a doctor diagnosed me with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was surprised at first. Then I started remembering things like Pokémon Crystal.
And it kind of started to make sense.
I found my Game Boy at my parents’ house a few weeks ago. I replaced the batteries, switched it on, marveled at the tiny screen and the garish teal plastic. The Crystal cartridge was still plugged into the back. Greg had been in the middle of his third playthrough. He gave me permission to erase his file and start a new game of my own.
Now, as Darcy, I’m in Cianwood City, well past the Sudowoodo loop. And I’ve reached a compromise. Limiting myself to six Pokémon just doesn’t sound like any fun. Besides, what if I wanted to change my mind? So instead I’ve got a group of about ten Pokemon that I rotate: Cyndi the Quilava, Bye-Bye the Pidgeotto, Lil Killer the Skiploom, Khan the Haunter, Geolady the Graveler, Muscle the Machop, Loch Ness the Lapras, Engineer the Magnemite and Avada the Kadabra.
I’m not going to train every single one of my Pokémon. I probably won’t even catch ‘em all. But I am going to beat it this time.
Follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr.