Hello there! Welcome to the world of Pokémon! My name is Nomadic Dec! I swear this is not clickbait!
As Pokémon trainers all over the world know, this year is an important milestone for the beloved franchise. As much as I would like to mark the occasion by revealing the first monsters of Generation VII beyond Magearna, I can’t, owing to not being Satoshi Tajiri nor Ken Sugimori. Pokémon has been an intrinsic part of my development, however, and I thought I would commemorate the 20th Anniversary by sharing how the Pokémon has helped me rise above my disability. Thus, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll:
“The time has come,” the Walrein said,
“To talk of many things:
Of running shoes—and ships—and Litwick-wax—
Of cabbages—and Slowkings…”
EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE A MASTER
I adore Pokémon, as I am sure do many people. With millions of main game iterations, spinoffs, anime DVDs and merchandise being sold annually since 1996, it would be impossible for there not to be at least a few people that hold Pokémon dear to them. Yet I imagine that I am of a minority who can legitimately say that Pokémon helped save their lives.
Unfortunately, I have to disappoint at this moment, for I cannot claim that my pet Charizard swooped in to save me as I fell to my doom a la Ash in Attack of the Prehistoric Pokémon, but my Pokémon experience significantly contributed to the formation of skills that allow me to function in everyday life. I would argue that were it not for the introduction to Pokémon, I would be a far less productive person than I am. (My Charizard did power me to victory in FireRed, culminating in a tense final match against Blue’s Blastoise with both of them resorting to Struggle. It was pretty epic.)
I was six when my parents bought me Pokémon Silver, along with my cherished translucent purple Gameboy Color, hoping that it would improve my pattern recognition and coordination. The game had just been released in Australia and the original anime dub was airing. I was already enthralled by the television series, and sensing opportunity, my parents bought the game; probably the one and only game that could have had as profound an influence as it did.
EVERYBODY WANTS TO SHOW THEIR SKILL
For any of this to have significance, I first must give some context, so please bear with me: I was born with Left-side Hemiplaegia, a type of Cerebral Palsy, thanks to an ill-timed case of measles while I was a foetus. Luckily, my mother contracted it early enough in my development such that my brain managed to function even with the damage to the cerebellum, and so the physical damage is quite mild. I know life could have been far harder, as it is indeed for some of my friends.
That said, I am missing approximately a third of my brain’s right hemisphere and so there are some effects: my left leg is half an inch shorter than my right and my balance is minimal; my fine motor skills are impaired particularly when tired and so my grip dissipates quickly; my coordination can be poor and my muscles sometimes spasm, knocking over many an irreplaceable ornament over the years and dropping conical flasks in the lab; my feet pronate affecting my hips and make shoe-shopping a nightmare. Moreover, my pattern-recognition, sensation and depth perception are naturally flawed as secondary effects.
These issues were particularly difficult to control when I was younger. Remember the blurb on the back of Pokémon Silver stating “basic reading ability required”? I barely even had that. Due to the aforementioned pattern recognition problems, I struggled to read and write at six. It was very frustrating. Enter Pokémon Silver stage left.
GONNA GET JUST A LITTLE BIT BETTER
My parents bought the game to improve my reading, and I took this to heart, obstinately refusing any help. This is from purely anecdotal evidence, but I believe there is a tendency for disabled people generally to fixate on things more than most people, with the dogged drive to solve or compensate for even the most minor of discrepancies between where they are and where they think they should be.
Although I spent months stuck selecting starters (trying out all three), inadvertently collecting multiple eggs from Mr. Pokémon and battling wild Sentret as a consequence of not being able to read the word “save”, I am glad I did not give in. There was a certain sense of accomplishment when I finally could get past Cherrygrove City with my Cyndaquil named “HQ” and beat my Rival “????”. It was an auspicious (re)start to my Pokémon journey (yes, my reading comprehension and motion control were that terrible, but I am still fond of the name HQ).
I remember feeling a familiar angst during that period, one that plagued me from not being able to walk properly, but I put up with it. There was a purpose to this. I was going to deliver that egg to Professor Elm. Except I didn’t know I had to deliver it. I recognised the capitalised ELM in the same way I saw MR. POKÉMON on the way there. That was the first benefit of Pokémon’s design: the repetition of emphasised names.
Indeed, I’d like to point out how appropriate Pokémon names are for increasing word reading ability (in a very unscientific manner). As most people will know, the Anglicised names are generally portmanteaus, puns, and combinations of multiple, vaguely related words to create distinct proper nouns. In this sense, while the component words and phonetics are recognisable as English, the obscure combinations force one to observe and associate the letters far more acutely. Combined with the frequency of Pokémon encounter rates, over time, those letters are repeatedly viewed in order and have a visual association. I am very sure that this directly contributed towards my eventual reading ability. That said, I still named myself MAX, which the observant reader might realise is NOT REMOTELY MY NAME! That is until I got so angry at the Ice Path I restarted the game and renamed the character…after my brother. An accidental role-player I was.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
An additional aid—and the reason why Blue and Red might not have been nearly as effective—was the introduction of multiple colours in addition to the distinct designs. While I was still comprehending the exact words, I was quickly associating certain coloured monsters and moves with their strengths and weaknesses against other coloured monsters. Pokémon gameplay is incredibly deep, but even this basic expanded “rock-paper-scissors” improved my strategy and puzzle-solving no end. When I was much smaller, I hated doing puzzles because I struggled, but the tangible sense of victory for causing Pokémon to faint, defeating gym leaders, and earning badges, were undoubtedly incentives to persevere. This applies to the overworld as well, because the coloured distinctions between road, grass, mountain—and the generally obvious connections between routes—allowed for intuitive progression even in the absence of writing. It is superb game design. As a sidenote, I posit that the larger colour palette of the more modern games may have hindered this process, as the colour association worked largely due to the simplicity, which more colours could have obfuscated.
In retrospect, I appreciate how so very perfect the already incredible Pokémon Silver and Gameboy were for accommodating all facets of my Cerebral Palsy. For example, the D-pad’s limited movement meant that I didn’t have to precisely press the direction I wanted to move in, unlike the finicky joysticks that still give me grief. Returning to battling, the RPG turn-based system allowed me to take my time to understand exactly what was happening. This, in tandem with the fact that the player has to engage the Pokémon by moving yourself rather than monsters attacking you (like in The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario for example) in the overworld, meant I was able to play at my own pace. Exploration is a key component of Pokémon, and the simple plotting (often communicated visually) allowed me to truly grasp the challenges set forth, and repeat them if necessary without harsh punishment. I was able to feel control and that I was not rushed.
For a lot of people with disabilities, time is an asset not always compatible with the rapid pace of the abled-bodied prescribed world. Particularly with children, a lot of patience and tolerance is required as we convey precisely, though multiple barriers, what we want to communicate. We can be just as effective as “regular” people, but possibly need a bit more time to work out an approach. Commonly, in a classroom, or playground, or any other environment really, people do not have the time to sit and wait for a child to repeat and restart a sentence until they say it perfectly. There are time constraints, other people to pay attention to, urgent life to get on with etc. Yet this can lower the self-esteem of children—or even adults—with disabilities, which in the long run can be even more detrimental than the disability itself. This is why, more than any other factor, I believe Pokémon is one of the best video game series around. The games give players time and are certainly the optimum choice for those struggling with disability.
A BRAND NEW ATTITUDE
I mentioned the idea of fixation above. My parents parlayed this into encouraging reading through those Scholastic anime novelisations and the Pokémon Handbooks, and fortified mathematical development by buying the collection of Pokémon Math Challenge that came with removable cardboard “trading cards” with maths questions on the back. I became adept at maths pretty quickly and brought in my stash of cards for “Show and Tell” to a thoroughly unimpressed audience. Then I discovered the existence of the actual Trading Card Game.
It was in this haze of boosted confidence that I met Courtney. As nice as children in the schoolyard can be, they can also be vindictive and adhere to a social hierarchy from the earliest of ages. Being slow at running, and as the one wearing the funny, large “UFO” on his leg (it’s called an AFO, and feels just as restrictive as those braces that Forrest Gump had), I was at the bottom of said school hierarchy for a good long while. Thus the day I met Courtney, a member of disability swimming squad I had recently joined, my life changed completely. I learnt years later that Courtney has a disability that affects her mental growth, but she was, from the second I met her, the most enthusiastic gamer I’ve ever known and has some of the most intuitive understanding of computers I’ve encountered. She also happens to be the foremost authority on Pokémon aside from perhaps Satoshi Tajiri and Junichi Masuda.
We spent every swimming session talking across the lanes and kicking as slowly as possible during cooldowns to dissect the raid on Team Rocket in Mahogany Town. She was much further along than I, and so I listened in awe as she regaled me with the appearance of a real Dragon Tamer acting as a covert Team Rocket operative. I almost couldn’t believe it. So I was promptly invited over to have it proven to me.
This is a fairly well-trodden thought, but I think the reason that people view Pokémon with such affection is not simply due to the perceived partnerships forged in the heat of battle, but the memories associated with the face to face sharing between friends. This intense social aspect heightened the game, and frankly, with advent of electronic communication and an increasing anti-spoiler culture driven by our ability to do these activities at leisure, that element has been diminished. Gaming is at once a more global and more insular experience and the lack of a direct oral forum is probably the main reason arenas like TAY and Kotaku have thrived. Yes we can find like-minded people easily online (thank Arceus), but StreetPass isn’t the same as having a group of mates round. So when people talk about the first or second generations of Pokemon being the best, I suspect it isn’t just the introduction of the basic mechanics or the ability to visit two regions, but the whole culture surrounding it, which I am sure will never really be replicated.
STILL GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL
Ruby and Sapphire were games that genuinely existed beyond my comprehension. Truthfully, back then I found Sapphire a poor substitute for Silver (conversely, I adore OmegaRuby), but that first morning flipping open my newly charged Cobalt Blue SP and seeing a world in full, glorious colour was the most startled I have ever been while gaming. I wandered around the minuscule Littleroot Town for about an hour.
In the intervening years my little brother changed too: no longer content to simply watch me play and “help” him through pretty much every part of the game, he too got his own SP through a misguided deal with my parents (the very last time they underestimated his tenacity and determination) and soon we were battling each other wirelessly (!) in the Union Room,then via the DS, competing to complete Pokémon Ranger and so on. Even now, Pokémon is the tie that binds us; that and because I am incredibly awful at FIFA, every FPS ever, and racing. Once again Pokémon has taught me perseverance. I lost enough times to Drake to overcome anything. So my FIFA losing streak continues, and in a bit of a reversal, I get a kick out of just sitting and watching him play GTA.
BE THE BEST THAT YOU CAN BE
I am unabashedly proud of the fact that both my brother and I can still do a duet for the entirety of every Pokémon anime dub song right up to the Diamond and Pearl arc, when the intros were cut even shorter and lost all of the aspiration and pathos that the original songs had (yes, I am saying that with all seriousness).
Fellow aficionados will recognise the Pokémon Johto lyrics I have be using throughout. No doubt that they also have many of the game scores seared into memory. As the tribulations of life run their course, I’ve come to realise—in moments of escapist regression—the anthems of resilience and courage that these themes are, in addition to being incredibly catchy. For however unintentional it is, the arc of the perpetual loser, still-winning-gym-badges-by-the-skin-of-his-teeth Ash Ketchum is an oddly compelling one.
Humans rarely achieve the superlative performances they want or are capable of on a daily basis, and that doubt is invariably the source of our diminished spirit, but there is Ash Ketchum continuing on, taking each loss in his stride, not having lost the trust of his companions, and not having lost faith in his dream. It is a reassuring image of attainable balance, a stable foundation to work from. That is the beauty of Pokémon. That is how Pokémon saves us. The daily grind will still be there tomorrow. We will still have that opportunity to train on. And maybe one day soon Ash Ketchum will win the League. And maybe one day soon we too will feel the elation of becoming Elite Four Champion for the first time once again. Until then, day to day, be the best that you can be.
Happy 20th Anniversary Pokémon and may the next twenty years be as joyful for everyone.
A massive thank you to Unimplied for his perfect header to replace the abominably large one previously used. As always, the man’s a master.