My uncle had missed my birthday again.
I was eight this year. Being a present down was no fun, but I had a sense of world-weary acceptance; this was his modus operandi. In a couple of days I’d get a card with a little money slipped in, or a phonecall asking me to choose something within a (guiltily generous) price limit. This time brought a new variation: a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us, and a choice of anything I liked. I ventured into the videogame section for the first time, wandering through the rows of unfamiliar names and unappealing art. One stuck out by dint of name and logo – Pokémon. I’d seen the cartoon a handful of times, made regrettable card trades in the school playground, but I never knew there was more to these imaginary fascinations. I grabbed the newly-released Pokémon Sapphire, preferring the cover’s vibrant blue Kyogre over the grubby red Groudon. “This one!” And that one I got.
My parents gave me my first console on that same birthday: a Gameboy Advance. Until now, gaming had only been alongside them on their dusty, ten-year-old SEGA Master System II. They wanted to share with me the things they had enjoyed so many years ago.
“We used to stay up till six in the morning playing this, trying to complete Sonic the Hedgehog. We’ve still never finished it.”
I never could, either. Sapphire was to be my first independent gaming experience, and what an experience it would turn out to be.
Tedious numeracy lessons became meetings for Pokéhunters Anonymous, as we bragged about our latest captures and glorified our victories. Every lunchbreak the Playground Posse fed my obsession with techniques, ‘secrets’, and unsubstantiated rumours; most of which the gullible bambinos of Class 5A would rush home to test. I gave myself sore thumbs thrashing A+B simultaneously, believing earnest promises that it would ease a capture. When that inevitably failed, alternate presses and varying speeds came into play.
(I still, unashamedly, use these methods to this day – whether they actually contribute to a successful capture, I’ll never know Having stuck with me for ten years, it’s hard to let go and accept that they probably do nothing.)
Discussing new team members, fresh secrets and story progression with a gang of thirty other addicts directly impacted my play. Each evening I’d dive into the car home, head full of new things to try, and spend the night experimenting and progressing (or not, depending on the day’s supply). I suspect this was the way with most classmates, as we would unknowingly climb the Battle Tower in sync with one another, believing Latios to reside at the top (the next day’s discussion focused on how it wasn’t). It was this constant back-and-forth sharing and gathering and the sense of community which made the experience that much more special.
I’m sure they’re some older child’s cherished memory, but the two games preceding Sapphire never mattered to me, and I spared even fewer thoughts for its descendants. It was truly my first venture into gaming, and my portal into its world. While I was aware of gaming as a whole – playing Wonderboy III with my parents, my uncle boasting about his PlayStation One – Sapphire was the first to clutch my heart and teach me that pixels weren’t so one-dimensional. As I trained up my team to dominate classmates and the cocky kids at Holiday Club, it clutched at my heart before releasing me to the games I knew not of. From Crash Bandicoot on my ninth birthday, to Bioshock Infinite next week, the path to my current gaming habits has been littered with hundreds of titles; but Sapphire will always hold a special place in my heart, and Gen III a place on my team.
Now the generation experiencing Pokémon for the first time have Google ever-present at their fingertips, able to immediately tear down Little Jimmy’s cousin’s theory that Mewthree is obtainable through some convoluted process. The Playground Posse is out of business: technology has driven its members apart, and Little Jimmy won’t be trusted again. Without this air of mystery and discovery, I can only feel that the engagement and excitement is lessened for these young Pokévirgins.
I am wearing my rose-tinted NHS glasses, still playing the game which made me. The save may be dated 2013, but my 8-year-old self is eager to stop Team Aqua, catch my first team, and protect Hoenn from an apocalyptic monsoon.