I'm five minutes into a Pokémon match that should have been over by now. My opponent is fighting dirty.
We're fighting double battles, two Pokémon at a time against two Pokémon. Two more wait in the wings of each side, tag-team style. His tactic involves trapping two of mine in the ring with Mega Gengar, a surprisingly scary-looking new evolution of a popular ghost Pokémon that has been in these games since Pokémon Red and Blue.
Once my team is trapped, he uses a sneaky move called Perish Song, initiating a three-turn countdown to all four Pokémon's deaths—my pair and his. The countdown will only stop if I can switch mine out.
What he's trying to do is not easy to pull off. The combination of that attack with Mega Gengar's Pokémon-trapping Shadow Tag ability is one increasingly popular way to do it. It works.
Suddenly, I'm down two monsters.
My second-stringers are Hawlucha, a new bird Pokémon themed after a Mexican luchador wrestler, and Dragonite, a deceptively cute dragon from the original 151 Pokémon. Both have incredible physical attack power, but raw power is rarely enough to win, especially when a match has gone as far south as this one already had. They take the stage, and I'm already bracing for defeat.
My opponent switches out his Mega Gengar and Machamp—a four-armed brute—to prevent them from dying from the Perish Song. In their places I now fight Snorlax, a defensive damage sponge, and the unpredictable Smeargle, who can learn almost any move in the game. Seeing one in the hands of a knowledgable player is like watching a pair of headlights bear down on you in the dark. You don't know exactly what's going to hit you, but you know it's going to be hard.
Sure enough, this Smeargle had a rare move called Dark Void that put both my remaining Pokémon to sleep. He'd learned it from a Darkrai—a legendary monster that hasn't been available by any legitimate means since 2012. My opponent had found a Japanese player who had one and was willing to let him copy the attack.
It's another dick move, and it would have clinched him the victory if not for one thing: my Hawlucha is holding a Red Card, an item that sent the Smeargle back into the sidelines and gave 'lucha a significant boost in speed and power.
My opponent's strategy thrown into disarray and my team boosted to unholy levels, I sweep him dead in three more gleeful turns.
I wish I could say I don't know what it is that draws me back to Pokémon time after time, but I do know. It's not just that there's an incredibly complex combat game under the series' cartoonish surface. It also makes me feel young to play it. Not just young, but whole.
Playing Pokémon makes me think of my dad, long passed, who would drive me to the mall every week to get a new pack of Pokémon cards. I don't collect the cards anymore, but I hatch eggs in the video games, matching different parent Pokémon to get new monsters with high stats for battling. I orchestrate my own little genetic manipulations. There's always an element of chance, like ripping open a foil wrapper to find out which rare cards are inside.
The first guy I battled in the tourney could barely make eye contact or get a full sentence out. But he trumped me soundly using a quick and dirty strategy I'd never even considered before.
That blood-pumping, unlikely victory I described was battle number five of a nine-round tournament, the "Play! Pokemon" 2014 winter regional championship that was held in Long Beach, California last month.
I bred and trained every monster I fielded, a time-consuming task that sometimes spreads over multiple days per 'mon. Other players trade on message boards or use cheating devices to improve their odds, but I like to do things "the old-fashioned way." In my thinking, that's a euphemism that can at this point be boiled down to essentially "whichever way takes the longest."
In addition to Dragonite and Hawlucha, my team included Azumarill, an old water-type Pokémon who gained a new and formidable fairy element with Pokémon X and Y; Klefki, a new fairy type (with steel in it, too) that likes to paralyze and confuse its opponents; Ampharos, an electric Pokémon introduced first in Gold and Silver that gained an awesome dragon-type Mega Evolution in X and Y; and Chandelure, a fast but frail ghost Pokémon that resembles—you guessed it—a chandelier.
I'm actually not a competitive person, yet, throughout the heated battle I described before, all I could think about was the shiny promotional trading card that tournament officials had quietly dropped between each pair of players as the round began.
"Whoever wins gets the card," they said. Just like that, a friendly, "good luck" / "you too" kind of match turned nasty. I didn't even want the card. Not really, at least. I'm using it for a bookmark now.
When I arrived early on the morning of the tournament, hundreds of people stood in a slow-moving line to get registered. Almost everyone had a clamshell-shaped 3DS in hand, making last-second changes to their lineups or playing practice rounds with those around them. I demolished the kid behind me, whose character's name was "BonBon," and tweeted "#nomercy" afterward. "What kind of team are you running?" he asked me. He might have been 16 years old.
Officials occasionally reminded us that the "number one rule" of these "Play! Pokémon" competitions is "to have fun."
It took nearly two hours to reach the front of the line and get registered, and that was followed by another two hours of sitting around. The tournament that was supposed to begin around 10 a.m. actually started closer to 1 p.m. It's a shame the showdowns didn't kick off at high noon. That would have been appropriate.
The crowd was filled with all types of people. I'm 25 years old, but my division had kids as young as 16. Some of the older folks there—middle-aged folks—were chaperoning their kids in younger divisions, but others, like me, were there to compete. Everyone was courteous, though some clearly cared more about winning than others. Officials occasionally reminded us that the "number one rule" of these "Play! Pokémon" competitions is "to have fun."
The first guy I battled in the tourney could barely make eye contact or get a full sentence out.
He fumbled awkwardly when I greeted him with a handshake. But he trumped me soundly using a quick and dirty strategy I'd never even considered before: his Murkrow, a normally useless bird Pokémon, used the attack Swagger on his own Garchomp, a fearsome and formidable dragon. Swagger boosted Garchomp's attack while crippling it with confusion—a side effect that the dragon sidestepped by immediately curing itself with a berry it was holding. With its now-off-the-charts power it tore through my entire team in two turns. It was devious, and I was powerless. As soon as I got home I started training a Garchomp so I could pull the same stunt in the future.
Then there was a boisterous chap who narrated our match and heckled me in his best super bowl commentator voice. A friendly Latino kid made a self-aware joke about green cards—remember we're in southern California—when my Hawlucha revealed his Red Card. A (perhaps overly) confident player bragged to me about his recent casting calls when I told him I live in L.A. One tired-looking opponent distractedly complimented my tattoos as I beat him.
Most of the day was spent just shooting the shit with fellow players, a luxury in person, where would-be trolls don't have the internet's veil to hide behind. People who might have resorted to memes and slurs online were confronted with the faces of those they'd normally slander. We discussed the intricacies of various strategies, the pros and cons of this or that attack, the highs and lows of the day's battles—never running out of topics, the interactions almost always amicable despite everyone's obvious passion. When your match was over, you turned and watched the player next to you, cheering or cringing along with them.
The day was not without its hiccups, though. I'd stayed up all night breeding and training a new, highly defensive Pokemon—a snickering vulture named Mandibuzz—to deal with some specific threats I'd been having trouble with in online battles (mostly a ridiculously powerful new fire/bird Pokémon called Talonflame). But after a fitful two hours of sleep, I'd arrived at the convention center only to find out that the Mandibuzz I'd spent all night training was for some reason illegal in this tournament. It threw my whole team off-balance.
After a fitful two hours of sleep, I'd arrived at the convention center only to find out that the Mandibuzz I'd spent all night training was for some reason illegal in this tournament.
To top it off, my understanding of the official rules was out of date. I stupidly hadn't thought to look them up. I felt grossly unprepared, and I was—I'd ignorantly trained for single battles, but the official rules are for doubles, which calls for very different strategies.
My victory in match 5 came as a big surprise—by that point in the day I had lost more than I had won. It had been more than a decade since I'd played Pokémon against a live opponent in person. The developers implemented online battles in the games years ago, but it's not the same when you can't read the battle on your opponent's face. Poker players and professional jousters know this. I was rusty.
Still, I won some and I lost some, and the day dragged on. My lack of sleep caught up to me. The room was cramped and sweaty. We scampered for the room's few wall outlets, 3DS charging cables in hand. The Long Beach convention center had slices of pizza for $6; I trekked a mile for a veggie sub between rounds instead. I read a book when there was no one to talk to.
Ultimately, I won five out of nine matches, though it's hard to say exactly where I placed among the 700 or so players there. Probably about average. Still, that was better than I had expected to do, despite how much time I put into this game.
My battles were over by 9pm, for better or worse, but an official-looking man wearing a lab coat embroidered with the words "Pokemon professor" on the back told me he expected they'd be there until well past midnight watching the top 32 players duke it out among themselves.
After 13 hours of boredom and hunger—complemented by maybe 30 minutes total of actual competition—I didn't feel like sticking around any longer to watch. But I'd have considered it a victory even if I'd lost every match. It was worth it just to put some faces to the words I read on message boards and fan sites.
I recently thought I might finally be sick of Pokémon—of the occasional ridicule from friends, the endless exertions of breeding and hatching eggs, the hundreds of wasted hours and inevitable disheartening losses. But I've already started plotting my strategies for the next competition. Hell, I was already playing again by the time I got home that night.
My dad must have thought, as he drove me to the mall time after time, that I'd outgrow this shit at some point. But apparently I'm just not the type to let go so easily.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. When he's not taking pictures of his dog, he's writing about video games, technology and entertainment and serving as Kotaku's occasional weekend guest editor. Follow him on Twitter for regular glimpses into the asinine stream of his consciousness.