In my mid-40s, my life is so latterly being taken over by Pokémon. After falling down the Pokémon GO hole in 2020, and then chronicling its slow takeover of my spare time, I have since found myself the primary Pokémon GO correspondent for Kotaku. And now, as if that weren’t enough, I’ve finally discovered the TCG. RIP my bank balance. Today feels like a good day to have an amiable chat with you about the whole experience.
I was exactly the wrong age for Pokémon. In 1997, I had just failed the exams we Brits take to get into university, and was miserably retaking the same subjects I couldn’t comprehend. In 1998, I started a far less ambitious (and ultimately awful) university course. I was a student, just starting my writing career, kissing girls, and playing pool instead of attending lectures. Pokémon was happening all around me, but I was completely unaware of it.
Had I been ten years younger, or ten years older, I’d have got it. But at 19, I fell down the gap between cushions. I remember a few years later looking at one of the mainline games, probably on GBA, and just being bewildered by it. You were some random kid, and then you were sent off into some long grass, and these birds and insects kept attacking you for no reason, and yeah, I was done. I had now background, no basis, and certainly no concept of the ebullient world from which it all sprang. And then I never caught up.
Two years ago I could just about manage to tell you the name “Pikachu.” Since August 2020, I have been engaged in a course of education that certainly outdid that feeble attempt at university over 20 years previously. And while I certainly don’t possess a fraction of the expertise required to boast solid knowledge of the subject (I’m saying: Please, no exams), I’ve found myself deeply in love with the whole daft thing. So much so that today my beautiful new Snorlax baseball cap arrived, along with a few Mantine and Snorlax cards, and a pack of Vivid Voltage I’m going to open before this article is through. Erm, and that’s after Friday when my boy and I spent over $200 on various TCG boxes and packs to celebrate a recent personal event.
I’m frustrated by my younger self, but I don’t blame him. Pokémon unquestionably looks childish to an older teenager, all cutesy cartoons and a TV anime that mostly communicates via squeaking. For me, from my brief glances, it was indistinguishable from, say, The Wuzzles, and really, that’s fair enough. But if only I’d stuck with the game I tried, had been able to get past that initial JRPG-ness that has meant I’ve equally never managed to find any love for Final Fantasy or pretty much anything like it.
I’m trying to play catch-up now. I’m currently playing through Pokémon FireRed, thinking that a good compromise for closely experiencing the first game, without demanding I put up with too much anachronism. And I’m absolutely fascinated by the Trading Card Game, with the exquisite timing of only discovering it the week after the World Championships took place an hour-and-a-half from where I live.
The card business began, like all things Pokémon in my life, via my son. He’s nearly eight now, but was five when this all began, and I’m so delighted it entered his life at such a perfect moment. Where he flits through fads (Lego Ninjago for a hot minute, then a brief obsession with Minecraft, and an extended flirt with How To Train Your Dragon...), Pokémon has persisted throughout. His mayfly attention span is somehow avoided here, and he’s like a living encyclopedia for the franchise.
(The other day someone was asking us both about Pokémon, and Toby told them, “I’ve been into it for a really long time, most of my life,” and I said, “I’ve only just gotten into it in the last couple of years,” before realizing we were both talking about the same span of time.)
I think the first cards entered our life via the Pokémon magazine, which often gives away a couple of three-card packs taped to its front cover. These are, I’ve since learned, like the free hit of heroin the drug dealer offers to someone. We then discovered a local supermarket very occasionally stocks the odd checklane blister pack (that I know what these are called blows my mind), and even less frequently, a tin. We fed his habit.
Around the same time, YouTube Kids offered him some videos by the utterly wonderful team at (the very sadly ended) The Pokémon Evolutionaries. Their supply of videos of packs being opened absolutely hypnotized him, which initially earned my confusion and scorn, before the hypnosis worked on me too.
We then discovered the beautifully positive and uplifting YouTube channel of RealBreakingNate, with his kid-friendly collection of running gags, and frequent outbursts about the importance of valuing oneself, in between frankly concerning conversations with two enormous Psyduck plushies.
The only downside of these cheerful, celebratory videos is the sheer volume of cards they get through, and in turn, the inevitable devaluing of non-rare cards, even when they depict gorgeous artwork, or even do extremely well as part of a battle deck. No one not getting paid to open these cards, or receiving them as promotional material, can keep up with that pace and volume. Don’t tell him, but I’ve bought Toby his very own booster box of Lost Origin cards for his birthday next month, a bonkers 36 packs with 10 cards each, and inevitably offering a handful of exciting pulls—but even this will, ridiculously, feel somewhat limited when compared with the volumes ploughed through on YouTube every day.
A wonderful friend of ours gave me an enormous container filled with previously opened Pokémon cards from his own kids’ years with the game. Stripped of anything valuable, of course, and mostly from before the era of Rainbow Rares and golden Secret Rares, I cannily bundled these cards up into piles of 10, each with a reverse holo and a rare in each, and have been carefully delivering these to my boy over the months as well. He is desperate to know where they are kept. They’re in the orange container on the top shelf in my study! He’ll never read this! Hahahaha! But, you know, it’s not as thrilling as tearing open that foil pack himself.
But then we found Pokémon TCG Online! The latest aspect of our ever-growing collection of ways Pokémon invades our life, I finally realized what all those code cards were actually for. You get the app for tablet or PC (but, maddeningly, not phone), then scan in those QR codes, and for every card you’ve got a whole other digital pack to open! It’s not the same, but, you know, it’s methadone.
The issue was, as superbly implemented as TCGO may be, it has the worst matchmaking. We had the starter cards it gives you, and the scant few code cards from the proper packs we’d bought, but almost everyone we played was armed with decks constructed almost entirely of Vs or better. We were walloped almost every game, and even after I’d unlocked better cards by persisting with the Trainer Challenge AI mode, it wasn’t a fun time for a seven-year-old who struggles with losing at the best of times. I’m mystified why there isn’t a system that better matches up an obviously very weak deck with someone else playing similar.
And then I remembered that orange container. There were code cards in there too! I’d honestly not had any idea what they were when I first saw them, assuming they were just some sort of advertising extra, and I’d come very close to chucking them away. Thankfully something had stopped me, and in there were seventy code cards. 70! Oh my goodness, the difference that made. Of them, perhaps 50 were for full packs, and it was like he’d found the keys to the candy store. We pulled epic card after epic card, and now have a collection of decks that can easily hold their own in most situations (apart from against Tag-Teams, our constant bane).
Later this week my first ever playmat arrives. It’s Snorlax-themed, of course. I drink my coffee each morning out of my enormous Charizard mug. There are Pokémon on my pillow cases. It’s totally taken over. At the age of 44, some 25 years late, I finally get it.
Oh, and that pack of Vivid Voltage. Let’s look. Pack trick, four to the bottom, and let’s go. Lightning energy, Krokorok, Excadrill, Bea, Seedot, Phanpy, Shuppet, Poochyena, Voltorb, reverse holo Dusknoir, and...Whimsicott, non-holo rare. Oh well. There are ten more packs from other ranges in the bag behind me.