The summer of 1998 found me weeding through my parents’ recycling for a peanut butter jar. Once I had found one and cleaned it out, I scrawled “Pokémon” on the side in permanent marker. I wasn’t exactly sure what Pokémon was, but according to Nintendo Power, it was the next big thing.
A butter container my older brother had found soon joined my Pokémon savings account with the same sloppy inscribing. We were going to catch them all, and we wanted to make sure we were first in line. Eventually we decided on who would get which version – I would take the obviously superior Red, and he would settle for Blue. September couldn’t come fast enough for our preteen brains.
But of course September eventually came and we immersed ourselves in the world of Kanto, trading tips and tricks as we lay on our twin beds and trash-talked about whose game had the best exclusive creatures. I was too stubborn to let him know that I couldn’t figure out how to save the game and just kept starting over. In retrospect I can’t fathom how I couldn’t figure out that complicated combination of hitting both Start and then Save.
Even from the start my brother and I always thought being a Pokémon would be more fun than having them. Though, we did have a hard time justifying the somewhat slavery-esque system of catching a living thing and claiming that you owned it now to our parents. I mean, Pokémon is pretty much cockfighting isn’t it? But you’re lifelong friends with the roosters in this scenario and they just get knocked unconscious, so it’s ok.
Regardless of the sketchy morals present, my brother and I would flop about for hours on our old trampoline pretending to razor leaf and bubble beam the daylights out of each other. I’m sure our neighbors loved hearing us roar Pokémon names into the night as we flung our shoes and socks at each other in our quest to be the best there ever was. Eventually we would stagger inside to sketch out new Pokémon cards and mystify our baby brother with tales of Ash Ketchum.
In April of 1999, a mere seven months after the launch of the first Pokémon game in the United States my brother and I witnessed Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64. We didn’t own the game initially, but we would bike over to our friend’s house (he got all the new games) and play to our heart’s content. And we could finally be Pokémon, and not some lousy trainer with a bag full of super potions. We were living the dream.
My group of friends would talk at length about what it would be like if they released an arena fighting game where you could pick from all 150 Pokémon. Even at the time that seemed a bit too far-fetched, as no game we had ever come across had 150 playable characters. So we narrowed down the roster to the main combatants. Fan favorites like Charizard, Mewtwo, Hitmonchan and Golem topped the list, garnering sheets and sheets of hand drawn move-sets and sketches. We even talked about a game where you would progress like a normal trainer, but would take control of each Pokémon as they entered into battle. In our eyes, it was the game that would end all games.
Leading up to its launch in the year 2000, Pokémon Stadium for the N64 sounded like it might actually hit a few of the main aspects we had hoped for in our game. We did as much research as 12 year-olds could in those days, but soon turned up enough info to realize that Stadium was just a glorified Pokémon showcase, and not the third person controlled brawler we had hoped. Not that it stopped us from enjoying it.
We were obsessed, and rightly so. Pokémon was great and new titles just kept coming. In fact, I don’t think it has slowed down a single year since its inception in the late ‘90s. I still find myself in downtown Indianapolis every summer to wander around Pokémon Nationals.
There have been games outside of the Smash Bros series that put players in the shoes of actual Pokémon, the most relevant being the Pokémon mystery dungeon line of games. But I was never satisfied. Didn’t Nintendo know how many kids had dreamed of entering the arena as one of those bizarre creatures and mangling their opponent? After over 15 years of waiting, I was ready to give up on the dream of a dedicated Pokémon fighting title.
But lo and behold, the heavenly music did play and Nintendo announced Pokkén Tournament… for Japanese arcades. I think deep in my heart I knew that it would come to home consoles, but even then I wasn’t sure if it would make it out of the hardcore Japan landscape. Now I had a new goal – play Pokkén Tournament in Japan.
As luck would have it my wife and I had been planning a trip to Japan for years. It was the top destination on our list of foreign lands and we were ready to dive headlong into a world of maid cafes and all-night pachinko parlors. Our trip just so happened to overlap with the release date for Pokkén Tournament. It would release on our last day on Tokyo. We would fly out of Narita Airport the following morning.
In anticipation I mapped out every arcade within a few miles of our Shibuya apartment and dragged my wife to each one so I could formulate a plan to hit as many as possible on launch day in search of Pokkén Tournament. The morning came and we rushed to the first arcade, around the corner from the famous Shibuya 109 department store.
There it was, Pokkén Tournament, and no one was even around! Elation isn’t quite a strong enough word to describe what I felt sitting down and popping 100 yen into that brand new machine. As I played through my first match as Charizard (you can see it above), I was blown away by how simple and yet satisfying the game was. It was everything 10 year-old me had ever wanted in a Pokémon game, and it was here in my hands. I burned through all of my pocket change in the next few hours as I tried all the characters and got the Mega Evolution system down. Even some of the top tier fighters, like Gengar and Machamp, from my childhood had made the initial cut.
As someone who has never been very well versed in the world of traditional competitive fighting titles, I wasn’t exactly an expert coming in, but the game does a great job of helping you understand different move combinations and how to use them at the right times. It’s a game that you can tell was made for children and adults alike. Simple to learn, hard to master, and oh so satisfying if done right. Plus, it just looks slick. The graphics are as crisp and clean as any HD fighting game ever released.
Of course, all good things must come to end and I eventually left the arcade to finish out my final day wandering about the land of the rising sun. Traveling to Japan wasn’t anything I had ever planned to do more than once, as it costs nearly three times as much as any other trip I had ever taken as an adult. I knew I would most likely never find my way into the basement of a Shibuya arcade ever again.
Luckily for me, and millions who grew up fantasizing of their own Pokémon fighting games, Pokkén Tournament will be coming to Wii U in every region this coming spring. It immediately jumped to the top of my most wanted list and I don’t think many announcements in the next few months could dethrone it.
As an adult with a full time job and mortgage, I don’t keep my money stored in peanut butter jars under my dresser anymore. But maybe I should rummage through the recycling for old time’s sake and drop a few quarters in for the Pokémon game that I always dreamed of buying.
Ben Bertoli is a freelance games journalist and also runs Kotaku’s TAY Blog. You should check it out! Follow him on twitter @SuperBentendo or checkout his personal site for more gaming insights and silliness.