When Pokémon hit in the late ’90s, I was all in. I still remember my friend telling me about it in homeroom in middle school. By the time lunch rolled around, he had convinced me to watch the anime when I got home. It was pretty goofy, so I played it off like I didn’t like it at first, saying, “It was okay. I’ll give it another shot tomorrow,” but I liked it from the first minutes. The seeds of obsession were planted. I didn’t have a Game Boy to play the games, so I began devising ways I could engage with these characters in the meantime, typically spending my evenings at home logging onto America Online to research about these creatures and read about the games I didn’t have. Since I didn’t have much money at that age, I resorted to making Pokémon cards out of the index cards my parents sent me to school with until I could buy real ones. Months later, I convinced my parents to get me a Game Boy Color with Pokémon Blue for Christmas. The hooks were deep.
One thing eclipsed my love of Pokémon in middle school: my hopeless, yet undying desire to be popular. Because of this, my love for Pokémon was often kept quiet since it was considered a “dorky” thing to like. By the time Gold and Silver came out, my tempered enthusiasm for the franchise combined with my hesitance of learning 100 new Pokémon drove me to skip it. I dropped off the Pokémon series, and didn’t return until Pokémon X and Y nearly a decade and a half later.
Fast forward to summer 2016 and I’m a 29-year-old looking forward to Pokémon Sun and Moon. A few months before that hit, Pokémon Go launched to a swell of enthusiasm. Unsure of the concept, I downloaded it and took a stroll around my neighborhood, catching everything in sight. What started for me as a fun diversion during walks has evolved into something much more for nearly two years.
When you look at people playing Pokémon Go, it’s easy to mock them – groups of people huddled around each other, hunched over their phones, feeding Pikachu a berry. However, the game is much more than the sum of its parts. Look beyond the core concept and the buggy infrastructure, and you have a game that Game Informer executive editor Andrew Reiner rightly pointed out as life-changing.
As my obsession with filling my Pokédex grew, I began coming up with excuses to engage with the game. Using tools like The Silph Road’s map, I found nests of Pokémon I was hunting and started planning exercises in that area. I felt more motivated to go for runs in highly populated Pokémon areas because it not only let me make progress in the game, but it also occupied my mind during the run. This encouraged me to run scenic routes during all seasons, allowing me to take in gorgeous sunsets over warm lakes, or gaze over awe-inspiring icy expanses during frigid Minnesota winters.
Even when I’m not using it as an excuse to exercise or a distraction from how tired I am, Pokémon Go has compelled me to explore the area surrounding my home. I’m still a fairly new resident of Minneapolis, and many of my favorite locales have been discoveries I owe to Pokémon Go. I’ve stumbled upon cool waterfront parks that I’ve returned to for picnics, or lesser known areas full of awesome bars. I even found a quaint lake tucked away in a neighborhood less than a mile from my house.
Sure, these are things I could have discovered without the aid of Niantic’s Pokémon-themed AR app, but the incentive to go out and explore has helped me break the mold and stray from my mainstay spots. Along with that, I’ve met many fellow players who I recognize when I participate in raids by my house. It’s always nice to have a small reunion with a familiar group for a legendary raid.
In addition to getting to know my area around me, Pokémon Go has enabled me to reacquaint myself with a franchise that I hold near and dear to my heart. The way Pokémon Go has slowly rolled out the generations of creatures, I’ve grown intimately familiar with the second and third generations of monsters. I now know Gen 2 nearly as well as Gen 1, and I’ve already gone back to rectify never playing Gold and Silver as a kid. I’m currently in the process of playing through Omega Ruby, and it’s giving me a similar joy and a sense of wonder to that of my first playthrough of Pokémon Blue. I’ve even returned to the anime, watching the first five seasons. Pokémon Go is far from the best Pokémon game, but it’s given me an appreciation of the franchise in ways I haven’t felt since I was a middle schooler discovering the sensation for the first time.
Paramount to all these life enhancements are the memories I’ve formed playing with those close to me. Whether it’s the day-long excursions with coworkers to a neat downtown park known for rare monster spawns or that time I sprinted across a crowded field with my girlfriend and hundreds of other trainers to catch a Snorlax, I love looking back at the unique excitement the game has provided me. I’ve certainly had much better gaming experiences over the last two years, but few have provided me with as vivid and fond memories as Pokémon Go.
If I’ve learned anything from experiences such as this over the 31 years I’ve been alive, it’s to love what you love and not be ashamed of it. I abandoned one of my favorite things as a child thanks to peer pressure, and I missed out on 15 years of great games because of it. Now that I’m playing catch-up, I understand how foolish I was to leave something I genuinely enjoy behind to try and gain the acceptance of others. Sure, I sometimes feel a little silly battling a raid boss in below-freezing temperatures with a group of shivering players, but I’m loving every minute and I don’t give a damn what any bystander may think.