Where I Go: Becoming a Pokémon Champion

For the Last 15 Years, These Cute Digital Creatures Have Helped Remind Me That I Can Overcome Any Challenge That May Come My Way

Where I Go: Becoming a Pokémon Champion | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Writer Rithwik Kalale shares how Pokémon has supported him through angsty adolescence and an uprooting international move from the U.S. to India. Image courtesy of Zócalo

Most kids are obsessed with things—fantasies, foods, films—that they eventually outgrow.

It’s only natural. Our taste ages as we do.

But for me, it’s been 15 years since my parents got me my very first video game, Pokémon Platinum. I’m 22 years old now, and I’m as obsessed as I’ve ever been with the elemental creatures that I first met on a Nintendo DS screen in second grade.

Since then, the franchise has provided me with a place to go to find stability when my life has felt most chaotic—whether that happened to be an uprooting transnational move or just navigating adolescence.

Pokémon was created by Japanese game designer Satoshi Tajiri. Growing up, Tajiri enjoyed being in nature, catching insects and tadpoles, and as an adult, he wanted to modernize this hobby for a new generation of kids. This culminated in 1996 with the launch of the Red and Green versions of a role-playing game, which featured elementally powered, animal-like creatures called Pokémon. (Red and Green were released only in Japan; Red and Blue, which included updates and glitch fixes, were the first to debut in North America.)

The premise behind Tajiri’s brainchild was simple: You play a young Pokémon trainer striving to be the very best (like no one ever was). Your goal? To catch Pokémon who live in various environments and regions, bond with your team, battle them against other Pokémon, defeat evil organizations, and complete the League Challenge—which consists of taking on eight gym leaders (who act as checkpoints to test your battling skills as a trainer as you progress through the game), an Elite Four (the toughest in their regional leagues), and a champion (the final boss of the game). Throughout your journey, you can meet other trainers, obtain gym badges, and level up your Pokémon. By gaining experience points, each Pokémon can potentially reach the prestigious Level 100.

Red and Blue created a cultural frenzy. I wasn’t born yet to experience the full force of “PokéMania,” but a Washington Post article from 2000 captures just how insane it got. Topeka, Kansas, renamed itself “ToPikachu” for a day; fans made The Official Pokémon Handbook a USA Today bestseller, and Time magazine even put Pokémon on its front cover.

By the time I got into Pokémon in 2008, Pokémania had subsided some, but the fandom was still going strong. Already, the franchise was on its fourth generation of games, which included Pokémon Diamond, Pearl, Platinum, HeartGold, and SoulSilver.

My memory is a bit foggy as to how I first started playing (if only I had a Pokémon that knew Defog—a move in the game that gets rid of fog!). But from what I can remember, after a kid at school showed me his game, I probably did what kids do best: nag my parents until they caved and bought me my own copy to play.

Playing Pokémon didn’t just give me a virtual community, it also helped me bond with my family in real life.

This was San Jose, California, in the late 2000s. YouTube or Twitch playthroughs didn’t exist yet; all I had to rely on was my own brain power to try and figure out the game (my parents were not shelling out to buy me a pricey official handbook). I remember getting frustrated when I came across obstacles, like figuring out how to obtain running shoes for my character to make the game move faster. But as I pushed on, I discovered how much I enjoyed the challenge that the Pokémon world offered.

Soon, I immersed myself in the world. I watched the Pokémon TV show. I begged and pleaded with my parents to buy me posters and plushies. I even tried collecting the trading cards. (I gave up on those once I realized how complicated the rules were. To this day, I still cannot play them.)

Then my family moved.

In 2011, when I was in sixth grade, we uprooted our lives, selling our house and car in San Jose, and booking a one-way plane ticket to Karnataka, India. My brother, an oblivious 6-year-old at the time, seemed unbothered. But I, at 11—only a few years away from the angstiest years of my life—was angry.

I felt like I had to start over from scratch, make new friends, and form a new identity in a country that I’d never lived in before. To make matters worse, our new home was in a small city called Mysore, which had no video game store or McDonald’s at the time. In other words, it was every American kid’s worst nightmare.

I found myself clinging to the one thing I could control: Pokémon.

These cute virtual creatures—which I could still trade with my friends back in California—became my safe haven. I found PDFs of the Pokémon manga, and also used fan sites like Serebii.net and Bulbapedia to find hidden battles or items in the game that were out of the way.

Playing Pókemon also introduced me to new people through the community of fans online. I joined YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook groups where all we talked about was raising, training, and battling Pokémon.

Playing Pokémon didn’t just give me a virtual community, it also helped me bond with my family in real life. Because my younger brother liked Pokémon (I assume he just picked it up from me because he loves to copy me), we were able to bridge our age gap by talking about what to do in the game, battling to test our skills, and even getting corresponding versions of each game so we could trade game-exclusive Pokémon

Whenever I had a rough day dealing with classmates in a new country, culture shock, and general pre-teen angst, I knew I could come home and open my 3DS (the updated version of the DS that I’d guilt-tripped my parents into buying for me because of the move). Seeing my Pokémon team always made me feel invincible. I raised them! So what if I felt alienated from my peers and was struggling with my schoolwork? In this world, I was a champion.

My Pokémon collection grew. Now, I had whole generations of games. The arrival of a Nintendo e-shop meant I could even download games to stay up to date on the latest and greatest. My favorites in my roster were HeartGold, Black/White, X/Y, Ultra Sun, and Omega Ruby. At this time, I’d gone from the six Pokémon that everyone starts off with, to collecting hundreds across all these games. I took comfort in knowing that I could put in any game cartridge (or start up any digital download) in my 3DS and travel to any Pokémon region I wanted: Alola in Sun and Moon (the game’s version of Hawaiʻi), Kalos in X and Y (France), or Unova in Black and White (New York). As a Pokémon trainer, I was a world traveler, fighting in the most exquisite, historic, and beautiful places—by choice.

In 2018, I graduated high school and moved back to the States (to the toaster oven that is Arizona, specifically), which is where I’ve lived for the past five years. Now at age 22, Pokémon no longer feels like my lifeline, like it did during that first big intercontinental move, but I’m glad that it remains a huge part of my life. My go-to username continues to be @pokefanrithwik, a moniker I coined at age 13, and refuse to change. And I still catch up regularly with the games and follow the anime. Not to mention, my apartment is littered with figurines and plushies (that I don’t have to ask my parents’ permission to buy anymore!).

Feeling sentimental, the other day, I dusted off my old, trusty Nintendo 3DS that’s been with me since 2011. I put in my original Pokémon Platinum game cartridge from San Jose, and found that I had saved the game right before facing the final champion character: Cynthia.

Sitting in my Phoenix apartment, I enter the battle room to face her. There Cynthia is, decked out in all black with pixelated blond hair. “Together, you and your Pokémon overcame all the challenges you faced, however difficult. It means that you’ve triumphed over any personal weaknesses, too. Let’s get on with why you’re here,” she says. “I, Cynthia, accept your challenge as the Pokémon League Champion! There won’t be any letup from me!”

I’ve beaten Cynthia before, but I like running through different battles in the game so that my Pokémon can gain experience and reach that coveted Level 100. My six Pokémon this time are Sharpedo, Lucario, Electivire, Infernape, Togekiss, and Garchomp—a pretty balanced lineup, if I do say so myself.

When I finally defeat the last Pokémon in Cynthia’s own team of six, her static character model slides across the screen. The game lights up with futuristic blue light strips and white cube-like decorations. Once again, I’ve done it: My Pokémon have officially made it to the Hall of Fame.

“Remember,” a defeated Cynthia says. “Your Pokémon are partners that grew with you through many challenging battles. Together, you and your Pokémon can overcome any challenge that may come your way.”

Exactly, Cynthia.


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