This past Friday, Nintendo and Game Freak released Pokémon Sword and Shield and the internet was set ablaze. Some people were thrilled and excited, others a bit less so. One of the celebrations sweeping the internet was the Twitter hashtag #ThankYouGameFreak. I saw it and put out my own:
Pokemon literally changed my life. Pokemon is why I love RPGs, made some of my earliest close friendships, and most importantly: I might not be playing Magic today without it. #ThankYouGameFreak for the influence you had on my life, and on the world.â€” Kendra Smith, Decidedly Elvish (@TheMaverickGal) November 9, 2019
This got me thinking and made me want to take a bit of a trip down memory lane in celebration of some brand new Pokémon action. So buckle in, because we're going all the way back to 1999!
I was in third grade, living in Buffalo, NY. Pokémon was all the rage, starting at the beginning of the school year in '98 when Red and Blue were released. My classmates and I couldn't get enough and were talking about all kinds of strategies, pouring over guides or hunting secrets on the internet like Missingno, The S.S. Anne truck, and the epic hoax of Pikablu (Marill) and the Pokégods. Then something new started showing up: Pokémon trading cards.
I can't remember where I first got my original packs, but I do remember me and my sister buying the classic Starter deck with the 1st Edition Machamps and one of each of the two preconstructed decks Blackout and Zap! These featured Hitmonchan and Mewtwo as their respective face cards. They had as much power as one might expect from a preconstructed deck, but we didn't care. We sat up excitedly playing for hours in the living room of our small home, or at our kitchen table, or even in our room on our beds late into the night.
We bought boosters here and there. My very first experience at a card shop was a tiny baseball card shop in a bowling alley by me called B&L Sports cards and we were on the hunt for some cards. The demand was so high that places were running out of stock before they could get it in, so finding packs was always a surprising treat. Still, we were able to find a few packs of the brand new Jungle expansion and quickly snapped them up to play with.
As we played, though, something fantastic that would change the course of my life would happen. We were at a family get together at my aunt's place and my cousin saw the two of us playing Pokémon and he noticed something: this looked a lot like Magic: the Gathering. He handed us each a pile of low-powered cards like Skyshroud Troll and Scathe Zombies and slowly walked us through the basics of the game. We kept the cards and began playing this game soon after, with me purchasing my very first packs of Urza's Legacy and Starter 99.
Soon after, as a gift, I received my first ever copies of Scrye magazine. I became completely enamored with these. Not only did it provide tons of information and images on the games I played, but had lots of cool info, funny comics, and, of course, price guides. I remember those first times flipping through and seeing what some things could run you. A Beta Black Lotus would've run you $300 on the high end, and an Alpha one would cost you less. I would pour over the prices every day as I ate breakfast, enamored that these cards could have some intrinsic value. I wouldn't do much more with this knowledge for years, but it would serve as a solid launching point for following card prices and such throughout my life.
Soon after this, I entered the fourth grade, and had to make an all new set of friends. One person who I became good friends with - so much so that we still talk to this day - was someone named Zach. We bonded over Pokémon - the cards and games alike. I remember how we would go and play Pokémon Stadium, where I was also introduced to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the first time, and also a slew of awesome Magic cards I'd never seen before.
My only real basis for the game was a handful of sets and card images I saw through Scrye. I was familiar with the Urza Block, Rath Cycle, Unglued, and Starter 99, but his brother had been collecting for years prior to that point and he broke out cards from sets like Chronicles. Being introduced to cards like Arcades Sabboth, Vaevictis Asmadi, the other Elder Dragon Legends was a game changer for me. I'd never seen such massive creatures and I was hooked. It wasn't long before I bought my own.
Soon after we were buying our very first packs of the Fossil Pokémon expansion and broke out the theme decks for that set as well: LockDown and BodyGuard. We played for hours almost every day, even when our school had long since banned the cards. It wasn't long before we found ourselves attending the Pokémon League events being held every week at our Toys R Us. We earned gym badge pins, cool promos, and even got to play some sweet special events, like the prerelease for the Team Rocket expansion.
All the while I grew my collection of Magic cards as well, with my sister and I both sporting decks with easily 150 cards and all five colors. We slowly started to play more of that game and less Pokémon. The hype was starting to die down a bit but we still thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet Magic was becoming our focus and our games got wilder and crazier, which we loved. There was nothing quite like casting an Incoming! to really make the game hit critical mass.
Over the next few years we attended less Pokémon events, but still kept up with things. I remember vividly driving out to meet up with Zach in Erie, Pennsylvania where he had moved at the end of the school year. There we saw Pokemon 2000 in theaters and obtained the cool Ancient Mew promo. Shortly after, we attended his local game store where we played the Gym Heroes prerelease. I didn't do so well, but talked a lot about Magic with the locals. There, I got my first copies of early powerhouses like Clone, Mahamoti Djinn, and Sorceress Queen.
I stopped going to as many events thereafter. The Pokémon hype was basically gone. Few of my friends were playing it anymore and by the time Neo Revelation was released, I stopped purchasing cards from the game entirely. Instead, I began focusing on Magic, attending my first events with the release of the Onslaught and Mirrodin blocks in the following years. I also picked up the new game Yu-Gi-Oh! for a short period, but that lasted also only a year or so. Magic was what really stuck with me, and continued to do so for years. I wouldn't be here without Pokémon, and I'm glad I had it.
Today, Pokémon is still as excellent, and arguably more popular than ever. It may not have quite the level of a competitive scene as Magic but that's fine. There's still plenty of new players picking the game up every day and there's still plenty of events to be had. Every Thursday night at CoolStuffGames Maitland, the store is packed from side to side with Pokémon players. The events are even live streamed by my friend Marc Daly, which you can find here. Even if you don't want to pick up the paper game, buy a starter deck and use the code in it to give the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online version a try instead. The game's still fun as ever, just a little more competitive, but that's fine because it's excellent all the same - especially if you want a nice little reprieve from something like Magic.
YouTube: Kendra Smith