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How Pokemon turned me into a nerd

Commentary: As Pokemon celebrates its 20th anniversary, CNET's Luke Lancaster looks back on how the global phenomenon made him the game-loving nerd he is today.


Once upon a time, I had a shiny Charizard. The day I left that Pokemon card in my pocket and it went through the washing machine was the greatest tragedy of my young life. I haven't collected any Pokemon cards since then. Even 18 years on, the loss still stings a bit.

Without those first games on Nintendo's brick of a Game Boy, I never would have picked up those cards to begin with. I might never have started an 18-year affair with videogames and tabletop games. Sure, I liked games well enough before then, but Pokemon Red was the first time I was eager and hungry, dedicated to a game, a setting, a fandom. I had to know more, play better, share my love of a thing with my peers. Pokemon taught me how to be a nerd.

Pokemon is 20 years old this week. The first generation of Pokemon games (Red, Blue and Green) was released in Japan in 1996, two years before western audiences got an English version of Red and Blue.

To celebrate the anniversary, Nintendo made Pokemon Red and Blue available as digital downloads. I was talking to a co-worker about the rerelease, and she didn't care. Not only that, she didn't like Pokemon at all. I was affronted.

Mostly because I have sincere difficulty in trying to picture my childhood without it. My friends and I grew up collecting the cards, watching the anime, talking obsessively about it all, and, of course, playing the games. It was inescapable, saturating my generation like Beatlemania.

The games themselves all build on the same basic RPG formula. Catch 'em all, be the very best. You get yourself a team of up to 6 Pokemon (from the 151 different kinds available) and trawl through the wilderness to get catch dozens more inside Pokeballs. These creatures level up through elaborate scissors-paper-rock-style battles, learning new moves and evolving into new forms.

Old Faithful, my original (and still functional) Game Boy.

Dave Cheng/CNET

There were (initially) 15 different elemental types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The manual came with a helpful chart, showing the matchups. Nobody I knew needed the chart after about a week. It was ingrained, indelibly, in our memories.

You'd also need to trade your in-game creatures with friends, since catching all 151 Pokemon was impossible without both versions of the game. I speak from experience when I say the original cable used to link two Game Boys was, kindly put, temperamental. But I was young. I didn't know the more colorful words I'd use now.

In the five generations released since then, always in matched pairs, the roster of Pokemon has expanded to over 700. The games have only become more complex, introducing things like more elemental types, moves, day/night cycles and breeding. But the core never changes.

My nicknamed Pokemon team from a more recent play-through.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

I still remember the precise steps in Red and Blue's complicated item duplication glitch that we, despite being pre-Internet citizens, still all heard about. We just knew.

It's not hard to quantify the sheer scale of Pokemon. 260 million games in the franchise sold; 21.5 billion trading cards printed (that's a lot of shiny Charizards). The first-generation games sold more copies than the ubiquitous Tetris on Game Boy. Spin-off videogames like Pokemon Stadium and Pokemon Snap. A long-running anime, backed up with 18 movies (when did that happen?).

But as a kid of 9 years old, that's not what it meant to me.

Here's the numbers I cared about. 3: The number of times a Pokeball wiggles before you can exhale, having definitely captured a new creature for your digital menagerie. 16: The level when Squirtle, my very first Pokemon, evolved into Wartortle. 151: The total number of Pokemon in Generation I.

After 20 years and seven generations of games (Sun and Moon, the newest pair, were just announced and an augmented reality game called Pokemon Go is forthcoming), I doubt that handheld gaming would be where it is today without those first massively popular installments. They were games that encouraged deep, obsessive knowledge. Sharing that passion with friends. The more you knew, the better you got. Pokemon taught me how to be a nerd, and I'll always remember it for that.