The year is 2002. I’m sprawled out on the floor of a sterile waiting room in Albuquerque, which smells like carpet cleaner and cheap cologne. My mom’s across the country in Georgia, and my dad’s in the other room for his legally mandated anger management classes.
But in that moment, in that waiting room, I’m not thinking about mom or dad. I’m not thinking about their separation, my dad’s history of violent abuse, my lack of friends. No, my brain’s occupied by more pressing matters. Namely? How to evolve my cute little critters in Pokémon Pinball.
You see, it would be a few years until I had a “real” Pokémon game of my very own again. When my dad got custody back of me, one of the first things he did was take away my Game Boy Advance, most of my games, and my Pokémon cards without telling me. “They got lost,” he’d tell me, when I knew damn good and well that he was lying. Point being, my precious copies of Silver and Yellow were lost, along with all the precious monsters I’d collected when my dad wasn’t around to dictate how I spent my free time.
However, what he didn’t take away was the Game Boy Color I had stashed away in my room – along with my copies of Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, Zelda: Oracle of Ages, and (of course) Pokémon Pinball. This meant that my only real connection to the series was this weird, oblique pinball game that I only half-understood. While all the other kids were trading monsters and getting hyped for the next big Pokémon for the GBA, I was the weirdo trying to show off my Pokémon Pinball PokéDex. Because of course I was.
Despite knowing that literally nobody else cared about it, though, I threw myself into the game. I couldn’t help it – everything about this thing mystified me. The strange methods for collecting ‘mons, the oblique and seemingly nonsensical method of progression, the adorable sprite art for all 150 original creatures… I was baffled by and in love with every aspect of this strange game.
In retrospect, I think Pinball was the start of a personal trend. I’m a diehard Pokémon fan – always have been, always will be. But more often that not, I’m kind of uninterested in the hardcore dick-waving contests that come with each new generation. My enjoyment of Pokémon isn’t tied to having a complete PokéDex, hunting for Shinies, or making sure every single creature in my box has a good EV level.
Instead, I’m into Pokémon for the real ideological moral center: meeting new animal friends and learning about them. Because of that, I tend to always be most interested in whatever weird spin-off Nintendo cooks up. I know the drill with the main game – get a big party and make your numbers go up. But that logic doesn’t apply in games like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon or Pokémon Snap.
And it especially doesn’t apply in Pinball. Sure, you’re still playing a game to fill out your checklist, but the entire experience is different. Game Freak managed to re-contexualize that addictive loop of discovering and capturing new monsters, and did so by taking that skin and stretching it over the bones of a rock solid pinball game. Instead of exploring nature and throwing balls at wildlife, you steer a ball into bumpers to make a ‘mon appear, then hit it with a ball until it’s caught. It’s the kind of strange, esoteric experiment that most companies wouldn’t gamble such a large property on during the first big boom of its popularity.
But I’m glad that Game Freak did take that chance. Because while all the other kids were playing the “real” Pokémon games, I had my own little way to fit in. I had my own PokéDex to feel proud of – my own little log of accomplishments that made me feel special. When the rest of my life wasn’t normal, Pokémon Pinball made me feel like I fit in… in my own weird little way.
P.S. If you’re wondering about the album behind my Game Boy in the header, it’s Romantic by Mannequin Pussy. You can buy it on Bandcamp or stream it on Spotify.
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