After a bad day at work, I got under the Parisian rain, went into a video game shop, and bought myself a copy of Pokémon Let’s go Pikachu. I felt that I needed to go back in time, that I needed to leap backwards to the time when everything was simpler. I understand it now, this fit of nostalgia made me want to go back to my childhood – a return to Kanto.
Etymologically, nostalgia rather points towards a return to the home country, and not necessarily to a return in time. Anyway, going back in time is “impossible”, while moving through space seems easier, like when we take a train or a plane. Today though, if I were to go back to the little French village where I grew up, I will find it changed. They’ve painted this façade, this tree was sick and died, this café closed… There is only one thing that remains untouched there: Kanto.
Kanto is the country deploying its blue seas, and its green forests, and its dark caves, and its big skies within the little yellow cartridge in the Game Boy Colour next to my childhood bed at my parents’.
But Kanto is also in the little silver cartridge which cannot save anymore. Kanto is in the red Game Boy Advance cartridge, Kanto is in the green Game Boy advance cartridge. I remember that afternoon with my cousin and how he told me that after defeating the league he had unlocked a secret ending (you lied to me, I know it now).
And now Kanto is in my brand new Nintendo Switch. And I don’t know what my cousin’s doing with his life… I wonder.
Kanto is the most familiar place I can return to. I feel safe there. I know who is going to stand where, who is going to say what, which road to catch which Pokémon… Giovani does not control Kanto – I do. This is why I felt so puzzled by the announcement of the “Let’s go” games! “Who dares messing up with my country?”
But two days after its release, I had a bad day, and spending sixty euros to buy a Pokémon game was the best decision I could have made to cope with it. (It was such a bad day that I almost bought the Pokéball Plus, can you believe?!) One week later, I was the new master of the Kanto league. Once again.
Against my poké-reactionary expectations, this experience of going back to Kanto proved itself more meaningful than all the poké-adventures I’ve experienced in these last ten years. Kanto is definitely more convincing that the poke-versions of New York, France or Hawaii, seen with a tourist gaze, that were offered to us in the latest games of the franchise.
RETURN TO KANTO
A good job has been done in this new version in order to render the limits of this world more “natural”. But I won’t be fooled, the bland yet beautiful new graphics hide the roughness of the original version. In the original game, the borders of the map seem to be arbitrary because of the geometrical placing of bushes, costal reefs, or fences that block the way of the player. As a kid, this arbitrariness was creator of possibilities. In a world without internet and in a school courtyard full of mythomaniac kids, those borders were often fraudulently crossed in order to impress the other children (“my father works at Nintendo and gave me a version of Pokémon when you can go to the Orange Archipelago!”). My wildest desires were made possible by the lies of my classmates.
For French video-maker Pier-re, Kanto is a pierced “checkboard” on which the avatar is a pawn: the impossibility of going past its limits, its “forbidden spaces,” creates a sense of wonder. “Placed on the very edge, the player accesses a singular point of view, that of the edge of the world. This is the multiplicity of the glimpses of the edge, and its inaccessibility, that creates, with the player, a perpetual confrontation of the void, naturally making him wanting to see beyond, what lies there, with his own eyes.” In his video, Pier-re is interested on the player’s gaze on the screen, and a memory comes back, vividly, to my mind: I’m seven, I’m in the car, it’s night outside and I play Pokémon; every time we pass by a light and I manage to see something on the screen of my Gameboy I can do something, move forwards in my quest to become the very best. The moments of darkness hiding the screen are filling my mind with the fantasy of what is to come. Pier-re puts it beautifully: “The player’s gaze is only addressed to the illustrated border. Deceptive, and limiting, but which allows to dream of the inaccessible. A source of imagination, a restrictive choice of using bordering horizons in trompe-l’oeil style which has nonetheless a creative, reflexive power, which makes way for an area of uncertainty in the traversed world, and which forever leaves the space unfinished in the mind of the player, prevents the demystification.”
“WHAT YEAR IS THIS?”
Where are those memories now? Are they even real? My memories of Kanto, my feelings for Kanto are the crystallisation of the fantasy of a 9 y/o playing on his Gameboy on the floor at his grandparents’ during a boring Sunday. Everything overlaps: the Gameboy Color, the Gameboy Advance, the DS, and the Switch… The memories of these times, stuck in limbo, beyond the border, in the horizon – Kanto. Playing back those games is re-living parts of my life in a disorganised order, life is rushing back at me every time I step forward on Route 1 – “Car je suis en route!”
A doubt lingers in me, though. Yes, I think that most of it never happened. I was never in Kanto. Those memories are only situated in the current moment: I look at my past, and its inaccessibility, the same way the Pokémon Yellow player looks at the borders of the maps, and dreams, wants to get there.
This Proustian feeling, is explored in details in the wonderful collection of testimonies “Les Madeleines Vidéoludiques” put together by Esteban Grine.
WHAT REMAINS OF PIKACHU
But today, we are playing the expensive “Let’s go” games and we are sharing the cute outfits of our Pikachu or our Evee on twitter! The mini game where you can pet Pikachu is probably the biggest success of this game. The new capture mechanics is really promising for the next games in the franchise, it really changes the way you approach exploration and re-centres the catching-them-all mechanic at the core of the game. Unfortunately, the level design, especially of the caves is not adapted to this new catching mechanics: the Victory Road, Cerulean Cave, or the Pokémon Mansion lost all their menacing and disorientating aura in this game.
Now, I don’t know for sure if this game is going to leave its imprint on me, if it’s going to add a layer onto Kanto in my deceiving memories. But I’m hopeful, I already look back with tenderness to the animations of my Oddish, my Golduck, the little cries evee makes when it appears (“POY!”^-^), and the way my Pikachu danced with joy and took me in the air… Only time will tell if it sticks.
Damastes, “Quelques mots – Madeleines Vidéoludiques”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwz9vqSrZ1c
Esteban Grine, “Madeleines vidéoludiques” (collection of testimonies). https://www.chroniquesvideoludiques.com/category/recueil/madeleine-videoludique/
Ian Bogost, Play anything, p. 46-47.
Pier-re, “Icône – Kanto (07)”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbUpE-1Brww
Un bot pourrait faire ça, “Les Ruines de nos Souvenirs”.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMSaxxkcPTQ