Back when I was a kid (hold on, let me find my cane), games were simple. You rescued a princess and you liked it. Everyone ran to the right. Black was black, and white was a sort of light green. And if you didn’t play the game the right way, you were cheating. Easy enough.
You see, back in those days (brb, chasing the kids off the lawn), if you wanted to play a game in any way other than it was intended, you were using a Game Genie, a device that forcibly altered the game code to something else. The glitches and gameplay breaks allowing one to do things the programmers most certainly did not intend largely didn’t exist or weren’t yet known.
Games were simpler, leaving less room for holes. The online gaming communities at the time were small and obscure, removing many possibilities for collaboration. And the programmers and codesmiths of today were yesterday’s students, cutting their baby teeth on BASIC by playing around on their TI-86s when the math teacher wasn’t looking.
Then along came Pokémon, which threw a Mankey wrench into that black and white thinking.
Pokémon Red and Blue came along right around the time the younger generation was starting to find a footing on the internet, gathering in AOL chatrooms and putting up Geocities pages. This interconnectedness meant that when the Mew glitch was first discovered, it did the ’90s equivalent of going viral. The complicated series of steps, which involved quick timing and some knowledge of game mechanics, was most definitely not the way the game was intended to be played. But at the same time, it was done on the game itself, using the same buttons one always played with. And furthermore, while it could be used to generate almost any kind of Pokémon, it was named for Mew because, at the time, how else could one get one? Nintendo promoted the idea of “gotta catch ‘em all,” but then withheld one, releasing it only in very limited events. (To this day, I have yet to meet anyone who actually received a first-generation Mew this way.) If you wanted to truly catch them all, what were you supposed to do? Using the Mew glitch to get a Mew was as close to intended gameplay as you could get.
While the second and third generations continued to be an online community, the actual exchanging of Pokémon was limited to localities. The only way to trade or battle was to be face to face with the other person, using the local wireless add-ons (or, Arceus forbid, the Link Cable.) Debates continued on whether glitched and cheated Pokémon were acceptable. But since the only trading and battling available were against people you could meet in person, the stakes were nonexistent, being solely for local pride. Hacked Pokémon were still very obvious. You could tell your buddy used a Game Genie (or the new upstart Action Replay) to catch his Celebi because its caught location was Route 2. But since it played just like a regular Celebi, who cared? It wasn’t like Nintendo was giving you many options to get one the normal way.
The DS generations, fourth and fifth, were the Monferno wrench in the purity debate. Trading could now be done over the internet, with people you’d never met and had no reason to trust. At the same time, improvements in the Action Replay, coupled with a Japanese program called Pokégen, could generate Pokémon that were indistinguishable from conventionally-caught Pokémon (unless one knew what subtle signs to look for). And those Pokémon could also be generated in ways that surpassed the regular rules, giving them higher stats or abilities and moves they normally wouldn’t have. Now there were stakes.
Using a hacked Pokémon, whether you knew it or not, could get you disqualified or banned from official tournaments. At the same time, unconventional gameplay methods became known and were spread, no longer through the old AOL chatrooms and Geocities pages, but through gaming forums and dedicated Pokémon websites. In-game glitches allowed you to clone Pokémon, and the deciphering of the game’s mechanics’ random number generator made catching or breeding literally any perfect or unique Pokémon you wanted possible with good timing. The gameplay purists who derided all unconventional forms of play now had actual reasons to worry about how others played, and for those so concerned, it must have been one of the worst times to be in the Pokémon metagame. In fairness, both Nintendo and the community’s self-policing stepped up to cut down on harm from deceptive practices. But at the same time, their calls for everyone to play only as intended were unable to be heard over all the players that accepted varying shades of gray in their online trading and battling.
For me, it was the best time. As someone who’d used a Game Genie on occasion and liked seeing games do unexpected things, my general opinion on cheating and unconventional play had always been “if it doesn’t hurt anyone, play however you like.” And with the tools of the DS generations, “however you like” greatly expanded.
Hacking Pokémon inspired creativity as people experimented beyond the move and ability restrictions of the game. (You have not experienced true glee until you’ve unleashed a Huge Power Regigigas upon the NPC trainers of the Battle Tower.) Cloning encouraged traders online to be generous, freely sharing rare and useful Pokémon with newbies, even taking pride in seeing copies of their caught Pokémon passing around. And knowledge of game mechanics and the random number generator allowed a multitude of ways to achieve the same results, through in-game methods, manipulation, or Action Replay codes. Those who didn’t have lots of free time could replace that with good timing and calculations. People without access to an Action Replay or a computer to use the calculation programs could substitute general knowledge and patience, and those whose circumstances varied could do both as they pleased.
I saw literal thousands of Pokémon change hands on my games, and each one had a different story. Here, a clone of a Pokémon from an event in Fukuoka. There, a shiny Pokémon with a silly nickname from Afghanistan. Over yonder, a carefully bred Pokémon from a friend. And trading was only one facet of post-game play. The vast breadth of online play gave the DS generations playability that far outstripped their in-game content.
Sadly, the difficulty in hacking the 3DS software and the more rigorous testing and patching of the last two generations of Pokémon games meant that most of these options went away. I can’t blame Nintendo for wanting to cut down on the possibility of deceptive play in their online competitions (but given that seventh gen can still use Pokémon all the way back to the third gen, how effective this has been is up for debate.) However, I miss being able to come up with wacky new hacked builds or give out shiny Pokémon to anyone that wanted one. Limiting me to the expected gameplay (in games that don’t have particularly strong expected gameplay) limits my options post-game, and thus my interest and time in it. With seven generations now on the books, providing new gameplay to keep fans engaged becomes harder.
Here’s hoping that the eventual eighth generation provides us with something that gives us the flexibility of play that they unintentionally gave us before. I can’t go back to a style of play that never existed in the first place—Pokémon has never been as simple as “catch ‘em all.”
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.