Have Pokemon Cards Changed, or Have I?

By Richard Wordsworth on at

Nobody knows how many Pokemon there are anymore.

I mean, surely somebody does. Somebody at Nintendo. It'll be in a ledger somewhere - a dusty, leather-bound volume as thick as it is wide, sitting on top of a mountain of gold and guarded by a snoozing Charizard. But whereas the eleven-year-old me and every last one of eleven-year-old me's classmates - even the ones who liked girls and football - could have told you then that there were 151 Pokemon, no-one at the launch event for the Pokemon Trading Card Game's latest expansion, XY Primal Clash, seems at all sure. Brows are furrowed. Rough guesstimations are offered. Someone says they will find out for me.

I know it will be loads. Obviously it will be. Like an ignored tax notice, you know that the longer you don't look in the envelope, the higher the number will eventually be when you do. And that's weirdly intimidating for someone like me, for whom Pokemon was once such massive part of everyday life. You remember what it was like: school hallways heaving with hawkish ten-year-olds pedaling unwanted pocket monsters like traders in an Arabian bazaar. The kid with the American uncle who had exclusive access to the new sets, offering outrageous terms for a Fossil Gastly. The sad hopeful circling the classrooms trying to find anyone - anyone at all - who would swap for his starter pack foil Machamp. Pokemon, back then, was my jam. And stepping into the Loading Bar in Dalston fifteen years later for the launch of Primal Clash, a part of me is quite genuinely worried that it won't be anymore.

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What the new booster packs look like.

Not that I let any of this on - I'm here to win, and must project confidence. The friend I bring along and I are supplied with two decks from the new set: me with Ocean's Core (an unconventional tag-teaming of Fire and Water Pokemon) and he with Earth's Pulse (Electric and Fighting types). Immediately I feel at a disadvantage. I’ve never liked Water Pokemon. They don't do well against Electric types, and all the basic Water Pokemon are adorable Japan-ifications of seahorses and turtles and whatever this thing is supposed to be. If I want to reclaim my childhood glories, I need killing machines, not Happy Meal toys.

My bench - the holding pen where you store your backup Pokemon - looks like the lobster tank at a Chernobyl seafood restaurant.

Accordingly, the first match does not go well. My bench - the holding pen where you store your backup Pokemon - looks like the lobster tank at a Chernobyl seafood restaurant and my active Pokemon is a Horsea. It has one attack, Bubble, which does no damage but has a 50/50 chance of paralyzing the defending Pokemon. The defending Pokemon is my friend's Rhyhorn - a monster with the face of a rhinoceros, the legs of an oak tree and the body of an Abrams battle tank. Its attacks certainly do damage. As do the attacks of the rest of the growly mountain range of Pokemon that my rival has amassed on his bench. Furthermore, as a result of what I assume was bad shuffling on the part of the previous pair of players, my Pokemon have one Water energy card to share between them. After several brave rounds of Bubbling, my opponent grinds my Pokemon into shrimp paste.

We swap decks. Time to turn the tables. I'm in more uncharted territory now - I don't recognise any of the Pokemon I draw in my starting hand of seven cards, but I take comfort in the fact that they at least look like they belong in a gladiatorial battle to the death, and not mixed up in a bowl of rice and fried vegetables. I send out a Groudon, a chunky-looking chap that's a sort of cross between a dragon and the gardening tools aisle at B&Q. He's a basic Pokemon, but he starts out with a whopping 130 hit points and has attacks like Rock Smash and Break Ground that do loads of damage. Put that in your pipe and Bubble it, Horsea.

My friend sends out a Vulpix, a diminutive fox Pokemon from the crap end of the original 151 Poke-spectrum. I snigger, not altogether inwardly. Only girls liked Vulpix at school. I'm going to kill this fox deader than a hunting party of Conservative MPs.

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Young competitors at last year's Pokemon World Championships.

I would have done, too, if it hadn’t been for one niggling problem. Once again, like a bad workman blaming not just his tools but the previous contractors as well, my steamrolling offensive was stymied by energy flow problems. Knowing that Vulpix couldn't do much more than jump around Groudon's ankles nipping at his knobbly calves, I had tried to spread my Fighting energy cards evenly around my other Pokemon, building up a team of reserve warriors to step in should my Groudon be unexpectedly switched or knocked out. It seemed like a good, forward-thinking idea; except by turn three I had no more energy, and needed at least one more before Groudon could perform any attacks at all. Every turn I drew another Pokemon, another Trainer card, another Stadium. The brownout continued, my poor Groudon slumped sadly in his corner, swatting weakly at the nippy bastard slowly chipping health off him like a sparrow on a fat ball.

"Gnaw!" my friend announced smugly each turn, dealing another 10 points of damage to my wheezing, asthmatic Groudon. "Gnaw, again!"

Moments like these didn't do much to make me feel like The Very Best. But in the matches where energy was more plentiful (after some quite bitter, violent re-shuffling), I caught glimpses of the game I remembered. Attacking with and defending against lumbering, fully evolved Pokemon was satisfying, but the part that I remembered enjoying from school - the Top Trumps decision making process over which Pokemon to send out next and which to hold back in reserve - is where the game becomes strategic. Once you get into the late stage of the game, where massive Pokemon can knock each other out in one or two turns, a single decision about who to put forward can still spark a chain of actions and reactions that ripples down through the next half dozen turns. The longer we played, the longer each turn took and the less we spoke - two chess grandmasters presiding grimly over a murderous petting zoo.

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There's a simplicity to the Pokemon TCG that I'd forgotten - or perhaps not appreciated back when I was barely in double digits. And at first, I found it a little frustrating. In the time since my Pokemon had been corralled in an old booster box somewhere near the back of the attic, I'd been inducted into Magic: The Gathering. And while I'd never claim to be an expert at either game now, there is a key difference between them that coloured my time with Primal Clash: Pokemon is supposed to be nice.

There's a reason that the more adult game mechanics that I enjoyed in Magic - forcing players to discard their hands, crippling their energy pool, forcing opponents to sacrifice creatures - don't make it into the Pokemon TCG, and that's because, I think, the game consciously mirrors the cartoon. You're supposed to play fair, and respect your opponent and not be mean. You're supposed to be Ash, while I wanted to be Team Rocket.

There's something comforting about that. Fifteen years later, I don't think Pokemon is for me anymore - but that's not the bitter pill I'd worried it might be. I like my games to be underhanded, unfair, cruel and frustrating. Growing up has made me jaded. I don't just want to win, I want the other person to lose, so I can crow about it. But it's nice to know that after all this time, the thing that I enjoyed so much aged ten or eleven is still out there for ten or eleven-year olds today. And for nicer, less contrary grown-ups than me.