I’ve never been too excited about the idea of “spring break.” When the general public thinks of this weeklong college tradition, they see the equivalent of a late night Comedy Central Commercial, all breasts and wraparound sunglasses and quiet, soft tears shed between peals of vomit. To me, though spring break is about going somewhere warm and sunny, with some sort of large body of water, and I went to school in Southern California, so…where would I go? Mexico? NOT RIGHT NOW. Also, I don’t really need to see sad college girls getting drunk on Coors Light, hooting until they are hoarse, and making porn in a trailer for a hat.
This year, my girlfriend suggested that we go to a beach house in Gulf Shores, Alabama for spring break. This sounded super sweet until we realized that the most economical way to go about doing this (we are both graduate students) would be a road trip. Gulf Shores is two-thousand and sixty-seven miles away from Los Angeles. If you were to drive this distance, straight-through, it would take 33 hours, without bathroom breaks or eating. This is a ludicrous thing to propose. But, hey, we are young, and fairly stupid, and so we threw a bunch of snacks, a tent, and some clothes into a car and then started driving. We also brought along Pokémon.
I have played a lot of video games, but for some reason or another, I have never gotten into Nintendo’s incredibly successful cock-fighting simulation, and I’ve always attributed this to my disdain for RPGs. I don’t like the idea of grinding through levels in order to progress in a video game. It always seemed like the equivalent of elementary school multiplication tables, but at least at the end of that, I knew what eight times seven was (fifty-six) and we got a sweet-ass ice cream party. With RPGs, the grinding seems like a time-waster. With Pokémon, there’s not even a grand quest to save your village/stop the end of the universe/defeat God! There’s no bizarre Christian overtones! There’s nobody in weirdly inappropriate outfits speaking in stilted English! WHAT IS THERE TO LIKE?
[!/20100421-jirachi.jpg "adorable, and very sad")
My girlfriend was adamant that Pokémon was fun. She’s a casual gamer who owns a Wii, an SNES (I knew she was the one for me when she pulled out a second copy of Yoshi’s Island, and said “well, I thought I had lost the first.”), and a Game Boy Color. When she was younger, she played Pokémon Crystal and found it to be amusing, and had recently found her old GBC while packing for a big move. She mentioned this to me, and I responded that the current generation of Pokémon games, on the DS, looked a lot better. This is where she asked if she could borrow one of my DSs, since Platinum might be a fun road trip activity. Thus, we went to Gamestop and she picked up a used copy of Platinum. The overly-helpful Gamestop employee said that if she put money down on Heart Gold or Soul Silver, the recently released updated DS versions of the GBC classics, she would get a special wish Pokémon Jirachi. “He’s pretty cute,” the salesman said, “he has a smiley face on his stomach, and hangy things on his head!” How could you turn down that offer? You cannot, let me tell you. You simply cannot.
As we left the Gamestop, she turned to me.
“You’re going to have to play too, Kevin.”
“So we can trade. You know, on the road trip. Some Pokémon only evolve through trades.”
She looked away, and smiled.
Now, see, my girlfriend is two things: really cute, and really good at exploiting this attribute to make me do things. My brain was saying: “no, Kevin, you don’t really want to play Pokémon,” but my mouth said “Sure!” See, because my mouth is the one that has the capacity to make noise, the mouth won the argument. Sorry, brain! The day before our trip, I bought Pokémon Heart Gold. The box was huge, and gold, and I was told in no uncertain terms by my girlfriend that I was Not Allowed To Play It Yet. This was so that I could collect all three types of the starter Pokémon (females) in order to trade them to her so that she could breed them and give me back their progeny. It was here that I realized that I was in foreign territory. She knew this game quite well. I knew nothing.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: This article has been written from the perspective of someone who knows very little about Pokémon. Don’t give me any crap if I sound excited about things that you do not, Person Reading This Who Is An Ecstatic Pokémon Fan.)
With our car packed, DSs charged (I own a car charger for my DSi, which I never thought would be as useful as it ended up being), and full of grit and determination, we set out on the trip, heading east, switching off every few hours the responsibility of driving. The width of California involved my repeatedly playing the beginning of Heart Gold, saving just before I could pick my Pokémon, restarting the game until I got a female Chikorita/Totodile/Cyndaquil, and then continuing on right up until the point where I could enable the ability to trade. Here, I would trade away one of the Pokémon (seriously, Nintendo, why is your trading animation so lengthy?), nuke my character, and start again. I did this three times. You know what’s difficult to do, in any situation? Deleting a saved game. I remember when I finally got tired of Animal Crossing DS, and I deleted my town and it’s inhabitants before trading the cartridge in. To this day, part of me still misses Qubeville, even if it was filled with self-centered animal jackasses. They were my self-centered animal jackasses.
When I was finally allowed to embark on my own tale of grand adventure (are all of the Pokémon games so grandiose and heavy-handed with teaching important life lessons?), I discovered that Pokémon is a dangerous, dangerous thing for a child. The main video game is incredibly linear (and, I think, overly simplistic) but this is stretched over an incredibly deep hole that is Pokémon collecting. There are so many! They have different temperaments? They can be massaged? You can breed them? The more research I did under the hood of the game, the more I realized how much thought went into making the perfect addictive game. Sorry, Etana Jol, but little blue tubes eating disks have nothing on adorable Japanese monsters.
I started to play more intently, making sure to play in the evening and in the daytime to get the rarer Pokémon that only come out at night. My girlfriend was right next to me, a good twenty to thirty levels my senior, always quick to respond with “electric” whenever I asked what was good against “Birds…or…I guess…Bird monsters?” I became her fence as she traded me Kadabras and Gravelers, immediately demanding her Alakazams and Golems. She even wanted to battle me, which is essentially 1 Samuel 17 but without that wacky twist ending. As the states rolled by, I started to really fall for my six most-used Pokémon, the traded daughters of the original starters. Pokémon introduced me into a world where kids and adults stand around in fields and along paths waiting to throw their adorable slaves into battle against any random child stranger. A world where every town has a few houses, a grocery store that only sells items used to catch and train Pokémon, and a building where you can rest them, trade them, and battle them. A world where people are always asking for your cell phone number so that they can call at random times with inane snippets about almost catching wild Sentrets, finishing with, “oh, and you should call your mom.” I fell for it all, completely and totally.
Case in point: Heart Gold and Soul Silver both come with this bizarre pedometer called the Pokéwalker, which allows you to bring a Pokémon along with you as you walk around. As you take steps, the Pokémon collects Watts, which can be used to search for items, or have super simplistic Pokémon battles. Also, walking levels up your Pokémon as well, which is at least a kind of positive way of grinding. During the span of our trip, I had a random Pokémon on my team with me at any point in the day, as we walked through The French Quarter in New Orleans, or the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum, or the Texas Capital Building in Austin. If I wasn’t walking, I looked like an autistic kid as I jiggled the stupid Pokéwalker to mimic walking. As I am typing this, I am realizing that this is ridiculous, this behavior. But I was caught. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was about the game that drew me in, but it had me tight.
My girlfriend and I began to capture Pokémon for each other, in the equivalent sentiment to “If you’re up to get a beer, can you get me one.” At gas stations between here and Florida, we’d swap driving responsibilities and also, here’s a Houndour, oh thank you here’s a Phanpy. Pokémon terminology and in-jokes started to creep into our conversation. This is sappy, but Pokémon kind of tied the whole road trip together. Don’t get me wrong, we went out and did the things you want to do on a spring break trip (drinking, mostly, sometimes in a hot tub), but in the background there was Pokémon. My opinion on the game series was reversed 100%. I was having fun, and at this point, Nintendo has the formula tweaked almost perfectly (Travis’ note: But you still can’t walk diagonally). I really recommend Heart Gold or Soul Silver if you’ve never played Pokémon. It’s served as a great introduction for me,as you get two continents (Johto, and the original Kanto), and the various Pokémon that come with those continents. Just make sure you have someone around to play it with, because by itself, I think it loses half of its power. I’ve even enjoyed the slow grinding, which actually becomes a little easier with the addition of the fun Pokémon. I really like this game.
So, to summarize: I drove over four thousand miles with a wonderful girl, seeing the sunrise in New Mexico, weird bands in a basement in Austin, a brewery in Louisiana, a Mario Kart style go-kart track in Alabama, and a bar that looked like a shanty town in Florida. Overall, it was a pretty fun spring break. What I didn’t expect when I started out on the trip was how important a fully charged DS and a healthy set of Pokémon would be. Or a girlfriend who not only lets me play video games, but kicks my ass.
[!/mrface5.jpg "Mr. Face say this game AWESOME. Mr. Face never wrong!")