Games That Changed Our Lives

Games that Changed Our Lives: Brotherhood in ‘Pokémon Gold’ and ‘Silver’

Pokémon Gold and Silver, and my brother, were first released into the world on the same day: November 21st, 1999. They are 20 years old now. The existence of both is intrinsic to my development as a person, and in some ways the experience with each is intertwined, so on their mutual birthday, I’d like to reflect on why they are special entities—one to the history of games, one to the history of my family, and both important to me.

Like many other millions of people, I became a fan of Pokémon in 1998 as it hit the West. I also wanted a brother that year; it upset me that Father Christmas hadn’t delivered one and put him under the tree on Christmas Day. I was enthralled by the idea of having a sibling, because raising a brother who would enjoy the same things as me—especially Pokémon—would be ideal. I wanted a brother as a pet, essentially. In the same way that Professor Elm gives you a starter Pokémon as a pet to take care of at the beginning of Gold and Silver.

“The ascension from pet to genuine partner is a core tenet of Pokémon Gold and Silver

Taking care of that pet is the crux of the Pokémon Gold and Silver. Absent is the world-ending story involving Legendary Pokémon that would thematically drive the next few games in the series—Team Rocket is here to bring former boss Giovanni back into the fold, making money along the way, while Lugia and Ho-Oh are essentially optional dungeons. Therefore, what really defines Gold and Silver’s playing experience is the relationship between you and your Pokémon, particularly your starter Pokémon.

Travelling between the Johto and Kanto regions on the Magnet Train.

Together you traverse two entire regions, and that extended period of time in each other’s company forges an indelible bond. You would never get anywhere at all without your Pokémon beside you, let alone become champion. That’s true of all Pokémon games, but in Gold and Silver, that feeling is accentuated, because you are genuinely lonesome without your Pokémon. Sure, you get the odd phone-call from your mum telling you that “she’s rooting for you” or a certain child who wants to brag about their top quality Rattata, but even in victory or thwarting Team Rocket, there is anonymity to your achievements. All the non-playable characters have their own lives, hardly any of the dialogue and interactions change. There is a lack of recognition (this has since changed in the series, the latest games, Sword and Shield, have crowds cheering you on like you’re Gary Oak).

Travelling over from Johto to Kanto in the post-game is done incognito. Even fewer people know who you are, and the most minor of plotting to provide momentum (recovering a stolen generator part for the power station), means that Kanto is a wilderness where you are free to do as you please. This may be the truest expression of Pokémon’s exploration, but it is quiet and virtually friendless. It’s fitting that the final test is to ascend Mount Silver and be met with the silence of the preceding game’s protagonist, Red, as he challenges you to battle, and then says nothing when you win. Pokémon Gold and Silver’s solitude could easily be a disconsolate affair. Or it would be, were it not for the knowledge that you have your Pokémon partners beside you. Your reliance and trust in one another become paramount to both your enjoyment of the expedition and your general survival.  Moreover, the knowledge that you are together weathers you through the rough.

Trainer Red challenges the player to battle in silence in Gold and Silver

Thus I don’t believe it was coincidental that Gold and Silver’s remakes were the first games in the main series to let your partner Pokémon follow you. The ascension from pet to genuine partner is a core tenet of Pokémon Gold and Silver, one that has been carried through the franchise to today: in Pokémon Sword and Shield, a character remarks that the final evolution of Pokémon is to find its place amongst a group of friends. Of course Blue and Red had partner Pokémon, but the colour palettes and the refinement of designs gave the Pokémon in Gold and Silver greater personality. In doing so, it allowed for greater ascribing of feeling to pixels and data; forming the emotional link is the essence and draw of Pokémon. And with the addition of eggs and breeding, the games really captured the idea of mutual growth.

That is also true of my brother and me. He crawled and then walked, following me everywhere, and while I initially operated under the assumption that he would be the Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote, he soon asserted his own person, and thus we became partners in brotherhood (he still does kindly go along with some of my more madcap ideas, though with the same incredulity and commentary as Panza does in Cervantes’ novels). To draw more parallels, we’ve lived across many continents, often with few other people to depend on. In the most emotionally and physically gruelling times, the only thing that kept me going was coming home and listening to his stories and fervent excitement about school. Even now, a phone-call immeasurably brightens my day or brings me out of an emotional fugue state.

I’d like to claim I’ve done the same for him, but truthfully, in the same way a trainer can’t fight in his Pokémon’s stead, our relationship was never quite equal in childhood. This is not to say that my parents played favourites or that I mistreated him. Our relationship could never be entirely symbiotic, because I am disabled.

I have Cerebral Palsy and it physically affects my balance, fine motor skills, and coordination, which only deteriorate with fatigue. Playing video games can be tricky. However, as a child, it also affected my pattern recognition and spatial awareness. I could speak from a very young age and knew my letters and numbers, but I was unable to read. I’d obfuscate it by oral eloquence, but I had no sequencing capability for word combinations. Instead, I’d just memorise everything my parents read to me, remembering the shape of whole words, rather than building the ability to construct them from letters and syllables in unfamiliar situations.

That is where Pokémon Gold and Silver, specifically Silver, played an extremely formative role in my development. I was keen on the anime and my friends at the time often played Blue and Red, so when Silver was released in English, I was desperate to play it. My parents thought the Gameboy Color’s simplified controls, particularly the D-Pad, would help with practicing my coordination, while still forgiving inaccuracies.

In this, they were right. However, there was a second benefit: it forced me to construct words from syllables, because the portmanteaus that make up Pokémon names are unique.

Learning to read for myself through Pokémon was a trial, however. I didn’t know that you were meant to give proper nicknames to Pokémon, so my Cyndaquil was called “HQ” because I liked the letters. Worse, I couldn’t read the word “Save”, so I spent months replaying the same parts over and over, sometimes picking Totodile, occasionally Chikorita, but always coming back to Cyndaquil as my partner.

The most important aspect of Gold and Silver in those nascent stages of reading comprehension was that the colours of each Pokémon roughly corresponded to their elemental type. So even as I struggled to read, I was able to roughly deduce their advantages and weaknesses, like a colour wheel, because this franchise is the world’s best-selling edition of “rock-paper-scissors”. In this way, with the help of the television series, I aggregated connections and associations between the monsters and their names. Perhaps this is partly why I feel such affinity for them beyond the aforementioned personalities expressed in their sprites, although I only can appreciate this with hindsight.

The cutest starter Cyndaquil for whom I had an affinity.

The physical side of my Cerebral Palsy still had to be addressed though. I was diagnosed late, so during the early years of my brother’s life, a lot of attention that would have been given to him necessarily had to be given over to me. My parents still spent a significant time with him individually, paying attention to him as they had done with me, but it was integrated into the routines of my physiotherapy sessions or the sports I did to keep my muscles supple. For his part, my brother never minded, following me once again and joining in, taking to the various fields of sports with gusto.

Consequently, he developed a significant level of athleticism and capability across a broad range of sports.  The net benefit is there, but I can never truly repay him for the acceptance he showed at that young age. Not to diminish my parents’ sacrifices or their role in navigating us not feeling neglected, but sibling relationships can be complicated, and had he resented me then, we’d probably have a fractious relationship now, rather than firm brotherhood.

That binding love was partly nurtured playing Pokémon Silver together. Nearly two years and seven gyms later, I could read, but my pattern recognition was still debilitated. After restarting the game in frustration over not being able to figure out the puzzle navigating the Ice Path, I named the player character after my brother instead, deciding that this would be his play-through. He’d spent time patiently and curiously watching me play up to now, and I thought it was time he had a go.

Well, in theory. What ostensibly was his turn didn’t deter me from “guiding” him through by playing for him, because he couldn’t read either (thankfully just because he was still a toddler). Eventually, like a traded Pokémon refusing to obey its trainer beyond a certain level, he decided that my domination was enough, and he would play alone. That was a turning point in our brotherhood. We had always played peacefully together and shared all our toys (he’d commandeered most of my cars and I’d given him the soft toy rabbit he loved sleeping with), but we had been inseparable.

The issue is that my role as the older brother had always imposed a de facto leadership. While he certainly had controlled the games we played (I would always defer to his suggestions of how games would be played), it wasn’t a truly equal dynamic. That pivotal moment of declaring his ownership of his Pokémon run-through engendered me to respect the freedom he needed to be his own person. And honestly, if I’m permitted to be publicly sentimental, what an amazing person he has since become.

My parents wisely decided to not test the limits of my magnanimity however, and with the release of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, I got upgraded to Sapphire and my brother inherited Pokémon Silver. So we played our respective games alone, but together. In later years we’d play through FireRed and LeafGreen simultaneously, then Emerald, the Ranger and Mystery Dungeon games, Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum, and finally Black and White. By the time Black and White 2 came around, I was off to university, and so that is when our days of playing Pokémon together trailed off.

Eggs together in brotherhood

We’re both at university now in completely different fields, but when I think back to the experience of him playing Pokémon Silver and me playing Pokémon Sapphire, that notion of doing things alone, but emotionally being together embodies a lot of our relationship now. It allows us to be hundreds of kilometres apart, but still want to pick up the phone and chat. When we’re both home during the holidays, we’ll often potter around by ourselves. At this stage of life, there is supreme comfort in just knowing that the other person is present. I am obviously biased, but it’s the mark of a genuinely supportive relationship.

I came across the game-cart of Pokémon Silver during the summer break. It’s probably the single-most influential part of my gaming history. But it would ultimately mean far less—as would all aspects of my life—without having had my brother alongside me to share it with. When I look back at Pokémon Silver, my memories are tied, in-game and out, to ones of communal experiences, of partnership, of brotherhood. 

To Pokémon Gold and Silver, and my brother, I love you both and wouldn’t be who I am without you. Happy Birthday.

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