A parent's guide to Pokemon


How to introduce your kids, and what you need to know

I was recently attending a social event with some friends, and one of them had brought her two boys along, ages 11 and 9. One of the only other kids at the function (also 11) had brought along her 3DS to keep occupied. The boys were transfixed, and when I spoke to their mother about it she said all they want to talk about anymore is Pokémon. They were hoping to getPokémon as a gift this year for Christmas, but she didn’t really know where to begin. I offered to help, since this is something I can call myself an expert in without hyperbole. I thought the information might be helpful for other people too, so if you’re interested, read on.

What isPokémon?

Pokémon is a global phenomenon, and it’s been consistently popular since its release twenty years ago. Pokémon is a Japanese portmanteau word, a combination of the words Pocket and Monsters. Pokémon branded merchandise is everywhere, and you can find Pikachu’s smiling face on pretty much everything, but the core of the Pokémon experience has always been the video games.

Pokémonis a game about capturing and raising different monsters, then using them to battle other characters in the world. Battles are usually fought one-on-one, and there are only 3 possible outcomes– you can win, lose, or run away. Running is self evident. Winning means you caused all the opponent creatures to “faint.” Losing means that all your creatures have fainted, and in apparent sympathy for the little beasts, you yourself faint and wake up at the nearest hospital, missing some of your in-game cash. Your party is made up of a maximum of six Pokémon, and each is limited to four moves.

Each Pokémon can gain experience and levels up to 100, and some have the ability to “evolve,” gaining a statistic boost and sometimes unlocking new abilities. Evolving means that the creature takes on a new form and becomes more powerful, and each evolution from the base form is considered a separate species. As one of my scientist friends pointed out recently, the process ismore akin to rapid, spontaneous mutation than actual evolution.

How do you play it?

There are several different goals, and it’s up to the player which they want to tackle at any given time. Every game tasks players with defeating regional leaders, then making their way to a nexus where they can take on the area’s toughest trainers, eventually becoming the champion. Once that’s done, the game usually expands and lets them hunt down some much more powerful creatures. Along the way, they’ll help take down a local criminal organization and make friends with a research scientist and some powerful trainers from around the area. All of this happens within the game world, but kids can also use the creatures they’ve trained to battle against other players in the games’ competitive mode, and this is probably what they’ll be interested in doing during recess and after school.

Apart from becoming the local champion, players can attempt to fill in theirPokédex, an index ofPokémon that keeps track of what creatures they’ve encountered and/or caught for themselves. With over 800 different species, this task alone can easily occupy hours and hours of playtime. Say what you want aboutPokémon, but the entertainment value for your dollar is exceptional.

It’s worth pointing out that you can’t actually complete yourPokédex with just one game. EveryPokémon game has two different versions, and although the main quest and gameplay will be identical, both versions will have a few exclusive monsters that the player will need to trade to obtain. It may also be necessary to import monsters from older versions of the games, or trade for these as well.

Fortunately, trading is built in to the games, and there are several ways to do it. Players in the same room can trade with each other wirelessly using the 3DS’s built in communications features, and if people live farther away, they can trade across the internet. Once you have your system set to access your home’s wi-fi, you can make trade requests on the internet or search for creatures that fill in your gaps and offer whatever the other player is looking for in return. This doesn’t cost anything apart from whatever you’re already paying for internet access. Unfortunately, this latter service is no longer available for legacyPokémon games. While local trading is still possible in these older titles, you can’t access the internet with anyPokémon game that came out before 2013.

That brings us to the different generations ofPokémon. Every couple of years, Game Freak, the developer for the mainlinePokémontitles, releases a new batch of monsters that weren’t available in previous games. There are seven of these generations now thatPokémon SunandMoonhave released, and fortunately, each generation is backwards-compatible with almost all that came before it. One really nice thing aboutPokémon is that any progress you make tends to carry over into future games.

To import creatures from the older games requires a subscription to thePokémon Bank, a service that allows for storage and transfer of up to 3,000 individual creatures per account. Accessing the Bank costs $5 per year, and The Pokemon Company has promised that the creatures that are stored there will be available in perpetuity. It’s not necessary to use the Pokémon Bank, but it’s always an option, and it seems as though the Bank is how The Pokemon Company intends to make sure their games will be compatible with one another in the future.This compatibility may eventually include ancillary games likePokémon GOand the remakes ofPokémon Red, Blue, andYellowthat were released on the 3DS eShop.

Where do I start?

Pokémon GOwas inescapable this summer, and that’s the easiest entry point for most kids.GOruns on any Android or iOS device with internet and a GPS, though it has several issues that make it less easy to recommend than one of the mainline Pokémon games. It’s far less compelling, there’s no story to speak of, it tends to crash frequently, and the gameplay honestly isn’t much fun.

GOis free-to-play, though a better term might be free-to-start. I’ve managed to play without spending any money, though doing so is much more difficult if you live in a rural area without an easy way to replenish your stock ofPokéballs atPokéstops. There are lots of microtransactions available to speed up the rate at which you gain experience, help hatch eggs faster, or just give yourself more balls to throw.

Keep in mind thatPokémon GOhas no option for trading right now, and one on one battling has yet to be implemented. If your kids have never owned a handheld device before this might interest them briefly, but they’ll probably still want one of the mainline games.

How much will that cost?

One option you might consider is buying some legacy hardware and software. The older games have pretty much the same gameplay as the newest ones, and cost a fraction of what you’d shell out for brand new hardware and software. If you go this route I’d recommend picking up a DS lite andPokémon Black, White, Black 2orWhite 2. In my opinion, these games had the best story and gameplay of the older generations. The downside is that anyone playing these older titles won’t be able to battle or trade with anyone playing newer games. Since part of what makesPokémon so much fun is its social elements, this may not go over very well with your kids. However, if you don’t think they’ll know any better, this is probably the best, most cost-efficient option.

If you’re buying a DS unit secondhand, pay particular attention to the hinges where the two screens are connected. If possible, open and close the clamshell a few times. If there are cracks in the plastic, don’t buy that system. DS consoles are very hardy, but when the hinges fail it costs more to have them repaired than a brand new console would cost.

If you know your kids will want to playPokémon with their friends, there are still some ways to make that happen without breaking the bank. Nintendo’s current generation of handheld hardware is the 3DS family of systems, and there are several different models and price points available. Every 3DS is backwards compatible with DS software, meaning older Pokémon games will work in a 3DS too. The entry level model has most of the 3DS’s features stripped out, and it’s called the 2DS. This model starts at $79.99, and as the name implies, it doesn’t have the 3D functionality other models in the line possess. It’s worth pointing out that this model doesn’t have the clamshell design most other DS models do, meaning the screens are more likely to get scratched or otherwise damaged. On the other hand, this also means there aren’t any hinges to break since it’s one solid piece of plastic.

This particular model is only available in Japan, but gives you an idea of what to look for.

Some 2DS units come with a game pre-installed on the included SD card, but at the time of writing, there’s noPokémon bundle available, meaning the games will need to be purchased separately. The most recent games arePokémon SunandMoon, which cost about $40 apiece and released Friday. You can also getPokémon X, Y, Omega RubyorAlpha Sapphirefor any 2DS or 3DS console, though none of these is currently compatible withSunandMoon. Creatures will be transferrable from these games toSunandMooneventually, but not until early in 2017. Doing so will require use of thePokémon Bank.

The next best option is probably theNew 3DS Nintendo announced for Black Friday. These will cost $99.99 and come inblackorwhite, though they’re not available for pre-order. Unfortunately, Nintendo products can sometimes behard to find, and we’re never sure if they’ve made enough to meet demand.Hopefully, these 3DS will be available in greater quantities than the NES Classic that’s been selling out everywhere this season. The New 3DS has many more features than the 2DS, including more powerful hardware, additional buttons and controls, and the ability to display supported games in 3 dimensions. As a cost-cutting measure, these units do not come with acharging cable, so add $10 to the price tag if you don’t already have one of those. These consoles don’t come with any games installed, so you’ll also need to buyPokémon titles separately.

One other option is to buy arefurbished3DSconsoledirect from Nintendo. I’ve bought consoles this way in the past, and can attest that it’s almost as good as a brand-new system, and costs considerably less. There may be some blemishes or cosmetic damage, but if there’s anything deal breaking, you can almost always return the unit to Nintendo and request a replacement. Once again, these units will not come with aPokémon game installed, so you’ll need to pick that up as well.

What else do I need to know?

Pokémonrequires players to be able to read and navigate the game’s world, though the games are pretty good about letting the player know where they need to go next. Kids who can read without assistance should be fine. If they can’t read, they probably won’t have much fun with the games. Additionally, most titles in the series require the player to solve simple logic and spatial puzzles to proceed, and progress is often gated by their creatures’ abilities. One of the series’ more esoteric challenges required players to translate braille into English to gain access to some powerful monsters, though this was completely optional and far more complicated than thepuzzles usually get.

It could be argued that the games are at least somewhat educational, since players will learn how to navigate using their in-game map and directions given by characters in the game. It also teaches strategy and tactics, since each creature has specific strengths and weaknesses against every other type. They’ll probably even pick up some math, since moves can do differing amounts of damage based on the opposing creature’s vulnerabilities. A huge part of every game is building a team that can deal with anything the opposing trainers can throw at it, though it’s always possible to just sink time into leveling your favorite monsters and use brute force as your path to victory.

Pokémon is largely non-violent for a series that’s based on fighting. No one is ever seen dying, though characters do occasionally reference death. Some of the descriptions for Ghost-typePokémon can be disturbing, though these will probably go over most kids’ heads.

A lot of news stories have brought up the potential for pedophiles to make use ofPokémon to lure and act against children. Pokémon’s online features make it very hard to exchange personal information, presumably to prevent this sort of thing from happening. These stories are largely hogwash, but it doesn’t hurt to stay involved with your kids and make sure you know where they are. If they want to take a walk withPokémon GO, make sure they’re in a group, or walk with them. If they want to go to a tournament to battle with other kids, do the same thing.

You don’t have to go to quite this extreme.

Overall, it’s my opinion thatPokémon is good for kids. It encourages them to be social and make friends with others, and it gives them endless opportunities to discuss strategies and tactics. They can also share creatures they’ve caught with their friends, and one of the games’ central themes is the power of friendship. Many have imitated the formula, but no one has managed to duplicate the combination of accessibility, depth, and mindshare with children that’s madePokémon a success for the last two decades.