Yesterday I purchased a Nintendo 3DS from a friend at work. Six months old, more or less pristine, a hundred and twenty dollars. A steal, really. She’d recently bought herself the new Zelda Edition 3DS, a sexy little thing in gold and black, and would have traded in her existing model at EB Games had I not offered to match their price.
I’ve never had a burning desire to own a 3DS previously, but I thought, “Hell, I’ll be able to play Pokémon on it.”
This is not an unusual scenario for me. I have a long history of purchasing Nintendo handheld consoles simply to play Pokémon on them; I’m sure I probably owned a couple of other games as well, but my Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS were essentially Pokémon battle engines, assembled for the singular purpose of catchin’ em all and being the very best that ever was.
I still remember my earliest Gameboy – back when “Gameboy” was the whole title, when that was a thing – in the playground at primary school, where we would trade Blue- or Red- exclusive Pokémon like they were blood diamonds. Back when you had to connect both devices physically with a cable, and you had to trust the person with whom you were trading, trust them with your very life. Transacting with a stranger was insanity, and with an acquaintance still perilous. Deals were reneged upon, fights common.
And then we discovered that you could pull out the cable mid-transfer and splice the Pokémon between both Gameboys! That ultra-rare Mew that so-and-so got from his brother’s friend could be cloned onto a dozen cartridges in a single recess. We revelled like gods, ten-year-olds drunk on the heady nectar of power, having defiantly flouted the laws of the game world.
And then we discovered MISSINGNO, and we revelled in that, until he fucked up our save files.
So, having acquired my 3DS, I of course purchased Pokémon X immediately. And once I’d booted it up and been summarily blown away by the gameplay refinements, the visual style and the absolute cornucopia of new features, I got down to the serious business of catching me some pocket monsters.
Now, everyone knows that the least exciting Pokémon appear first. Nobody’s going to be capturing fire-maned hounds or bipedal lightning-zebras in their first hour of game time; no, you’re going to net yourself a caterpillar, some kind of badger, and maybe a sparrow with an adorable face. When you get to your first gym, that’s what you’re going to bring to the table.
Sure enough, my first catch was a creature I’d never seen before called a Bunnelby, basically a fluffy bunny rabbit that can bitch-slap people with its enormous hand-like ears. Cute. Neat, even. But, let’s be honest, not the sort of thing I’m going to take with me down Victory Road when the time comes.
Around this time, I spotted the big flashing “Internet” button on my bottom screen. Online battles, online trading… “Wonder Trade”? I checked it out. Wonder Trade allows you to pick any Pokémon you don’t want, send it into the ether, and receive another Pokémon at random, similarly offered by another user somewhere in the world.
I hesitated. Surely this was blasphemy. The Maitland Public School black market Pokémon trade had long taught me that Pokémon are in no way a universal commodity; every monster has a very specific value. You can’t just toss them all into a hat like raffle tickets and pull one out!
I selected my Bunnelby. I’d been his master for about two minutes and felt no particular attachment to him – in fact, I’ve always resented Normal-type Pokémon as being the blandest and least useful in the game. I tapped “Trade” and watched him disappear into his ball and up into the sky. A moment later, his replacement arrived – a Dratini.
Now, I’m pretty old-school. I remember the original 151 Pokémon better than any subsequent generation. There’s probably about half a million of them in existence now, and damned if I’m going to remember their names, but the first generation will always be marked indelibly in my memory. And Dratini is one of the best. Dragon-type. Rare. Powerful. Evolves into Dragonair, and then into Dragonite, a huge bat-winged behemoth that looks a little like something out of a Disney film.
You do not get Dratini in the first fifteen minutes of the game.
My first reaction was guilt. “Oh my god,” I thought, “Somewhere in New York City, some guy has just sent this magnificent beast into the pipeline and received absolute fodder in exchange. My Bunnelby is a digital kick to the groin. I may as well have walked into his apartment and urinated on the furniture.
My next reaction was to catch three more Bunnelbies and stuff them into the trade window. I received Chespin and Froakie (the other two starter Pokémon I hadn’t picked), and some kind of melodic parrot called a Chatot. I now had all three starters, without cheating.
I’m several hours in now, and Wonder Trade is my absolute favourite addition to the Pokémon franchise, hands down. It’s like a slot machine you can just keep feeding coins into; every time I catch a Pokémon that seems dull or nondescript, into the chute it goes, and if I don’t like what I receive in return (I got a Bunnelby at one point, which is karma), I trade that in as well. You can just keep spinning the wheel until you have your dream party. And their levels don’t even have to be on par – my level 9 Swirlix procured a level 55 Talonflame, though of course it won’t actually obey me when I only have two gym badges.
Dratini has served me well. The only problem is that his previous owner was Japanese, and his name is written entirely in katakana. The game does not allow you to rename Pokémon that have already been named by another person, so I see no way of changing it. As I haven’t studied Japanese since my first year of high school, and cannot even pronounce his current name, I call him Snib.
For all its novelty, though, there’s something a little hollow about trading with a faceless stranger. I’m always going to be a little nostalgic for the playground, haggling for a Gengar with my Kadabra, weighing the value of my prized acquisition against another.
What about you guys? Is anyone else using this feature at the moment? What do you think – does it mess up the game to have potentially devastating Pokémon in your arsenal from the beginning? Or is it basically a caramel orgasm wrapped in a winning lottery ticket?