I’m sure anyone who grew up with Pokémon back in the major height of its popularity harbored feelings of either wishing Pokémon were actually real or wanted to be Pokémon trainers and travel around to interact with people who shared the same passions as you did. As a kid, Saturdays were my one day of the week to become a social butterfly (or in this case, a social Butterfree?) and meet up with kids around my age range to talk and play Pokémon.
Upon popping in one of my Pokémon VHS tapes back in the day, a certain ad would pop up before the episodes would play, talking about a certain weekly event that would be held for those wanting to play Pokémon with others.
In retrospect, it’s a hilariously stupid-bad commercial. Nonetheless, I was curious and looked into it. Books-a-Million, a large bookstore, would allow kids to come in on Saturdays to interact with each other as they participated in events and played the card game. While designed to be solely for the card game, most kids also brought their Game Boys and games with them. This was a gathering where kids could collect and trade cards, get promo cards they couldn’t get anywhere else, earn “Gym Badges” and make new friends. At that time, most schools had outright banned Pokémon because of kids getting their stuff stolen or beaten up for their stuff. So having a place dedicated for them at least once a week was like salvation!
When I first joined up, I only collected the cards and played the video games. I had absolutely no idea how to play the card game. So I sorta felt like a fish out of water for a bit, especially since I was in an entirely new environment. I had never been to this bookstore before and the coffee place, where the gatherings were always set up, was always swamped with kids sitting at tables and even on the floor around it. The best way conversations were started up would be to come into the store, go up to the register and purchase a booster pack or two, then sit down as a table. You were guaranteed to get a swarm of kids around you wanting to see what your prizes would be. I eventually began to “adapt” and learned how to play the card game with a few helpful kids that were about a year or two older than me (this would place me around 14 at that time, so I guess you could say I was in my early teens). Within a month, I had a hang of how to play and was constantly looking up card strategies and deck ideas on message boards online while at home. By that time, I had made a ton of friends who enjoyed quite a number of things that I did and even introduced me to some other stuff (such as Neon Genesis Evangelion).
The next part of this chapter is one I will absolutely never forget. It’s a silly thing to think about, but it was important to me then and I don’t think I will ever experience that feeling again. As time went by, I was one of the regulars of the group of people in the Pokémon League. I had built a deck I was satisfied with that used Electabuzz, Scyther, Movie 1 Promo Mewtwo, Hitmonchan and Mr. Mime. By this point, I became somewhat of the “leader” of the group. Every week, everyone was looking forward to meeting up with me and would immediately ask me to play them at the card game. Within the time I had learned to play up until that point, I had become a little too good. Everyone there made it a habit to try to constantly tweak their decks to try and beat me. Very few times were there any losses on my end, but I’d always try and help lending them a hand with some advice. You could say, these people were my friends. Something I had next to none of at school. At school, I often kept to myself because people were slowly growing out of Pokémon by the time I was in the 8th grade. However, at the League, I was very open and rather cheerful.
Not only did this group challenge me to the card game, but sometimes they’d turn around and say “Well okay, if I can’t beat you at the card game, then let’s see your game team!” My memory’s rather hazy on just what the heck my game’s team consisted of, but I think it involved Starmie, Alakazam, Jolteon and Gengar. Can’t remember the other two. Nevertheless, the results were the same. It was all friendly competition amongst ourselves and we would treat each other to McDonald’s afterwards, which was literally right next to the bookstore. I think I may have neglected to mention this, but we would all be there around 10am up until 6pm. Everyone’s parents didn’t mind, since that meant they could dump their kids off and haul ass out of there or just sit around and read as much as they wanted while having a coffee.
Not only was I able to make new friends, but I also got to see Pokémon Gold before it even came out because someone has imported the Japanese version (ROMs were still sorta just catching on by this point). Unfortunately, this is also where things started to get a little rocky. As the second generation hit, Pokémon’s popularity started to take a dive. With it, the book store stopped officially hosting the event and it ended up becoming just me and another kid coming in once in a while until I was the only one left. I never heard from any of them again. Fortunately, I learned of another Pokémon League. This time, it was hosted at a Wizards of the Coast store! Gave the place a shot and boy was it a different experience because a bookstore it was not. Surrounding the tables were PCs and video game consoles. People would come in, pay and play LAN games with others or try out the newest games that had just come out. Incidentally, this was how I first got to see a Dreamcast! That’s another story, however.
Once again, I was a fish out of water. This time, however, I was a little more confident and interacted a little more. Unfortunately, not many people came for the Pokémon. Fortunately, I ran into something different, yet similar!
I had finally found people playing the Dragon Ball Z card game. I had been collecting the cards on the side and learned how to play, but never knew anyone that did (a total reverse situation with Pokémon). By this time, the Trunks Saga expansion pack had been released. Pokémon was well into its third Neo set and my interest in those cards was fading, whereas my interest in the DBZ cards was rising. It was a much smaller group (composed of four people, including myself) but we got along just as well. Unfortunately, this one ended sooner and worse than the Books-a-Million case. On one weekend of heading over to the WotC store, I noticed the place seemed odd. It was closed…and empty…and the sign was taken down. Apparently the place had not been doing too well and had to close. Like with the other League, I never did see the group I had joined up again. By this point, I was in high school and never did find another person with an interest in Pokémon or the Dragon Ball Z card game. I eventually stopped collecting both card sets and never did play again.
While it all ended on sad notes, I can without a doubt say those were probably my absolute favorite childhood moments. I got to experience something new, at the height of its popularity and even be regarded as someone people looked up to as a sort of “rival” if you will. Probably the last time I ever experienced anything *slightly* familiar was when I entered a Pokémon Battle Revolution tournament GameStop once held around the game’s release. It felt incredibly odd being one of the few adults there actually playing while swarmed by kids, but it also felt good to see what my generation looked like from an adult perspective and seeing that it was still carrying on. It was also really funny seeing a group of kids act cocky as they were paired against me and chose to start off with Rayquaza against my Electivire…only for Electivire to completely outspeed Rayquaza and one-shot it with a Life Orb’ed Ice Punch. The look on their faces…well, went sorta like this: