The cold science of Pokémon

On the fifth of July, 1996, Dolly was born–the world’s first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. While Dolly was not the first cloned animal in the world, she quickly became a media darling and a cultural milestone in modern science. This was the future. Children squealed at the thought of real dinosaurs walking among us once more and adults were fascinated by the preservation possibilities of endangered species and the rebirth of more recent extinct animals like the thylacine and caspian tiger.

The reality is much different, of course. Nuclear transfer is remarkably inefficient, with the successful cloning of Dolly only occurring after 277 experimental embryos failed. This, alongside the high demand for eggs in fertility centers across the world, has made nuclear transfer an impossibility with human cells and done nothing but bolster the ethical concerns of cloning. Amidst all the worries and excitement, a little game called Pokémon saw release in the Western world in 1998 on the dying Game Boy.

While any attempt to explain Pokémon’s popularity is a futile exercise, a big proponent of the series lasting appeal is Game Freak’s understanding of biological concepts and zoology. Pokémon Red and Blue are not simply accessible RPGs, they’re a complex universe primarily concerned with the relationship between mankind and the animal kingdom. Reflecting the concerns of the 20th century and beyond, Pokémon Red and Blue are about the impact mankind has on the flora and fauna of the natural world.

The Kanto region mirrors the rapid industrialization of our world and the rise of corporate power. The Silph Company holds a monopoly on all things technological in Kanto and its sister region Johto. Silph Co. created the Master Ball, a unique ball that’s guaranteed to capture any wild Pokémon without exception. They also created the Silph Scope, a device that allows the user to see spectral entities, and are the primary manufacturer of Pokéballs around the globe. It’s also speculated they operate every Poké Mart in Kanto and Johto.

Accompanying The Silph Company’s technological ambitions is a land and culture that looks and feels modern. Viridian Forest borders Viridian City and Pewter City as the only woodland of the region and the countless roads that intersect and cross land and sea indicate a region that’s constantly on the move. Kanto’s constant technological achievements has even left modern constructs abandoned like the Power Plant to the north of Cerulean City and the Pokémon Mansion on Cinnabar Island where numerous experiments were carried out. And, a retcon though it may be, Pokémon Gold and Silver’s introduction of Berries and subsequent explanation that Kanto’s volcanic soil is unable to yield crops, closely aligns the region with Japan itself: a country that practically lives off importation and exuberant technological success.

All of which makes Kanto feel modern beyond the limitations of its pea-green presentation on the Game Boy, sometimes unbearably so. There’s no religion, myths, or traditions associated with Pokémon in Red and Blue. Alongside the game’s inability to do anything in the game with Pokémon outside of fighting and raising them, Red and Blue emphasises a divide between humans and animals. They’re around us but not integrated in society to the same degree in the later games. In Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, Machokes were found shifting boxes around when you moved into your new home. Slowpokes roamed free among the people of Azalea Town in Pokémon Gold and Silver, and Miltanks were cooped up in MooMoo Farm to produce milk for humans and Pokémon. Admittedly, these are mostly subservient relationships but Kanto shows the beginnings of our relationship with Pokémon and it’s deeply unsettling we lead with glorified cockfighting before anything else. It’s us versus them. Is it any wonder that cloning and experiments on Pokémon developed in a region so divorced from cultural artifacts?

And the two Pokémon that best represent this conflict of man versus nature is Mewtwo and Mew. Created in a lab from the DNA of Mew, Mewtwo is the world’s most powerful Pokémon (or was, at the time of release). Mewtwo itself is a funny looking creature, tall and elongated with impossibly smooth limbs, with a protruding tube arching out of its neck and connecting to its spine. It shares some feline features with Mew but is more or less humanoid. Mewtwo’s design calls to mind the Grey Alien and instantaneously relegates it to a human construct. Although there are shades of Mew in Mewtwo, this was not a natural evolution.

In contrast, Mew represents the purest form of nature and the animal kingdom. Originally, Mew was a closely kept secret, dropped into the game’s code when programmer Shigeki Morimoto realized there was leftover space on the cartridge after the removal of the debugging tools. As the years passed, and cheaters stumbled upon this strange creature that could learn every TM and HM in the game, Mew became something much more. It was said that Mew held the genetic code of all Pokémon. Mew didn’t just give rise to Mewtwo, it gave rise to an entire species.

This preoccupation with genesis is reflected in Mew’s appearance. Mew’s hairless body, soft features, giant head, pink skin, and its frequent appearance inside a floating bubble resembles an embryo in its earliest stages of development. Its design is so rudimentary that it resembles not just our own children but fish, rabbits, and chickens, too. Mew’s basic form identifies the creature as related to Mewtwo and acknowledges Game Freak’s later claim as the progenitor of all Pokémon. While all Pokémon may look different, Mew’s resemblance to the almost unanimous shape of early life in the womb supports Game Freak’s assertion that this little mouse is the universal ancestor.

Further ideas of conception are explored by the game’s second “big” decision. At the end of Mt. Moon, players are given a choice between two fossils that can be resurrected into prehistoric, once-were-extinct Pokémon. Whereas the creation of Mewtwo from Mew led to a violent Pokémon that escaped from its dungeon and hid away from the world deep inside Cerulean Cave, the resurrection of these ancient creatures feels tranquil in comparison. The scientist who completes the procedure does so free of charge and has no issues with simply giving you the Pokémon afterwards. This is either a dire indication of a culture that places no importance on preserving the past or one that’s so familiar with the concept of creating life from nothing that it’s just another drop in the bucket.

It’s at this point in Pokémon Red and Blue when you start to feel implicated. Cinnabar Island introduces the concept of resurrection alongside the infamous MissingNo glitch, effectively crushing any gravitas felt over rejuvenating an extinct species with a scrambled mix of item duplications and insane Pokémon evolutions. What makes MissingNo so effective is that’s at once part of the world and outside of it, fragmenting and rearranging the familiar entirely at your behest. MissingNo confirms what Mew only suggested: the existence of a universal ancestor, and you’ve managed to unlock a long-dormant genetic key. Watch in horror as your MissingNo evolves into an Ivysaur, a Kangaskhan, and a Doduo in rapid succession, each accompanied with an ear-piercing, jarbled screech through the Game Boy speakers. This isn’t the evolution you’ve come to know and love. This sounds painful. Did you really need those 100 Rare Candies? What have I done?

Pokémon Red and Blue show a world on the cutting-edge, free from religious and moralistic concerns. We can either create life from a God of sorts and watch its offspring leave and destroy us, or bring back the dead in such large quantities that it no longer surprises us. There is no middle ground. In Kanto, children are pushed out into the world at the age of 11 to fend for themselves. Single parents make up an alarming percentage of all families. Forests are burnt down, Pokémon are built.

It’s difficult to divorce Red and Blue from the cultural concerns of the time, especially when you consider future entries in the series centre around more natural concerns than scientific ones. This shift from the scientific to the organic is easily seen in the legendary Pokémon displayed on the box art of each generation. Gold and Silver has two mythical birds worshipped as guardians of the seas and skies respectively and Ruby and Sapphire introduces two creatures capable of manipulating the weather and landmass of the world. Diamond and Pearl went hog wild and introduced the Creation Trio of Pokémon that can control space, time, and antimatter. Then, not to be outdone, Arceus was revealed as “The Original One” said to have created the entire Pokémon universe: a literal God. Much, if not all, of these Pokémon are based on mythologies across multiple cultures, with their abilities presented as little more than talents bordering on pure magic.

All of which goes to show that Game Freak has said all that needed to be said about science in the universe with Pokémon Blue and Red. Even the scientists that were capable of so much in Red and Blue have been replaced by research in soft science like the relationship between humans and Pokémon. Red and Blue was the bold proclamation that all of our excitement and concerns about modern science were warranted. When the dust settled, Game Freak shied away from the technological and introduced more rural settings, religion, festivity, and rituals into the Pokémon universe alongside small pockets of modern technology. For a brief moment, though, Pokémon was an ugly game.

Illustrations by Jake Lawrence.

22 Comments

  1. Pixel_Kaiser

    @patriciaxh @TB_Love Awwww shit yeah, congratulations. =D

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  3. CiroPL

    @monohombre la leche! digo sin ruborizarme que no sé lo que es un pkm (a grandes rasgos, sí; pero nunca he jugado ni visto uno).Leyendo ya.

  4. DavidFinseth

    @PTibz @nitemaremodenet this looks really great. Following for sure.

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  7. saoraan

    Way too many assumptions went into this article.  The author is drawing conclusions and making inferences and posing theories for things that were purely gameplay related.  Red and Blue were games on the original Gameboy.  There wasn’t much memory and you could only fit so much.  For this reason the game focused almost entirely on pure simple gameplay and had little story like later entries in the series.

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  13. Thegraintruck

    This absolutely blew me away. Essential reading for any fan and probably the most eloquent statement of Pokemon’s cultural relevance that I’ve ever read.

    • Thank you! It’s always nice to hear that people enjoy my work.

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  17. Guest

    Embarrassingly enough, I’ve never played a Pokemon game, though I was super into the card game when I was younger.

    …I’m going to go play a Pokemon game now. Excellent article.

  18. TimLoots

    Interesting article, but it felt kind of weird to see you reference MissingNo. It has no place in this. Some will say other parts of the article are reading too much into things, but thát part certainly is.

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  21. Inventor

    Posted on my birthday:D In any case, I find there to be a connection, perhaps intentional, with Satoshi Taijiri’s bug hunting hobby. Quoting from Wikipedia: ‘As the urban areas of Japan spread and more land was paved over, many of the places for hunting bugs were lost. Tajiri wanted his games to allow children to have the feeling of catching and collecting creatures as he had.’