Developer: Game Freak
As with many illnesses, Pokémon addiction has multiple stages. I encountered the first in 1999, my debut as a "Pokémon master." It didn't matter that the best I had ever faced were my classmates, none of whom had given much thought to raising and battling monsters like I had. As far as I was concerned, I truly was the very best, like no one ever was. At the time, I couldn't conceive of wanting to be anything else.
The second stage came in 2003. I like to call it "the humbling," and it's a stage pretty much any gamer over the age of 20 should be familiar with. Without the Internet to offer a brutal dose of perspective, it was easy to delude myself into believing that there was no one out there who could match my skill, whether it was in Pokémon or X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. When I eventually stumbled upon an IRC chatroom with simulated Pokémon battles, that illusion was quickly shattered.
By that point, I had been in "retirement" for several years, so you could say that I was behind the times. How far behind became apparent when I picked a random teams, attached a few random items, and suddenly discovered that my pokémon was stuck doing the same attack. I had attached a choice band, which powered up physical attacks at the expense of options. As my opponent swiftly dismantled my team, I realized that I had some learning to do.
As it turned out, I was lucky. I was actually pretty far ahead of the curve. By the time online play had become available in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, I had been battling competitively for years, and could justifiably call myself "very good" at sending the little buggers into battle. When the rest of the Internet finally joined the party, they quickly met the Stage 2 buzzsaw.
Part of the problem was that the would-be Ash Ketchums didn't know the secret code, which had long since been cracked by diehard Pokémon enthusiasts. That code took the form of secret numbers with names like "individual values" and "effort values," both of which were well-hidden from the average player. Only by learning to manipulate those secret numbers could anyone truly take the next step.
There was just one problem -- it was, and still is, tedious as hell to manipulate the appropriate values in just such a way as to produce the numerically perfect pokémon. Hundreds of eggs have to be hatched, and dozens of pokémon slain during the ensuing grind-fest. Breeding a powerful pokémon could take days, or even weeks, or intensive breeding. Getting a glimpse of the bruising process for the first time, many fans either said, "Forget about it," or picked up an Action Replay and plugged in a code. The rest entered the dreaded Stage 3.
Those were the people who not only persevered through the hundreds of hours required to breed a competitive team, but thrived. I was one of those poor, lost souls, as I found myself devoting several hundred hours to breeding roughly two dozen péokemon, many of which I never even use anymore. For me, it wasn't the journey, but the destination. Sure, breeding was a pain in the ass, but it would all be worth it when it came time to actually battle.
For a while, it actually was. In fact, I still like to play Pokémon even now, albeit relatively casually. It makes me think that Pokémon and World of Warcraft fans have more in common than they might think. High-level play in either title requires the investment of hundreds, even thousands of hours, to reach. It leaves fans feeling like grizzled war veterans, secretly hating themselves, but unable to quit.
And that's when they hit Stage 4 -- the complete burnout. In my case, I finally hit the wall while trying to breed for a perfect hit point stat on a Tyranitar. I eventually got the stat, but only after weeks of dedicated breeding. All that, and the Tyranitar wasn't even a good fit for my team, as I eventually realized. I still kind of hope that I'll eventually find a good use for that pokémon, but at this point, I doubt I will.
If they're smart, most fans will never reach Stage 4. In fact, it's quite possible to enjoy Pokémon while avoiding Stages 2 and 3 as well. That's the beauty of these games -- there are a hundred ways to play and love them, and only a few involve competitive battling. It's only the fans who want to take "the next step" who risk addiction and burnout, though the same could be said for fans of any franchise. Of course, Halo addicts don't have to spend hours riding back and forth on a virtual bicycle to get their fix.
Competitive battlers reach that point because they care though, as I've cared for more than a decade now. The world of Pokémon is appealing because, in the end, people simply love to show off. Whether that involves breeding the perfect team, or catching the rarest "shiny" (read: the occasional palette-swaps), largely depends on the personality of the players. But in the end, the world of Pokémon is large enough for everyone, even those who have never even hit Stage 1, nevermind Stage 4.
That won't stop me from getting back on the bicycle breeding trail when the Pokémon Gold and Silver remakes arrive, though. I may not have to "be the very best" to enjoy Pokémon, but I don't think I'll be able to resist the siren song of the perfect team. To everyone who's ever hit Stage 2, and ended up plowing on through -- I'll see you on the grind.