What If You Could Join Team Rocket?
I fondly remember the day when dad arrived home with a launch copy of Pokémon Blue that he’d somehow managed to acquire in the mad sales rush, as well as the years of memories that followed with that single cartridge. Though many titles come and go, I still can’t shift the nostalgia, from deleting my save file with Bulbasaur four days in and starting anew with the far better Squirtle (don’t let anyone tell you different, kids) to the infinite item delivering Missingo glitch and actual days of my life trying to catch the elusive Mewtwo, having thrown my Master Ball at a Zapdos before discovering the aforementioned exploit.
I could probably fill up a mediocre book with all of my childhood Poké-memories and stories – as could anyone my age – but the story that I find myself fixating on in recent times is the story that never happened. Early on in your quest to catch ‘em all, you must take a visit to a man named Bill, who – once his Pokémon body-swapping is reversed – will allow you to store all of the creatures you’re not currently training, and enlisting his help is the only sane way players will be able to achieve their hoarding goals. In order to reach him, players must first traverse Route 24, often nicknamed the “Nugget Bridge”, as players have to defeat five trainers in order to win a nugget worth five-thousand dollars. At the end of the bridge stands a member of Team Rocket, who offers the player a chance to join them on their quest for world domination, because either the company have a very lax hiring policy or child labour laws don’t exist in Kanto. However, players aren’t given a choice as to how they wish to answer, so matter whether you want to join Team Rocket or not, you can’t.
Back when I was younger I relished the opportunity to join Jesse, James and Meowth in an unsuccessful attempt at catching that elusive Pikachu week after week, so when the dialogue immediately moved to the grunt’s anger at his rejected offer, I immediately turned my Game Boy Colour off and on again so I could accept his offer, only to discover that no matter what I did, I couldn’t be part of the baddies. Though my younger self eventually moved on, present me apparently hasn’t, as I discovered when, after a bout of idle thinking, I became fixated upon that memory. Somehow, despite being older I haven’t become any wiser, because over the last few months the same thought has emerged time and again, and it’s only fair that I attempt to answer myself so I’ll finally shut up: what if you could join Team Rocket?
All it would take is a binary moral choice. You would reign triumphant on Nugget Bridge after besting every trainer, and then you would be given a choice: join Team Rocket, or fight them. If you chose the latter option, the rest of the story would play out exactly as we know it, with players successfully taking on every Gym Leader, eliminating the Elite Four, and – for the more obsessive – gathering every Pokémon in Kanto. Those who chose to join Team Rocket would find that the mechanics would play out near-identically, but the biggest change wouldn’t be to your journey, but to its context.
In both scenarios, players seek to earn all of the badges and take down everyone in their path, but if you are part of Team Rocket, everything would start making a lot more sense. There’d be an incentive to beat every Gym Leader and conquer the Elite Four, because you’d want to prove yourself to your master, Giovanni. When you eventually take him on in Viridian City, it wouldn’t be a battle of good versus evil, it’d be a battle between mentor and mentee, and potentially for control of the entire organisation. When you get your name on the Hall of Fame, that wouldn’t just be a bragging right, that’d be a sign that Team Rocket won.
Suddenly, everything falls into place. No longer are the other trainers fighting you just because they want to test their line-up, or because they just caught a new Pokémon and want to test it out, or because you walked across that patch of grass funny. Instead, they’re fighting you because you’re the villain, and they want to take you down. It stops being about testing your might or proving you have what it takes, but instead starts being about heroes and villains and taking you down because you’re the bad guy. Battles aren’t just random skirmishes any more, they’re about the future of Kanto. Disobedient monsters may not necessarily be because you don’t have the prerequisite badge, but because they’re trying to lash out at your cruelty towards them. Creatures attacking you in the long grass might not be doing so because they’re feral and in need of a trainer, but because they don’t want to be controlled by you.
So what of your rival? Before, he was just an occasional nuisance who acted as yet another boss battle to prove your worth in a childhood rivalry gone slightly too far. First he was just your personal antagonist, but now he’s the person in Kanto with the greatest chance of stopping your reign of terror. Trainers come and they go, but the only person to truly challenge your is your rival, and eventually he’ll become Kanto’s only hope of salvation. He’s not beating you to the punch for every Gym because of the bragging rights, it’s because he knows he’s the only one who can stop you. Perhaps, deep down, Professor Oak knew of your true intentions the entire time, and that’s why he let you pick first and his grandson second, so that you’re left disadvantaged against the forces of good. Albeit, that part of the theory goes out of the window if you pick Squirtle, because he’s clearly the most superior starting Pokémon; it just wouldn’t make sense for him to willingly give you the only starter that can learn moves that have type advantages against Bulbasaur and Charmander.
When you encounter your rival in Lavender Town – the home of Ghost-type Pokémon – he asks you if you know what it’s like to have one of your companions die. Eagle-eyed players have noted that his Raticate is no longer part of his squad from this point onwards, and an oft-shared theory is that during your confrontation on the S.S. Anne said monster sustained serious injuries, and because of the commotion on the boat your rival was unable to get it to a Pokémon Centre in time that it eventually succumbed to those injuries and died. In short, he’s in Lavender Town to bury his Raticate… that you killed.
In many stories of good versus evil, the protagonist has to watch as one of his closest allies is mown down in the field of battle, or made to stand by as they sacrifice themselves so that the others may survive and eventually triumph. In those moments that character is no longer just the protagonist or someone caught up in a mess beyond their control, they become the hero, and your act of murder – inadvertent or no – is the defining moment where you become the villain and he the hero. When he makes his last stand against you at the Elite Four and subsequently loses and the credits roll, that’s when Team Rocket have taken over Kanto, and when you catch ‘em all; that’s when they’ve become unstoppable.
In the back of my mind, I’d like to believe that it wouldn’t have been too difficult to pull off; surely it’d only take a few changes here or there in terms of dialogue and a couple of alternative character models in a few key scenes and it could be so. Yet deep down I know that’s not entirely the case, and there’d probably be far more work involved in something Nintendo would never let happen anyway, as I’m assuming that encouraging children to turn evil and attempt world domination with a bunch of animals isn’t the kind of message they want to send out en-masse.
Fitting that much data on a cartridge was probably a stunning achievement for the time, and the amount of files you’d need to change would probably be far more than I’d give it credit. However, during the third generation Nintendo remade Fire Red and Leaf Green – choosing not to remake the superior Blue version to give its lesser counterparts a fighting chance in terms of quality – couldn’t possibly have filled up all the data on their respective cartridges, and not just because they’re absolutely inferior to Pokémon Blue. With all that additional data Nintendo could have done more than just give it a shiny graphical overcoat, but it could have made all of those dialogue changes, added that binary choice and even more. It could even have added in a mechanic where it actually was possible to steal Pokémon from their trainers, and even shown the aftermath had you joined the dark side and managed to catch ‘em all.
For now, I’ll just have to hold out hope for the inevitable re-remakes…
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