For those of you that weren’t around when Pokémon first came out, it hit us hard. Cute anime aesthetic, collectability, competitive elements, role-playing individualism, Pokémon was designed to bombard the reward centers in our brains so efficiently that Ronald Reagan snapped out of senility to ask his old administration if they had invented crack again. Masterfully manipulated by the gnashing, calculated engine of Japanese precision marketing, kids like me were too excited about being able to name my Charmander “BONER” that we all overlooked the fact that entire franchise was just misspelled animals and common nouns fighting each other.
Enter Pikachu, the rat-baby mascot of the series, his adorable shriek and rosy cheeks seared into our collective consciousness until the oceans swallow us alive. Even in the year 2150, when all the children on the space station are playing Pokémon Linoleum/Marinara, Pikachu will still be the one printed on their lunchboxes full of SpaceHealth® Bone Nutrition Paste. Pikachu’s role in our lives — for better or for worse — is undeniable, a multi-generational significance only truly measured by the availability of themed ass-plugs (NSFW).
PokéMoans aside, let’s take a look at Pikachu as he appears in our beloved jazz simulator. He is among a grotesque cabal of three other playable Pokemon – Jigglypuff, Mewtwo, and what Pikachu would look like had he been aborted in a basement. Also present are a handful of B-team Pokémon that appear from pokéballs mid-game, forever enslaved to the whim of who had happened to throw it. Just like the anime, Pikachu stands on the necks of an oppressed class with tiny little boots, showboating his autonomy around while all they can enjoy is a few moments of directed fresh air. If it weren’t for their captivity, the other Pokémon would have already gathered in the night and beat him within an inch of his privileged life.
Sitting at number nine on the tier list, Pikachu is able to survive within the narrow urethra of Melee’s viable character diversity due to his gimp game, kill moves, recovery, and Axe. Essential moves in his kit are up-smash, f-tilt, nair, up-air, and down-b, which was used by most of us in fourth grade as a primary approach. His up-air, depending on whether or not a butterfly flapped its wings in Calcutta, has the potential to send an opponent screaming into the abyss or to pop them up for another chance at the upair lottery. The damage on this move is hilariously low, and Pikachu will often juggle fastfallers across the stage for what feels like the entire duration of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, earning a cool 13% in the process.
Net positives to Pikachu include a non-looping rapid jab, which in special circumstances can be used as a tool of ironic justice, and how funny he looks when he’s holding an item. His alternate costumes are all adorable, especially the green pimp hat one that lets you play as a Pikachu that learned how to fight from cracking johns in the mouth outside the traphouse. It makes me wish the concept of characters with hats had been further explored in Melee, as the image of Falcon wearing one of those beer helmets seems like a missed opportunity. Marth could have gotten one of those towel wraps that women have when they get out of the shower, and Bowser could have a klan hood (an alt-right costume? *spins bowtie, shimmies offtstage*).
However, like most mid-tiers, Pikachu is often described as a “mini” or “shitty” version of a high-tier, in that everything that he does can be done better by someone else. Things like his throws can be devastating, but he has a hard time landing them with a grab range smaller than Falcon’s dick. His combos aren’t very dynamic, and on top of that don’t look particularly impressive as most of his moves are just sloppy flails of his neckless body. Ultimately, Pikachu is the handjob of Melee: mediocre, unsatisfying, and makes you feel like your time could be better spent. Unless Axe is the one giving it.
So what is it then, that drives a player to main this yellow, up-airing shithead?
Nintendo (edit: fan-made) recently released an ad for Sun and Moon that aims to sympathize with millions of adults in their twenties and thirties, all working soul-eroding jobs, all feeling displaced in their own culture, all mourning their lost childhood with every 401k matching form and facebook friend announcing their marriage. The sentiment says “It’s ok. The years where you felt boundless and warm and eager aren’t gone down the choking drain of time. They’re still here. You’re still here, and we are too.” It’s a powerful ad that links a profound, universal feeling to a game where this went through several approval phases:
This perpetual longing for the past is the primary mechanism at work inside the mind of a Pikachu main. Whether they are aware of it or not, these players have made a decision to not only sacrifice the ease and potential success of a high-tier, but miss out on some of the satisfying concepts of Sakurai’s other bastard offspring: the jankiness of Luigi, the sting of Mario, the swag of Samus, the purpleness of Ganon, all passed up for what is essentially a milquetoast character that only one person in the entire world has ever had success with. Pikachu offers nothing besides being Pikachu, and what being Pikachu offers is a window into a bygone childhood that no one will ever get back.
Pikachu mains are the tragic result of a society that encourages the commodification of childhood memories. It’s confirmed that Pikachu was specifically chosen and designed to maximize the sales of Pokemon merchandise, with things like his color being deliberate based on the lack of similar yellow children’s characters, and the fact that kids would be able to imagine him as a pet. When a child’s happiness comes from a product that was specifically designed to exploit it and generate millions of dollars, does that ultimately pervert it in some way? Are the same neurons firing both when we we’re nostalgic about beating the Elite Four for the first time and when we had our first kiss on the playground? Does the end result of happiness justify the possibly insincere means? Perhaps it’s a natural human inclination to draw significance from everything we can, even if it is a fucking talking sandcastle.
Ultimately, these people are trapped between the person they once were and the person they refuse to become. This isn’t uncommon — we’ve all got a little Pikachu main inside of us, they just opt to wear their existential crisis on their sleeves. Healthy? Who knows, but try to take it easy on them. Ask them how their day is going. Generously sandbag against them at a national. Help them stoke the fires of their youth just a bit longer, because one day they are going to wake up and they’re going to brush their teeth; they’ll see themselves in the mirror with tired eyes, bare and truthful, hairline receding, crow’s feet forming, and as moth-eaten pillow fort of their childhood softly collapses inside their mind, they will sit on the toilet and weep for that which has been gone for years.
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