There are some Pokémon fans you can tell at a glance. I'm not talking about someone who has enough knowledge of metagame strategies to win every battle or can tell you the exact stats or movepool of any of the 600-odds 'mons; I'm referring to those who grew up along with the Pokémon saga.
For people like us, who played games from all generations for years, it's easy to tell an original Pokémon cartridge when you see one. And so I did.
It was a fresh Friday of autumn. The kind of days you can still go around in T-shirt and shorts but can already feel the chills of the middle season.
My brother and I both owned a copy of Pokémon Platinum, but he had lost interest in the game after a while, and had started to play with my cartridge. Not that I minded; as a Pokémon lover, he was almost as seasoned as I am, and he had never done idiotic things like overwriting my save file, releasing my team, or breaking my winning streak at the Battle Frontier.
However, all of this meant we had a copy of Platinum too many. I was hoping to trade it in at some video game shop. I was just on my way there where I stumbled upon a group of kids playing with various Nintendo consoles: brand new DS's mostly, but also a couple of old GBAs that were in surprisingly good condition. Interested, I took a peek at one of them and saw he was playing Pokémon Emerald.
I quickly struck up a conversation. His name was Franco, and it was obvious that he totally was into Pokémon. He showed me his DS and Pokémon games collection, we chatted about Pokémon and other video games, had some battles, made a couple trades, and I didn't notice time was going by so fast until I noticed the sun was just about to set.
It was too late to make it to downtown before the shops closed, and since it was the weekend, I'd have to wait for three days before they opened again.
Without thinking, I complained about it to myself. He must have heard me, because he said "Actually, I'm missing Platinum Version... would you like to barter?"
I didn't know what he had to offer, but I heard that sometimes you can find all kinds of rare stuff on oblivious kids, from rare trading cards to save files with promotional Pokémon in them, I considered his offer. He showed me a cartridge that made my heart skip a beat.
The sticker was stained and partially peeled off, but the cartridge's translucent red color and what little of it I could make out left no doubt: it was an original, honest-to-God Ruby cartridge. I examined it closely: the Nintendo logo, seal of quality, and everything else seemed in order. If not for that ruined sticker, you could have said it was in mint condition.
It particularly interested me because I had never played an original Pokémon Ruby game. When it came out, I was too impatient to wait until it was available in the stores, so I had played it on an emulator. By the time I could buy it, I had already finished it, and I didn't feel like playing it again. I had bought Sapphire instead, just for the gist of playing a different game from the one I had emulated.
But I digress. We quickly sealed the deal, and I came back home with my new possession. I left it in my room and went to have dinner, then went back to my room. When I found the cartridge, I found a crudely crayon-drawn Groudon on the front, and the words "Ruby Version" had been clumsily filled in with marker. My brother was just playing at his computer, playing dumb. With the crayon and marker still on the desk in front of him. Not too smart.
But my revenge for his act of defacement would have to wait. I booted it up on my DS.
Predictably enough, it had a saved game memorized. It was named (unsurprisingly) FRANCO, had seven badges and eighty or so hours of play time. I selected the game, and was treated to a completely white screen that blinded me for a second or so. Nothing else happened. I turned it off and back on, and selected a new game. The introductory screen with Professor Birch went out as smooth and normal as it could be.
It must have been some glitch or so, I thought to myself. I played the saved file again, and I thought I could see something: outlines of sprites, maybe a tree or two beyond the white screen: I couldn't focus on them much because my eyes would hurt if I stared at it for more than a few moments. I opened the menu, and the team screen opened up as usual. I looked at his team - nothing special: a Swellow, Blaziken, Linoone and Sharpedo, all in their 40-50s-. Thinking perhaps the white was a glitchy fog effect, I tried moving around to see if I would end up in a different area. Nothing.
Hoping that with the backlight I would have a better chance at seeing things, I took the cartridge out and put it in my GBA SP. Sure enough, it was easier to see. The screen was still bright, but at least I could make out my surroundings.
I was just outside of Littleroot. Taken by a nostalgic feeling, I decided to visit the town, even though usually you don't have many reasons to do so. Perhaps a side effect of the bright screen, everything looked a little... off.
The green color of the grass and trees was slightly tendent to yellow, even though the main character's sprite and everything else seemed fine. A palette error, or such. I was starting to regret buying a game in such bad condition, which was sure to have its fair share of glitches and other problems. But it was still playable, so I went on.
The music was a bit slower than I remember, and slightly off-pitch. The character's movement also was slow and chunky, as if it was a PC game lagging from memory overload. It didn't trouble me that much, I knew I could expect all kind of weird stuff from that old game. The NPCs that were walking around were slower, and when talked to, they would sometimes cut the conversations short after a sentence or two.
I went up to my room, and found it full of decorations. Little rugs, a table, a chair, and dolls. He had obviously taken quite a lot of time furnishing it.
Guessing I'd pick off where he left from, I had Swellow use Fly to get to Sootopolis and get that last medal. But the Sootopolis area was greyed out. Franco must have quit the game just after busting Team Magma's hiedeout. He must have been pretty young when he played the game, probably he didn't know how to reach it: I checked his Sharpedo, and sure enough it didn't know Dive, even though he had the HM. I was pretty surprised to see that his team was now at half HP, except for Blaziken, which was at full health. I shrugged and assumed I was just too distracted to notice before.
Deciding to take the long route around, I headed to Oldale first. I immediately entered the Pokémon Center, and the scene there was the oddest thing so far.
There was a line of NPCs in front of the Nurse's counter, and every few seconds the first one of the line would exit the building, and another would join the queue. That was weird. In the whole emulated playthrough of Ruby I had never seen such a scene. Franco had probably found out some secret event, or got a promo Pokémon that would trigger this. I felt excited: even after all these years, there was something in a Pokémon game I had never seen.
I still needed to heal my Pokémon, though, so I had no choice but to join the queue and go along with them.
When I finally reached the counter, I didn't even press A or anything. The Nurse didn't say her usual welcome line, but just turned towards the Pokémon Center machine, placed the four Pokéballs in it, and healed them. After giving them back, she simply said "Next", and I automatically moved to the left and down, out of the way.
I tried to talk to the other NPCs in the queue, but got no response. The escalator to the second floor wouldn't work. I checked the PC, and looked at his Boxes. As expected, all his Pokémon except the team he had on himself were at pretty much the same level at which he had caught them, which struck me as odd since he didn't even have a full team. Perhaps he was challenging himself.
I went to the Poké Mart. There was a queue there too, although shorter than the one at the Center. The goods selection wasn't the usual, though. They were only selling Pokéballs and Burn Heal. The weirdest thing was that Burn Heal was incredibly expensive, at 1.500 Yen each.
Damn, I thought, someone tampered with this cartridge. Perhaps a GameShark.
As I went North and then East, I noticed the color palette was acting funny again. Where normally there would be green, there was a sickly greenish yellow, and the water was of a dimmer color as well. As I Surfed through it, quite predictably, I was attacked by wild Pokémon, mostly Wingull.
What happened with the first battle caught me by surprise: the enemy Pokémon started the battle with only about half HP, something I never thought possible in Pokémon. I sent out Sharpedo, and noticed its HP weren't at max, but slightly less. I couldn't think of any reason for that: even if he had somehow activated the so-called "Acid Rain glitch", which caused continuous damage, I hadn't even ran into any battle up to there. I easily beat it with Crunch and went on.
In the following battles, I noticed that even though I beat the wild Pokémon in one move without giving them a chance to attack, Sharpedo's health kept decreasing with every battle. I checked the team several times between battles, tried giving them healing items and Berries, but their health kept slowly going down anyway. Even Blaziken, whom I thought immune to that mysterious health sapping effect, was receiving damage, only at a much slower pace.
For such an old game, it sure had its share of oddities. I realized that at that pace I would have had to bring a lot of potions with me and stop at any Pokémon Center I had the chance of visiting. That bothered me; I decided I would delete the save file eventually, as nothing was worth going on with such an unplayable save file. But first, I wanted to get to the bottom of that.
I casually passed by one of the soft soil spots, those where you could plant Berries. In it there was a row of plants, but their sprites weren't moving, and were in monochrome. As I approached them and examined them, they disappeared, and the text "The CHESTO BERRY crumbled to dust" appeared. Examining the soil again, it said "This soil is too dry to plant anything". There was definitely something big going on, and apparently I was getting close to the source.
I decided to get this over with and go straight to battle Wallace. I flew to Lilycove, and suddenly I realized what was going on. The eerie four-note melody and periodic flashes of the screen were those of when Groudon is let loose by Team Magma. When that happened, I had gone straight to the Cave of Origins to battle it, and had no idea it could affect the rest of the world.
But it just raised further questions after it sank in: Groudon was supposed to break loose after encountering it in the Seafloor Cave.
How did Franco get there without Dive?
Or perhaps Groudon's "Drought" could start threatening the world before even meeting it?
Did it have to do with the game being left in that state for such a long time? From the game's point of view, the protagonist had seen the evil team depart on to awaken a legendary Pokémon, and instead of chasing after them, he did nothing, cowering away from his destiny, never resuming his voyage as a Pokémon Trainer.
Was I witnessing the results of such negligence?
I decided to find out: I quickly opened the menu and taught the HM to Sharpedo... just as I was selecting it, I had a start. Swellow had fainted. Without even a message or a warning, it had lost all of its HP.
Frustrated, I went to the Pokémon Center. The queue was much longer than the one in Oldale, so much that it started outside of the building. It took me the good part of fifteen minutes to have my team fixed.
I went to the shop to buy some Revives and Potions just in case. Another queue, and the shop's prices were outrageous: Pokéballs and battle items were at normal price, but healing items cost five times as much as I remembered. With little more than 50,000 Yen and no valuables to sell, I was only able to afford two Revives and a handful of potions.
I started surfing down Route 124. No Trainers in sight, and, even though I had used no Repels, I only met two wild Tentacool on the (rather long) trip. Both of them only had about one fourth of their maximum HP when the battle started. The screen was getting brighter and the flashes more frequent. My brother started peeking at my screen, curious. "You're going to fight Groudon?" he asked.
I replied with a distracted "Uh-uh"; I couldn't take my eyes off the game. I used Dive and entered the Cave. The scene there shocked me.
Instead of the water, there was an empty basin, with some lava pools here and there. Grunts of both teams were lying on the ground, along with sprites of Poochyenas. Neither moved or gave response when talked to.
I got to the bottom of the cave, and Archie and Max were there.
I approached Archie, and a cutscene started. He slowly walked over the lava pool where Groudon was supposed to be. He turned around, and said very slowly:
"You were right. You should have stopped us. Now it's too late."
Then, he jumped into the pool of lava and disappeared. Groudon's cry, very slight as if heard from a distance, could be heard. My brother was as dumbstruck as I was.
Max was lying down like the grunts in the cave. No answer on him, either.
With no other idea on where to go, I headed to the Cave of Origin hoping to battle Groudon. As I approached Sootopoils, I saw more and more sideways sprites of Trainers, as if they were floating corpses. They were even losing color more and more as I went on.
The only wild Pokémon I encountered, a Magikarp, started the battle with just a sliver of HP and in Burned status. Even before I sent out my Pokémon, it took damage from the burn and was defeated. No victory theme, the screen just went back to the map.
Opening my menu, I saw that three of my Pokémon were low on HP and in Burn status, and even Blaziken, although not Burned, had taken quite a bit of damage.
I dove and surfaced inside the crater. Sootopolis didn't look anything like I remembered.
Lava was pouring from the edges, pooling near the bottom. There was no sign of life, and charred buildings and fire blocked all ways but a very narrow path leading to the Cave. As soon as I was in front of it, a wall crumbled and a stream of lava covered the path I was in just a few steps before. I was trapped.
Inside, oddly enough I found two NPCs: Wallace, lying on the ground, and Wally. I was genuinely surprised to see Wally there, until it hit me that to get to Victory Road before you, he logically had to get all the badges, so he had no reason not to be there.
I spoke to Wallace, to no avail. When I tried to speak with Wally, he told me, in a message which speed was even slower than that of Archie: "Everyone tried and failed...it is just the two of us left...will you...help me?"
The screen shook, and a tile of lava appeared in front of the entrance. Wally hobbled down the stairs. I healed my team the best I could with my meager supplies and followed him.
I found him in front of Groudon. The room was littered with charred Trainer and Pokémon's sprites.
Among them there were familiar sprites: I recognized Wattson and May on top of a pile, and Norman was laying face-down in the middle of the room.
I walked up to Groudon, and the battle started. It was me and Wally against it.
"Bullshit," my brother cried from behind me. "This game is a fake. There were no team-up battles before Emerald!"
I ignored him and went on. Groudon was at full health, and on level 90. The message "Groudon's Drought made the sun shine brightly," appeared as soon as the battle started. My sprite and Wally's flashed as if they were Pokémon taking damage. I felt something hot trickling down my fingers. I checked the back of the console: the crayon on the cartridge had melted. The cartridge itself had gotten almost too hot to touch, and the faint smell of burnt paper came from what was left of the sticker.
We just couldn't find any logical reason for that. Curiosity got the better of me, and I started the battle. I sent out Sharpedo, Wally opened with a level 40 Magneton. It made sense, it was close to the level of the one he has when encountered in the Victory Road. It was severely weakened, like the wild Pokémon I had met.
Groudon used Earthquake, leaving Sharpedo with little HP, and knocking out Magneton in one hit. Sharpedo used Surf, but in spite of it being super effective, it only took out a small chunk of health.
The battle was extremely one-sided. It swept through my team easily, as well as Wally's Swablu, Delcatty and Gardevoir. Even outnumbering it two to one, the difference in level and weakened state of our teams were too much of a disadvantage.
As soon as Gardevoir had fallen, Wally's sprite took its place. The same happened to me as soon as Swellow was knocked out. There were no HP bars or anything. There was nothing to do: Groudon automatically got the next turn and used Flamethrower on Wally, making him faint. I braced for whatever was about to come, but nothing could prepare me for what happened after.
The screen flashed an orange-red tint, so bright I cried in pain as I instinctively closed my eyes. At the same time, I felt a searing pain in my hand, forcing me to drop the console. It hit the ground and the cartridge popped right out: the plastic around the cartridge slot has partially melted. The cartridge itself was completely unharmed.
My head felt heavy. I fell back on my bed and lost consciousness.
When we woke up the morning after, my brother was dizzy and complained of a headache. I had gotten the worst of it: I had a blistering burn on my hand, and something like a nasty sunburn on my face. Knowing I would've been called crazy if I told what had happened, I told my friends I had an accident while cooking a BBQ. It took two weeks for me to heal completely.
Some days after, against better judgement, I decided to give that cartridge one last look.
First of all, I deleted that damn save file. I sure felt relieved after I saw the only option was "New Game". But that only lasted until I selected the new game.
There was no introduction. No speech from the Professor, no prompt to name my character. The screen went directly to the initial scene in Littleroot, with the van in front of the house. But there was no-one, no characters, no NPCs. I couldn't open the menu.
Trying to move around just moved the camera. Upon trying to leave the town on any side, I would see a white border, on the other side of which was a featureless, gray land.
Eventually, the map started zooming out. Somehow, the town got smaller and smaller. Eventually I could see that it was not the actual Littleroot, but a photo, left in the middle of a patch of scorched ground. Then more things started to enter the field of view.
A broken Pokéball. Charred wood, rusty metal. Stains of dried mud. And what I initially thought to be black and yellowish pebbles, but soon found out were charred bones, from a skeleton partially buried in the ash.
I couldn't bear to see that any more. I tore the cartridge out of the console.
I tossed that cartridge in my closet, hoping to never have to see it again. I'm still friends with Franco, and I never mentioned the game to him at all, neither did he to me. He was oblivious to the fact that his ignorance and negligence had doomed a world, albeit a virtual one.
A couple months later, I looked in the closet for that cartridge again, but couldn't find it. Probably Mom had misplaced it when sorting through my clothes. Maybe I will never see it again.
Perhaps that's for the best.