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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Requiem for Cactus Jack

Sometimes, on an overcast day, when the sun's luminous silhouette struggles mightily to break through the murky clouds and the wind whispers its vague lullaby, I think of my friend and hope that, wherever he may be, he is happy...

***

With the recent success of the Pokémon Go mobile game-such a phenomenon that it has popularized that most base and shameful of activities: walking-the original 151 Pocket Monsters have reentered the popular consciousness with a vengeance. Because of this vengeful reentry, my thoughts of late have turned to my own personal experience with the Pokémon games of yore, and the untold tragedy of a fallen friend.
I first heard of these games through a 1996 issue of Nintendo Power, which at the time was quite fond of  dangling the carrot of Japanese games before ravenous American audiences that would never get to play them. How I longed for Secret of Mana 2 or RPG Maker to hit these shores! Pocket Monsters, while cool-looking, had the air of something we Americans would never see, save for a few screenshots here and there, like Fire Emblem (nope, never gonna see that, nuh-uh), so I paid it little mind.


In a way, I was right, because the game would not hit America until 1998, a relative eternity in teenager time. Yes, somehow the Game Boy had managed a nine-year run despite being a technological relic, completely outlasting the Super NES and, in its death throes, still managing to cough out one last ultramegahit. And when the time came for us Yanks to get a taste of that sweet, sweet monster nectar, Nintendo Power was once again driving the hype train, with a monthly series showing the game and its creatures in detail that somehow managed to drum up excitement for an 8-bit portable RPG in my 3-D polygon, 64-bit heart.
I put a lot of time into Pokémon. A LOT. We're talking the quantity that is scientifically known as "a buttload" of time. The game managed the awe-inspiring feat of getting me to do something other than play Magic: The Gathering, as exploring for new monsters, powering them up and battling my friends was more fun than all the ostensibly "fun-sized" candy bars in the world put together.The perpetual arms race to have the biggest and strongest Poképugilist was fast and furious and involved beating the Elite Four more times than I care to remember. And then, of course, there was "catching 'em all." When all were caught, however, there could be no doubt who ruled the roost as the biggest, baddest, cute, cuddly plush toy come to life. He was known as Mewtwo, and he reigned supreme.


Mewtwo was broken. He was a Psychic Pokémon, which was essentially the most powerful class of creatures due to some of the intended programming fail-safes against them not working (not to get too deep and nerdy about this, but for example, Psychic Pokémon were supposed to have a weakness to Ghost-types. For whatever reason, they didn't, and they basically ran roughshod over everything). The second generation of Pokémon games went to great lengths to correct this, but here, the imbalance was obvious. In addition, Mewtwo was simply stronger than anything else by his very nature, having base statistics unmatchable by any other Pokémon and capable of learning all sorts of different powerful moves. He was a god among ants, and his rule was absolute.
Now, like I said, I played a lot of Pokémon. I started with Pokémon Blue, but eventually also picked up Pokémon Red, so that I could pathetically trade Pokémon with myself and complete my Pokedex without any of that icky social interaction stuff. Beyond that, having two games meant I could run through the whole game several times, transferring my best creatures to the other cartridge and sparing their lives when the entire world reset and wiped their compatriots from existence. In this way, I managed to accumulate several of even the rarest creatures, including the aforementioned Mewtwo.


If you've ever played any of these games before, you probably know that, in terms of strength, all Pokémon are not created equal. Each creature has its own individual power level relative to others of its sort, meaning that you could have two Raticates with quite different stats despite being the same level (while still both being relatively weak, because Raticate sucks). There were ways to enhance your precious little babies' strength with vitamins and supplements, but ultimately, that disparity could never be fully overcome. Some Pokémon were simply the Charlotte Flairs of their world: genetically superior.
Speaking of professional wrestling, 1998 was a key year in the sage of the sport's storied "Monday Night Wars," wherein WCW and WWF (now WWE) were locked in a visceral waltz of doom, each side bringing out its big guns in a winner-take-all battle for ratings supremacy. Though the WWF would eventually become that winner who would therefore take all, at the time it was an underdog, and its efforts to overtake Ted Turner's juggernaut would result in television programming that absolutely enthralled a then-sixteen-year-old Joey Marsilio. So, as you can imagine, when it came time to bestow individual names upon my Pokémon, I dug pretty deep into the wrestling well. I had a Sandslash named The Rock (and yes, I realize a Geodude would have been more fitting). I had Articunos named Stone Cold and Al Snow, a Hitmonlee named after Steve Blackman (!) and a whole team of Exeggutors named after members of the band The Offspring (again, 1998). And of course, I had the exquisite burden of coming up with names for my cadre of Mewtwos. What name could possibly evoke the proper persona of this baddest of asses?
In the end, I decided to name my killer kat klone army after a wrestler whose capacity for violence and inhuman pain tolerance were already legendary: Mick Foley. Foley's gimmick was, in part, that he had several personalities, each with their own distinct look and character traits. So one of my Mewtwos was named Mankind, while a slightly weaker one with different moves was Dude Love. And then there was Cactus Jack. Cactus Jack, as a wrestler, had a fearsome reputation as a whirlwind of violence, a savage whose ungodly threshold of pain was surpassed only by his penchant for inflicting grotesque bodily harm upon his opponents. Fire, steel, baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire...nothing was too brutal for Jack. He was a killer, and the very mention of his name inspired fear. So it was with this particular Mewtwo. His stats were exceedingly high from the moment I captured him (after, fittingly enough, a grueling marathon of a battle), and I further enhanced his strength by pumping him up with as many of the game's vitamins, nutritional supplements and whatever the hell HP Up was as were allowed. When he reached his pinnacle at Level 100, one things was clear: no other Mewtwo even approached Cactus Jack's strength. He was unfairly powerful, a murder machine that mowed down all opponents, Mewtwo or otherwise. He was a blitzkrieg in purple and gray, a cruel deity whose thirst for pokéblood was insatiable. And I loved him.
As my Pokémon journey continued, Cactus Jack was always by my side. He was transferred over to the Nintendo 64's Pokémon Stadium, where he continued his path of destruction, and found his way into my copy of Pokémon Silver, mercilessly destroying everything on an entirely new continent. The horizons were endless. Surely Jack would be my ruthless companion in the many adventures to come.


Then, one day, some sad, shocking news arrived via Nintendo power (naturally): the generation of Pokémon games following Silver and Gold would not allow Pokémon from previous games to be imported. They were starting over fresh, with a new, more balanced stats system, and the holdovers from older installments were not allowed to come play with the new kids. Unfortunately, this fresh start would prove my exit from the series. What was the point of continuing through new adventures if I couldn't bring my old buddies and their de facto leader Cactus Jack along for the ride? And so Pokémon moved on without me. Jack lie dormant, neglected, in the Pokémon Silver cartridge that would prove his tomb.
As the years went by, and my metabolism waned and my alcohol tolerance waxed, my thoughts were consumed by things other than Pocket Monsters named after pro wrestlers and alternative rock artists. Yet somewhere along the line, I stumbled upon a disturbing bit of information: the real-time clock built into Pokémons Silver and Gold was apparently a tremendous drain on the batteries within the cartridges. As in, said batteries would die much quicker than those of other video games, taking the data on the cartridges with them on a one way trip to the inky void. Could it be true? My copies of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior on the NES still had working batteries, and those were much, much older than Pokémon Silver. Could the infernal clock really have drained an extra decade's worth of battery in such a short time? Warily, I set out to determine the veracity of these claims. With shaky fingers, I plugged the Pokémon Silver cartridge into my Game Boy Color and, after a few misfires, booted the game up. After passing the title screen, I was greeted with a grim sight:


There was no option to Continue. The saved game file was gone, and all the data with it. All my old friends, whom I had meticulously groomed and trained to the height of their powers. Cactus Jack, the fearsome paragon of might. All gone, lost forever like a spiderweb caught in a hurricane. It was unexpectedly crushing. Why should I feel sad for the loss of creatures that did not exist? Perhaps the time I cracked my head open on a piano as a child had something to do with my misplaced empathy. Regardless, I sorrowfully powered the Game Boy off, ruefully aware that I would never see my prized Pokémon again, at least not in this life.
The irony in all this, if irony it be, was that the clockless Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, despite being several years older, still have their save files intact to this day. A level 100 Poliwhirl named Supercrazy can attest to that.
Which brings us to today, and Pokémon Go. Through my hours of playing the game, I cannot help but reflect on Cactus Jack, and the fun times we had together mercilessly annihilating fools. At the time of my writing this, there is still no way to access the Legendary Pokémon within the game, Mewtwo included. Oh, we know they're coming, but how and when is a mystery. Still, I hold out hope that one day, I might be able to catch a Mewtwo in Pokémon Go. A Mewtwo so mighty that others fear its very name. And that name, of course, will be Cactus Jack. It would be nice to see my friend again.
Ah, well. At least for the time being, I have an Exeggutor named Offspring.



Joey Marsilio blathers on about other old video games in his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, and can currently be found...ugh...walking.

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