About two years ago I was in the presence of royalty.
Junichi Masuda, long instrumental in driving the development of the "Pokemon" franchise, stood up at the end of our 45-minute interview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. After goodbyes, via a translator, there was a brief awkward moment as no one appeared to be moving. A Nintendo rep noticed the tension and quietly asked if I wanted a photograph with the master game developer.
Nintendo and Masuda were so accustomed to accommodating requests for a picture that it was practically an anomaly when there wasn't one, even in this professional setting. Masuda has been with the "Pokemon" series since its mid-1990s beginnings and is therefore a key figure in one of the most prominent cultural mainstays of the past two decades, an interactive creator who has had a major hand in generation-defining pop-art.
And I missed it all.
When the early wave of the "Pokemon" craze hit in 1996, I was nearing the end of high school; my interests were more "Trainspotting" and "Quake" rather than Pikachu and Squirtle. My first "Pokemon" experience was "Pokemon GO," more of an augmented reality sensation than a proper "Pokemon" adventure. When I spoke to Masuda it was before the release of "Let's Go, Pikachu!" and "Let's Go, Eevee!" and a full year before this year's "Sword" and "Shield" entries in the series, games that will assuredly be among the biggest of 2019. Nintendo has already stated that the games sold more than 6 million copies in their first weekend of release.
During my time with Masuda, I wanted to know not just what I've been missing, but why "Pokemon" endures. His first thought: The world of "Pokemon" is "comical." And more than that, "It's a kind feeling."
"We're definitely very careful about that," Masuda said of the cartoonish role-playing games that feature trainers raising mystical creatures and sending them off into battle. "We're not trying to portray realism, in terms of real-world realism. We want to show off this cool fantasy setting, but within that fantasy setting create a consistent realism. Even though there's moves that poison the opponent, we still make those effects that don't look super serious or intimidating."
After a couple of weeks playing "Pokemon Sword," I'm charmed. The game is full of sly asides that bring a smile to my face, whether it's nonsense weirdness such as "Ball Guy," a dude with a "Pokemon" ball as a head, or a brief run-in with some toxic fans -- a moment that feels very in tune with 2019 social media, not to mention some of "Pokemon's" own community who have been acting personally attacked that the new games feature a pared-down roster of little monsters.
But while I've been having fun, I still wanted to better understand what makes "Pokemon" a cultural force, one that remains a global franchise that can rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Luckily I work with Tracy Brown, a peer and friend whose "Pokemon" knowledge vastly outshines my own. (Earlier this year, she covered the "Detective Pikachu" film.) We decided to play "Sword" and "Shield" concurrently, to see how a knowledgeable fan and a newcomer view the same game and, in turn, what makes "Pokemon" universal.