Pokemon is queer as hell, actually
The Pokémon games were my childhood. From Red and Blue, to Yellow, to Gold, the series solely justified my parents' purchase of Game Boy Colors for my brother and me, although probably nothing justifies the dump trucks worth of AA batteries we burned through playing them.
At the time, I enjoyed the collect-a-thon compulsion of the games. Their colorful creatures were designed to be appealing—to make me want them. It's why the series has always been split into two versions, with several Pokémon in each generation separated by SKU. All the better to make parents' like mine buy two copies of an almost identical game for their easily obsessed progeny.
Looking back, though, my love of the games stemmed just as much from their unsubtle sense of freedom. Each game stars a child -- not unlike I used to be, in the sense that I could select that I was a boy and give them my own name -- setting out on an independent adventure to make and cultivate friends across the world. It was like getting to experience what running away from home would be like—freeing yourself from all the mundane and seemingly not-so-mundane troubles—for a kid too afraid to, you know, actually do that.
At a certain point, however, it all just stopped: the battles, the collecting, the trading, and the sense of escape. If I had to pinpoint when I stopped caring about Pokémon, I'd say it was about the time I stopped identifying with the childlike character design. I aged out of the need to run away from home and aged into an economy that made me wholly dependent on my family for years to come. Freedom wasn't about getting away from it all, physically. It was having the resources to continue living where I was at all.
That all changed with last year's Pokémon Sun and Moon. Early ads for the new versions showed a soft-featured, but slightly more grown-up art style. The main character looked like someone I remembered being, just a few years ago, if not exactly who I am now. Meanwhile, the release's "Alolan" regional variants contorted pocket monsters I remembered from my youth with palm tree necks and pinchably chubby cheeks.
Those silly designs were Sun and Moon playing on my nostalgia, sure, but even that meant the series was speaking to someone old enough to feel nostalgia in the first place. Most adult Pokémon fans likely know the time they first grew "too old" for Nintendo’s family friendly games. Sun and Moon's announcements were the first time I felt like the series itself had grown up, too.
Pokémon wasn't the only thing that changed in the intervening 20-odd years. Unlike Professor Elm's famous (and fairly rude, in retrospect) question, I don't have to choose between boys and girls—at least not where my affections are concerned. Being bisexual in the conservative-ass Midwest hasn't always been easy, but being open about it with my real-world friends has been just as freeing as when my digital pals and I trekked through the Kanto Region in '98.
As intriguing as Sun and Moon were, however, it wasn't until this year's Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon "third version" remakes (and the review I wrote for Ars Technica) that I truly dove back into the series that shaped my childhood. And boy was I ever delighted to discover Pokémon is hell of queer now.
The signs are there almost immediately. Seeing as I have a soul, I'm a big fan of Popplio and elected the clown-nosed sea lion as my starter. Before long, though, the hotly debated water-type evolves out of its awkwardly masculine form and into the poised Primarina: Pokémon's own equivalent of Diva Plavalaguna.
Boy was I ever delighted to discover Pokemon is hell of queer now.
It's not just the look of the battling beasts, either. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon introduce what's basically a selfie mode. You can snap shots of your own character and a favored teammate, pose, and gussy the images up with Instagram-like stickers. Sun and Moon already included the option to play dress-up your avatar, but the re-releases take it a step further by giving you the means to model and preserve your cutest outfits for posterity. And the clothes are very good indeed.
Then there's Pokémon Refresh, a system where you stroke, feed, and generally take care of your embattled allies. And there's the dainty little hands-out twirl your character does whenever they play with outdoor Pokémon. Or consider the androgynous and excitable Captain Ilima, who introduces you to rules of the "Island Challenge" which Sun and Moon are centered around. While Nintendo refers to the good captain as "him," The Pokémon Company's notably removed gendered pronouns from the character's official bio.
Ultra Moon also didn't ask me if I was "a boy or a girl," as Pokémon Crystal and onwards began doing in 2001, either. You just select a "passport photo" to represent your character's style. It's a nice bit of gender fluidity that manages not to draw attention to itself. It's just the norm.
Even so, as I wandered Alola's shores, forests, caves, and towns, I was most definitely playing a more masculine character—at least as masculine as the art's bright, rounded edges can produce. It's a protagonist that looked more like me than the squashed sprites could replicate back in the day, but with mannerisms and access to activities RPGs simply didn't afford me back in the 90s.
Consider, for example, how rarely men get to be nurturers in RPGs. The fey white mages of Final Fantasy, and healers of all stripes in games, cartoons, and the like tend to be women. It's a trope built on a trope: women as domestic caregivers turned women as magical ones. The Aurons and Zidanes and Lockes of the world seemed equally locked in their manly men's roles. Yet now, when my Primarina needs grooming, I'm there for him. When a sad little Rockruff wants a friend, we can pirouette together to cheer them up. The game calls no more attention to it than the "passport" that determined my looks.
In real life, my sexuality doesn't always draw attention. So long as I'm not holding hands with another man in public I'm mostly invisible. Being more open about it has brought attention to little mannerisms I want to embrace around it, however: to paint my nails, to walk a certain way, to not worry if my wrists bend at the wrong angle, or if my legs look "wrong" if I cross them. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon have been offering me just that right mix of who I am and how I am.
I think the developers at GameFreak know it, too. I mean, ignore the character creation for a moment. Ignore Ilima's pronouns and the game's equal opportunity beautification. Consider just that Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon have resurrected the series' original villains as Team Rainbow Rocket.
It's been a couple decades in the making, but with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon I feel like Pokemon has finally caught up with me.
I don't even care if the gang's rebranding isn't an intentional reference to anime's Platonic ideal queers, Jessie and James. The coincidence is simply too good to ignore. Not to mention it's yet another way the game ties the burgeoning identity of my childhood (the one who still watched the Pokémon anime) with the more realized version of my present self.
It's been a couple decades in the making, but with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon I feel like Pokémon has finally caught up with me. It recaptures that sense of exemption from the world I felt as a child in ways that I could apply to myself then. That is to say: Pokémon is queer as hell now, and it's pretty cool.