Team Rocket (part 1 of 2)

So, the wireless internet here in Greece totally doesn’t suck that much, so I’m going to start a five-part special (code: four-week period in which I write as much in seven days as I usually do in three) on the human villains of the Pokémon series – and where could I possibly start but with Team Rocket?

Team Rocket, as everyone with even a passing familiarity with Pokémon knows, are the series’ main villains, showing up in Red/Blue/Yellow, Gold/Silver/Crystal, and the more recent remakes of those games, Fire Red/Leaf Green and Heart Gold/Soul Silver. They are also the regular antagonists of the TV show, in the form of the bungling Jessie and James and their long-suffering Pokémon companion Meowth. I’m not going to talk about Jessie and James, a goldmine of comic relief though they may be, because this is really supposed to be about the games and they only show up in Yellow, which is based on the TV show to some extent. They are also a great deal less competent than the games’ version of Team Rocket, who are apparently a highly organised criminal syndicate.  Unlike the villains of the series’ later instalments, who have slightly more complicated (and, in some cases, blatantly insane) motivations, Team Rocket are just in it for the money.  Basically, they are the result of humans actually recognising the kind of power wielded by even a moderately skilled Pokémon trainer and acting accordingly.  They focus on stealing Pokémon, but they do it because of the undeniable applications of Pokémon in stealing other things – or just taking them by force.  It’s not a terribly interesting concept, but it does stand to reason that people like this would exist.

When we first meet Team Rocket in Red and Blue, they are crawling around Mount Moon, looking to “steal” Pokémon fossils, since they are aware that the advanced technology of the setting they live in allows extinct Pokémon to be resurrected from them.  I say “steal” in quotation marks because I’m not convinced that they’re actually doing anything wrong with reference to the game’s internal logic, since “archaeologists” in the Pokémon series are basically looters (this is something of a sore spot with me since I’m an archaeology student). After defeating Team Rocket, you encounter another trainer who has also “stolen” two fossils, but upon beating him your character does not attempt to return the fossils to a museum or other appropriate institute – no, you let him off scot free once he offers to share his loot with you.  Given that there is apparently nothing wrong with taking unclaimed fossils from Mount Moon, it seems that the only reason you’re fighting Team Rocket here is because they attack you on sight… y’know, just like every other trainer in the Pokémon universe.  A little later, in Cerulean City, a trainer attempts to recruit you to Team Rocket and challenges you when you refuse – (you have no choice in this matter, of course; your character refuses automatically).  Soon after that, you trounce a lone Team Rocket member who has just robbed a house.  Things don’t get serious, however, until you reach Celadon City.

Celadon City has a Game Corner – that’s the official Game Freak euphemism for “casino” – which appears innocent on the face of it, but there are also a fair number of Team Rocket members scuttling around town who, being morons, will drop less-than-subtle hints that they are the ones running the casino and that the rare Pokémon offered as prizes there are stolen.  Sure enough, investigating the casino reveals a sprawling hideout in its basement, where you will confront and defeat Team Rocket’s head honcho, Giovanni, a Ground-type specialist who uses an Onix, a Rhyhorn and a Kangaskhan.  This doesn’t cause the casino to be shut down or to stop offering stolen rare Pokémon as prizes or anything, because that would prevent players from ever getting a Porygon, and the object of the game is still, in theory, to finish the blasted Pokédex.

Gameplay/story segregation for the win.

You next encounter these knaves in Lavender Town’s Pokémon Tower, a high-rise pet cemetery inhabited by a cult of criminally insane priestesses.  Team Rocket has thrown the spirits of the tower into uproar by killing the mother Marowak who used to protect the place (to my knowledge, this is the only mention in the main series of a Pokémon being killed by humans prior to Diamond and Pearl).  Not only that, they’ve kidnapped local philanthropist Mr. Fuji… who actually seems totally fine with it when you rescue him; he was just trying to talk them down, though he does thank you for defeating Team Rocket and the spirit of the dead Marowak and allowing her to pass on.  Team Rocket show up once more in Saffron City, and this time they mean business.  They’ve taken over the office block that houses Silph Co., a company that produces various Pokémon-related goods such as Pokeballs.  Their objective is the prototype of Silph’s newest invention: the Master Ball, which will capture any Pokémon without fail, even powerful legendary Pokémon.  This would be bad.  In the course of liberating Silph Co., Giovanni challenges you once again, this time having ditched his Onix and picked up a Nidorino and a Nidoqueen.  When you defeat him, the grateful president of Silph gives the prototype Master Ball to you as a reward, having decided – I suppose – that the invention’s commercial potential wasn’t worth what it could do in the wrong hands.  Giovanni turns up once more, unexpectedly turning out to by the Gym Leader of Viridian City and your final hurdle before challenging the Elite Four.  This time he uses an extra Rhyhorn, a Dugtrio, and his now-fully evolved Nidoking, Nidoqueen and Rhydon, and is so disheartened by this final loss that he elects to disband Team Rocket and vanishes without a trace.

When Nintendo remade Red and Blue a little while back as Fire Red and Leaf Green, they added a bunch of new areas – an island chain south of the main region of Kanto, called the Sevii Islands (and before you ask, yes; there are seven of them, which are actually called One Island, Two Island, and so on ad nauseam). A trip to these islands provides the occasion for another run-in with Team Rocket – specifically, with a comparatively small unit who seem to be unaware thus far that their organization has disbanded. Somehow. In Sevii, you team up with Lorelei, the Ice Pokémon master of the Kanto Elite Four and a native of Four Island, to deal with the Team Rocket members in the area. They don’t appear to have any specific evil plan going; their Sevii operation is really just business as usual for them – poaching wild Pokémon and stealing trained ones either for sale on the black market or for general nefarious purposes. You later gain a more specific grievance against them when a scientist named Gideon snatches a special sapphire that you’re looking for right from under your nose with the intention of selling it to them. This is clearly far more important than whatever lame schemes they’re planning with stolen Pokémon, so you march up to their warehouse, curb-stomp their pathetic mid-level asses, and explain to them slowly and clearly that Team Rocket has disbanded. This seems to get the point across.

So here’s what I think of Team Rocket in Red and Blue. They’re very uncomplicated antagonists that are easy to hate and don’t have a lot of room for moral ambiguity, which is good for a simple plot. There’s very little characterisation involved; you get the impression that most of them are just in it for the delinquency and Giovanni has little personality beyond his massive ego. This fits the plot of Red and Blue, which is really just an excuse for you to travel around the country while you gather more minions, but for a more complicated plot you need more complicated antagonists, hence the new villainous teams of the later games. I think you could make a complex plot with Team Rocket as the antagonists, but I also think it would involve a departure from the “grand adventure” style of story that Game Freak are so fond of and get much grittier, since these guys are basically the Pokémon Mafia – and while I don’t believe that’s necessarily a bad thing, it doesn’t really belong in the main series. What I really want to see out of Pokémon is a more open, non-linear storyline, and for something like that, Team Rocket would make great antagonists for early-game sequences or side-plots – stuff like the Sevii episode from the remakes. I’m going to talk more about these guys in a few days, since they appear in Gold and Silver as well, but until then, geia sas!

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