To Travis, The Previous Owner of My Copy of Pokemon White

My game saves are safer on the internet, but old cartridge saves leave a story behind.

I managed to track down an OLED Switch model this past week, and as such, had to move all my saved data from my old system to my shiny new one. My main concern was getting my files for the system’s various Pokemon games transferred. Even though I know Switch cartridges don’t hold save files like Game Boy and DS games, it was still a weird moment of cognitive dissonance to wrap my head around my Pokemon being attached to my Switch profile and not the games in my Switch case. After I verified my Pokemon Shield data, along with my Raichu and all his friends, were safely on my OLED’s bigger and prettier screen, I formatted my old system and took it to GameStop. But when I arrived at the store, I saw it had a pre-owned copy of an old game I’d been meaning to repurchase: Pokemon White. 

Sometime in the past ten years since Pokemon Black & White launched in 2011, my copy of the DS game vanished from my collection. The case has sat on my shelf for years, but the actual cartridge that should’ve been safely inside went missing. I hadn’t the slightest clue where it went. So, when I found another copy sitting in the establishment at an inflated price, it seemed like the perfect chance to fill the empty space in my Pokemon collection. But as I inserted the game into my 3DS, I realized an old save file was still left on the cartridge. I was reminded of an aspect of physical games that’s long gone thanks to technical advancements.

The Pokemon White save that still sits on the cartridge as I write this article tells the story of someone who once journeyed through the Unova region. While I wasn’t present for any of this person’s 96 hours and 32 minutes of playtime, I can make some inferences based on what they left behind. The player’s name is Travis — and if his playtime wasn’t proof enough, Travis must have really enjoyed his time with White. Based on the Emboar in his party, he must’ve begun his journey with a Tepig. He and his partner had made their way through all of Unova, gathered all eight gym badges, and arrived at the Pokemon League, the game’s final challenge. But, for whatever reason, Travis stopped short of actually defeating the Elite Four and becoming Unova’s champion.

I was surprised to see this since nearly 100 hours had been dumped into this save file. Travis had seen 120 of the 153 Pokemon you can see in Pokemon Black & White before unlocking the full Pokedex of 493 in the post-game. He’d only caught a fraction of them, however, with 54 completed Pokedex entries. There are a few possibilities as to why the game would have so much clocked playtime but without a ton of in-game progress outside of the main plot to show for it. One is that the game was left on frequently, whether Travis was playing or not. Another is Travis might have been a fairly young Pokemon fan who took more time to get through the game than others. I’m sure if I looked at my first playthrough of Pokemon Red or Yellow over 20 years ago, it would have had a similar length because I was learning how to navigate that world.

I don’t have a concrete reason to explain Travis’ playtime, but I do think I might know why he stopped playing just as he was on the cusp of becoming a champion. His party seemed a bit under-leveled for the Elite Four. At level 46, his Druddigon was his strongest Pokemon. That level is below anything the four toughest trainers in the main story would have thrown at him, for their Pokemon range from levels 48 to 50. It’s possible he hit a wall here and just never broke through.

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Unova Pokemon League in Super Smash Bros., not to be confused with Unova Pokemon League in Pokemon Black & White.

What breaks my heart for Travis at this point is that Black & White’s story wasn’t quite over for him. The game has an intermission in the usual Elite Four + Champion run that involves the conclusion of the main game’s story. For most Pokemon games, much of that boils down to the player’s journey through the region to collect badges. But there’s usually an antagonistic organization in the mix. Black & White’s baddies are Team Plasma, who are doing sinister shit in the Unova region under the pretense of liberating Pokemon from humanity. It goes deeper, but the story thread Team Plasma begins doesn’t end until the player has defeated the Elite Four. I’m sad Travis didn’t get to see the end of that game, that thread. Part of me almost wants to play through the rest of White for him, but Pokemon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl are out today, so I have no time to become a Pokemon master on someone else’s behalf. At this point Travis, I can only hope you played other Pokemon games and saw them through to the end. 

Seeing the remnants of his Unova story had me feeling wistful about having just transferred my Pokemon save files through a wireless connection between my Switch consoles rather than keeping them within the cartridges I put in them. It’s not some blind nostalgia for the technical limitations of old, but more an acknowledgment that every save file tells a story, and there are millions of cartridges for old platforms floating around in storage units, game stores, and landfills. Everything about how we save games is objectively better than it was back in the DS era. But, if nothing else, it’s a simple pleasure to buy a pre-owned game from a GameStop, see traces of who was there before, and wonder.