Image: Gemma Smith / Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Kevin remembers a time when getting your hands on a legendary involved going on a real-life journey...

The '90s were a fun time, weren’t they? AOL was brand new, The Simpsons was still good, and Pokémon fever had only just begun its march towards total world domination.

One of the most exciting weekends of my life took place at the tail end of the '90s, when I was just nine years old. This may be silly to reflect back on at the ripe old age of 33, but it’s true. My friends and I had a big sleepover in anticipation for an event that we had been looking forward to for months: Pokémon Summer Training Tour 1999. There was sure to be exclusive merch on sale, booster packs to spend our allowance money on, and free swag abound. But our collective goal was the same: capturing the elusive legendary Pokémon, Mew.

And let me tell you, if you weren’t around back then, catching a legendary Pokémon was an adventure in and of itself, and an experience that simply cannot be replicated today.

The mystery of Mew

Pokemon Flatlay
Image: Gemma Smith / Nintendo Life

At first, there was only one way to legitimately get Mew without using a GameShark, Game Genie, or any sort of 'cheating cartridge'. In 1998, Nintendo Power held a mail-in competition where they would award the legendary Pokémon to 151 exclusive winners. If you were one of the lucky chosen few, you would have to mail your game cartridge in, to have it sent back weeks later with your very own Mew on it.

The thought of sending the cartridge that I had poured over 150 hours into through the US postal service made me nervous, and I didn’t very much like the idea of not being able to play Pokémon for an ambiguous amount of time. Nevertheless, I entered. And nevertheless, I did not win. I didn’t even come in as a runner-up for a free link cable.

I was devastated. I thought I missed my chance at having a complete Pokédex. I even tried looking for Mew under the truck in Vermillion City, but alas, nothing was to be found. Eventually, however, I saw an ad for an event that all were welcome to attend, with the main draw being that everyone gets their own Mew just for showing up! I told three of my best friends at school immediately, and it was settled: we would all go to catch Mew together.

Preparing for battle

After staying up late the night before, watching Toy Story on VHS while fighting the Elite Four over and over to grind out levels for our specially selected battle-ready teams, we set out on our Pokémon adventure. And by adventure, I mean my dad drove us to the mall in a red minivan and dropped us off.

As soon as we pulled up, I was shocked at how long the line was. It stretched outside of the building, and snaked all the way through it. I don’t think I’d ever seen a line this long since our family went to Disney World. Regardless, our determination was steadfast. No legendary Pokémon would be left behind.

In the belly of the beast

Pokemon Blue Game Boy Color
Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Well, you gotta start somewhere. So we stood at the end of the line, which immediately filled up even further behind us. TVs nearby played the Pokémon anime on loop, Nintendo 64 consoles were set up with demos for the upcoming Pokémon Snap, and of course the 'Pikabug', a Volkswagen Beetle shaped and designed to look like Pikachu, was proudly on display.

Through it all, though, we were in good company. So many other kids there were Pokémon fanatics just like us, so it was easy to strike up conversation, make new friends, and even trade and battle with fellow Pocket Monster enthusiasts.

Speaking of battling, my friends and I were absolutely on fire that day. We made sure to bring extra batteries and link cables, and battled every kid who asked to play with us. I don’t think any of the four of us lost a single fight the entire time, as we inched ever closer to the front of the line.

All the way at the front, which we could just now barely see, was a big yellow kiosk. A Nintendo representative would take your Game Boy and hook it up via a specialized link cable. The large, brightly-colored machine housed Mew, our primary reason for attending. It truly did feel like a real adventure, to play fast-and-loose with the term once again. But as a nine-year-old who was absolutely obsessed with Pokémon, and was there with three of his childhood best friends, it really felt like I was living out some kind of fantasy ripped straight out of the games or TV show.

Obtaining a legend

Pokemon League Summer Training Tour '99
Finally! My very own Mew — Image: Kevin Podas / Nintendo Life

After hours of waiting, we finally reached the front. And thankfully, they hadn’t run out of Mews by then, which was something I was worried about because I didn’t understand how things quite worked yet. Mew was officially loaded onto my saved file in Pokémon Red. The mission was complete – but the fun wasn’t over.

We celebrated by using our allowance money to buy booster packs of the trading cards, and my dad showed up and bought us all dinner in the food court. We got some free t-shirts and posters, played Pokémon Snap for the first time, and then headed back home.

Receiving Mew in-game revitalized my interest in playing Pokémon yet again, due in large part to having gone through such a unique and thrilling experience. If I recall correctly, Mew started out at level 5. So naturally, I spent hours once again grinding through the Elite Four to get Mew up to level 100 with the rest of my team. Probably just so I could show off to my friends or something.

And also so I could write about it in an article almost 25 years later. Booyah!

Evolving over time

Pokemon League Summer Training Tour '99
Image: Kevin Podas / Nintendo Life

Eventually, as technology advanced further, there was less and less of a need for large, in-person events to take place like the Pokémon Summer Training Tour of 1999. And let’s be honest: as fun of a memory as it was, having to go through that for every single legendary Pokémon would be fatiguing. It all comes at a cost though, as the magic and exclusivity of it all has definitely been diluted over time.

A little while after the release of Gold and Silver, I fell out of Pokémon for several years, likely trying to convince myself that I had to move past it as a hobby, and grow as a person. That didn’t last for long, however. In English class in my junior year of high school, many of my classmates and friends had started picking up Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen for the Game Boy Advance. I tried it out and was immediately transported back to those childhood days (along with some much-needed quality-of-life enhancements). This was also just before the release of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl on Nintendo DS, which I was excited to get in on the ground floor of.

The more things change…

I eventually sunk a lot of hours into Diamond and Pearl, perhaps more than any other Pokémon game aside from my Red Version. I missed out on a chunk of Pokémon history, but caught up on the fact that there were of course more legendary Pokémon to obtain now. Lots more. I was relieved, however, to find out that I didn’t have to stand in line for six hours to get them this time. Still, this involved me driving to Toys R Us with my Nintendo DS in hand (as a teenager…) to connect to their Wi-Fi in order to receive whatever legendary Pokémon was being peddled out at the time.

We now know of other ways we could have gotten ol' 151...

The process was of course more streamlined and convenient, but still felt like I could have just gotten this at home, which is exactly what it would become later on. But let’s be honest: punching in a code to receive a 'Mystery Gift' while sitting on your couch just isn’t as fun! There are also so many legendary Pokémon now that it takes away from the thrill of it all.

The closest thing we ever got to the Pokémon Summer Training Tour of 1999 was the release of Pokémon GO in 2016. It really showed the magic of the series and why it has so much staying power: Pokémon brings people together. Whether you’re a child, a teenager, or an adult who has reverence for simpler times and memories with close friends, the results are just the same.

As I type this all out, I feel like I’m in the ending scene from the movie Stand By Me. But somehow, that feels appropriate. After all, the very first Pokémon game opens up with a reference to four boys walking on train tracks together. It’s like they knew all along.