Revisiting Kanto: Mt. Moon, Not Celadon City, Is Team Rocket’s Real Lair

With a single gym badge in my pocket (or whatever that weird felt case is they store badges in in the anime), I feel my Pokemon adventure has begun in earnest. When I set out to explore Kanto as a tourist, to visit each place in turn and explore it fully, Pokemon battles were not on my mind. The idea of this column was to soak up each setting as a place rather than an area for Pokemon greatness, to figure out why Kanto as a region holds such nostalgia for me, above even Johto, whose games I find superior, and above all other places in all other games I played as a kid. I have beaten the game multiple times and Brock is an early pushover. But here, his badge feels like the key to unlocking the next step of the journey, the doors to Mt. Moon.

I have no particularly strong feelings towards Mt. Moon, or at least I did not before this playthrough. I love the complexity and the challenging mazes of the early Pokemon caves, but Kanto's classic caverns all blur into one. Aside from the plethora of Zubat, a nuisance not even unique to Mt. Moon, I had difficulty recalling what the cave even was.

Before I reached the cave, there were a few more battles to wind my way through, and as much as it breaks the illusion slightly when these trainers all stand around waiting for me to cross their line of sight, I appreciate that there is a real sense of weaving through the world. They aren't all lined up neatly, and I can always scan for a way around the battle to reach the cave faster, although a pathway does not always exist. It feels, as best as it could back in those technologically limited days, as if I am wandering around and bumping into people who are either fresh off the high of beating Brock or are slowly making their way towards him and want to get some last minute training in. This small section feels like the most realistic encounter route yet, although we're still very early days and I continue to hate Viridian Forest, so perhaps it's a low bar to clear.

As I reach Mt. Moon, I heal my Pokemon (keeping a stack of Potions on hand – nigh on an illegal move in my regular play), and approach the cave. I imagine the stone doors closed before me. I reach into my pocket for the Boulder Badge and press it into a small indentation of the cave wall, the wet stone cold against my palm as I apply pressure. With a scratching groan, the cave's maw stretches wide before me, beckoning me inside. In reality I just walk in the door.

The first room of Mt. Moon is the first time in the game so far when the region has emphasised scale. There are a few easy to avoid trainers, and a healthy dose of Repels stop my adventure being Zubatted to death, but mostly it is a huge empty cavern. Usually I make a beeline for the ladders, but here I wander it as an adventurer, looking for nothing in particular, seeing everything. Pokemon games build you up to make you feel big – you are the ultimate champion by the end of it all, catcher of Legendary beasts and, in many versions, saviour of the world. Mt. Moon is special because it makes you feel small. It's not really a mountain, at least not from your perspective, but it strives for the same epiphanic effect: you are but one minute creature in an ancient world of millions.

The second floor of Mt. Moon is far less poetic and existential. It's time to meet Team Rocket, baby! Their introduction is underwhelming, until you realise they have strength in numbers. I wander down (up? I can never tell) the wrong ladder into a dead end, and meet a single Grunt with a terrible line-up. I beat him and retreat, looking for a clear way forward. Dead end again. Grunt again. Victory again. And so it goes. None of the Team Rocket Grunts you encounter are particularly strong, nor are they particularly good battlers, often spamming Leer over and over again until their Rattata is wiped out. But there are so many of them, seemingly standing around doing nothing, that you quickly notice how imposing the organisation is. You are the Warriors, and they are waiting for you to come out to play.

Mt. Moon also gives you one of the two Fossils in the game, but in truth I find this quite a dull part of the whole affair. A scientist finds two precious fossils and after beating him in a fight you steal one from him. Then it takes you the whole game to reverse the fossilisation process, but it comes out so weak you look at it once, say 'Neat!' and then put it in the PC forever. I just want to leave the poor guy alone and let him keep both of the fossils. I don't want them. I'm heading to Cerulean to watch the water show, I have no interest in your dead rocks.

Mostly, I'm surprised that the one thing we all remember about Mt. Moon – the fossils – feels out of place and even mean-spirited, while the part we often dismiss – Team Rocket's arrival – had a much bigger impact than it's often given credit for. Team Rocket remain the most effective villainous team ever, and while the anime (and particularly Jessie & James) can take a lot of credit for that, these moments at Mt. Moon underline the team's importance to the Pokemon Red & Blue experience.

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