Game Boy as gnosis

Published Thursday, June 02 2022 at 10:33 pm
Game Boy as gnosis

My dad had a nocturnal take on bring-your-kid-to-work day. When I was 11 or 12, I’d join him on summer nights in the newsroom. Sometimes he’d work past midnight. By the time we’d leave the office, the only person to say bye to was the layout guy, his face bathed in screen glow.

I never got bored in the newsroom. The office was often empty at night, and the computers free to use.

There was something novel about using a computer that wasn’t at home. And so the revelation that came next was made all the more potent. Shrouded in the summer darkness, on a strange computer, emanating from the same place where the vampires paginated: I found a website that taught me how to catch the Pokémon Mew. A method called the Mew Glitch.

Until then, Mew had seemed to exist only iconically. It adorned cards, posters and all kinds of base merchandise. But Mew within the Game Boy games was more like Schrödinger’s cat: existing in two states at once, present but absent.

It was in the game’s data, allegedly, but who knew how to obtain it? The rumor mill put in overtime when it came to Mew. “Mew is under the truck!” was one memorable lie, spread through a mix of playground gossip and forum posts.

Mew plush on shiny foil, 2014.

That particular rumor isn’t true or worth expounding, but other hearsay proved valuable, like the Old Man Glitch. A neighbor kid taught it to me, although he called me stupid for not already knowing it. His rudeness was offset by the gorgeousness of the technique. It involved swimming the coast of the volcanic Cinnabar Island in a straight line. Eventually, a garbage Pokémon, a creature from the cutting room floor, would appear.

Encountering these misfits, most notably the ‘MissingNo’ family, could have all sorts of unexpected effects on your game. One of the most desirable was making the supply of any item virtually limitless, far beyond what normal gameplay could offer. A favorite target for this corruption was Rare Candy, an item whose elegant name distills its potency. It raises any Pokémon’s level by one.

The bizarre steps required for any of these glitches helped to codify them as a kind of secret knowledge. A brief commitment to ritual gave way to new freedoms. My childhood discovery of these exploits seemed to open another layer of consciousness.

I’m not being dramatic. Rules really could be broken. Or rather: warped, ignored, annulled. Dealing with such forbidden power necessitated caution. The Old Man Glitch could also transport you to Glitch City. It was basically a super fucked up map without exit. Restarting your Game Boy was the only means of escape.

People online warned: never save in Glitch City! The very idea spooked me out. My kid brain encoded Glitch City as somewhere outside safety. There was reason to be fearful, but also to feel alive. The ability to cheat at the game through its own flawed, internal logic was stimulating. It was another layer of understanding something through clever action. To reiterate: it was a technique.

Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow comprised Generation I of the franchise. All of these games were made for the original Game Boy, and all are notoriously rife with glitches. The site Glitch City Laboratories, which shuttered in 2020, spent 15 years documenting them.

This brings us back to the Mew Glitch. Canonically, Mew is a genderless, legendary creature that is said to contain the DNA of all other Pokémon. Mew isn’t the Pokémon ‘god’ (yes, there’s one of those, too), but more like a primordial seed of life. Mew is the final Pokémon in Generation I’s numbering, and it almost didn’t make it into those games. According to Kotaku, it was wedged in by developers at the last minute.

Still, Mew wasn’t supposed to be seen or acquired by the player normally. The ancient Greeks sequestered their gods’ images in the adyton. The Commandments were always housed in the Ark of the Covenant. Mew had its own tabernacles. The only way to acquire it officially was at in-person giveaways, where special terminals downloaded Mew to the recipient’s Game Boy.

One of the Mew terminals from the late 1990s, which I had to matte cuz the image was so small (via Bulbapedia)

The Mew Glitch requires not pilgrimage but the player’s negligence. For it to work, you’ll need to have left two trainers undefeated: a Gambler and a Youngster. Lazy, expedient coward that I was, I often avoided trainer battles as a kid. The two specific trainers needed to perform the glitch were unchallenged in my game. I could finally get Mew. So I did, adding it to my family of MissingNo and Rare Candy-fed beasties.

I’m trying to explicate the specialness of something once rare, but now common. This could provoke the same eye rolling as any rambling about obsolete stuff. Scarcity is a hard tale to relay. After all, you can buy Mews on eBay now. They’re available in regular or shiny coloration, many for $2 or less. These aren’t glitched Mews, just ones crowbarred into the game with outside hacks. So much for ritual.

Example of a modern Mew for sale on eBay

After I caught Mew, my friend Will did, too. He also had an N64 and a copy of Pokémon Stadium 2 with the adaptor pack, which let you play the Game Boy games on a TV. Will navigated a few menus and there was Mew, relatively supersized on the tiny surface of the CRT. It was a sight to behold, majestic even. Will leaned back proudly. Mew was already level 100.

I was impressed—and determined. I knew what I had to do. It was time to return to the coast of Cinnabar Island, and farm candies for my illicit beloved. I surfed up and down, up and down, watching the blobby sprite with anticipation and nerve, feeling as if anything might wash ashore.

[30 days of June: No. 2/30]