When I was in fifth grade, there was no greater commodity in the world than Pokémon cards. More precious than money or oil or gold were little pieces of paper that had magical laser creatures on them. But not all of them were made equal. Like the rings in the works of J.R.R Tolkien, there was one that was more powerful and rare than all the others.
That card was Charizard.
120 hit points.
A giant flaming dragon.
The Fire Spin attack which did 100 damage, but also made you discard two energy cards attached to Charizard, which kind of makes you wonder if it's even worth evolving and playing in the first place, because Charmeleon's Flamethrower only makes you discard one energy and if you have the type advantage, it doing 50 damage will surely be enough.
Hearing all that was enough to make a kid salivate in 1999, when Pokémon cards were the number one Christmas gift. Now, I didn't collect a lot of Pokémon cards when I was a kid, mainly because my parents refused to indulge my cravings for this particular trend. The games were fine. Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver, Crystal, and the strategy guides for each of those games? Happy birthday to me. But the cards? Those were a waste of time. And so Charizard, due to the tales of it passed around on the playground, remained the stuff of legend for me.
But how rare was it actually? My closest connection to this holographic titan was through second-hand myth. According to Joe Merrick, webmaster of the popular Pokemon fan site Serebii.net, it was more perception that reality.
I think it had the perception of true rarity due to how it was essentially the strongest card and how beloved Charizard was," he explained to me.
That makes a ton of sense when you think about it. Charizard was the mascot for Pokemon Red Version and was an extremely powerful card. But it wasn't like a ticket to Willy Wonka's factory, scattered around for only the astronomically lucky. It was rare because everyone wanted it and only some people had it.
But if Charizard wasn't the card that you'd have to go to the ends of the Earth to find, then what was? I remembered those promotional cards that were given out to people that saw Pokémon: The First Movie in theaters, and I figured those must be pretty uncommon. Joe remembered them, too, and noted that they were indeed quite valuable.
"The original Japanese Ancient Mew card went for thousands on auctions before the movie came out here," he told me.
But then Joe explained that there was one card was the rarest of them all: Dark Raichu from the Team Rocket set. It was the first hidden card, existed out of a set number, and incredibly hard to find. Typical Team Rocket. They WOULD do that.
Back then, all we had to fuel my speculation were rumors and the dubious "My father works at Nintendo" boasts of friends. The closest thing I had to a resource was my friend Trevor, whose Uncle worked at Nintendo, and oh god, Trevor lied to me.
But when it comes to collecting, people these days don't exactly have it easier. According to Joe, "The trading card game is a lot harder to collect now, without a doubt. The sets are bigger than ever before down to the Japanese side putting out new subsets of ~50-70 cards every month, in addition to the big set every three months," he said. "Add to that all the promo boxes, it can get very costly and very hard to collect. You're no longer likely to get the vast majority of the set..."
I don't know if there's an equivalent to the Charizard card in 2018. Some of that has to do with the way the internet and pop culture fandom works these days, and some of that has to do with the fact that the number of Pokémon has more than quadrupled since 1999. There are just way more cards, which is fun for players, but makes them less special.
My friends and I had absolutely nothing to go on when it came to the Charizard card except the gossip that we'd heard. All we knew is that there was this ultra rare card that would fix all of our problems and make all of our dreams come true. And to a couple of dumb, easily influenced kids, that's pretty powerful stuff. Well, not powerful to Trevor, of course, who had a whole deck of Charizards, all given to him by his older brother, who also worked at Nintendo.
Oh, man. Do you think that was a lie, too?