Have you ever lost a pet as a kid? Like as a really young kid, when your parents wanted to shelter you from the concept of death? I have. I remember my betafish turning upside down in their bowl. I remember my mom ushering me out of the room, flushing the deceased fish down the toilet, and later telling me the betafish went back to the ocean to be with their big fish friends. Right.
I’ve become surprisingly enamored by Magikarp Jump, a new free-to-play mobile game for iOS and Android from the Pokémon Company that shifts its direct focus to the flopping fish. Unlike the augmented reality-enabled Pokémon Go, at first blush Magikarp Jump seems just like most clicker-hybrid mobile games: you tap your screen a lot with some simple goal in mind. In Magikarp Jump, the goal is to raise your adored fish Pokémon well—through feeding, training, loving—and lead them to victory on the League trail, where they battle and eventually attain badges. And after that, they basically die. Or as the game says, “retire.” Sounds familiar.
Magikarp Jump doesn’t have Pokémon battles, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Magikarp are pit against another Magikarp, where they both leap sky-high into the air before plummeting down into the earth to create a Magikarp shaped hole. A Magikarp’s worth is measured by how high they jump. The stronger they are (accumulated by an adequate JP rating that grows with training, random events, and food), the higher they leap. Sometimes they win victoriously. Other times they fail, even their full potential not being enough.
A Magikarp can meet their end prematurely. This comes mostly in the form of undeterminable events: happenings that you have little-to-no control over (such as, should you leap for the fruit on that tree and potentially exhaust the Magikarp?). A Pidgeotto can swoop in after a training session, and snatch the fish away unexpectedly. Leaving you, the trainer, left to sadly fish for a new friend.
The random event deaths account for the reality we face when a pet dies. I remembered my first realization of my pets’ mortality when my cat murdered my hamster as a kid. I was devastated. For the first time, I truly felt like an animal close to me was taken from me too soon. We buried the hamster in a shoebox in our tiny apartment patio. (I wonder if it’s still there.) And then we moved on.
After the Pidgeotto seemingly consumed a Magikarp, the trainer is left alone again. Their sunset stroll before fishing a new generation is alone now. Our trainer is sad; partially embarrassed that they allowed the Magikarp to make such an amateur mistake. (Jumping out of competition in the open? Never again. There are predators abound.) It’s that realization that sometimes a Magikarp won’t flop gently into the sunset into a life of retirement. Or they won’t die of simple old age, as many pets do. Sometimes they die in horrible, cruel ways, and there’s nothing you can do about it, but mourn.
But in most cases, though, your Magikarp will opt for retirement after a particularly gruesome failure, or after defeating a league. Together you stroll into the sunset, Magikarp in arms, as you bid farewell. Your journey together is told through stats: how many times you flopped against punching bags in training, experienced random events, and so on. After that, your Magikarp flops away, only to be seen again in the background of your claustrophobic fish tank. While they are enjoying freedom from the tank, your newest generation is trapped within it, the future generations taunting them in the background. In a way, the ghost of your Magikarps’ past will always haunt you, rearing their fins as a reminder of your loss.
The Magikarps remind me of the cruelty experienced by Greyhounds, a breed of dogs commonly bred to race. In the United States, while 40 states now ban the practice, Greyhounds still sprint in the strenuous races elsewhere. Racing takes a toll on the hounds. When they start losing races, they’re forced into “retirement,” breeding farms, or sometimes go unaccounted for entirely, raising worry. The international industry is also plagued with the premature deaths of the racing dogs.
Retirement for the animals often comes in the form of animal rescues, where people can adopt the long-legged pups. As a result, Greyhounds are astoundingly timid. Their lives once fielded worth by running on a track, then later settled down to enjoy the warmth of human companionship, saved from the life they never asked for to begin with. I hope the Magikarps, the “retired” ones anyway, experience this type of cozy freedom. But something tells me it’s all a facade.
Magikarp Jump positions a sort of revisionist fantasy, like the ones parents often spin to kids when a beloved pet passes away. Magikarps can be taken away by Pidgeottos, or retire when they stop winning competitive leaps. In another sense, the training we put the Magikarps through is gruesome: slapping them against punching bags, or jumping upwards to hit a button to tally their jump count. The Magikarp has no say in this life we’ve chosen for them after fishing them out of a pond. Sometimes, I think, the Magikarp would be more content with having a splash, and nothing happening.