Review by Lord Kiven
"Now that the hype has long since died, it's easy to see what a poor game this was."
September 2, 1945. Aboard the USS Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur accepts Japan's formal surrender after the annihilation of the Japanese armed forces and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Allies were victorious, and Japan went down in a humiliating defeat. But little did they know, that Japan would have its revenge half a century later. That revenge was Pokemon.
In 1998, Pokemon arrived at Western shores, coming in two versions, Red and Blue. Suddenly, with no sign nor warning, the Pokemon phenomenon exploded like an atom bomb. Children everywhere were hypnotized by its spell; "wanna-have-a-Pokemon-needa-have-a-Pokemone-gotta-have-a-Pokemon!!!" they howled to their parents, who were bludgeoned into buying anything and everything to do with the fad. Games, stuffed animals, toys, card games TV shows, feature-length movies, even canned foods were made in the Pokemon name. Some Christian leaders, naturally being opposed to anyone enjoying themselves, ever, declared Pokemon to be demonic and encouraging Satan-worship among children. No doubt obscene profits were reaped; a lesson to marketers everywhere never to underestimate the power of the "Brat Buck."
Now that the Pokemon phenomenon has faded, the question remains of the game that started it all: Was it a good game? The answer, as if you couldn't tell by my low score, is a resounding "No!" The fact that it comes in two, nearly-identical versions save for a few Pokemon not found in one version or the other, is a blatant marketing ploy that showed that the forces behind Pokemon weren't interested in creating a revolutionary or even entertaining game; they just wanted money. And given how Nintendo was struggling with the far less-than-stellar performance of their flagship Nintendo 64 console at the time, they were going to milk this for all it was worth.
"Pokemon" begins with our hero leaving home on his quest to become the "World's Greatest Pokemon Master" by collecting as many Pokemon as possible and defeating the "Elite Four" of the Pokemon League. Forget "getting an education" or "finding a job," our hero really just wants to capture these wild creatures and force them to fight each other! Cruelty to animals, you say? Silly you, there are no animals in this world, only Pokemon, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with ruthlessly exploiting them for our own perverse entertainment!
Graphically, the game reeks of laziness. The in-game environment is sadly lacking in any sort of detail or distinctiveness between regions. Bushes and trees are poorly-drawn, nondescript blobs, and buildings are misshapen and drawn ridiculously out of proportion to the characters. The battle screen, where you'll be spending most of your time, involves two static displays, one of the opponent Pokemon, some of which actually look half-decent, and your Pokemon, represented by an ugly mass of enlarged pixels. As equally horrid as the graphics is the sound and music, which so utterly grating and repetitive that you'll be reaching for your Gameboy's volume control within five seconds of hearing it. The sound "effects" consist almost entirely of the cries of various Pokemon, which due the audio limitations of the Gameboy, sound nothing like that which could come from a living creature.
"Pokemon" is structured like an RPG. On your quest to become the greatest Pokemon trainer, you'll travel through eight, mostly-identical cities to do battle with the gym leader's Pokemon in each. After defeating their Pokemon, you'll obtain a badge to prove your victory, and after obtaining all the badges from each gym leader, you can challenge the Elite Four. As well, occasionally you'll be challenged by your rival, who also aspires to be the "World's Greatest Pokemon Master." That's it; that's the "story." Part of the problem is the utter dearth of interesting characters; there's you, there's Professor Oak (who only shows up at the very beginning and end of the game) and your rival, who magically shows up to challenge you at several points. The vast majority of NPCs are other Pokemon trainers who have no other purpose but to wait for you to pass by and say "YOU LOOKED AT ME! LET'S FIGHT!" Of course, said trainers are conveniently placed throughout the world so that you have no choice but to fight them, which grows old, fast.
The whole world of "Pokemon" revolves around these creatures to such an absurd degree that it almost becomes surreal. In one quest, you must defeat the leader of the pseudo-gangster organization Team Rocket. But rather than fight mano-a-mano like your typical RPG, you simply have your Pokemon battle his Pokemon. Apparently, all disputes are settled by these Pokemon battles. How many poor husbands got cleaned out in divorce proceedings simply because their wife had a level-53 Blastoise that soundly whipped her husband's mere level-39 Raichu?
Naturally, you might have guessed that the game is primarily concerned with fighting. That wouldn't have been so bad if the fighting engine was not so uniformly godawful. In Pokemon, fighting serves three purposes: battling other trainers, capturing wild Pokemon, and leveling up. All three are extremely tedious and boring.
Fighting takes place a la your average RPG, sending out one Pokemon at time from your "party" to do battle. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason, the game limits the amount of times your Pokemon can attack; there's no division between "regular" and "special" moves like in most RPGs. Once all your Pokemon have run out of attacks, your only options are to use an item, which likely won't help you, or run away, which has about a 1 in 100 chance of actually working when battling another trainer. Of course, leveling up will be the reason for most of your battles, and it too is a miserable chore. Mostly it consists of wandering out in waist-high grass hoping for a wild Pokemon to appear, which you can defeat for a pitiful amount of Experience Points. It can literally take hours to level-up one Pokemon, let alone leveling up an entire team to a certain level. This menial task quickly sucks out whatever enjoyment the game had to begin with, especially when you realize that the purpose behind such pointless battles is to raise your Pokemon to a high enough level to engage in more pointless battles. Worse still, even when you are not actively trying to level up, there are certain areas, particularly caves, where wild Pokemon will attack you constantly, making for much annoyance.
The third purpose of battling, to "catch em' all" is easily the most frustrating part of the game. Pokemon are captured with special "Pokeballs," but things are not that simple. You must first reduce the target Pokemon's HP to a low enough level so that it can be captured in a Pokeball without escaping. Well, at least in theory, because the game makes capturing wild Pokemon absurdly difficult. For one thing, you CANNOT drain all of the target Pokemon's HP, because then it will faint and you will be unable to capture it. (exactly WHY you cannot is never explained) Of course, preventing the Pokemon from fainting is far easier said than done, as higher level Pokemon are quite capable of taking down another Pokemon in a single hit. But even if you manage to drain its HP just enough, there's no guarantee that it still won't escape from your Pokeball. Since you have to buy all your Pokeballs, capturing even one Pokemon can cost you a small fortune. There are more expensive Pokeballs that are supposed to make capturing Pokemon easier, but some Pokemon will easily break free no matter how good the Pokeball is. Add in the fact that even finding a particular Pokemon can often involve trudging through Pokemon-rich areas over and over, and you've got yourself one special gaming experience. And by "special" I mean a "perversely, agonizingly, mind-numbingly, excrutiatingly boring gaming experience."
Looking back, it's hard to see why the Pokemon fad erupted as it did, given how poor the original game was. It's tedious, uninvolving, tedious, dull, boring, tedious, exceedingly repetitive, tedious, and utterly lacking in replay value. Did I mention it was tedious?
Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 04/17/06
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