Review by falsehead

"One of my all time favourite games!"

Unless you happen to have been clinically dead for the last few years, you can’t fail to have noticed the gaming phenomenon known as pokemon. Even if you have distained all things pocket monster, you have probably, by the process of osmosis acquired more information on this game than you ever needed to know. But for those who don’t know what pokemon is (Ah zombie!! Get away from the PC!), here is a quick history lesson.

Pokemon was created in the early 1990’s by a reclusive Japanese designer called Satoshi Tajiri. He based it on his childhood hobby of collecting insects. This would be an RPG style game where you would not just battle monsters but collect, nurture, evolve and trade. Nintendo, who know a hit when they see one, bought up Satoshi’s company, Game Freak and in 1995 released two pokemon games in Japan. Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green. The game tells the story of a young pokemon trainer called Satoshi (renamed Ash in the Us version) and his journey across the land of Kanto. He begins with one of three pokemon, the grass type Bulbasaur, the water type Squirtle and the Fire type Charmander. His quest is to make his way to the ultimate pokemon challenge the Elite Four on Indigo Plateau. But to qualify he must battle and win against eight gym leaders.

As you journey you encounter many different types of pokemon, you must battle and capture as many different ones as you can. To capture a pokemon you must wear down its health bar and then throw a pokeball to catch it in. Better pokeballs become available as the game goes on. Each pokemon comes in an elemental type, water, fire, grass, flying, electric, psychic, fighting, rock, ground, poison, ice, dragon, ghost and normal. The key to successful pokemon battling is find the type that beats the type you are battling. Some also come in dual types so they have double strengths but also double weaknesses. Also pokemon of one type can learn moves of another type allowing you to spring nasty surprises on an opponent. For example Dragon types are weak against Ice attacks, making them vulenarble to the Ice Beam attack many water types can learn. But Dragonite can learn the TM Thunder, so if you want to zap a pesky Lapras or Dewgong who keep icing you up, they are weak against electric. So whack ‘em with Thunder before they can Ice Beam you.

In this way battles are really a glorified version of Rock/Paper/Scissors, but the constant consideration of what you type is, what your sub-type is what your attack type is and how good your offensive and defensive stats are make them remarkably tactical affairs. These battles take place in the usual turn based rpg style and are either random battles against wild pokemon or trainer battles against rival trainers, gym leaders, Team Rocket or your nemesis Gary. If a pokemon is defeated in battle it does not die, it only faints. This is a Nintendo game after all!

Although the meat of the game is the collecting and raising of pokemon, to carry you along is a fun story of taking on the evil pokemon thieves Team Rocket. Unlike you they use and abuse pokemon for profit. Your task is to teach the leader of Team Rocket a lesson, the lesson that you must love and trust your pokemon to be a true master. Your rival Gary also has to learn this moral lesson.

The driving force behind pokemon is one that is expanded on in the cartoon series. You are not forcing pokemon to fight just for your benefit, you are allowing the pokemon to fulfil their potential by learning, growing and evolving. Through you they can reach their higher states and even learn attacks they would never learn naturally. As you progress through the game, you acquire items called HM’s (Hidden Machines) which allow you to teach moves to your pokemon that will get you to new areas of Kanto, opening up the game as you go and making it easier to revisit past areas. However the real genius of the game was the fact that you could not acquire all 151 pokemon with one cartridge. A few pokemon were exclusive to pokemon red and a few to pokemon green. Thus players were encouraged to trade with friends via the gameboy link cable in order to “catch ‘em all”.

The game was a phenomenal success in Japan and in 1997 a cartoon was launched closely followed by the trading card game. Pokemon was then released in the USA and UK (Green was renamed Blue) and repeated the success it had seen in Japan. It was in 1999 that I finally acquired Pokemon Red (closely followed by Pokemon Blue and another gameboy so I could trade with myself, ahem) and started a pokemon love affair that continues unabated to this day.

It’s not been hard for me to understand why I love this game so much. I am one of those people who has the collecting gene. When I get into something I REALLY get into it, and so over the years have accumulated huge quantities of stuff. Often its not just having the one thing that really matters, it’s having it as part of a collection. Yes I am one of those people who meticulously files their records in alphabetically order and arranges their books by genre. I am that person who collects sets of videos and gets hysterical if one has a slightly altered sleeve design. So basically I am the perfect pokemon fan.

So collecting the things is a blast for me, and not an easy task. Some pokemon are nightmarishly hard to catch, for example the elusive Kangaskhan was the very last pokemon I needed to catch and I must have spent hours running round the Safari Zone after the damn thing. But but when it was caught, nicknamed and registered in my pokedex it was almost an orgasmic feeling. I got up and did a little dance, yeah, yeah I got all 151 pokemon!!! Now if a game can do that to me, a grown up woman who probably should know better, then it has to be doing something right!

One thing that really appealed to me was the brilliant and imaginative designs of the various pokemon. Some like the little pink Clefairy and Jigglypuff are so cute that training them up and viciously attacking meaner pokemon is hilarious. The nurture aspect of the game is also a very important part of its appeal. Catching a rare pokemon is great, but its nothing to the sense of achievement you get when your little level 5 Charmander grows up and becomes a super hard kick-ass level 70 Charizard. Also it can be nice when some of the initial pokemon you encounter such as Pidgey and Rattata grow into awesome and powerful fighting machines.

It’s easy to be seduced by the glamorous Level 50 Legendary birds or even the Level 70 MewTwo. But pokemon is truly satisfying when a pokemon you have raised from level 3 makes it along with you into the pokemon hall of fame. Being able to name your pokemon anything you like also increases your affection for it. Of course it can get a little tricky thinking up cool new names for pokemon, I did end up with several called Bob (Bob the Charizard, Bob the Venusaur, Bob the Gyrados etc), and when you find yourself naming pokemon after famous 20th leaders and writers (step forth Marx the pikachu, Winston the Raticate and Adolf the Grimer), you know madness is setting in.

Each time you battle and defeat an opponent your pokemon and any that participated in that battle get experience points. These allow you to level up. When a pokemon reaches a certain level it will evolve, you can hold its evolution back. The reason you may want to do this is that pokemon learn new and more powerful moves as they level up. But keeping your pokemon in an earlier form means they will learn the moves sooner. So you may want to hang on until the pokemon has learned all the moves before you let it evolve.

But of course in its earlier forms it becomes less effective in battle as the game progresses. But again, weaker moves have more PP (power points) so can be used more times before you have to rest at a pokemon centre. The most powerful moves can sometimes only be used as little as five times before you need to rest and are less accurate, so you have to consider very carefully what your pokemon will learn and when. Some pokemon will only evolve once traded and others require special stones to evolve them. Pokemon can also be taught new moves via the HMs and TM’s. TM’s unlike HM’s can only be used once, so it’s best to use them on a pokemon wisely.

Nintendo’s final clever marketing idea for pokemon was to make the 151st pokemon, Mew available only at special Nintendo events. So if you want to get Mew without cheating, you must attend one of Nintendo’s pokemon championships to get it from a Nintendo download machine. A cynic might see this and the fact you need to get both games to get all the pokemon as exploitative of young fans. But although there is no denying Nintendo benefited hugely from the dual cart concept, trading is such an integral part of the games appeal that its hard to fault it too much. No one forces you to buy both games, nor do they force you to attend a Nintendo event. You can get a huge amount of enjoyment from just one of the games. But with both you open up an extra level of fun that increases the games longevity and if you have a friend available you can battle each other in the Pokemon Coliseum.

Graphically the game remains one of the most accomplished to appear on the original gameboy machine. The pokemon are all rendered beautifully. The environments are viewed from a top down perspective and are very easy to navigate. An astonishing amount of text has been crammed in and is generally very well translated and in places genuinely amusing. Even the turn-based battles look good. When you zap an opponent with a Thunderbolt or an Earthquake the whole screen will rock making it seem like a really tough fight is going on. Musically to its brilliant. All the tunes for walking about, battling, going into a pokecentre or riding the bike are very distinctive and indeed are recognisable from the cartoon show which incorporated many of them into its background music.

With the release of the sequel games Pokemon Silver and Gold, Pokemon Red and Blue have gained a new lease of life. Several pokemon like Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle are not available in the newer games. So a “time travel” machine at the pokecentre allows you trade these pokemon into your new games allowing you to carry on nurturing the faithful pokemon you had an adventure with first time around. Of course I suppose I have to point out the flaws in the game. Well, um.. to be honest I found it first time around to be a completely brilliant game with nothing I would alter or change about it. I suppose if I was going to be uber picky the complaint that Psychic types are rather cheap has some validity and not everyone will enjoy the sheer amount of hours needed to catch everyone of the little darlings. In the sequels, Gold and Silver there were many improvements made. But there were no actual changes made, showing that the original pokemon games were one of those rare beasts, a game that gets it right first time.

Although pokemon mania has abated some what recently its worth remembering that its still remains one of Nintendo’s best selling franchises ever. When pokemon was launched, sales of gameboys increased 250%. Coming as it did during a time when the N64 was faring very badly in every market other than the USA, it’s arguable that Pokemon saved Nintendo from the same ignominious fate that Sega were to suffer. So even if you hate pokemon and all the related spin-off merchandise, if you care about Nintendo you have a lot to thank those 151 little pocket monsters. I was one of those people who bought a Gameboy just to play Pokemon on and 500+ hours of pokemon related gaming later I realise its not just a game to me, it’s a consuming passion. Financially I may have been better off if I had never heard of pokemon, but spiritually I would be a lot poorer.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 11/20/02, Updated 11/20/02


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