Review by Mariner
What a concept!
It's no surprise that this game was as successful as we all know it to be. To me, it's obvious that Nintendo has something special here, something that could (and quite clearly did) make everyone fall in love with these cute little critters. After all, the game's certainly not popular on its own merits. Despite the rash of high scoring reviews, it's pretty obvious that the game has some serious flaws in it. Yet that hasn't stopped it from being a success. Heck, it didn't even stop me from thoroughly enjoying the game. And if you can do that, make a game with some poor mechanics that becomes a hit, you know you've struck a gold mine somewhere.
Certainly no one plays the game for its story. After all, it pretty much boils down to "kid goes on a journey." There's no saving the world involved, although there are bad guys that will occasionally annoy you. There's no annoying sidekicks; you go it alone. There's some sidequests and all, but certainly nothing to get excited about. Not that this is surprising; it is a kids game after all. Besides, given the pathetic track records of plots in RPGs so far, maybe its for the best. After all, there's no angst-ridden teen in here, nor any of the other horrible stereotypes! Instead, you're just trying to find Pokemon, and there's no pesky storyline to get in the way of that. Sure, it's not a reason to play the game, but it doesn't detract from it either.
But other than that, it has quite a few elements in common with other RPGs. You have your random battles, your hit points, your money, your levelling-up, your items, and so forth. But with that comes quite a few of the more annoying aspects of the genre. For one, your character moves at a snail's pace, making any sort of backtracking or long walks a chore. Sure, you get a bicycle eventually, but you have to go through the motion of getting it out of your item bin every single time. Likewise, battles are long and drawn out, particularly when animations are included. You have to wait for the animations to be completed, wait for the text to appear, wait for the game to respond, etc, etc. Speaking of text, there's an awful lot of unnecessary speaking in the game. Do we really need to see the same 5 lines over and over again whenever we want to heal our pokemon? Do we need to see it when we just want to use an item?? And when the text moves so slowly (yes, even at the fastest speed), it gets to be a pain. There's a lot of tedium in the game, even in a genre as slow-moving and boring as RPGs. And when I'm already bored with the system, the slow pace just seems to be magnified.
And then there's the balance, or lack thereof. You start off with your choice of three pokemon: a dinky little turtle that blows bubbles, a plant-slug-like thing, or a fire breathing dragon. Which one do you want to stand in your stead in the midst of the dangers of giant monsters and caterpillars? Well, if you picked the dragon, Game Freak could have saved you time by simply putting up a Game Over sign immediately afterwards. The first gym leader (or boss, if you will), is rock-based, which fire is ineffective against (but water and plants are super-effective), and the second is water based (which is strong against fire but weak against plant). Sure, you can survive these two with your little Charmander, but it'll require a whole lot more work on your part. And if this is your first time playing, and you don't know about the elements and what's coming up? Well, you're pretty much screwed.
But wait, it gets worse. You can find Pikachu early in the game, a rather useful little rat thanks to the power of electricity. But if you don't get him, you won't find another electrical pokemon for a long time. And if you do catch the rat, you'll be training him so hard that all those other zapping monsters are completely worthless by the time you get to them. Or take water pokemon, for example. Unless you take Squirtle as your starter or you waste a ton of time training your pathetic little Magikarp, you won't get a water pokemon until quite late in the game. Not only that, but you're suddenly able to get tons of different types of water pokemon all at once. Doesn't that seem wrong to anyone else? Obviously your options will be limited early on, but I wish they could have spread out the pokemon more. It seems that many of the elementals are like these two: barely present early in the game and then inundated with them later on. In the end, it means that out of the 150 pokemon available, only a small fraction of them are worth anything. Like I said, balance.
The worst, though, are the fire pokemon. Unless you're a masochist and pick Charmander to start, you won't find a fire pokemon for a long time (actually, one's available in Blue, but I don't think there's any early on in Red). So when I got my Eevee, I turned him into a fire pokemon to compensate. Except he didn't actually learn any fire spells until he levelled up about 6 times. Even worse, despite the fact that you can teach tons of moves of every other element under the sun, there is only one fire TM out there! So not only didn't I have any fire pokemon, I wasted my Eevee trying to create one who wouldn't use any fire attacks, and then there were no other fire techniques to teach him anyway! I guess it didn't matter anyways, since fire is completely and utterly useless in this game. It's only strong against bugs (who are all wusses), plants (who are all wusses), and ice pokemon (who are extremely rare). What does Game Freak have against burning stuff, anyway? I guess in their mind a squirt gun is deadlier than a flamethrower. Weird.
There's also the challenge to consider, or lack thereof. Sadly, most of the people you fight will only use one type of pokemon, whether it be fire, water, bug, or whatever. Which means these battles consist of taking out your pokemon that's best suited to that particular element and then beating the snot out of them. Once you get past the second gym master, you shouldn't have any problems whatsoever (except for possibly your rival, who's the only other guy that actually mixes up his pokemon). It kind of takes the fun out of creating your well balanced team when your only competitors are a bunch of morons. The fearful gym leaders and Team Rocket Godfathers don't seem so impressive when you can knock them out in 2-3 turns. It just seems like wasted potential to me. Here we could have true battles of wits, swapping out pokemon after pokemon to try to gain a quick advantage over your opponent. Instead, it's the same move over and over as your foe trots out his crew to be slaughtered.
And yet I like the game.
Was it the idea of trading Pokemon? It's certainly an ingenious idea. By making it impossible to get all the Pokemon in one game, you were encouraged to seek out other budding Pokemasters and trade to beef up both of your collections. And since you were already looking for other people anyway, you might as well fight them to see whose team is better. As I said, ingenious. They basically created a community with this game, which partly explains its huge success. Like baseball cards, the trading aspect is enough to make anything awesome. Except, playing it years after it came out (and in college no less), I never got into this aspect of it. So as neat as this idea is, there's something more here.
Is it the "gotta catch 'em all!" bit? Well, the fact that you can't catch 'em all kind of puts a damper on it, but this is definitely a part of the charm. Everytime you see a new pokemon, you have to catch it. It doesn't matter that you'll never use it, that it won't bring you any tangible reward, that it's weaker than everything else you have. Just the mere thought that a number somewhere will go up by one is enough to quicken your heart and focus your mind. Why? Because they're freakin' pokemon, and that's what you do to them. And it provides another aspect to the game; one that is completely voluntary and provides no material satisfaction, but is incredibly satisfying nonetheless. Sure, the actual gameplay might be annoying, but knowing you're playing it just to find yet another cute little animal-thing makes it all worthwhile.
Besides, there's 150 of them. And that is why this game is so wonderful. With so many different options at your disposal, you can play through this game any way you want. Because it's so easy, you can forego the most powerful creatures in order to make your team unique. Ratatta's worthless, you say? Well, he helped out a lot early on so I guess I'll keep him. Jigglypuff? Hey, she's cool in Smash Bros, so why not? You don't need to build up a team full of legendary birds and dragons and powerful psychics and all that jazz if you're not going to fight against other people. In other RPGs, you're lucky if you have a dozen different choices available to you; here, you can do whatever you want. Any time I start a new game, I'm practically guaranteed of getting a new experience. I know I'll focus on different creatures, train them in different ways, see different uses and different combinations and different strategies. For a genre as dull and repetitive as RPGs, this is absolutely critical.
So when I see a game that takes that one idea - throwing tons of different options at you - and running with it, I can't help but fall in love. When I'm too busy deciding which pokemon I want to nurture into a beast and which ones I'll leave to rot in a computer for all eternity, I have no time to complain about all the annoyances in the game. Yes, the whole lack of balance thing is annoying, but only in that it makes this aspect less fun rather than making anything bad. I'm still interested in rounding out my team and making it unique, even if I do have to put up with not seeing any water pokemon for awhile. I'm still having fun, even if technically the game isn't very good. And that's something I rarely find, which to me points to just how special this pokemon idea really is. The pokemon themselves, the juggling of stats and teams, the idea of the game is what makes it fun.
Basically, what we have here is a game with an excellent concept but a somewhat poor execution. Usually, that's enough to kill a game (take the original Metroid, for example), as the frustrations far outweigh whatever great ideas the developers originally had. But here, oddly enough, that's not the case. Perhaps part of the reason comes from the fact that some of the flaws are present in virtually all RPGs, so I'm at least used to them. And since the game is so dependant on one's own choices, the difficulty can be ramped up if one so chooses. But most importantly, it's because this concept, the catch 'em all mentality, the sheer variety this game has, is just that darn good. Objectively I may not be able to rate this game highly, but that won't stop me from enjoying it just the same.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
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