Review by BigCj34

Reviewed: 05/04/07 | Updated: 11/13/12

A game that popularised role-playing games to everyone, where others failed.

Pokemon is a peculiar franchise. It's an uncommon example of a role-playing game that had mass market appeal, yet it's not so easy to pinpoint how that is. Final Fantasy, while undoubtedly popular, didn't get almost every member of the general public hooked into the craze. Maybe there was an appeal to essentially leveling up cyber pets, and surely the initial roster of 150 meant there were Pokemon for everyone. The likes of Pikachu and Meowth had a cute appeal, whilst hardcore players who wanted to train Pokemon for ass-kicking could opt for the brutal Dragonite’s and Charizard’s.

The Pokemon world also has enough real-life similarities to allow the player to feel emotionally connected with the environment, but remains quite surreal in subtle ways. Ash, to go by his name in the TV anime, becomes old enough to obtain a license to train Pokemon at the ripe old age of ten years. He embarks on an adventure through Kanto’s oceans, forests and mountains to catch wild Pokemon, fight like-minded trainers and defeat the eight Gym leaders of Kanto to earn the respective badges required to take on the Pokemon League. Most developed societies would call this irresponsible parenting at that age, especially when he single-handedly disbands a criminal organisation in Team Rocket in their casino hideout before the authorities can. Being able to squeeze a creature from rat size to flying dragon size, into a Pokeball adds to the weirdness, as does the absence of cars and lack of adult males, leading to conspiracies stating that this game is set just after a war (ask Gym leader LT surge for proof). Even Silph Co. still manages to have a monopoly on all battle items, despite its headquarters being hijacked by Team Rocket. The Pokemon universe is a bizarre place if you think about it.

Gym’s appear in most cities, and are central to the quest. The battles benchmark how well you’ve been training your Pokemon team. Doing so levels them up, allowing them to learn new moves, and potentially evolve them into stronger forms in the process. Given the many battles against wild Pokemon and trainers in Kanto's routes and dungeons, it’s actually harder not to train. Gym badges though grant crucial abilities to progress to stop the player taking shortcuts. Whilst some allow the player to use higher level Pokemon, others allow certain battle techniques found in Hidden Machine’s (HM) to be used in the field. Found in events or in the wild, HM’s contain important moves such as the ability to cut down trees or surf on water, teachable to certain Pokemon to fully navigate Kanto's diverse terrain. There are also fifty disposable Technical Machine’s (TM) to be found which mostly contain battle-only techniques. The five HM’s are reusable but their moves cannot be erased like TM moves, so it’s important to ensure the technique has practical battle use as well. The badges collectively qualify access to the Pokemon League, but you’re not going anywhere if you can’t swim.

Building up a strong team to become the Pokemon League Champion, or even battle against a friends line-up via the Link Cable, is the fun part of the game. But shortly after Ash chooses his starting Pokemon from Professor Oak’s lab, Oak also sets him to complete the Pokedex he gives him by obtaining all 150 Pokemon. It’s what separates the hardcore few from the masses. Although six Pokemon can be carried for use in battles, the rest can be stored in a database accessible from city Pokemon Centre’s. Catching wild creatures or level evolution accounts for many Pokedex entries, but others still evolve from exposure to elemental stones, or by trading to another game via the Link Cable. Yet not all Pokemon are obtainable in a cartridge. Some Pokemon would have to be traded from the Red version to finish the Pokedex . Certain events even present a choice between two or three Pokemon, such as the starting trio in Oak’s lab. As choosing one prevents the other one being obtainable in that game, a trade would again have to be set up.

And that’s also what made Pokemon fun. Owning Pokemon Blue and playing at the same pace as a friend with the Red version was part of the experience, and required co-coordinated planning with them to trade Pokemon. Getting a Pokemon that featured in one but not the other was hardly a problem, but two-way or three-way choices between Pokemon makes things trickier. If I chose a Hitmonlee prize at the Saffron City Dojo, I would have to make sure my trade partner chose Hitmonchan. If I wanted all three of the starting Pokemon and chose a Charmander however, I would have to make sure two other friends got a Squirtle and Bulbasaur, and be quick before they evolve them. Subsequent releases helped, owning Pokemon Yellow as well made ‘either-or’ decisions easier as I could trade with myself. The second generation of Pokemon Gold, Silver and Crystal even added the useful ability to breed.

Pokemon’s only significant flaw lies from it’s inconsistent difficulty. Catching wild Pokemon is tough and not just because there are 150 of them. Rare types often flee, legendary Pokemon are very tough to break down, and many don’t want to stay inside the Poke ball thrown at them. When it comes to battles though, trainers are usually one-dimensional with their elemental types. Swimmer trainers always use water type Pokemon, Hiker’s use ground and rock types whilst Bug-Catcher’s use, well, bug. Gym battles exercise far more sense, using higher-level Pokemon, status ailment inflicting moves and battle items, but they too often specialise in one Pokemon element. Using a fire Pokemon against Erika of Celadon City’s grass Pokemon line-up makes for a straightforward battle. Assuming a player carries a well-trained team of varying Pokemon types, the only difficult battles lie against Ash’s hometown rival Gary, Gym Leader’s and the Elite Four. Although trainer battles provide a lot more experience points than against random encounters in the wild, you are better off battling your friend’s team if you want serious action.

Pokemon Red and Blue still provide a stonking experience, and it’s simplicity yet ability to engross the player in an alternative 8-bit world that they can become emotionally connected to is remarkable. Non-playable characters are always willing to share their knowledge of the Pokemon universe and some are rather humorous, adding everyday human values to the make-believe irregularities of Kanto. Town’s and routes manage to present a unique distinction that rewards the journey despite the frequent reuse of landscape sprites throughout the game. Kanto, a name that wasn’t used for the region until the second generation, is modeled on the actual Japanese region. Celadon City is the shopping and entertainment hub; Saffron City, full of buildings, is the economic capital; Lavendar Town is a spooky mountain settlement thanks to the Pokemon sanctuary tower and Vermillion City is the regional fishing port. A strong musical score, only limited by the Game Boy’s four-channel sound generator, adds to the vibe.

There’s no doubt Pokemon Red and Blue are vastly technically backwards, even when it was released in Europe in 1999. Not many Game Boy games could be excused for using monochrome technology a year after the Game Boy Color was released. Pokemon was the exception, and there still is some nostalgia that these monochrome Game Boy releases provide that subsequent releases on the Game Boy Color, Advance and Nintendo DS do not, even when they are objectively better games. Like many, it was a game that helped define my late childhood. The franchise dominated the playground at nine years of age as cards were traded before and after they were banned, the game was played on all Game Boy’s on holidays and I often ran home from school to watch the anime. Despite its usage of primitive technology, the relative simplicity does appeal over even its DS releases. Pearl and Diamond’s roster of around 450 Pokemon is excessive, and some of the extra options like beauty contests are questionable. 150 and a few side games like the Celadon casino and the Fuchsia City Safari Park are easier to digest.

Pokemon Red and Blue started a huge franchise and helped prolong the Game Boy, getting many casual gamers on board like Tetris did ten years prior. Single-player trainer battles may be mostly mundane, but leveling up feels very rewarding, as does the intentionally difficult task of catching 150 Pokemon. Pokemon remains one of my favourite portable classics as it’s comfortable to play on a small screen, which faster action based games struggle to match, making it a prime candidate for a re-release on the Nintendo 3DS’s Virtual Console. Subsequent releases may be technically better, but nothing can take away from the original’s nostalgia. Dig out your old Game Boy or emulate it full-screen on a 42 inch HDTV for fun. Whichever way, this is a game worth revisiting.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Pokemon Blue Version (EU, 10/05/99)

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