Review by Snow Dragon

"On the road again"

How quickly we forget. It couldn't have been any more than two years ago that Pikachu fever had clamped its inexorable vice-like grip on the world. It wasn't just the game that was driving parents crazy and turning kids into collectors of slightly altered but still recognizable animals: the trading card game was turning small children into entrepreneurs and masters of bartering, and the TV show which chronicled the adventures of Ash, Misty, and Brock actually showed impressive success as an epic on-going journey that proved it could hold the attention of small children just as well as pop rocks and playing outdoors could. The original red and blue installments of Pokémon (Nintendo, 1998) stand even today as venerable titles, worthy to mingle with others of Nintendo's greatest and most fanciful visions of grandeur. Their popularity, however, is a very thin façade. It is a transparent silk veil through which you can see the gaunt, bony face of a severely malnourished game. Under this surface is a face with the pointiest of cheekbones and the most highlighted of jaws, and Pokémon is lucky that the make-up it put on makes it just that much prettier.

The malnourished face is an RPG crying out for help, for just one original idea to make it stand out from the pack. The veil is collectibility. All you're doing is wandering around, leveling up and fighting to be able to push your way through an extremely linear game. But when that gamy face puts on the VEIL OF COLLECTIBILITY™, it is surrounded by an aura with a peculiar allure to it.

Suddenly, you forget where you live. But that's no longer important as far as the imaginative world of Pokémon is concerned. You are now a teenage boy - a young one at that, no older than fourteen - being shoved out into the wilderness, much to your mother's chagrin, to learn the art of catching and training these wild beasts. All your life, you've lived in the secure, fenced-in municipality of Pallet Town, but it is now time to head out and learn how to be a Pokémon master, come hell or high water. Pokémon are monsters that, when contained and domesticated, can be put to use as fighters and in some cases as useful tools. Some will also evolve to stronger, physically altered variants of themselves when they reach a certain level. That's pretty much all the backwoods Pallet Town bumpkins can tell you; then, it's hit the road, Ash, and dontcha come back no more.

Life is rough in Pallet Town. In the real world, freedom comes at 16 when you are handed that laminated card of joy overflowing, your driver's license. In the world of Pokémon, your freedom is a bitter irony. At 14, you leave town and can wander around anywhere you like, but at the cost of running into pesky Rattatas and Pidgeys who will slowly but surely overtake your baby monster. You want to run home, but your mommy won't - can't, rather - take you back.

A draft comes up and blows away a tear. Be a man, you baby. Go catch yourself some Pokémon.

Make no mistake, Pokémon will bore anyone who can't stand more than 10 minutes without a slice of action. Your first few battles in the wild are a colossal bore because you can't catch anything yet. You have no Pokéballs. What are you to do? Keep moving. Chat it up with the locals. Forget that you can't catch anything yet and let your monster grow strong. As you talk and learn the milieu of this brave new world, people will actually start to give you free items. A Potion here, a Potion there, stuff for healing, little things. Nothing a trip to the Pokémon Center won't do for you.

And finally, someone hands you a Pokéball out of the niceness of their heart. Your maniacal laugh is almost a trembling cry. It isn't, but it's riding a very thin line.

Go catch that Pokémon, young man. You know you want to.

Therein lies the beauty of the sport of Pokémon-nabbing. Without it, you would just be fighting a bunch of animals on steroids. But there is a collector's element that piques your curiosity and causes you to investigate what it's all about, and once you get the hang of it, there's no turning back. Beating a load of bug trainers in Viridian Forest will give you money enough to go back to the shop and buy an armful of Pokéballs, or as many as sensibility and good taste will allow. You will take them and find a Pokémon that surely wouldn't have the good sense to mess with you - but oh, it does. Finally you wear its health down to a nub and throw the ball at it. You watch it shake gently, hoping it won't open back up and run away after its scary bout with claustrophobia. Will it stay in? WILLITWILLITWILLITWILLIT? Sweat runs down your brow. He stays.

Hook, line, and sinker.

Once the initial obsession snaps into the groove, you'll spend the rest of the game walking (and later, biking) to various towns on your map, most of which have a gym you can take your monsters to. In order to beat the game, or in other words become a master Pokémon breeder, you must locate the head breeder in each gym and go mano-á-mano with him or her; your Pokémon against your opponent's. Each specializes in a different type of Pokémon; for example, you'll find that Brock, the first gym leader of eight, takes a liking to rock-based pocket monsters. Lt. Sarge is a beefy man with a fondness for electric types, and you will meet others along the way who train grass Pokémon, bugs, water dwellers, and strong armor-plated powerhouses with no real weakness at all. The strategy comes into play when you find out that most types of Pokémon are weak against the wiles and styles of at least one other subcategory of them. Once you know what to expect from a town's trainer, you can go catch a Pokémon that easily overpowers those that the gym leader in question possesses. You then summarily beat him so badly that his pants fall to his ankles in utter shock, and you win badges, which serve as indicators of your progress through the game and which gym leaders you've beaten thus far.

Life, however, is not just all la-de-da-I-beat-the-head-trainer-look-at-my-pretty-shiny-merit-badge-thingy-you-dummy-head-loser-pants! Several subplots worm their way into this game to thicken the plot. The main one of these, the one that follows you throughout the whole game and strikes with the quickness at the worst times, is your ongoing rivalry with Professor Oak's grandson [insert name here]. You are periodically forced into fights with him because he has a major superiority complex, a trait you don't find in too many video-game villains. He also just likes to push trainers who are weaker than he is around. A mysterious underground criminal ring called Team Rocket will also interfere with your forward progress from time to time, usually when you are caught infiltrating their nefarious secret crime networks. Funky animals, espionage, and a bratty kid with an undying urge to bash your face in with his mad skillz - Pokémon has it all on top of a story flow that comes to a sudden rising climax near the end and makes you wonder: what's this all for? I'll tell you exactly what it's for: nothing. You've fallen for the biggest marketing ploy of all time courtesy of Nintendo. But you had fun doing it, right? Don't lie to me! I can see right through your charred soul!

Outside of the story that unfolds very predictably (for the sake of kids diving into RPGs for the first time, no doubt), Pokémon has plenty of diversions on the side to keep even the most voracious gamer busy. Hook up with a friend and a link cable and you can trade Pokémon from Game Boy to Game Boy in a Pokémon Center. Giving friends your Pokémon is a good way to get them to train harder and faster, and to sneak in yet more play value, some of the monsters will not evolve to their final form unless sent over a link cable. Others need a certain item given to them in order to be coaxed into evolving, while some have one form that they stick with their entire lives. Given all the fun things you can do in this game and the fact that the emphasis is placed heavily on exploration amd catchin' 'em all, as the phrase goes/went, it's no wonder kids fell for this shtick so fast. It's involving and complex and slow-paced, but it is pure unadulterated fun. If you want to get a kid's attention, show him pretty pictures. You want to keep his interest? Add bells and whistles. Heck, I'm 18 and it still works on me. Sad? Pathetic? Maybe, but I'd be lying if I said this game wasn't a blast for he/she who sticks it out and sees what this initially base RPG blossoms into.

The expansive world of Pokémon comes together through spare tile sets and tiny midget sprites that can't be fully appreciated until you meet a fellow trainer in battle. All of a sudden, the screen irises to black, and the two participants move in that distinctly-animé conflicting horizontalness to the scene of the fight. The first of each of your six Pokémon pops up to fight, and you do so with a total of up to four attacks per creature. The attack sequences are very well animated for such a low-bit portable system, as when a tornado rips across the screen to indicate a Gust attack or the hard sideways rain seen when Surf is used as an attack. Each Pokémon is exquisitely detailed from both the front and back views, though the pixels become big and blocky from the latter standpoint. For the most part, however, the graphics resemble most of what you could make if you were on about 400% zoom in Windows Paint. Size doesn't matter to a Game Boy though, and the sights and locales of Pokémon have a way of being outwardly small but deceptively large at the same time.

Pokémon's music has also made an indelible mark in the Nintendo's Greatest Hits soundtrack. Everyone by now could hum the battle theme's music if asked to do so, and many other tunes hold special significance when you link their appearance in the game to their corresponding appearances in the kids' cartoon. Most importantly, songs fit moods. The tower invaded by ghost Pokémon in Lavender Town has the appropriate wavy wooing music, and the accompanying town theme is quite solemn and chilling in its own rinky-dink way, while the normal introductory upbeat theme can be heard just outside the boundaries of Pallet Town. The sound effects take a stranger turn, however, often not matching up vertically with what they're supposed to be representing. There is essentially no difference between the volt-charged sound of an electrical attack and many other elemental attacks. The tackles, rushes, and other physical attacks have their own feel and sound, as do the water moves which emulate crashing rapids and streams of the nectar of life as accurately as possible. You'll come away humming more than one tune, but don't expect to remember the sounds of the battles that get jumbled in your head and leave you less pleased than the tunes do.

In light of all its simple fun, however, Pokémon is easily dismissed. Hype is mainly at fault for its status as an easy target, but there is much more to it than the menus that are accessible even to small children who have just learned how to read and the fact that these are cute little animals who are essentially being bet on to see which one can beat the horsefeathers and grape nuts out of the other. There is in fact no arguing that as an RPG for beginners, it can best be thought of as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, but with quite more miles to the gallon, if you get my drift. Pokémon's mantra is ''Forget the flaws, remember the experience,'' and you can't expect to enjoy it at all if you don't adhere to that. It's not a fluke the first time you feel the surge of an empathic bond running through the link cable as well as that Raichu. Pokémon is ridiculously simple and almost unforgivably linear with very few twists or secrets, but it passes with flying colors almost on the collectibility factor alone, which gives it a shine that radiates brightly enough to cover its mistakes. Depending on how you approach it, it will either be a land mine or a box of chocolates. One of those tastes really good and has a wide assortment of surprises inside. The other one hurts to even look at. Do you enjoy pain or pleasure?

I took the long road to get to it, but you know what I'm going to say: Pokémon is just plain fun. You'd do well to form an opinion for yourself for once and play this. Will the time-honored ''Gotta catch 'em all'' catch phrase hold true for you? WILLITWILLITWILLITWILLIT?

Hopefully, itwillitwillitwillitwill.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/24/03, Updated 02/24/03

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