On Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow

I used to play Pokémon on GameBoy and they were really fun. This was back when there was an anime TV series, which I watched. According to Metro UK‘s article, “Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow Virtual Console review – Pikachu, I still choose you!“:

It’s 20 years since the first two Pokémon games were released and now they, and Pokémon Yellow, are playable on the 3DS.

The Pokémon franchise is 20 years old this month. We’ve got a retrospective of the series as a whole here, but as part of the anniversary celebrations Nintendo is also releasing the original three games on the 3DS Virtual Console. The games are actually only around 16 and a half years old as far as UK gamers are concerned though, with the games having taken an enormously long time to arrive here – even by normal Nintendo standards. Playing them again today they look even older than they actually are, and yet playing them is just as fun as ever.

Since Pokémon Blue is the version I played back in the day (as an American import, in what must’ve been 1998) that’s the one I’ve gone back to here. Although we’ve also had a quick play around with Pokémon Yellow as well. For those that don’t know, the mainline Pokémon games are always released in pairs, which are more or less identical except for some minor story details and a few pokémon that are exclusive to each. You’re not supposed to buy both, but instead the differences are intended to encourage trading between players – which we’ll get into later.

Pokémon Yellow is essentially a director’s cut, that at the time was released a couple of years later and includes some minor enhancements and changes. It has a slightly different story, that incorporates elements from the cartoon – including Jessie and James from Team Rocket. It was also designed to work with the Game Boy Color console, so had an increased colour palette instead of the stark black and white of the original Game Boy.

(As a special feature on the 3DS keep the ‘Start’ button held down as you load the game and you’ll get a display that mimics the original resolution and look of the Game Boy. Hold the ‘L’ and ‘R‘ shoulder buttons and press ‘Y’ and it’ll even switch to the original black and green).

But despite how low tech the game is the charm of the visuals is as strong as it ever was, and the mix of a top-down overworld and third person, turn-based battles hasn’t changed in all the sequels. Nor has the very open-ended premise of the game, which works as a Japanese style role-player mixed with elements of what are essentially open world gaming. There’s very little real story, and instead your main goal is to simply fill up a pokédex with details of all 150 pokémon (we’re not sure how they’re going to handle Mew yet).

You do this by capturing each of the critters in a pokéball. But first you have to get them weak enough so they don’t resist, by making one of your existing pokémon battle them. (That sounds a little macabre on paper but none of them ever die, they just ‘faint’.) This is achieved by a deceptively complex turn-based battle where each pokémon has access to up to four moves. New moves are earned by levelling up, and many of the pokémon can evolve into one or two new forms at certain points.

Each pokémon you capture and train has a type (anything from grass to ghost) and that means they’re vulnerable to different moves which have opposing types (i.e. grass pokémon are vulnerable to fire attacks). On top of this there are also many other move types that do things like poison or stun an opponent. This means you have to be very careful about what pokémon you field, and creating specialised pokémon for specific situations quickly becomes an obsession.

All this, we should remind you, is in a game that most people that haven’t played it probably assume was made for undemanding six-year-olds. But it’s not. It’s one of the most flexible and interesting role-playing games ever made, and the best testament to the quality of these original versions is how little the formula, or even presentation, has changed in the last 20 years.

Arguably the biggest selling point of the games though, is your ability to battle and trade the pokémon you capture with other human players. And for once Nintendo has actually made the effort to replicate the link cable features of the original games via the wireless connection on the 3DS. There’s no online options (that came later, in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl) but unlike other portable Virtual Console releases what you get here is an exact replica of all the features of the original game.

At least In terms of the mainline games Pokémon has always deserved every penny of its success. It’s not the size of the marketing campaign that made these originals a hit but the quality and uniqueness of the experience. Even today, with dozens of clones and almost as many sequels, the first generation of Pokémon games are still hugely enjoyable to play. And it seems more of a miracle than ever that such a disarmingly complex game was ever made to work on such a low tech device as the humble Game Boy.

It now looks very likely that the next generation of Pokémon games will be revealed this week, and after playing the originals again we couldn’t be more excited. Which makes this re-release super effective for both nostalgic fans and those brand new to the franchise.

Additionally, which I agree with, is with The Verge‘s article, “The original Pokemon is still fantastic — even if it’s your first time“:

Games often age poorly. More so than any other form of entertainment, games change at a rapid pace, and new innovations can make older titles feel downright archaic, to the point they’re no fun to play. That’s why a modern remake of a game like Final Fantasy VIIis such a huge undertaking; it’s not just the visuals that need updating, it’s the entire feel of the game. Last weekend Nintendo rereleased the original trilogy of Pokemon games — Red, Blue, and Yellow — on the 3DS, and I was able to experience them for the very first time. I came to the series in later sequels. I have no childhood memories clouding my visions.

So, how are the original Pokemon games in the eyes of a first timer? It turns out that, 20 years later, they’re still amazing.

Growing up I had a Sega Game Gear, a bright, flashy, and colorful alternative to the Game Boy that was more powerful but had a much less interesting lineup of games. The initial wave of Pokemon madness is one of the things I ended up missing out on. It wasn’t until I was in university, spending a long commute playing games on the Nintendo DS, that I finally gave the series a shot with Pokemon Pearl. I fell hard, and have played every game in the series since.

The Pokemon games are somewhat infamous for making only tiny, incremental improvements. Sequels often only change the experience in seemingly minor ways, and the basic structure remains largely intact from one entry to the next. After all, it wasn’t until Pokemon Black and White — in 2011! — that the series embraced 3D graphics.

With all of this background, playing Pokemon Red (I chose it over Blue solely for Growlithe) is strangely familiar in 2016. Everything works the way you’d expect it to, from capturing and battling pokemon to traveling the world and collecting gym badges. That said, Red gets off to a very slow start. After the thrill of picking your starter — Squirtle, of course — the first few hours are a bit of a slog, with a surprising amount of grinding. And the battles are really boring at first. Early on, none of the creatures you can use have any particularly strong or unique abilities, so the battles are mostly just exchanging blows until one pokemon faints. There’s little in the way of strategy: apply brute force, and repeat.

Worse still, the early portion of the game is restrictive, with little room for exploration. For the first five hours or so, it feels like you’re walking down a series of drab hallways fighting one boring battle after another. But something happens after that, not long after you collect your second gym badge. The world opens. You learn a new ability, cut, which lets you slice down trees to open new paths. You can buy a bike to make exploration so much faster. And then it clicks: this is what Pokemon is about, that wonderful sense of a huge adventure looming in front of you.

I often have a hard time playing old role-playing games, as new genre conventions can make the classics feel clumsy and unforgiving. Things like random battles, where enemies are essentially invisible and can start a fight at any point, can feel particularly dated. But I haven’t really felt that way after spending an entire week playing Pokemon Red. In fact, after playing so many modern Pokemon games, which often overwhelm you with options and side activities, I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of the original.

This is the formula at its most streamlined. I don’t have to worry about dressing my pokemon up for fashion shows, or learning the secrets of weird legendary pokemon. I can just construct a team of creatures and explore without a burning sense of fomo. Even the pokemon themselves are more interesting. Over the years, the number of creatures has ballooned to more than 700, most of which are entirely forgettable. But all of the creatures in Pokemon Red are ones I know and understand intuitively, which makes building a team much more enjoyable.

That said, there are a few things I miss. Managing your pokemon and inventory is especially clunky and time consuming, in large part because you have such limited space. It’s also a lot easier to organize your pokemon collection by dragging them around on a DS touchscreen. And while I quite enjoy the black-and-white visuals and wonderfully detailed pixel art portraits, color serves more than just an aesthetic purpose in the series. It’s also an easy identifier for the many different types of pokemon and their moves. When you go through thousands of battles, knowing to simply tap the yellow attack button is much simpler than searching for the word “thunderbolt.” The game also gives you far less information on basically everything, from moves to items, forcing you to experiment quite a bit.

Aside from those few bothers, though, it’s amazing how well the original Pokemon plays two decades after it was released. Instead of feeling like a dated throwback, it’s more of a barebones version of a modern hit, without a host of unnecessary add-ons weighing down the experience. All of the elements that make Pokemon so great were there from the very beginning, and they’re still easy to appreciate — even if it’s your very first time.

According to the DestrucToid review of Red:

Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing people regarding their first Pokémon experience, and it usually involves finding out about it a few months, or even years after it launched in the US (like Laura’s first intro to Yellow). As for myself, I still remember the night I picked it up, on launch day, September 28, 1998. After getting off work, my parents drove me to Toys”R”Us to spend my allowance money on Pokémon Red, which I picked out exclusively because it had a badass dragon on it. The rest was history.

Even though it was a school night, I played it for hours on end, until I was stumped on Mt. Moon and had to call it a day. I’m talking flashlight (backlight, even!) under the bed, the whole kid shebang. I was addicted. To an extent, that’s still how I play a lot of games today, including Pokémon Y (which I also picked up because it had a dragon…thing on the cover).

While it’s clear that age is a factor in my recent playthrough of the first generation re-releases, a lot of that same spark is still there.

As an RPG, Pokémon ticks all the right boxes. The element of party building and loot acquisition is still alive and well, but it’s on a much more personal level with Game Freak’s creation. You didn’t just happen to run across a Tauros as part of the main storyline — you spent 15 hours trying to catch it on your friend’s copy of Pokémon Blue so you could transfer it over to finally complete your Pokédex (true story).

It was a whole new world, and the trading element, spurred by the exclusivity found within the two (and eventually, three) versions was genius. It was a marketing strategy first and foremost, but it worked, and the topic of “What Pokémon did you find today?” was a common conversation in an era just before the rise of FAQs.

Of course, as an RPG from the ’90s, it has all of the typical trappings you’d expect. Battles can be non-stop, especially on the tight quarters of the S.S. Anne, which can dampen exploration a bit. The visual element of only engaging in fights in grass is appreciated, but caves and areas like cycling roads are off, pacing-wise, to the point where it can feel like padding.

But even with its multiple iterations of advancements lingering in its shadow, the original trilogy still has a ton of life to it. In the re-release, I spent hours in Celadon City, traversing the giant general store and whiling away in the casino. There’s a reason that the second generation revisited Kanto again — it’s one of the most iconic locations in the entire series. I found myself rediscovering new hidden zones like it was 1998 all over again, and getting nervous that I didn’t carry enough Ultra balls with me. The fact that I still remember every single first-run Pokémon to this day speaks to its longevity.

As for the 3DS version itself, it’s not ideal that nothing was really added in at launch, but its concessions aren’t the end of the world. Most notably, the removal of save states makes perfect sense, so people couldn’t game the system. It would have been nice to get a few extra quality-of-life changes, like more in-game options, sure. But the fact that you’ll be able to transfer (potentially broken) Pokémon over to Sun & Moon is the cherry on top of this muted sundae.

Even though it’s been left in the dust by its successors (even as early as Silver and Gold, which knocked it out of the park), there’s no denying that the original series, including Pokémon Red, the objective best first generation game, has its charms. As long as you’re able to deal with some antiquated mechanics and a ton of random battles (you are not prepared, even with repels), it’s worth booting up all over again.


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