(First published on Gamepad Magazine, December 3rd 2010)
POKEMON RED/BLUE (1999) – GAME FREAK
Gotta catch ‘em all. This one simple idea for a game would end up spawning one of the biggest and most powerful franchises in the world, and that is of course Pokemon. When I was a child growing up, for nearly three years straight the only thing going on in the school playground would be Pokemon: trading the cards, discussing the cartoon, and of course playing the game. The first generation, Red And Blue (Green in Japan) are the games that started the ball rolling, and in time came to define Nintendo’s Game Boy. And for good reason, because they were (and still are) fantastic.
For all intensive purposes, Pokemon is an RPG, and therefore follows a RPG-esque plot. A simplified version of it would be that a young kid is told to go out into the world, fend for himself against monsters, walk into peoples houses, get into fights and fight evil corporations single handed (lol). But obviously it’s a tad more complex than that. At the start of the game you are given a choice between three Pokemon to choose for yourself (the grass type Bulbasaur, the water type Squirtle, and the mighty fire type Charmander), and then set out to conquer the eight Gyms in the Kanto region (all of whom specialise with a different type), all the while adding to your collection of Pokemon by fighting them in the wild and catching them. Along the way you will encounter the nefarious Team Rocket and attempt to stop them in their plans for world domination, before eventually taking on the challenge of the Elite Four trainers at the Pokemon Championships to become the greatest Master of them all!!!
Oh yeh, and theres also a cocky smart son of a bitch rival to deal with along the way…
So with the storyline established, we can look at the Characters. The main dude you control never talks, instead you interact with the other trainers and inhabitants of the world, who give you information about the world you live in and their opinions of matters at hand. But in fairness, the real credit needs to go the 150 monsters that live in the world. The Pokemon in the game are a varied bunch (from the electric mouse Pikachu, to the spoon bending Alakazam, to the fiery horse Rapidash), and all have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, one of the early monsters you will meet, the small bird Pidgey, can rip through bug monsters, but a jolt of electricity will clip its wings, meaning you will need to rethink your strategy. As you progress through the game you will quickly form a team of favourites, and find them very difficult to switch out until you become champions with them, and very few RPG’s can boast a cast that you never tire of.
It is with the gameplay that Pokemon absolutely comes into its own. The battling is obviously at the core of all of this. The interface for this is beautifully simple. If you encounter a trainer or wild Pokemon, you will enter a battle mode where the first Pokemon in your party will be sent out to do battle. From here you have four options; Attack (using one of up to four moves your Pokemon can learn), use an item to heal or improve stats, switch out to a different Pokemon (you are allowed six at any one time), or run like a wuss (but bear in mind that you can’t run from a trainer battle). A battle is won when you reduce the HP of you opponents Pokemon to 0. It really is a brilliantly effective system, and I cannot fault it.
The world is split into three areas; towns, where the gyms, Pokemon centres (for healing your injured monsters) and markets are, routes between the towns where you can encounter Pokemon in the wild and take on trainers, and caves which require a bit of logic and skill to get through. The method of getting through the game becomes clear quickly; catch Pokemon, train them up, beat trainers for money and experience, catch stronger Pokemon, beat stronger trainers etc and so forth, but it never gets boring. You are constantly having to reassess the Pokemon in your party to make sure you do not lose the upper hand in battle, and as your monsters get stronger they evolve and learn the more powerful moves, which are incredibly satisfying to use as you waste everything in your path. Getting around the world is also remarkably easy; you gain access to a bike early on to zoom around on, and later on you can teach your Pokemon to fly and surf around the world at will.
But don’t think for a second that the game is easy: depending on your starter, the early gyms can be a breeze or an absolute bitch to defeat. Add to this a growing difficultly curve in the gyms and the ever present rival, and you have a game that will take at least 15 hours to get through first time round, and if you want to catch them all, you could be looking in excess of 25 hours as you search for the rare monsters in the grass.
And after all of this, I still haven’t got to the best part of Red and Blue. You think you are the best trainer in the world? Well why not prove it to your mates? Providing you have two Game Boys and two copies of the game (which everyone did at school), you can link the two games with a Link Cable and trade monsters (you had to trade if you wanted all 150 monsters) or battle each other with your own teams. This proves to be incredibly addicting, and a perfect way to earn bragging rights. Other games on the Game Boy did utilize the linking function, but none did it as well as Pokemon, and the functionality continues to be an integral part of the series.
By modern handheld standards, the graphics in Red/Blue are awful. However, I still think that it keeps a certain charm, and back in the day as a kid I thought the graphics were immense. The world is filled with buildings, trees, rocks and water, and everything looks…in place. Add to this individual sprites for every Pokemon, some funny looking trainers, and fully animated attacks (ranging from simple tackles to the crazy Hyper Beam), and you have a game that may not have stretched the Game Boy to its limits, but did very well with 8-bit graphics.
I will put my neck on the line here and say that Pokemon Red/Blue is perhaps the greatest soundtrack ever created for a Nintendo game. Yep, up there with the best that Zelda and Mario have to offer. Some of the tracks are so catchy it is ridiculous (from the famous drum roll of the opening to the Cycling theme, to the theme that plays when you battle a fellow trainer), and every Pokemon has its own individual cry. Its absolutely brilliant. Also from a personal point of view, I consider the music that plays during the final battle with your rival to be one of the greatest boss themes ever.
For all its brilliance, Pokemon Red/Blue still manages to do some things that annoy me even to this day. I hate Misty’s overpowered Starmie with a passion. I detest Zubats and caves. I’m not too fond of how overpowered Psychic Pokemon were and how once you caught Mewtwo you were near invincible. The biggest problem though has to lie with one of the most famous glitches in gaming: MISSINGNO. For some strange reason, by talking to a man in Viridian and then surfing up and down the side of Cinnabar, you would encounter a random piece of code (or some really random Pokemon. Level 132 Bulbasaur anyone?) which would multiply the sixth item in your menu several times, allowing for infinite money or Rare Candies. Sounds good doesn’t it? The problem: it’s a complete gamebreaker. Catching Missingno would cause your game to freeze, and eternally screw up the Hall Of Fame records. So remember kids: cheating is wrong.
It would not be an understatement to say I have spent more time playing Pokemon Red/Blue than I have any other game. I will start from scratch at least twice a year, just to see how quickly I can race to the Elite Four and beat them, and I have never played a game that has offered me that level of replayability. It has also provided me with one of my proudest gaming moments, beating the Elite Four for the first time and then overcoming the rival battle with just my Charizard and 23HP left at the end. Quite simply, you owe it to yourself to play this game and see what ‘Pokemania’ was all about. I guarantee you will not regret it.