I had a startling revelation last night: I played Pokémon Blue for the first time almost thirteen years ago. I also found out that this month marks the 16th anniversary of the Japanese release of Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, the two games that launched the series. I’m willing to wager that a good majority of you have played at least one of the main series titles at some point in your lives. Pokémon is one of the games that defines my generation of gamers, but the magic of Pokémon is that titles have lived on well past their progenitors. We’re currently in the fifth generation of Pokémon titles, and there’s no sign to indicate that Nintendo will be putting the franchise to rest anytime soon. I’ve been along for the ride at the launch of every single generation (though I usually skip the various spin-offs and non-adventure titles). The Pokédex currently includes 649 different Pokémon, but today I’d like to focus on the titles that gave us the original 151.
Plot & Characters
The story behind Pokémon is simple: you control a Pokémon trainer who is tasked by the famous Pokémon researcher, Professor Samuel Oak, to fill up the Pokédex, an electronic encyclopedia that will catalog every Pokémon in the world. Along the way, you take the Pokémon League Challenge, which requires that you defeat the eight Gym Leaders and head off to the Indigo Plateau, a battle complex that is home to the Elite Four and the current Pokémon Champion (i.e., the best trainers in the world). You accomplish these goals with a team of Pokémon that you raise and use in battle against other Trainers.
I’ll “get all mushy” for a second. I remember playing this game, as a ten year-old boy, and just being in love with every aspect of it. Think about it: I was playing the role of a kid who was out on his own in the world – it was everything I could ever hope for. I’m an only child, so I usually had to make my own fun. Pokémon is one of the games I remember most fondly from my childhood. There was a fun, engaging battle system, a leveling system, puzzles, and challenges abound. Are today’s Pokémon titles doing anything groundbreaking in the gaming world? Not really. Hell, even Red and Blue were rehashed of a lot of different ideas that gamers of the 1990s were already familiar with, but this game was empowering to play as a young kid. I had responsibility, and I was challenged to complete the Pokédex and become the Champion. I can still remember the first time I beat my Rival clearly: it came down to my Charizard versus his Blastoise. After a rather intense match, his Blastoise’s Surf failed to make contact with my Charizard, who returned and clinched the match. I can vividly recall the excitement I felt when I had completed what I considered to be the ultimate challenge of the game (I was, and continue to be, more interested in battling and training than Pokédex completion). I was also one of the first people I knew to finish the game – I was feared by all of my friends.
Is it lame now? Probably. Was it awesome then? Hell yes.
Like most Nintendo franchises, Pokémon Red and Blue had an insanely catchy (if not slightly repetitive) soundtrack. I can still recall, on demand, a good chunk of the soundtrack to this day. The ideas that Junichi Masuda used for this game would be embraced by every composer in every subsequent game: intense battle themes, moody music that reflected each unique zone, and a welcoming melody for hero’s hometown. Red and Blue‘s soundtracks have a lot of love in the fan community. It’s not hard to find symphonic arrangements or fan covers of the songs from these games. While the music was mostly beeps and boops, they’re beeps and boops that I’ll remember for a good, long time.
What can I say about the game’s visuals? I always felt like the overworld’s graphics were a bit on the low-end for a 1998 Gameboy game. The creature sprites, crudely drawn as they were, definitely added to the game’s unique visual style. Later games would really refine the original 151′s sprites (even Gold and Silver offered massive improvements over Red and Blue‘s “blob-ish” characters). The environments were blocky and boring, and most character sprites didn’t really stand out from the rest. But, judging a Pokémon game for its visuals is a bit like judging a Mario title for its story. The real reason we play Pokémon is for…
Much like most other RPGs from the 1990s, there are two basic “modes” of gameplay: overworld adventure and battle scene. Let’s talk overworld. As a trainer, you have to navigate the oddly rectangular landscape of Kanto. There are some caves, dungeons, and tall buildings. You needed to solve the occasional puzzle, and there were plenty of items to collect, but that’s pretty much it for the overworld experience. Of course, when you happen to meet eyes with another trainer in the overworld, you transition to…
…the battle scene! While the battles in the first portion of the game are mind-numbingly easy, you can expect a challenge from most of the Gym Leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion. You pit one of your Pokémon against an opponents’. You each select an attack, which are executed based on which creature has the highest Speed stat. Rinse and repeat, and you’ve basically got the whole battle thing done. There’s some complexity to Pokémon battling – you need to make sure your Pokémon isn’t weak against the type of your opponent’s. There are also plenty of strategies and movesets that can be employed in order to ensure victory. As the games have matured, so too has the battle system (it’s now way more complex than it was back in 1998). If you don’t believe me, head over to Smogon, the largest competitive Pokémon battle hub on the ‘net. While a lot of this complexity wasn’t introduced until later titles, it’s important to remember that this is where it all started.
And, really, that’s the most important thing I can stress here. Are Red and Blue the best entries in the franchise? I would say no (Gold and Silver for life, yo) – but this is where the series started. Red and Blue were solid first entries in what would go on to be one of the best-selling franchises in the world (second in sales only to Mario). These two killer apps were something that most Gameboy owners would experience once in their life. Everything that has come out of the franchise started here. For helping to build a gaming dynasty, and for being pretty darn fun about it, I can’t help but remember Red and Blue in the fondest of lights.