Pokemon is, without a doubt, one of the most beloved franchises in video game history. With the original release of the Pokemon Red and Blue games in North America in 1998, the series became a staple of the Gameboy catalogue, and secured itself in the hearts of millions of kids, and some adults, including myself. In this look back, I don’t really want to review Pokemon Red and Blue as much as I want to try and figure out why these games were so great in a way that goes beyond the fact that I was nine, life was good, and I was having fun with the latest craze.
Everyone has that game, movie, and/or book that they can’t help but wish they could experience for the first time again. For me, that’s the original Pokemon games. Of course nostalgia probably plays a huge part as to why I think so fondly about my first time through Pokemon Red, but I think there is an appeal within the game’s mechanics that helped hook so many people the first time they played it, and it stems from two central aspects, the simplicity and the mystery of Pokemon and their evolutions.
Pokemon evolution is almost perfectly simplistic. From almost the beginning, you’re introduced to the simple concept; you get a Pokemon, you level it up, and it evolves into a new, more powerful form. The great catch is that within the game itself, it’s not always immediately evident when, or even if a Pokemon will evolve. This aspect puts you at a sort of crossroad; do you continue to train the Pokemon you have, but might not like a whole lot, in the hopes that it’ll evolve and become something better, stronger, and, most importantly, cool looking, OR you can ditch the dude you don’t like and go with someone you think you’re gonna like more.
Setting your Pokemon party of six with the Pokemon you think you’re going to like the most is the mechanic that I think drives the games in almost every aspect. The world exploration is probably the most obvious part of the game that is driven by Pokemon collection. Because you want to see if there are any Pokemon you haven’t discovered yet, you feel constantly compelled to explore every area of the game, different routes, caves, bodies of water, and forests, in the hopes that the screen will blacken and come back revealing a Pokemon you haven’t found before. While finding new Pokemon in the wild is the driving force behind why the player is compelled to explore the Pokemon world.
It’s not just exploring the wild and outside areas that are encouraged by finding new Pokemon, but also just talking to people and exploring through the cities. While the majority of Pokemon evolve through levelling up, others evolve by other means such as trading and special items. This encourages you to talk to almost everyone you see, sometimes getting hints about who evolves with what items and having people offer to trade you Pokemon. On top of this, even the Pokedex, the in-game encyclopaedia containing data about Pokemon including brief descriptions, in game cries, and locations in the wild, can help you deduce what Pokemon might have another evolution; see a gap between two Pokemon in the Pokedex? Chances are the one before the missing one will evolve. But hey, read some of those vague descriptions and let your imagination fill in the gaps!
I’m not trying to argue that the world of Kanto is particularly interesting or fleshed out, in fact, it’s probably just the opposite, but what I will say is that the game encourages you to engage with the world, to explore more than you need to, to stay in places longer than you have to, and to talk to more people than you would if you just wanted to beat the game. Pokemon used the concept of finding new monsters for your team, and extended it to the entirety of the game. The Pokemon universe really is the Pokemon universe, no one wants to talk about much else because you don’t want to hear them talk about much else (except maybe shorts and footprints in the sand) and even if they do talk about other things, you’re probably going to have to battle them, anyway.
This is the main reason why I think subsequent versions of Pokemon, especially the DS games, I knew everything that was going to happen. Because I could so easily look up who to trade with, each Pokemon’s location in the wild, who would trade me what Pokemon, who evolves with what stone, I didn’t really care to talk to anyone within the cities that I didn’t need to, and I certainly didn’t want to stay in any wild areas any longer than I had to if I knew there wasn’t any Pokemon there that I wanted to catch.
Of course, this isn’t really the game’s fault. There’s an expectation now that you can always just look up what you want to know about a game with a quick online search, and it’s been a pretty accepted practice for a long time at this point, but I don’t think Pokemon was designed with this much in mind. I don’t think this makes any of the Pokemon games bad, but it really changed the way I played the games. Instead of taking my starter and venturing on, catching Pokemon that I like and using them until I find one I like more to switch it with, I started to basically pre-plan my teams; only catching and training the Pokemon I want on my team by the time I reach the end of the game, never wasting a Pokemon battle’s experience on a Pokemon I didn’t want on my team for the rest of the game, after all, the games are easy enough that you could essentially beat it using any single Pokemon if you trained it enough. Again, this didn’t make the games bad, just different, and, to me at least, less fun.
I began thinking about this idea just around the time Pokemon X and Y were announced and to see if what I thought was true, so I tried to keep myself in the dark as much as possible when it came to the new Pokemon, their stats, and where they could be found in the game. Of course, because of social media I couldn’t play the game completely in the dark (hearing about mega-evolutions on Twitter was the big spoiler for me), but for the most part, I think I only saw two or three new Pokemon and that was about it. When I booted up Pokemon Y on launch day and started to play it, I’m happy to say I enjoyed it much more than the few previous versions. I was genuinely excited when I first encountered Hawlucha in all his ridiculousness, and when my Goomy evolved into Sliggoo and finally to Goodra (who I think might just be my favourite Pokemon from any generation).
I think I just like the concept of Pokemon. Everyone gets to play it their own way, and, with a now almost unimaginably large amount of Pokemon, everyone can inject at least a little bit of their own personality into their team. I think that’s what has always kept me going back to the franchise and at least getting some enjoyment out of every installment. But when I think about why Red and Blue really stuck with me, again, trying to put nostalgia aside, it’s because every step I took in the wild grass, every person in every Pokemart and Pokecentre, provided a sense of excitement that I was going to find something that would help make my team not only better, but more like what I wanted to be. You looked into everything, and because of that you got some great rumors, fan projects, and speculation about deeper story details. Push the truck to get Mew, rage because Charizard can’t learn fly, wondering what Missingno really is, and even the suggestion that you killed Blue’s Raticate; these are all things that come up because you wanted to know everything you could about every Pocket Monster in the game. In the end, it’s not that Pokemon Red and Blue were great games on their own, but instead it was Pokemon, and the players’ love for them, that elevated them to where they stand in video games today.