Pokémon Red/Blue Retrospective

Something that I might be helping a fan of “WTF, Pokémon” with for a Youtube video series of his…

So I guess I’m supposed to comment on the first generation of Pokémon games for the Game Boy for Phil here. Sure, Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow defined a generation of gamers here in the United States, but let’s throw Yellow out of the mix temporarily. On February 27th, 1996, Pocket Monsters Red and Green were released in Japan, but that’s not what this retrospective is about either. Although I must say I’ve always found the idea of Pokémon Green intriguing. But I guess that’s why they made an homage to it with the Game Boy Advance re-releases in 2004, right?

Anyway, Pokémon Red and Blue were launched nearly simultaneously with the English anime on September 30th, 1998. Frankly, the Game Boy and the gaming culture as a whole wouldn’t know what hit it. In hindsight though, it’s clear why to see why the idea was so popular and why the games still hold a special place in fan’s hearts today. You explore an entire world through a third-person perspective as you encounter 151 different varieties of creatures, all the while trying to build the strongest team of creatures possible so your protagonist can be the best trainer in the land. Creator Satoshi Tajiri took his childhood love of insect collecting and turned into…bloodsport combat of these insects or something, but whatever, let’s get into the meat of these games.

Let’s bring something vital to Pokémon’s localization to the forefront – everyone remembers the slogan “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.” No, I’m not trying to make a pun about everyone’s favorite anime hero Ash Ketchum, 4Kids already went and shot that one to hell. However, if you think about it, catching each Pokémon type has NEVER been the ultimate goal in the games. This can be elaborated with other games later, but were you ever rewarded for completing your Pokédex because you’re Professor Oak’s good little bitch? Sure, you got the recognition amongst your friends and maybe it boosted your self-esteem a little bit, but there was no inherent, in-game reward for following the company slogan of “catching ‘em all.” Plus, with the onset of Datel’s Gameshark device, it was no longer challenging to fill up that encyclopedia of creatures. The biggest joke of completing your Pokédex legally was obviously the starter Pokémon. See, in Red/Blue there was no such thing as Pokémon MATING, so that meant that say if your friend’s Bulbasaur evolved into Ivysaur and you didn’t trade for the Bulbasaur for it to register in your Pokédex, you were FUCKED. Find a new friend, because it was game over in that scenario. I mean, the different Pokémon that varied between the two versions were easy to trade for, but hell, it was hard enough to find people who had Vaporeon. I mean, he’s the best first-generation variation of Eevee for battle in my opinion, but Jolteon and Flareon were SO much cooler looking. And let’s be honest, that’s what our ten-year-old minds went for at the time.

But no, that’s not what the game was really about, despite the infamous motto. Even though I did legally fill up my Pokémon Blue Pokédex, thank you very much. No, it was all about defeating the Elite Four at the Pokémon League. Along the way you had to face Gym Leaders and use your team to battle your way to victory. So let’s talk about the battling for a bit. Gotta say, this was genius on the creator’s behalf. You’ve gotta love how there’s a set of checks and balances between the different types of Pokémon. Although the battling system would grow over time with each game in the series, this was a fantastic springboard. However, understanding how the different types worked with each other is a MUST if you are going to excel at this game. And while a lot of them make sense logically, some of them just don’t. Bug moves against psychic? Dragon super effective against dragon? Something you have to memorize, I guess.

How about those Gym Leaders, though? You’ve got Brock, a rock trainer who you’ll never look at the same after the anime. Misty, the water leader…well same thing as Brock, actually. Lt. Surge puts a charge in you after you figure out some lame trash can puzzle. Erika tries to hide inside her girly gym, then you take on her grass Pokémon. Sabrina was a bitch to find after her psychic teleportation puzzle that drove you nuts. Koga had you working around invisible walls that were actually secretly visible before he used his poison Pokémon. Blaine tried to heat things up after you answered really easy trivia questions. And then Team Rocket boss Giovanni used his Ground Pokémon after you were slip-sliding around just like the Celadon Game Corner. And wait, TIME OUT. What happened to the Soul and Marsh badges? Did they just decide to trade names in the anime? Oh well, that always goes down in infamy among the hardcore fans.

You’ve got some great locations in these games. Get lost in Viridian Forest, visit some graves in Lavender Town, gamble a bit in Celadon City, visit a corporation in Saffron City, and…go for a sea ride on the right coast of Cinnabar. All right, seriously, it’s a must to touch on this. This game had several glitches, real or fake, that it was simply hilarious. The MissingNo cheat has long gone down in the annals of video game history as one of the most famous glitches of all time. Talk to the old man in Viridian City who teaches you how to catch a Pokémon, have him go through his spiel, fly to Cinnabar Island, surf up and down the right side of the island until you encounter MissingNo, then run. Your sixth item in your inventory will be duplicated at least a hundred-fold. CLASSIC. You’d also run into some ridiculously high level Pokémon that depended on the name of your trainer, so you’d have to be wary of that too. I came across level 132 Snorlaxes, but I’ve seen others come across Magnemites and Clefables…it’s crazy, I know. There were rumors of Bill’s Secret Garden that were squandered, there were people who legitimately caught Mew in-game, and people actually called Marill “Pikablu” for a while before his identity was known…I wish I were kidding you on the last one. But you’ve got to love some of the nostalgia this game has to offer.

The music is absolute gold. The Elite Four and Champion battles were epic. What’s not to love about the original? So why not make another one that tried to piggy-back off the anime in some fashion? Well, Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition made a splash on October 1st, 1999 in North America, in which you started with Pikachu as he followed you around. That’s right, just like Ash! You could “talk” to him to gauge his mood, and while they really tried to make this work, it just didn’t blow most people over. In addition, Jessie, James, and Meowth make special appearances when you encounter Team Rocket, so you could tell that the developers were trying too hard to take stuff from the anime. Now, if only Misty and Brock followed you around and you could just get pity badges from the first two gyms, then it’d be officially a rip-off. You could find original starters Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle in unique situations, so you could have all three to train, thus eliminating a main gripe of mine with Red/Blue.

By now, Pokémon Mania was really setting in, so Pokémon Yellow was one of the hottest-selling handheld games of its time. It met very high review marks, even higher than the strong grades Red/Blue achieved. So sure, you can tease about how silly some of the Pokémon looked – like how Raticate was so useless, training a Magikarp made you want to cry, and that Voltorb was the least inspired creation ever – but you can’t say enough GREAT things about these masterpieces. One thing is for sure – the Pokémon franchise would not be where it is today without its Red, Blue, and Yellow games.