by Tanner Kinney
Pokemon is a gigantic franchise. Kids love it, adults love it, and every Pokemon game seems to sell just as well or even better than the previous title. You show an everyday person a silhouette of Pikachu, there’s almost a guarantee they know what it is or, at the very least, that it is that Pokemon thing. There are hundreds of YouTube channels devoted to EXCLUSIVELY Pokemon content, whether it be WiFi battles or Let’s Plays or weird conspiracy videos. Kids grow up with Pokemon everywhere, and enjoy it in whatever way they want to. I definitely grew up with Pokemon Sapphire, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and the Pokemon Advanced dub by 4Kids with all of Brock’s “jelly filled donuts”. Even then it was massive, now it’s even more prevalent in popular culture.
But Pokemon wasn’t always this huge franchise that had a massive budget behind it. Like all big things in popular culture, it started small: a simple game on Gameboy. The fact that Pokemon even came together and worked (mostly) as intended was truly a miracle of engineering from the geniuses at Game Freak and Nintendo. To celebrate the release of Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon, and to make it so those games would actually be reasonably fresh, I went back and revisited the first generation of Pokemon, Red and Blue version (and Green but also not really). For future reference, once I start talking about the game, I will be talking about Pokemon Blue version, as that’s the one I own.
Whoosh, Flashback, History Time
Now then, let’s head back to 1996. The Super Nintendo’s life cycle was quickly ending as the Ultra 64 (later Nintendo 64) was on the horizon. The Gameboy had been a smash hit handheld with titles like Link’s Awakening and the Super Mario Land series, but lacked the kind of title that made EVERYONE have to buy a Gameboy. The Gameboy still left competitors like the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear in the dust, of course, but it was slowly dying. It needed a jolt of life if Nintendo wanted to keep producing it.
Something developers realized early on was that one specific genre did particularly well on Gameboy: the RPG. With series like Final Fantasy Legends and the Megami Tensei: Last Bible games doing so well (in Japan), it seemed portability favored this genre in particular. While they couldn’t match the spectacle of, say, Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger, the ability to take it anywhere was a huge boon. That is, if you had extra AA batteries with you.
So Nintendo, with the help of Game Freak, decided to throw their own hat in the ring to create a revolutionary new RPG: one where you caught and trained your own party of cute and cuddly monsters. Okay, it wasn’t completely revolutionary, considering recruiting a party of monsters to fight alongside you was the core mechanic of the Shin Megami Tensei series from four years earlier, but Nintendo’s series would make it more personal. These creatures would not only level up and become stronger, but would also evolve and grow with you as your journey progressed. This idea was based on game designer Satoshi Taijiri’s hobby of collecting insects. In his mind, these captured monsters would be like the captured insects except, you know, fight to the death. Oh, excuse me, fight to the “faint.”
And so, after a rather difficult development period and a couple rebrandings, Pocket Monsters: Red and Green were released in Japan. To the surprise of Nintendo and Game Freak, the games were massive successes. They were a perfect fit for the average schoolkid, with portability plus trading and battling with friends through the power of THE LINK CABLE. By 1997, it sold 10.4 MILLION copies in Japan alone. It was so successful that it got its own anime. Strangely enough, the anime actually released in the US before the games did, and led some people to believe the anime led to the game. With the power of the internet though, kids would find that not to be true. The internet would then quickly betray them with uncles from Nintendo talking about how to unlock Luigi in Super Mario 64. L is definitely not real.
Two years after the original release, Pokemon Red and Blue released in the US and most of the world (except Europe). These weren’t exact re-releases of the original Red and Green versions, due to the fact Game Freak had to completely rewrite the source code of the game for the English language. They also were based on the slightly more stable Pocket Monsters: Blue Version, which had updated sprite work and some text changes. Let’s just say that Red and Blue’s source code is held together with toothpicks and tissue paper. It works, but put any stress on it and you get some unexpected results.
Much like in Japan, Pokemon became a smash-hit here in the states, revitalizing the dying Gameboy and bringing a whole new addiction to kids everywhere. The craze was absolutely nuts. I remember some old advertisement on one of my Pokemon VHS tapes of a bus driver cramming all the Pokemon onto a bus, then smashing it into a Gameboy. He caught them all, also probably murdered them but it’s okay. Add the hugely popular anime; the trading card game that launched in December of 1998 to the terror of elementary school administrators just recovering from the Pog epidemic; and a series of increasingly ridiculous myths about secret gardens and Mews under trucks, and you have a recipe for a worldwide craze.
But what about Pokemon Red and Blue made it so great? And does it still hold up, even when compared to later titles within the Pokemon franchise? I was shocked to find out that yeah, this game is still incredibly rad, even if it’s a little broken at parts.
Why the PokeCraze Became the Craze
The game begins with you, a responsible 10-year-old boy (even if you are actually a girl, hardware can’t handle a girl protagonist, something something Ubisoft), leaving your house, heading north, and encountering Professor Oak. He brings you to his lab, and allows you to choose one of three starter Pokemon. You pick your favorite one (Squirtle, for me) and your rival picks the elemental counter. You fight the rival that you named something inappropriate if you’re 12 or mentally 12 like me, do one last tutorial bit to get a Pokedex, and boom, you’re off.
It doesn’t seem like much, but this kind of freedom is a breath of fresh air for me. If you’ve played Pokemon Sun and Moon, or hell even Pokemon X and Y, you know how tutorial ridden those games are. You can’t walk three feet without Lillie or Hau or Serena holding your hand from point A to point B. The world record speedrun for Sun and Moon doesn’t enter the first trial until 51 MINUTES into the game. The full run of the game is 5 hours and 13 minutes. Almost 20% of that run is the starting tutorials, and to be completely honest, tutorials go on for waaaaaaaay longer than that. For comparison, the world record for Pokemon Red beats Brock at 11 minutes in a 1 hour and 48 minute run, and almost none of that is a tutorial. I actually found myself even after starting Ultra Moon switching back to Pokemon Blue because the joy was just so much more immediate. I boot it up, BAM I’m battling Pokemon trainers with my trusty sidekick Smudy the Nidoqueen. No cutscenes, no friendship speeches, no putting Nebby back in the bag, just good ol’ fashioned battling.
The formula has also aged incredibly well. That’s not a surprise though, considering it took literally 20 years for them to shake up the formula with Sun and Moon, and each game leading up to it was great. Catch Pokemon, level them up, battle gyms, get badges, foil a crime syndicate, travel into a void Hell world to battle a being that can tear reality asunder, the usual stuff. Minus the legendary Pokemon, which were all optional in Red and Blue, it’s clear that this is where it all came from. And it’s still great. Game Freak had the winning formula down on the first attempt, and it shows with how wonderful the game still is.
What hasn’t aged well, however, are the individual mechanics. Let’s just say that necessary improvements were made in future installments. Pokemon Red and Blue are fantastic games and marvels of coding when you really study how it all came together to work. They are also broken in so many ways. If you want some good reading material, check out this list of glitches compiled by Bulbapedia. And those are just the ones we know about. If you want a real trip and have 2 hours of free-time, check out the 151 Pokemon speedrun done at Summer Games Done Quick 2015, where the runner collects every single Pokemon on one cartridge in under two hours. These games are broken beyond belief, and even legends like Missingno are easily reproduced by anyone with the knowledge to get them working.
In addition, some actual combat mechanics are really poorly designed. Wrap is the most frustrating move in existence, preventing the target from doing anything until the wrap ends, which can last what feels like an eternity. Psychic types are incredibly strong, not only since the “Special” stat applies to both defense and offense, but also because their two main counters (Bug and Ghost) don’t actually work. Bug’s strongest move is Twineedle, at 25 base power and only learned by Beedrill, and Ghost not only has no moves worth using but also don’t actually affect Psychic types due to bad coding. The “Gen 1 Miss” is in play, where every move (aside from Swift) REGARDLESS OF ACCURACY has a 1/256 chance to miss. This can be especially infuriating during close fights. Critical hits are also based on the speed of your Pokemon, and the high crit moves like Karate Chop or Slash multiply that chance by 8. This means Sandslash and Persian are critting on almost every single Slash without fail. These are just the most major annoyances, not getting into the strange AI and the absolutely horrible level curve, one that requires grinding that the original Final Fantasy would applaud.
Despite some gameplay flaws that can be attributed to the fact it was a pioneer game, the first in the franchise, it’s easily still a fantastic game. It wouldn’t be the mega-franchise it is now without an amazing start, and Red and Blue is just that. If you want to revisit Gen 1 in all of its Gameboy glory though, I would recommend getting Pokemon Yellow Version and a Gameboy Color. The gameplay is all there and even further improved, you can get every starter, and the sprite work actually looks closer to the original Ken Sugimori art and the anime, which are the inspirations for the modern design. Sprite work may seem like a small thing, but just look at some of the original sprites in Pokemon Green Version. It’s wonderful how terrible it all is, particularly Mew, though Wigglytuff and Moltres are pretty close on the bad spectrum. They desperately needed the upgrade.
Pokemon Red and Blue Versions are legendary games, possibly the best-selling RPGs of all time. They were great back then, and they are still great today. While I would still say that Pokemon Emerald or Pokemon Soulsilver are the best Pokemon games, these are still definitely near the top of the table. I enjoyed revisiting them, and got really into it as obvious by this huge essay. So remember to train hard, eat well, and praise the almighty Helix Fossil, and you too can be the very best like no one ever was.
Sources: YouTube, Kotaku, Byte, Bulbapedia