I’d never played a Pokémon game before the summer when Pokémon GO was launched. It’s one of those series that just feels like it should have been a part of everyone’s childhood, and I wasn’t even sure why I had passed it up. Doing the research, I realized that Pokémon didn’t come to the US until 1999, when I was a junior in high school. I then aged 20 emotional years in an instant and sat dejectedly by the mailbox, waiting for for my AARP card.
But, I figure there’s plenty other people out there who were too old to be swapping ‘mons with the lads at recess, or simply didn’t have a Game Boy to get in on the craze. Plus, I’m on a kick of exploring the humble beginnings of gaming stalwarts, so come along as I apply my ignorance to another beloved series I have little to no foreknowledge of!
Pokémon is a series of video games based on established trading card mechanics. You play as a young lad (playable lasses come later) who wants to be a Trainer – humans who capture wild Pokémon and use them in one-on-one battles for sport. Pokémon are cute little critters usually based on some exaggerated aspect of a real-life animal or insect (or sometimes, they’re just cats). There’s some suggestions that people use them for labor, like the dinosaurs in The Flintstones, but generally, they just roam the wilds outside of towns.
Your goal to be the very best, like no one ever was, requires you to beat eight gym leaders (master trainers) in cities around the land. There’s a fair amount of sidetracking involved instead of just hopping to the next town. A useful map helps keep you on track. A little bit of Metroidvania even requires you to find special items or powers to unlock new paths past obstacles, and there’s a few sort-of-dungeons you’ll need to defeat to get them. Once you have all eight badges, you head through one last dungeon to take on the “Elite Four” trainers, who are elite, and there are four of them. Best them, and you are crowned the new Pokémon Champion.
To do this, you have to first catch Pokémon. You will never, ever be involved in battle yourself – you’re directing your animal fighters safely from the sideline. You can have six Pokémon in your group plus 240 on standby in storage. There’s 150 original Pokémon in this game (151 if cheating), and your goal, as you might have heard, is to “catch ’em all.” This is done either through using your Pokémon to defeat others in the wild, or through trading with your friends and rivals (more on that later).
Pokémon are all assigned types, like Fire, Water, and Electric. There are 14 types in all, with some attempt to make them strong or weak against other types in logical ways. Water beats Fire. Ground nullifies Electricity. Flying (birds) beat Bug (they eat ’em!). Attacks are also assigned a type, so, say, a Fire attack against a Grass Pokémon means extra damage. Even mismatched types can chip away damage, but using the right attack against the right type is… well, super effective. There’s also Normal damage that represents a physical attack. Normal strikes scale quite high with your Pokémon’s Attack stat, which increases automatically as they level.
In practice, this means that Pokémon battles are quick affairs. Call out a Pokémon that’s strong against your opponent’s type and they’ll usually KO them in one hit. The strategy thus becomes about diversifying your bench. You ideally want one powerful Pokémon of each type, then spend your time maxing out their powers, level, and stats. Regions within the world generally focus on one type at a time, so as long as you’re swapping appropriate Pokémon in and out of your party of six, you’re pretty well set. It’s light strategy that easy to grasp and only slightly harder to master, but this is a game designed for kids.
The turn-based battles are strictly one on one affairs. You can recall the active Pokémon at any time and replace them with another from your six, usually when you’re surprised by a Pokémon of the wrong type. Battles have you select one move per turn and the Pokémon will dutifully obey. There’s no friendship system here or loyalty you need to worry about – these Pokémon are your tools, and you will work them to the last. Survivors can be healed up through items you’re carrying, or taken to a Pokéstop located in every town, where they will all be healed to full for free. That’s some impressive socialized medicine.
Pokémon learn new moves as they level up. They can only hold/remember four moves at a time, so old attacks have to get dropped to make room for new ones. Training modules are found (or bought) throughout the world, which can be used to replace the learned moves. This way you can intentionally kit out a Water type with exclusively water moves, give a Fire type some extra Normal moves so he’s more generally useful, or set up a specific defense or debuffing specialist. The choices are yours.
Battles against wild Pokémon only happen in grassy areas, so you can avoid them if you just want to get to the next location. Alternatively, you can run laps through the grass if you’re looking to fight. Defeating a wild Pokémon gives XP to anyone who participated in the battle. This means you can start with a weak Pokémon that you’re trying to level up, and swap it immediately for one that can actually defeat the enemy. The only downside is that XP gets split among all participants, so the more Pokémon you bring out, the less XP each one gets. Pokémon that are in your party, but not used in the battle, get nothing.
If you want to capture a wild Pokémon, you’ll need to weaken it. Status effects like Sleep and Stun help, you can use more rare and valuable capture balls to increase your chance, but it’s ultimately going to come down to whittling their life bar as close to defeat as you can get without going over. If you’re stacking a team of power Pokémon, this can be harder than it sounds. Too often I had someone get an unexpected critical hit and KO the enemy before it could be captured. I shouldn’t be mad at the Pokémon for being too good at its job, but I still felt a lot like that scene in Star Trek III where Klingon Christopher Lloyd shoots his gunner because he mistakenly blew up the science ship.
Weaken the foe just enough and you can dig into your Item command next turn and toss out a capture ball. It will absorb the wild Pokémon and you’ll watch it shake like the trap in Ghostbusters. If it holds after three shakes, the Pokémon now belongs to you. If it breaks out, you’ve got to try again. You can waste a lot of balls trying to get an elusive Pokémon, and it’s pretty annoying when you’ve finally got a rare one on the hook, but it just keeps knocking them away like Dikembe Mutombo. There’s no lures or bait to calm them in this version, so it’s possible to find yourself simply unprepared and forced to let it get away.
Then there are the other trainers. The world of Pokémon is a strange one – basically a 10-year-old’s fantasy where absolutely everyone is just as into your obsession as much as you are. Every house has bookshelves crammed with Pokémon books. Every company creates Pokémon products. Everyone from high-fashion beauties to biker outlaws love Pokémon and eagerly participate in training and battles. It’s all anyone ever talks about, but it also means that there’s roughly ten thousand other Pokémon trainers out there that all want to fight you on sight.
Unlike the wild Pokémon, these chumps will charge right up to you. You can’t decline, and you can’t run from a battle you’re losing. The enemy trainer will toss up to six Pokémon of their own that usually follow a theme, like Birdcatchers or Fishermen. If you’re caught off guard, you have to do the best with what you have. Defeat finds you back at the local Pokéstop having lost half your money. Victory, however, gives far more XP than battles with wild Pokémon.
It’s also the main way you make cash. You can sell items you find, but this really isn’t common. Constant battles are how you’ll earn your bread. It’s a bit odd, then, that these battles are one-shot affairs – once you beat a trainer, you can never fight them again. To offset this, there are often armies of trainers on the road to the next town. By the end of the game, I had over 200k, which is more than enough to buy almost anything. It is NOT, however, enough to buy everything for every Pokémon. Stat boosting consumables cost a ton, so even completely maxing out one Pokémon seems unlikely. I suppose it’s a way to balance the game.
As I played, I realized there’s essentially three endings to the game, and one of the brilliant parts of Pokémon is how it lets you keep going for as long as you personally want to commit. The first ending is simple enough – beat the Elite Four to become the new Pokémon Champion. This journey took me about 58 hours to complete, with no particular strategy or min/maxing. There’s definitely things I’d do differently if I started over, but overall, I was pleased with my team of heavy hitters and even got one or two Pokémon to the mid-50s (the level cap is 100). It’s also nice to point out that you don’t have to max-level anything to win the storyline. I never did any grinding, or found it necessary. The toughest foes you’ll fight are in their early 50s, and even a Pokémon half the level of its opponent can win if exploiting type weaknesses.
The second ending comes from a quest given to you early on by the venerable Professor Oak. Despite the fact that everyone in this world is bananas for Pokémon, apparently, no one has ever thought to catalog them all. He gives you a “Pokédex” encyclopedia and tasks you with catching all 150. The Pokédex appears as an option in the main menu, and its default entry is a number with a blank space. When you first encounter that Pokémon in battle, the entry gets filled in with its name and a photo. When you finally catch that type, the remaining info gets filled in – including locations on a map where you can go to catch more (such as for trading). It’s an easy way to see who you haven’t caught yet.
It’s also important to note that it’s literally impossible for a single player to catch all the Pokémon by themselves. Hearkening back to its trading card roots, Pokémon Red has a set of 12 Pokémon that cannot be found in Blue, and visa versa. The only way to get them is to beg a player with the opposite game, break out the Game Boy link cables, and trade for them. Trades are always one-for-one, meaning you cannot give a Pokémon away for free, or trade for money or items. However, it’s left to the players to decide the value of the creatures they’re trading.
The manual also makes it clear that there exist Pokémon that you’ll only have one chance to capture, or they’re gone FOR-EV-ER. While this is true, it’s not as butt-clenching as it sounds. These Pokémon are the only kinds that are visible in the world – and they’re only in end-game “dungeons” – so you can avoid them until you’re ready. Plant a save before your attempt, shut the system off and reload the save if you blow it, and you’re pretty well set to ensure you bag a legendary.
As said, Pokémon can be put in storage for later retrieval. A computer in the corner of any Pokéstop lets you connect to 12 virtual boxes that hold up to 20 Pokémon each. A separate menu option lets you store items. You can then pull these out at any other Pokéstop in the world at any time. This lets you build up a pretty formidable army, even if you have no intention of even looking at a specific Pokémon again (Weedle).
The final point worth noting here is Pokémon evolutions. Many Pokémon will evolve into a stronger version once they hit a particular level. These do count as new Pokémon in the Pokédex, and they’re helpfully listed in order. If the listings have a low level Pokémon with a space between it and another type of Pokémon, you can be pretty sure there’s an evolution there to try for. A handful of Pokémon will need external items to trigger the transformation, and it adds a little extra mystery to see what form a Pokémon might take with a little TLC.
In fact, the whole mystery of Pokémon is handled surprisingly well. If you’re playing honest – that is, without using any of the litany of guides available on the Internet – then feeling like a 10-year-old Pokémon researcher is not a big stretch. Awe, curiosity, and excitement all pop up when you encounter a Pokémon you haven’t seen yet. Further, you have to level them up to find out what moves they can learn. Though, again, if you’re not using guides then you won’t know who’s great until you catch and train them. All of them.
Which leads to the third and final endgame – competitive Pokémoning. I have no way to test this out now, but it seems pretty clear what the original intent was. You’re diligently trying out different team combinations, levelling multiple Pokémon to max (or near it), and seeing who the most effective team is to take down all local challengers. I could see people losing a whole lot of time to this, especially when Pokémon secrets were the currency of the playground, and not simply available on the Web and definitively known at the code level. Shooting for this goal would definitely require the most time and dedication, and would definitely require arduous grinding.
Graphically, Pokémon plays to the OG Game Boy’s strengths. With the exception of entering buildings or loading large new areas, screens scroll seamlessly and without load breaks. There’s not a whole lot going on at one time, but what’s on screen is easy to read and understand. Battles have giant sprites for the system and an appreciated level of detail. Both games default to monochrome, but are hardcoded into the Game Boy Color to apply a colorful tint based on the version. It’s not as varied as a true Game Boy Color game, but it’s a little livelier than black and white (or grey and green). Audio is equally great with memorable tunes that drive you forward into adventure.
For being a regular dope playing Pokémon by myself, I don’t have too many complaints. A little research insists that the Psychic type is brokenly overpowered in competition, but this wasn’t a factor in just playing to beat the game. The limit of 20 Pokémon per storage box is annoying, in that you have to keep pausing and saving to switch boxes, but it’s a technical limitation of the time. 14 elemental types is maybe too much to keep track of, but a handy grid appears in the manual that I referenced often. I made some Pokémon less effective because I didn’t realize they couldn’t unlearn special HM techniques, but that’s really starting to get nitpicky.
Ultimately, I give Red and Blue highest marks because I can’t think of too much I would change (granted, I haven’t played any others in the series). This doesn’t mean I’d recommend it today per se – my understanding is there’s a lot of quality of life upgrades in the later remakes, and playing this one today is going to require some retro game forgiveness. But ultimately, it’s a hell of a game. You didn’t need my opinion to confirm this, but I had a great time exploring, fighting, and filling out the Pokédex. It’s wild to me that they seemingly knock it out of the park on the first game, and makes me curious to see how the series evolves from here.
Excellent balance of accessible strategy and adventure. Sets up clear rules and sticks to them. Encouraged to trade rather than forced – enough that an introvert like myself would probably seek out players to complete my Pokédex.
Story is present, but light – takes a backseat to the mechanics. Pokémon and item storage limits get annoying.
How can you not see the beauty of our evil?” — Rocket goon