In the mid 90's, a little game called Pokémon took the world by storm. Along with the game, there was a colourful cartoon series and seemingly limitless merchandise.
As an eager young boy, Pikachu, Bulbasaur and their buddies inspired young me to 'Catch em all!'. Countless hours were spent, catching, training and trading with friends. Countless indeed, because the timer on the game maxed out at 255 hours.
Recently, with Pokémon currently back in the news I decided that I would take a trip almost 20 years back in time and see how the old girl was holding up.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon is a simple RPG in which the player collects and battles monsters encountered in the game world. The aim of the game is to battle other trainers and overcome the 8 'Gym Leaders' scattered around the region, then take on the 'Elite 4' to become Pokémon champion.
As usual, at the start of the game, the player is presented with a choice of 3 'starter' Pokémon. I went with my original choice of Bulbasaur, a lizard with a plant growing on his back. However I had determined that I would try to use Pokémon I had not previously used in this playthrough, so after getting past the first few hurdles and catching a few new battlers, good old Bulby was left in the Pokémon box to grow weeds.
Out of curiosity I later attempted to glitch the game into giving me a 'Mew', a Pokémon unavailable through normal means and the subject of countless schoolyard fables. Following a guide online I found this surprisingly easy to do, and quickly found him a powerful addition to my team.
Eventually though, he joined Bulbasaur to rot in the sidelines, as I found him a little too powerful, and my other Pokémon weren't quite getting the experience they needed to level up.
Pokémon features surprisingly little hand holding once you are past the initial set up, with only the odd tip given by characters and handy signposts. Once of the most important features to understand in the game is how 'type' affects which Pokémon to choose. In essence, each Pokémon has one or two 'types' which play into a big 'Paper, Scissors, Rock' type set of advantages and disadvantages. For example, a fire Pokémon using a fire move will be more effective at hurting a grass type, but weak to water type moves.
The game does explain this, but not in a particularly digestible manner. Some type matchups are obvious (water puts out fire) but others are more esoteric (psychic attacks beat poison?) and require some memorisation. Of course, a nearby print out or smartphone app showing the type advantages helps.
However I was surprised to find that for the first 3rd of the game, most of my Pokémon, and the Pokémon I was fighting, had very few moves that were not of the 'Normal' type. With moves consisting of scratches and tackles, this meant I did not need to worry too much about types until later in the game.
Another interesting decision is found in the first dungeon area, Viridian Forest. This area contains 2 Pokémon who are in cocoons, and largely do the same move over and over; 'Harden'. This move raises defense, leaving your Pokémon barely able to damage them after a few rounds. Though frustrating, this demonstrates to the player how stat affecting moves can be put to good use.
Dungeons are generally well designed, and introduce new ideas as the game goes on, including teaching Pokémon the ability to shove boulders about to open up new areas or trip pressure switches. The less said about the immensely confusing 'Silph Co. Building' with it's multiple warp pads, the better.
Towns however, are generally oddly designed. Often parts of towns are walled off, either to restrict your progession until you learn the move needed to get past or to funnel you into certain areas for encounters with NPCs or worse, your rival.
At the start of your journey, when you are given your first Pokébuddy, your smalltown aquaintance also receives his first Pokémon. You are allowed to choose first, but this unfortunately means your newfound rival, Gary, gets to pick a Pokémon with a type advantage over yours (In my playthrough he was renamed Fi, after my loving wife). Frustratingly, Gary's insistence on showing up to 'See who is the better trainer' at the tail end of a dungeon is a constant throughout the game. Several times I thought I was clear and on my way to a town to heal when he strolled onscreen with a full team and whipped me. Probably the most heinous antagonist of any RPG I have played.
Throughout the game, you pass through different areas, each containing different types of Pokémon. The game does a good job of sectioning certain areas off to include mainly specific types. For example, a hidden power plant contains only Electric type Pokémon, a stretch of water pits you against trainers with Water type Pokémon and a Pokémon memorial tower throws waves of Ghost Pokémon at you. Knowing the type of moves you will need to defend against, and which ones you can use to maximise damage, makes these areas much more manageable, and also encourages the player to catch and switch to different Pokémon as they work through the game.
In particular, this was driven home for me by a stretch in the Rock Tunnel dungeon, which unsurprisingly features many rock type Pokémon. At that stage I had decided I was going to stick with the team I had no matter what, but having few Pokémon useful for rock type encounters made the dungeon vastly harder than it needed to be!
Mixing it up though, the final challenge of the game requires you to take on 5 trainers concurrently. Each trainer uses a different set of Pokémon, with a variety of types. This means the player has to put together a final balanced team that can take on different types. This serves as a final test of understanding the nuance of teambuilding.
One odd design decision is the existence of the 'Special' stat for Pokémon. The other stats (HP, Attack, Defense and Speed) are pretty self explanatory but the game does a bad job of telling the player how this works.
Special is effectively a Magic stat, but combines both Magic Attack and Magic Defense, meaning a Pokémon high in this one stat has both good magic damage and good magic defense, but a Pokémon that relies on the Attack stat might not have high Defense.
Combine this with poor explanation of which moves actually use the Attack or Special stat for thier attack power and this can become very confusing, with seemingly powerful Pokémon held back by the wrong choice of moves.
In the second generation of Pokémon games (Gold/Silver) Special was split into Special Attack and Special Defense stats. It took until the fourth generation however, for moves to show whether they used the Attack or Special stat. Up until then, the elemental type of the move (e.g grass, electric) determined which stat it used.
Music in the game is actually better than I remember, with many of the tunes still used in revamped forms in the current games and anime. There are definitely a few highlights such as the gym leader battle music below. Considering the limitations of the Game Boy I was surprised to find there are some complex compositions.
One humorous drawback to the depth of the music though is that often when certain sound effects play, such as when Pokémon enter and perform their cries, or certain moves are performed, parts of the music cut out, as if the band sountracking your epic battle were momentarily awed.
One of the happiest discoveries I made whilst playing through Pokémon Red was that, years later, it is still fun to play. Although it suffers from several issues, it is overall an interesting and well designed game. Discovering new Pokémon is a joy and seeing some of the earlier designs was entertaining (Machoke for example looks like a drunk Muppet).
Speeding around on a bike, agonising over which moves to teach a Pokémon, thwarting the nefarious Team Rocket, there is a lot packed into the game and it's telling that the overarching design principles are still similar in the games that are released today.
My opinion is certainly vastly tainted by nostalgia but I for one am looking forward to the inevitable re-release of the 2nd set of games, and future Pokémon games.
For internet posterity, the following are my final team which I eventually managed to take down the Elite Four and the Champion with:
|Electabuzz - "Buzzkill" - L55
||Parasect - "Funghee" - L40
||Poliwrath - "Spawny" - L52
|Rapidash - "Bojack" - L41
||Exeggcutor - "Benedict" - L44
||Rhydon - "Juggernaut" - L44
What are your memories of Pokémon? Have you played one and if so who did you use? Sound off in the comments!