Yeah, it’s fresh take time on a game that’s over 20 years old!
Pokemon Red / Blue (Game Boy [reviewed], 3DS)
Released Sep 1998 | Developed: Game Freak | Published: Nintendo
I’m pretty sure everyone knows about Pokemon. It’s absolutely one of the classic JRPGs, and the beginning of Game Freak’s monolithic franchise. It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Pokemon; obviously it was a huge multimedia sensation but equally it had a distinctive personal effect for me. I have perfectly vivid memories of opening up a Game Boy Colour and Red one Christmas as a child and getting lost in it from the very start; for me Pokemon fever hit hard. Like plenty of kids of the 90s, I was a massive fan of the original series of the anime, I collected the trading cards, and my room was filled with Pokemon memorabilia much to the bemusement and consternation of my parents.
So this is where it all begins. Plenty of RPGs have lifted the monster hunting mechanics from this game but in my opinion still none do it better; even in this very first release the fundamental mechanics are presented excellently.
Visually, Pokemon Red and Blue have aged as well as cheese in a sauna. While I personally still find its overworld charming, even my nostalgia cannot blind me to the fact that the battle sprites for your Pokemon are dreadful messes of pixels, and even though the enemy sprites are better, some of them bear little resemblance to the Pokemon they supposedly depict. I particularly like Koffing, who is strangely upside down in this game, but it’s not the only oddity. Blastoise looks for all the world like a portly chap battling to see over rolls of fat, Pidgeot is more wood carving than giant bird, and I have no idea why Geodude has a fluffy quiff.
It feels a little like a cheap shot to take, knocking the visuals of a game that came out on a portable console over two decades ago but nevertheless, Pokemon Red and Blue are notable in that contemporary RPGs still look half-decent. While I would not have expected Game Freak to have tweaked the graphics for the recent 3DS eShop release, I do wonder how a modern kid audience might react to them, and whether the dated looks could still have some pull for that kind of audience.
The soundtrack though is still brilliant. The tinny bleeps and bloops of the Game Boy’s limited channels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but I still would rather have this original soundtrack than the later remake’s arrangements of them. That opening drumroll and melody of the Title Theme is well and truly burned into my brain, but it certainly isn’t alone in that. Even just re-listening to the soundtrack now threatens to overwhelm me with such wonderful nostalgia. How many times have I heard that whistling melody over staccato arpeggios as I wander out into Pallet Town and felt the rush as it gives way to the urgent rhythms of Professor Oak’s Theme? I can still all but feel the scent of the sea that the Vermillion City and S.S. Anne themes conjure, and few soundtracks capture the joy of adventure in the way that Route 1 does for me; nor do many scores evoke nervous horror in the ways that Viridian Forest and Lavender Town do.
Like any great RPGs, having a battle theme you don’t mind hearing a billion times is a must, and Pokemon delivers there so excellently. The Wild Pokemon Battle theme features this chaotic underscore that flies up and down an octave, which pins the entire thing together in one perfect, hectic mess. Equally the Trainer Battle theme’s wild bassline still pulls a rush of adrenaline from me; neither match the intensity of the Gym Leader Battle, with its vicious bass and the heartbeat pulse that follows the entire song. To top it all off, how often have I felt that surge of triumph when finally the fight is done and the sweet release of the Victory Fanfare plays? If you have any interest at all in chiptune music, or how to compose truly resonant music with such stringent restrictions, make sure you take a moment and listen to the original Pokemon soundtrack.
Plenty of RPGs prior to this had elemental systems but part of Pokemon’s strength is how it expands that system and how integral it is to the game. Instead of just the standard Fire / Ice / Lightning holy triumvirate of elements in most RPGs, Pokemon features 15; each monster has at least one if not two elemental types they belong to, and on top of that every move in the game that they can use in battle has a type as well. This might seem complex at first but it’s very easy to manage, and it is designed so that any Pokemon could have its 4 moves cover a wide array of types in order to give it as much of an advantage in battles as possible.
For a game with so many possible moves available to your party, there’s a relatively well-constructed balance to them. Some deal damage, some inflict status ailments, some are buffs and debuffs, and all should be instantly familiar in that sense to RPG lovers, despite the different presentation. Each monster can only have 4 at a time and many learn moves as they level up, giving players a dilemma on how they want each monster to approach battles. Other moves can be taught to them by using special items and some even have uses in the overworld such as clearing blocked paths, escaping dungeons, or enabling travel across water.
Though you can have a party of 6 active monsters at once, battles are strictly 1-on-1, with the top Pokemon in your list being sent out first though you can switch them out with another monster in your party at your leisure, depending on how you judge the type matchups; that said, while it can feel complex at first, Pokemon is intended for a young audience as much as any other player and so managing it is made as simple and clear as possible.
Pokemon games are generally criticised for lacking in plot and that is also a legacy of this game. As you start Red or Blue you’re dunked into things with little fanfare – name your dude, name your childhood rival and there you go, what else do you need? A kindly local professor named Oak gives you your first Pokemon and a special gadget that charts every monster you catch and off you go, you’re released into the world! Oak asks you to catch every single Pokemon for his studies but that’s more of a long-term goal than a plot device; as you travel around the world you find Gyms lead by powerful trainers called Gym Leaders and you’re told that defeating all 8 gives you the right to challenge the best trainers in the region and become Champion and there we go, a reason to travel around the world is sorted.
During your travels you also come across the villainous Team Rocket, a criminal syndicate who use and abuse Pokemon for profit. Each time you run across them they’re committing some terrible acts and so stopping them becomes a major part of the story progression. Personally I find Team Rocket to be effective villains; the crimes they commit escalate with each appearance and some of the things they do in the latter stages of the game are honestly heinous. They make for a compelling villainous team that gives shape and direction to your wandering about the world of Kanto up until the point at which you defeat them, after which you’re left to finish up your Gym challenge. Alongside them, you’re pushed along by your rival, a snotty, cocky bastard who is apparently a childhood friend but seems to have forgotten that as both you and he progress on your journey to become Pokemon masters. Your rival is probably your biggest recurring threat, with a constantly improving, varied team that is designed to stretch your own monsters; at points he can completely catch you unawares and more than once he signals a difficulty spike that may well result in grinding to beat him. Needless to say, the smug euphoria of beating him is well worth the hassle.
They are dated, aged, and probably not wise to recommend as an entry point into the franchise any more, but nevertheless Pokemon Red and Blue occupy a very special place in my heart. They were the first games I ever played or owned and I am willing to forgive essentially everything wrong with them. Despite it all, they remain at their core a pair of expertly designed RPGs, and I return to them at least once a year. Nothing quite beats that experience of digging out the old box from the attic, blowing the dust off the top, fishing out the Game Boy Colour and popping Pokemon Red in, waiting for that gorgeous satisfying ding to ring out and signal the beginning of another adventure.
7/7 – TOP TIER. As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.