The greatest handheld game ever...and it hasn't aged well. :(
- 150 Pokemon to capture and battle (no, not 151. You can't catch Mew without cheating. Trust me.)
- Surprisingly deep JRPG with a heavy emphasis on elemental weaknesses and attacks
- Hella tight music, even for the tinny GB speakers
- Hunting down and trading for every last Pokemon is addicting and fits that obsessive-compulsive need
- Idea of creating your own journey to become a Pokemon master is compelling, enough so that they reuse it for every future game in the franchise
- Creating the "perfect team" with the right combination of types and moves can consume your life
- Lack of an XP bar means you have to go to the menu to check levels every time
- Catching them all means having a friend with a GB and a link cable to trade, since the monsters are limited based on version
- HM moves can't be deleted except through a rather tedious process
- Lacks the depth of future games since it doesn't have breeding, day/night cycle, etc.
- A few cumbersome UI choices
- Game Boy Color doesn't really color it well
- Game really isn't that difficult until the very end
- Status effects are always stacked against you
- In the original version, Psychic Pokemon were virtually invincible
- Like all the games, Pokemon is a serious test to your level-grinding patience
The intro that started it all
You know what Pokemon is. Even if you've ever played it, even if you can't tell a Zubat from a Pidgy, and even if these new-fangled "pokemans" are clearly inferior to the original 150 you caught as a kid, everybody knows what Pokemon is. I'm pretty sure most people in this country can recognize a Pikachu on sight, have heard the phrase "Gotta Catch 'Em All," and know that in the Pokeworld a Gym is not a place you go to work out. Yu-Gi-Oh came and went, Digimon had a run and sort of faded, but Pokemon persists. And you can laugh or scoff all you want at this "kid's game," but there is clearly something here that has compelled literal generations of kids to play it. Think of it this way: Pokemon Red/Blue came out in 1998. That's fourteen years ago. That's long enough for someone to grow up, get married, have their own kid, and start teaching them to be a Pokemon master. That's insane.
As someone who experienced Pokemon from start to finish (I was 12 when the phenomenon came crashing over to U.S. shores), I have no shame in saying I think these are all fantastic games. I never got so deep as to the whole breeding/secret stats thing of the later versions, but I did "Catch 'Em All" with the first two generations (never to happen again), have played every single generation and several spinoff games, and even watched the first two seasons of the anime. Yeah. I can sing the entire first-season Pokemon anime theme song by heart, even now. I'll admit that aspect of all this is a little sad.
TO CATCH THEM IS MY REAL TEST, TO TRAIN THEM IS MY CAUSE
Anyway, the point is that I love the crap out of Pokemon, even though I'm twenty-six and married and should probably be doing something better with my time. If you've ever been on the fence or just thought they were stupid kids games (the franchising of it and marketing it as such probably didn't help that interpretation much), then guess what. I'm here to convince you otherwise.
So enough of me rambling and let's get on with this review.
Let the battle begin
Pokemon starts off simple. You are a young boy living in Pallet Town, and whenever boys (and I assume girls) reach a certain age they are set off on an adventure to become a Pokemon trainer. It's a sort of "rite of passage" thing into adulthood, I'm assuming, because after that they either become a Pokemon master, or just a normal like...shopkeeper. It's actually an interesting analogy about pursuing your dreams, because everybody leaves Pallet Town thinking they'll be champion, while your journey is filled with people who have essentially given up. Since it's an open world, you can technically give up at any time and just wander around normally, but if you want to be the best it's a lot of work and a lot of failure. I'm probably digging to deep into this, since there's really no actual story to speak of, but since the goal of it is to allow a player to write their own Pokemon journey, that's mine.
The essential goal is to beat a set of eight Gym leaders (bosses) along the way, then go kill the Elite Four and the Champion in one final blow. The first eight can poise a slight problem if your team isn't great, but the game gets mad hard once you hit the Elite Four, which adds a chunk of gameplay. That's basically the goal of Pokemon. Simple, but I'm fine with that.
JRK is well on his way to being a Pokemon Master
You are given a choice between three starters: a fire-elemental type (Charmander), a water-elemental type (Squirtle) and a grass-elemental type (Bulbasaur). They might as well had called them "Hard, Medium, Easy" respectively, since that's essentially how it works, though once you get in the second half of the game it becomes kind of a moot point.
So you pick your Pokemon, grab your balls (Pokeballs) and your journey begins. There's a bit where you have to overthrow a corrupt Pokemon gang called Team Rocket, but the story is pretty much 1. Get stronger and 2. Beat up everybody who so much as glances in your direction. Simple stuff.
Charmander, bringing 'da heat
How to accomplish both 1 and 2 above requires you to catch more Pokemon. You can have as many as you want total, but you are limited to only having six on your team. Pokemon are also assigned a unique element, which each has their own specific weaknesses. Simple ones are that fire is weak to water (meaning the Charmander above is screwed if the Squirtle knows Water Gun), while others get more complex (Psychic is weak to Bug, Strength is weak to Psychic, etc.). The basic elements of this first version are Normal, Fire, Fighting, Water, Flying, Grass, Poison, Electric, Ground, Psychic, Ice, Bug, Ghost, and Dragon. Knowing and mastering these strengths and weaknesses is probably the biggest key point in the game, and being able to actively attack and defend against any of these types requires you to have a perfect team. Pokemon can also have hybrid types (for example, Charizard is a Fire/Flying), with a main type and a side type. These weaknesses can stack and so can strengths (so since both fire and rock take 2x damage from water, a fire/rock Pokemon would take 4x), meaning you have to be very careful in who you pick and who you send out.
You also aren't limited to just your own elemental powers, since moves themselves are assigned elements as well. Your Pokemon often stay reasonably within their assigned class type when they learn moves via leveling up, but you can acquire special items (TMs) that teach moves that can mix things up. Some of the most valuable Pokemon (the dragons), are awesome because you can teach them from a massive pool of elemental type moves. Unlike the Pokemon, however, moves can't have multiple types.
Seriously, it's a lot to remember.
And then the clincher: you can only have four moves at a time, and if you forget a move it's gone forever (except if you fulfil a very specific set of requirements and for just one Pokemon). So when you are making your team of awesome, you have to be careful to not screw it up. This can be a big pain because of the UI; you don't know what moves do or even what element they are (though you can guess what "Fire Blast"'s element is) until after you either actually learn it or look it up online. This can mean you could seriously mess up your Pokemon if you forgot an essential move. You can fix this most of the time by catching another one (if it is a catchable type) and fixing it later, but it still is an annoyance.
You also have to choose whether to evolve your Pokemon (which makes them tougher but they learn moves slower), or leave him where he is (where he stays weaker but can learn better moves at a faster rate)
So how do you form this Poke-team? You gotta go out there and catch them! While the battle mechanics of Pokemon can be extremely complex, the actual system themselves is traditional turn-based JRPG. You wander around in tall grass (or get spotted by another trainer) to start a battle. Once in it, you take turns attacking based on the various Pokemon's speed stat (and there are, of course, moves that buff or debuff). You can also spend a turn to take a Pokemon back and send another one out, earning the newcomer a free hit from the enemy. After you've beat the everloving crap out of the other guy (but not enough to kill him, just barely), you can throw a Pokeball and pray (holding Down+B also helps). If you are lucky, you catch the wild Pokemon and he becomes yours FOREVER. If you fail, you can keep throwing with the hope that you'll get it, while the wild Pokemon gets a free hit on your guy every time you fail.
Somebody actually figured out the math for this. Freaking insane.
Which brings me to a big complaint (and one that continue throughout the series): catching Pokemon is both exciting and immensely frustrating. Yes, you can buy better Pokeballs that have a better chance of catching. Yes, there are moves that drop an enemy HP to 1 (though False Swipe wasn't introduced until Generation II, so it isn't in this game) and not 0, which is ideal for catching. But missing ten Pokeballs in a row or accidentally hitting an rare Pokemon down to 0 so the battle ends instead of giving you a chance to catch it is infuriating. Considering it's trying to take regular RPG mechanics of "dealing damage" and applying a requirement of precision from them is really obnoxious.
If you win the battle, every Pokemon who participated gets an equal cut of the XP (which makes a viable strategy to put your low-level Pokemon first, swap him out at the start of the battle for a good one, and then the two share the final XP). Another pain in the butt for the Red/Blue generation is the lack of an XP bar in battle. It gives you the numbers, sure, but in order to actually see how much XP you need to a next level you have to go through the menu to the specific Pokemon to check. It's an annoyance that was fixed in Gold/Silver, but it still really hurts replaying this game again now, in 2012.
The level grinding also gets pretty insane. Since each Pokemon has to level individually, and Pokemon you catch are usually weaker than your current party of six, every time you get a new Pokemon you are signing up for another 10-20 minute grindfest to get him up to par. Again, this can be done via the swap trick (or the Exp Share item in later versions), but it's still tedious. There are also Pokemon that become completely obsolete by the end of the game (read: all Bug Pokemon), so if you heavily invested in them once they hit level ~30 you'll realize they...kind of suck now. Time to catch a new one, I guess.
Luckily the Pokemon get stronger as you go along, meaning it isn't that bad, but expect to spend a lot of time running back and forth in tall grass as you level grind your Squirtle up to a Wartortle.
Pikachu has lost some weight since this first game
Another major annoyance is the HMs. Now, in order to make sure you don't just run out and get mutilated by some Lv 40 Ponyta from the start of the game, Pokemon gates your progress with the Gyms. After you beat the Gyms you are given a move (for example, "Cut"), which you can teach any number of Pokemon an unlimited amount of times, and it lets you interact with it in the real world (in this case, cutting specific trees that block your path). I wish they'd do more with having your Pokemon interact with the real world other than just doing these prescribed things, but that isn't my complaint.
My complaint is once you learn an HM you are stuck with it forever. You can't delete or replace it from your four-move roster. So if you learn Cut (which is a pretty crappy move later on) with your main guy, you just have a wasted slot for every battle forever. Why couldn't they have gated it with, I dunno, an item? They could have given me an ax and I wouldn't have had to ruin my Pokemon. There are ways around it (getting a junk Pokemon to learn all the HM moves), but that's wasting a whole slot from your party of Six to just get around the damn world. As a bonus, these things come back after you leave the screen, meaning you can't just run to every rock, tree, etc. in the world and blow it up once, you still have to haul your crappy HM Mule/Slave around. It's stupid and extremely annoying, and they still haven't changed it.
Get spotted by a trainer and you'll be locked into a fight.
Graphically, Pokemon is a mixed bag. The Pokemon themselves look great, well drawn and their moves also look decent. The world itself is a bit bland, but it's a Game Boy game so I'm willing to cut it some slack. The menus are pretty much just tons of text to navigate, which isn't aesthetically pleasing at all, and they can be extremely cumbersome to navigate (especially since you have to go them to to check your XP GAH).
The music is awesome, even coming out of tinny Game Boy speakers. You'll learn to loathe the battle song, but each city and route sports their own catchy tunes, and they all provide both good background noise and an excellent, memorable tune.
The start of a journey
How does one actually rate the game that started a massive phenomenon that is (more or less) still going fourteen years later? Well, when I started reviewing games I decided to review them based on how I fell now, not on how I felt at the time. At the time this game was freaking incredible, a JRPG introduction for kids that had an insane amount of depth hidden beneath it's simple exterior. Nintendo has improved on (or made slight improvements on, anyway) this formula over the years, and after burning through every Generation I can safely say that this game hasn't aged particularly well. The cumbersome gameplay and UI issues really hold it back, and while those of us with nostalgia will be willing to overlook these flaws, the rose-tinted glasses can only go so far.
This game was also remade on the GBA with the improvements that had been implemented in the years since its original release, and that version is easily the superior one. Pokemon Blue (my version, screw you Red people) will always hold a special place in my heart for what it is, but considering just how many Pokemon games you have to choose from currently, I can't recommend the original Game Boy game as a jumping off point for this generation of gamers.
Three out of five stars. Though if we were going off my rose-tinted memories, there wouldn't be enough stars in the world.
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