Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review: Pokemon Red and Blue

“Pokemon Red” and “Pokemon Blue” are an RPG pair released on the Game Boy in 1996 in Japan, and 1998 in North America. They have since spawned a huge following, and a number of different sequels, spin-offs, and more. However, were the original games really all that good? Do we remember them with nostalgia because of the quality of the sequels, or were the first generation games as great as fans remember them being?

Story - 8/10

The story of Pokemon Red and Blue is inspiring, if not entirely believable. A young boy goes on a journey to capture a team of Pokemon, and take on the Pokemon League. Along the way, he meets new friends, explores the world, and defeats an entire criminal organization. A kid, typically accepted as 10 years old, takes down a crime boss and all of Team Rocket. It’s far-fetched, but boy if it doesn’t send kids a strong message of “you can do anything you set your mind to.”
The characters of Pokemon Red and Blue are entertaining, if predictable. The protagonist is shallow and ambiguous, nothing more than a persona for the player to don. This is, after all, your own adventure. Professor Oak is the scholarly type, and a source of motivation for your journey. Blue, or whatever the player chooses to name the antagonist, is less of the “bad guy,” and more of the “you’re a jerk and I want to put you in your place” character. The characters never really deviate from these roles, but I don’t think it’s necessary for them to. The entire premise of Pokemon Red and Blue is more about the player and protagonist, and their own personal journey. You don’t really need depth or evolution in characters, as long as the roles are in place.
Despite the simplistic limitations of the Game Boy as a platform, the region of Kanto somehow manages to appear real and lifelike (and apparently parallels the Kantō region of Japan). There are dense forests, dark caves, wide swaths of ocean, and everything in between. The port city of Vermilion almost gives off the familiar scent of the ocean. Celadon genuinely feels like a busy shopping mecca.
One of the most beautiful things about Pokemon Red and Blue is how variable the length is. Just getting through the main story, defeating all the gym leaders and the elite four, can reasonably be done in 20-30 hours. Putting in the effort to actually complete the Pokedex and build up a team to battle with others can easily tack on a hundred hours. It all depends on what you want out of the game.
Pokemon games in general have a great replay value, and Red and Blue are no exception. With the main story being so much shorter than an average length RPG, players can go back through without much investment. And with the variety of Pokemon species and moves, each play through can be vastly different. Even beyond the initial choice between the 3 starter Pokemon, what you catch and how you train it is wide open.

General Gameplay - 8/10

Getting around in Pokemon Red and Blue is straightforward, with all the options you would expect of an RPG. There is a bicycle that players can access early in the game, which doubles movement speed. Somewhere before halfway, you can get the hidden machine for Fly, and teach it to a Pokemon, in order to fly to any previously visited place. This really makes fast travel believable. You don’t just stumble upon an airship, or imply that the protagonist physically traveled the distance in the blink of an eye. With the size of bird Pokemon, it seems perfectly reasonable that these birds might be able to carry a child quickly from one place to another. Plus, you don’t just always have the capability to fast travel. Specifically, you must have a Pokemon in your party that knows Fly. This adds another level of complexity to team building, where players must plan for a Flying type Pokemon if they want to be able to fast travel at will. In addition to flying, the other hidden machine techniques of Cut, Surf, Strength, and Flash offer more options for overworld movement.
Inventory management is the one place that Pokemon Red and Blue really suffer. Every single item is collected into the same menu, and the number of inventory slots is very limited. Considering all the different healing items, the levels of Pokeballs, and all 50 TMs, there is a delicate balance between selling items, storing them in the PC, and keeping them in the bag. Many items are fortunately stackable, but I feel like this adds an unnecessary frustration to the game. Future Pokemon generations separated the bag into different pockets for different types of items, and eventually removed the item limit completely. While item storage is annoying in this generation, they did at least learn from their mistakes and vastly improve it in future generations.
While there aren’t necessarily collectible items in Pokemon Red and Blue, filling the Pokedex could be seen as a sort of collectible in and of itself. It isn’t necessary for game completion, and it takes quite a bit of effort beyond what is necessary to beat the Elite Four. I will say that the reward for collecting all 150 (151?) Pokemon is tremendously disappointing. The only thing players receive is a message of congratulations from the developers. No super powerful item, no secret story addition, just a pat on the back. It’s nice for bragging rights, but not much else.
Variety in gameplay stems from the multiple different goals the player can have in Pokemon Red and Blue. If your chief concern is beating the gyms and Elite Four, you can just power through the main story and knock out the trainers as quickly as possible. If you want to complete the Pokedex, you can take a break from strictly battling to look for rare Pokemon in the wild or train up ones that you’ve caught to evolve them. Most of the gameplay mechanics are the same across the board, but what you choose to do with them allows for some variation.
Pokemon games have always been one of my favorite examples of multiplayer. It isn’t necessary for game completion, but it also gives incentive beyond arbitrary levels or achievements. With the Pokedex, there are Pokemon that are exclusive to Red or Blue specifically, and you must trade with other players to obtain every Pokemon. If you don’t care about completing the Pokedex, this is inconsequential. As much as many of the exclusive Pokemon aren’t bad, they also aren’t necessary to build a solid team in either game. If, however, you do care about filling out the entire Pokedex, you absolutely have to have a friend with the other game. Beyond trading for completion, being able to battle allows players to test out their own parties against each other. There is no need to compare single player metrics to see who is the better player, you can go head to head with link cable battles. Again, it isn’t remotely necessary to enjoy the game on its own, but it does give incentive to continue playing the game with other people even after finishing the main campaign.

Combat - 8/10

I genuinely love the combat of Pokemon. As much as people tend to criticize Pokemon as being a franchise for kids, they have very solid RPG core elements. The balance of types, and how it’s like a massive web of rock-paper-scissors interactions. Instead of the 4 or so elemental types that most RPG combat uses, water, fire, ice, lightning (or some similar variation), Pokemon Red and Blue have a 15 type system. This was eventually bumped up to 18 types in subsequent games.
With a party of up to 6 Pokemon, the player must balance defences by knowing what their Pokemon are weak to, with offenses by equipping their Pokemon with powerful attacks. Each of these 6 Pokemon in the party can learn up to 4 moves. These moves can cause status ailments, damage, or stat alterations. Every damaging move has a type, and Pokemon using moves of their type get a 50% Same Type Attack Bonus (STAB) to its damage. With all of these facets in play, there is no perfect party of Pokemon. It all comes together in this delicate balance of maximizing your offensive capabilities without sacrificing your defenses.
While intricate and complex, the combat in Pokemon Red and Blue is extremely unbalanced. As much as I love the mechanics, they are broken in the first generation. Long time fans will know how overpowered Alakazam could be. With Special being a single stat, as opposed to physical being divided into Attack and Defense, Alakazam’s ridiculously high Special buffs both special attack and special defense. Additionally, it gets STAB from Psychic, which is an already broken move. With such a high Special and Speed, Psychic typing, and the STAB from Psychic move, Alakazam is completely broken. Level for level, it can dish out probably the highest damage of anything besides legendary Pokemon.

Difficulty - 6/10

The difficulty of Pokemon Red and Blue is a complex affair. While the combat is broken and easily taken advantage of, the difficulty outside of those tactics is actually some of the hardest in the series. The games do not hold the hands of players by offering free healing and navigation hints. Hence, Pokemon Red and Blue can be rather difficult the first time through, but become much easier as players learn the unstated tricks.
Besides the difficulty of combat, Pokemon Red and Blue are quite reasonable in punishing mistakes. Fainted Pokemon can be brought back with Revives either in or out of battle, provided the player has at least one more active Pokemon. If the player does lose all 6 Pokemon, the punishment is a percentage of their money, and a return trip to the most recently visited Pokemon Center. Considering the ample opportunity to spend money on items, this death fee could be inconsequentially small. The biggest frustration is to wipe out in some of the longer segments of the games, such as cave systems and hideouts. Still, all of the defeated trainers remain defeated, so the player just has to make their way back to where they were before.

Graphics - 7/10

The graphics of the entire Game Boy platform weren’t amazing, but you can’t blame the graphics for one game on limitations of the handheld. The sprites of individual Pokemon in battle look great, and I have to praise the designers for that. Every Pokemon has a unique sprite, and it is genuinely amazing what they were able to come up with for such limited hardware.
Everything else is completely lackluster, however. Environments are repetitive, with very few unique textures. People in the overworld all look nearly the same. The biggest problem in my mind, however, is how Pokemon in the party menu share sprites. There are 150 individual Pokemon species and… 10 sprites. If you’ve nicknamed your Pokemon, there is literally no way to know what type of Pokemon it is without actually looking at its details. I understand that with so few pixels per menu item, it would be difficult to make unique sprites for every single species. Still, it seems like they could’ve easily made more than just 10. Not everything in my party is a Rhydon.

Music - 8/10

The music of Pokemon Red and Blue is filled with memorable tunes. Especially the tracks for rival battles and gym leaders feel so intense. The theme from Lavender Town, probably one of the most iconic tracks in the entire Pokemon franchise, exudes remorse. There have been numerous tales and urban legends about children killing themselves after hearing the theme played backwards, and other such stories. Not to praise such tragedies (if they even did happen), the fact that music from such a limited platform is able to cause such a wide response is remarkable. The music in these games may be simplistic, but it is ridiculously catchy and occasionally haunting.

My Take

The Good

The very first Pokemon games did the RPG genre right, and set into motion what would eventually become an enormous intellectual property.

The Bad

These are clearly first generation (in every sense of that word) products. They can be clunky at times, and the combat is absolutely broken.

The Ugly

Going back to the very first entry of a decades old series in its original form is a shock from the polished suave of the modern Pokemon games.

Overall - 8/10

Pokemon Red and Blue are flawed masterpieces. They reflect a level of genius that has taken decades to fully realize. The massive market for Pokemon games, shows, movies, and merch is clear evidence of that. What began as one man’s desire to make a game based on his hobby of bug collecting has turned into a household name across the globe. The first two Pokemon games aren’t nearly as polished as the modern games, they don’t have the bells and whistles introduced in later generations, and the combat is far from balanced. However, for a first generation title, they are absolutely remarkable. Beautiful in their simplicity, Pokemon games introduced a gateway to more mature RPG titles, and gave us characters who are still relatable so many years later.

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