Pokemon, that endless cash cow that churns out more money than some developing nations, turned twenty years old this year. After typing that sentence, I had to stop writing for a bit to go yell at children running around outside and plan for my retirement, but I swiftly got over it because really, there’s one surefire way to feel like a kid again and that is to boot up a copy of Pokemon: Red Edition.
At least I would have done that if my copy of Red hadn’t ran out of battery sometime last year, but it’s okay! Nintendo have generously decided to allow us the opportunity to purchase the same game again on a new console, and thus Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow Editions have come to the 3DS Virtual Console. As an exercise for you dedicated Nintendo fans, why don’t you count how many copies of Super Mario World you own, and come back to this article later. I’ll wait. Back? It’s a lot isn’t it? But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. In honour of Pokemon’s twenty year life, let’s take a look at some things that I remembered while playing one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time!
# 1 – It is really hard not to name your rival something insulting.
Think of that one guy. Or girl. You know the one. Your nemesis. The person you hated for years. The person that your psychiatrist told you you had an irrational hatred for, and that you should really give up your maniacal plans for revenge on. Well, perhaps so, but we’ll see who is laughing when my diabolical plans come to fruition! Ahem. Your Rival from Generation One is that person personified in glorious black and white sprite art. While future generations would go out of their way to make your rivals either your friends or at least sympathetic in some way or form, Blue is constantly rubbing his progress in your face, shrugging off your victories, and even beating you to the final prize at the end.
And to be fair, he has every right to be an asshole to you, because his own grandfather can’t remember his name, and relies on you to tell him what it is. Imagine being that ten year old, and your grandfather calls you FARTS or BALLS or something because that’s what the neighbour kid said your name was. Well, one day, he’ll show them. Show them all!
# 2 – EXP Share has spoiled us all, it takes forever to level a rat.
In Generation VI, raising Pokemon is a cakewalk. Turn on a magical machine in your bag that you get after the first gym, and now you can share masses of EXP between your entire party. No fuss at all! Going back to Red and Blue, however, is where things get Old Testament style. You’ve grown fat on your loaves and fishes, so now the game is going to cut back on your privileges. The first Gym Leader has a Pokemon at Level 14, and if you started with Charmander, like any sane, rational person would, you’re going to want to do some grinding first. Except there’s one problem, the strongest Pokemon you’re going to encounter to that point in the wild is Level 6. Did you want a Pokemon that can take out Brock’s Pokemon easily? Butterfree has you covered, but Butterfree won’t have the tools to do that until Level 12, and at least 7 of those levels will have to be at half experience per encounter. That’s not even getting into Pokemon with slower growth rates. If you picked Pokemon Yellow, you’ll have a lot more options, because unlike the Pokemon anime, there’s only one way a Pikachu vs. Onix fight goes down.
# 3 – The game psychotically refuses to explain anything.
Oh me, oh my, gather round, kids. The first time I played through Pokemon Red, I was bad. So very, very bad. I had no idea what any of the stats did, I thought Attack was for all attacks and Special was… a thing. That did something. Boosted same type attacks, maybe? Who knew. I gave my Pokemon cool sounding attacks without really considering if they were suitable for their skills, a thing for which I blame the Pokemon anime and how cool it made Seismic Toss look.
This wasn’t entirely a case of me being five years old and stupid, though, because at no point does the game ever stop to explain the stat system. It doesn’t tell you what move types run off what stats, it doesn’t tell you that your Special stat covers both attack and defence, and this was far before the Special/Physical split which made things a bit more intuitive. For example, Lick, a Ghost type move, is a physical attack. Fire Punch, a move in which you physically punch someone, is a special attack. But y’know what’s worse than not explaining the stat system? Not explaining what any move in the game does or how powerful it is. Later games would include a short description of what an attack does, what its secondary effects are, if any, and how much power the attack has. Red and Blue think such details are for nerds and as such, they just give you an attack name. And as we’ve already covered, Red and Blue thought intuitiveness was a quaint concept at best. No knowledge of Pokemon, would you imagine Swords Dance was a stat boosting move? Would you imagine Softboiled would heal you? Would you imagine Dragon Rage, the coolest sounding attack and the only Dragon type move in the game could only deal forty damage? Yes? Hello, programmers of Pokemon Red and Blue, I’m honoured that you’d read this article about your games.
# 4 – Mind over matter, or how nerd rage destroyed us all.
Don’t let anyone tell you about how Pokemon Red and Blue had a revolutionary fifteen different types of Pokemon. It was a lie, a lie told to give you hope when setting forth into this new and mysterious land. There were only two types of Pokemon in Generation One. There were Psychic type Pokemon, and then there was everyone else. Generation One Psychics are the most powerful Pokemon to ever have been created to this day. Programmers who created them made a mistake, and turned their supposed counters into their punching bags. Ghosts couldn’t hope to harm them, despite the game swearing left and right that they would do the job, and Bugs had roughly two attacks which were given to a grand total of two Pokemon, one of which was weak to Psychic anyway, and the other wasn’t even a Bug type to start with.
So things were bleak for the non-nerds, and then along came Mewtwo.
Pokemon Red and Blue’s version of Mewtwo is tied for the most powerful Pokemon that has ever been created, and like his counterpart in the modern generation, Mega Rayquaza, was banished to his own competitive tier where once again there were two kinds of Pokemon, Mewtwo, and the five cannon fodder you brought along to kill the other guy’s Mewtwo. This monster knew most of the moves in the game, could bolster his offense so high that it hit the cap, and if you managed to weaken it but not kill it? Congratulations, it just restored half its health. Nothing quite encapsulates how broken the first generation was than this behemoth.
So that was our run down of Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue, a fundamentally broken, unhelpful, grindfest of a game. And yet, here’s one more thing I learned, after starting up a game only five or so years younger than me. Catching your first Pokemon in a game twenty years old is still pretty goddamn magical. Here’s to twenty more years of fantastic memories Pokemon.