Growing up in the 1970s, a boy from Machida, Tokyo named Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed collecting insects. Such was the zeal for his hobby that other children called him “Doctor Bug”, and he initially wanted to become an entomologist. As he grew up, he became fascinated with an entirely new pastime: arcade games. He was enthralled with Taito’s 1979 arcade hit Space Invaders, though he played many others as well. Throughout his teenage years, his parents thought their son a delinquent, a perception exacerbated by him frequently cutting classes. He nearly failed to graduate from high school, prompting his parents, who were convinced he was throwing his future away, to take action. His father attempted to get him a job at The Tokyo Electric Power Company, but the boy declined. He eventually took make-up classes and earned his diploma. He didn’t attend university, instead opting to complete a two-year technical degree program at the Tokyo National College of Technology, majoring in electronics and computer science.
In 1981, Mr. Tajiri had begun writing a fanzine he named Game Freak. It was handwritten and stapled together. The content focused on the arcade scene, offering tips on how to win or achieve high scores. Certain editions even listed any Easter Eggs contained within the games. The fanzine proved to be fairly popular in his area; the edition in which he wrote about a game named Zabius sold 10,000 copies. It caught the attention of one Ken Sugimori, who found it being sold at a dōjinshi shop. As someone who had an affinity for art, he asked Mr. Tajiri if he could help make the fanzine even more of a success. Suddenly, Game Freak now had an official illustrator. As more people contributed to the fanzine, Mr. Tajiri decided that most of the games he discussed were of a poor quality. Therefore, he and Mr. Sugimori drummed up a simple solution: make their own games.
Mr. Tajiri had been interested in making his own game ever since he discovered the medium. After receiving a Famicom, Nintendo’s first true home console to use interchangeable ROM cartridges, he dismantled it to see the inner workings. He later submitted a video game idea in a contest sponsored by Sega and won. From there, he studied the Family BASIC programming package, which allowed him to grasp how Famicom games were designed. With the desire to head in a new direction, Game Freak the fanzine ended in 1986. Three years later, Game Freak the video game development company arose in its place. The duo wasted no time pitching their first game to Namco: Quinty.
Known as Mendel Palace when it was exported to North America, Quinty combined action and puzzle game elements. The player character is placed on a 5 by 7 grid of floor tiles. The player must flip tiles to defeat the enemies that seek to collide into their character.
Though satisfied with their first product, Mr. Tajiri wanted to create something a little more personal. As he grew up, the areas around him became progressively more urbanized. As a result, many incent habitats were lost. Moreover, with the rise of home consoles, children began playing in their homes rather than outside. Not wanting to let the joy he felt catching and collecting creatures die, he sought to make a game capable of encapsulating that wonder so he may pass it on to others. His idea for this game began forming in 1990. The previous year saw the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy console. In an era when portable games traditionally consisted of static images on a LCD screen, the Game Boy took the world by storm. The idea of a portable albeit monochromatic Famicom was unheard of, yet the reality couldn’t be denied.
As soon as he observed the Game Boy’s ability to communicate between consoles, Mr. Tajiri knew that this game was destined to debut on the handheld platform. When he thought of people using the link cable required for multiplayer sessions, he imagined bugs crawling back and forth between them.
The original name of this game was to be Capsule Monsters. Mr. Tajiri had taken inspiration from the gashapon, a variety of vending machines popular with children that dispense toys encased in a plastic capsule. The characters in his game would carry capsules containing monsters that were released upon throwing them. Because Mr. Tajiri had difficulties trademarking the name “Capsule Monsters”, he tried to make it into a portmanteau, “CapuMon”, before changing it to Pocket Monsters.
Mr. Tajiri was a bit nervous upon presenting his idea to Nintendo, believing they would reject his idea. Indeed, when he pitched the idea, they didn’t fully understand the concept. Nonetheless, they were impressed with the promise he had displayed in his first games and decided to explore it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of two of Nintendo’s successful franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda, began to mentor the up-and-coming developer, teaching him as the game was being created. Pocket Monsters ended up taking six years to produce. For most of the development process, there wasn’t enough salary with which to pay Game Freak’s employees. Over these six years, five employees quit, and the company faced an impending bankruptcy numerous times. Mr. Tajiri himself didn’t take a salary, living off his father’s income. Fortunately, he and his team received help from an unexpected source.
In 1989, a company named Ape, Inc. was founded. Their first product, released in the same year, was Mother – a passion project of famed copywriter Shigesato Itoi. Though it would be some time before it saw an official release abroad, Mother remains to this day a beloved classic in its native homeland, possessing an intergenerational appeal few other games had. The team stuck with Mr. Itoi when creating its sequel, Mother 2. When the programmers began running into problems, Satoru Iwata of HAL Laboratory stepped in to salvage the project. The game was released to a warm reception in 1994. Unlike its predecessor, Mother 2 would receive an official Western localization, under the name Earthbound. Though initially a sales disappointment, Earthbound would receive a fair bit of retroactive vindication, and is now considered one of the best games ever made.
The Ape team was dismantled in 1995, and one of its former members, Tsunekazu Ishihara, with Satoru Iwata’s assistance, founded a new company in its stead: Creatures. Many of the same people who helped develop Mr. Itoi’s were about to take cues from Mr. Iwata by saving another struggling project. They invested in Mr. Tajiri’s idea, allowing his team to complete the games. In exchange, they received one-third of the franchise rights. Pocket Monsters took such a long time to develop that Mr. Tajiri had assisted in the creation of two Nintendo games in the interim: Yoshi and Mario & Wario. He even directed a game for the Sega Genesis named Pulseman alongside Mr. Sugimori.
After a long, arduous development process, Pocket Monsters was at last released domestically in October 1996. Upon completion, few media outlets paid it attention. This was reflected in how Famitsu, the most widely read video game publication in Japan, awarded it twenty-nine points out of a possible forty. In the six years between Mr. Tajiri conceiving the idea for Pocket Monsters and its release, the industry evolved to a point beyond recognition. Nintendo had a fierce, new competitor in the form of Sony’s PlayStation console, and they themselves had launched the Nintendo 64. Both consoles began experimenting with three-dimensional gameplay and every franchise attempted to make the leap. In the face of the medium’s experimental direction, any game retaining a 2D or side-scrolling presentation was doomed to fall by the wayside regardless of its quality.
As a result of these factors, the Game Boy itself had rapidly declined in popularity. Despite having sold more than 100-million units worldwide, the platform was but forgotten by 1996. The only person interested in releasing anything for the portable system was Mr. Tajiri himself. Nintendo, on the other hand, was prepared to declare Pocket Monsters a loss long before the project saw completion. Therefore, nobody could have predicted the game to not only sell rapidly, but singlehandedly save the Game Boy as a platform. One of the reasons Pocket Monsters sold as well as it did was due to Nintendo’s idea to produce two versions of the game: Red and Green.
In the face of this success, it was only logical for Nintendo to export Pocket Monsters to the West. In order to make this release successful, Nintendo is said to have spent over 50-million dollars to promote the games. Before their release, the Western localization team was highly skeptical about the concept. Believing the “cutesy” art style of Pocket Monsters wouldn’t appeal to Americans, they wanted them to be redesigned and “beefed up”. This was overruled by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the president of Nintendo at the time, who regarded the games’ possible reception in the United States as a challenge to face. On the eve of the games’ launch, an anime series premiered, bearing what was to be their localized name: Pokémon – a romanized portmanteau of its domestic title. In September of 1998, two versions of the game, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue debuted in North America before receiving an official release the following October in Australia. The European gaming community wouldn’t receive a port until October of 1999.
Whatever reservations the localization team may have had about the series’ overseas success were fully assuaged when these games began selling by the millions. It is nearly impossible to overstate how much of a phenomenon Pokémon was in the late nineties. It could be thought of as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers for a new generation of children – a truly inescapable work beloved by children from all walks of life. As a sign of the renewed interest in portable gaming, Nintendo released the successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Color, the very same year Pokémon debuted abroad. Having not only defied all odds and resonated with enthusiasts of varying backgrounds, but also breathed new life into Nintendo’s line of handheld consoles, how well do Pokémon Red and Blue stand the test of time?
Analyzing the Experience
Regardless of which version you own, the plots of Pokémon Red and Blue are identical. The protagonist of these games is named Red. He lives in Pallet Town, which is situated in a remote corner of the Kanto region. Within this world, there exist many fantastical creatures known as Pokémon. Humans and Pokémon coexist in harmony. Some human have Pokémon as pets while others raise them for battle. Those who raise them for battle are dubbed Pokémon trainers. Yet others such as Professor Oak choose to study them, though there are many mysteries behind these creatures that remain unsolved.
Once the introduction is finished, you are thrown into the game proper. The basic gameplay of Pokémon Red and Blue should be familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG from the 8-bit era. You use the control pad to move your character in any of the four cardinal directions. As a tile-based game, Red cannot move diagonally and he can only advance in set increments. The “A” button is used to interact with objects in the world. The specific action it performs depends on context. For example, you can have Red walk up to his computer and use it to withdraw an item called a Potion. Generally speaking, the button is primarily used for talking with other characters or reading signs. With no directions on what to do next, you are free to explore the town. When you attempt to leave, you will be stopped by Professor Oak himself. He warns Red that wild Pokémon live in the tall grass north of the town; therefore, it is dangerous to go alone. Fortunately, it’s a problem the good professor intends to rectify. Red follows Professor Oak to his lab.
Waiting there is the professor’s rambunctious grandson, Blue. Ever since they were young children, Red and Blue have had a fierce rivalry – one that is about to be taken to a new level. Professor Oak had collected many Pokémon over the years, but in his old age, only three remain. However, in a measure of generosity, he intends to give two of them to Red and Blue, allowing the former to pick first. The three Pokémon available to you are: Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Bulbasaur is a quadrupedal creature with a giant bulb growing on its back. Charmander is a lizard-like creature with a burning tail. Squirtle is a bipedal turtle-like creature.
Once you have chosen a Pokémon, Blue will follow suit. Not wanting to waste any time, he will challenge Red to a fight. This formally introduces the player to the battle system. Pokémon Red and Blue is a decidedly unconventional example of a JRPG in that the player character does not participate in battle – and neither does any human you may encounter. Instead, they send out Pokémon to fight for them. On top of this, Pokémon do not wield weapons – at least not manmade ones. Instead, every Pokémon has a select set of techniques called “moves”. Regardless of your choice, your first Pokémon will know two moves from the onset: an offense move and one that weakens Blue’s in some way.
As it’s your first battle, the goal is straightforward enough: knock out your opponent’s Pokémon. Both your and your opponent’s Pokémon has a meter representing their HP (Hit Points). If a Pokémon’s HP reaches zero, they faint from exhaustion. You should be able to win as long as you keep attacking. By knocking out your opponent’s Pokémon, your own will gain EXP or experience points. As with any RPG, exceeding a certain threshold causes your Pokémon to advance one level, improving its overall combat performance. Should you achieve victory, Blue will forfeit money to you as a prize. If you lose this particular battle, there is no severe consequence other than missing out on EXP and what amounts to a negligible sum of money in the long term. Any battle lost from this point onward will cause your character to lose half of his money.
Once the battle has reached its conclusion, you are free to leave Pallet Town. You can take advantage of your newfound freedom to examine your Pokémon in closer detail.
Though you may not have to outfit your Pokémon with weapons, armor, or any other kind of equipment, they do have stats like a typical JRPG character. There are five different stats: HP, Attack, Defense, Speed, and Special. With Attack, Defense, and Speed being standard RPG stats, one could easily extrapolate that “Special” is the Pokémon equivalent of “Magic”. This isn’t an inaccurate reading, for there are two kinds of attacks in these games: physical and special. However, the stats are utilized in a different way than in most JRPGs.
To begin with, Pokémon do not possess MP or any clear mana analogue; instead, each individual move has PP (Power Points). If the PP of every move has been expended, your Pokémon be forced to use an emergency move: Struggle. It is a relatively weak attack that also damages the user. A move can normally have anywhere between five and forty PP. For balancing purposes, strong moves usually have fewer PP than weaker ones. When a Pokémon reaches a certain level, they will learn a new move. Pokémon can know up to four moves at once. If they attempt to learn a fifth move, they must forget an old one. In these situations, you are given the choice of which move to delete.
Mr. Tajiri has stated in interviews that he was inspired by Square’s 1989 inaugural Game Boy title, The Final Fantasy Legend (known as Warrior of the Spirit World Tower: Sa·Ga domestically), and its influence is very apparent. In The Final Fantasy Legend, spellcasters – mutants – were allotted four slots for skills they could use in combat or on the field. Rather than having an MP system, each spell had a limited number of uses that could be replenished upon resting in an inn. Humans, who specialized in physical attacks, naturally used weapons. However, weapons too had a limited durability. Because they couldn’t be repaired, players needed to use them carefully. Though they could use a powerful weapon to brute-force a difficult gauntlet, doing so would leave them ill-prepared against the obligatory boss fight just around the corner.
Keeping with the spirit of the unique combat system of The Final Fantasy Legend, physical and special attacks both cost a single PP to use in Pokémon Red and Blue. Unlike The Final Fantasy Legend, physical attacks can be replenished just as easily as special ones. Although there aren’t any hotels, inns, or other lodging areas present in the world of Pokémon, or at least none you can visit, it does have the next best thing: Pokémon Centers. You will find the first such establishment in Viridian City, the community to the north of Pallet Town. The oddly identical-looking proprietors of these Pokémon Centers are quite generous, as they restore Red’s Pokémon to full health free of charge.
With every move costing PP to use, there is no clear distinction between a physical attack and a special attack. To determine which one is which, one must examine the move’s type. A given move can be one of fifteen types: Normal, Fire, Water, Grass, Bug, Poison, Flying, Psychic, Ghost, Ice, Rock, Ground, Fighting, Electric, and Dragon. Normal, Bug, Poison, Flying, Rock, Ground, Ghost, and Fighting-type moves are utilize a Pokémon’s “Attack” stat. Meanwhile, Fire, Water, Grass, Psychic, Ice, Electric, and Dragon-type moves are powered by a Pokémon’s “Special” stat. As you may have noticed when choosing a Pokémon, the creatures themselves possess a type as well. Offensive moves all have a base power that determines how much damage they inflict. If a Pokémon uses an offensive move that matches their type, the resulting attack will inflict bonus damage equal to fifty percent of its base power. This is referred to as the same-type attack bonus, commonly abbreviated STAB.
Merely matching your Pokémon’s attack with their type isn’t the only factor you must consider, however. If that were the case, you could simply teach your Charmander nothing but Fire-type moves and call it a day. Instead, with every single Pokémon possessing a type, you must consider how effective each move will be in a given situation. There is a reason Blue lets you pick your own Pokémon first – so he will have an advantage over you. For example, if you choose the Fire-type Charmander, he will go straight for the Water-type Squirtle. Though the three Pokémon do not know a move matching their type from the onset, you can safely bet that problem will be fixed in short order. When it is, you’ll discover that sending your starter Pokémon against your rival’s will more than likely result in your defeat.
Every single type in the game has a symbiotic relationship with the other fourteen. If Blue’s Squirtle uses a Water-type move against your Charmander, the damage will be doubled. You’ll know this happens when a message tells you “It’s super effective!” after calculating damage. Conversely, if you try to have your Charmader use a Fire-type move on Blue’s Squirtle, the damage will be halved. After all, attempting to burn a damp object would be exceptionally difficult – even for the most persistent kindler. The three starter Pokémon all have an advantage over one of the other two while also being weak to the third. This could be thought of as an abstract version of rock-paper-scissors; Charmander defeats Bulbasaur, Bulbasaur defeats Squirtle, and Squirtle defeats Charmander.
This is yet another field in which Pokémon deviates from a typical JRPG. In games such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, exploiting weaknesses is something only the player can consider. Your characters generally had no immunities, resistances, or weaknesses to speak of. The armor you could find usually only resisted elements when equipped. Rarely, if ever, would they confer weaknesses onto your character. In Pokémon Red and Blue, you have to consider the element of the defending monster in addition to that of the move you intend to use.
As more types are introduced, you must contend with increasingly complex type relations. For example, Charmander’s Fire-type attacks have an advantage over any Bug, Grass, or Ice-type Pokémon you may encounter. Along those lines, you would do well to keep it away from any Rock, Ground, or Water-type moves, lest you risk it unnecessarily. However, unlike the relationship between Fire and Water, types may not have a completely inverse relationship with each other. While Ground-type moves have an advantage over Fire-type Pokémon, Fire-type moves would do neutral damage to a Ground-type Pokémon. Under certain circumstances, a type can outright nullify the attack their opposition attempts to hit them with. One couldn’t realistically expect to tackle or scratch a ghost, after all.
To make things even more complex, some Pokémon have two types. When using such a Pokémon, they will receive the attack bonus from using offensive moves of either type. If you encounter such a Pokémon, you have to memorize what is effective and ineffective against both. You are free to exploit a type’s weakness so long as the other one doesn’t resist it – even then, the consequence would be minimal, inflicting neutral damage. If you’re particularly daft and attack with a move both of the opposing Pokémon’s types resist, the damage will quartered in potency. The opposite holds true as well; if the opposing Pokémon’s types are both weak to the attack you launch, the damage is then quadrupled.
While all of this information is useful for a newcomer, they may run into one small problem: they have only one Pokémon to speak of. Fortunately, much like how a charismatic protagonist in a typical JRPG can recruit others to join their heroic cause, there is a relatively simple way to get more Pokémon. After doing an errand for Professor Oak, he will give Red a Pokédex. Though the professor touts his invention as a powerful encyclopedia, it is, in its current form, limited in the information it can provide. It only has detailed information of the Pokémon you chose at the beginning of the game. Should you turn to the pages of the Pokémon you may have encountered between the start of the game and this moment, you’ll learn the pages are curiously blank. Only when you own the Pokémon in question will these pages be filled in.
As the professor said when Red attempted to leave Pallet Town, wild Pokémon live in the tall grass. Every step in a patch of tall grass has a chance of spawning an encounter with the Pokémon inhabiting the region. Though many of them are remarkably intelligent, you can’t exactly walk up to a wild Pokémon and politely ask for it to join your team. Instead, you must make use of devices called Poké Balls. These devices allow trainers to carry around an entire brigade of monsters for protection from any hostiles they may encounter in the wild. With Pokémon playing such an important part of everyday life in Kanto, Poké Balls can be bought at any convenience store for a reasonable price. By using a Poké Ball on a wild Pokémon, you can capture it, thereby adding it to your team. However, you also can’t simply lob a Poké Ball at a Pokémon you want and reasonably expect to capture it. You must have your own Pokémon engage it in battle.
Once it has taken sufficient damage, you can attempt to capture it. Fainted Pokémon cannot be captured, so it’s important to gauge how much damage is being inflicted every turn.
Recruiting monsters onto your team is actually a concept that predates Pokémon Red and Blue. It was popularized in Japan in 1992 when Dragon Quest V debuted. Even Western developers dabbled with the idea as early as 1987 when Sir-Tech released Wizardry IV. This scenario cast players as the evil wizard Werdna, who could summon monsters to fight alongside him. Pokémon provides a different take on this concept by reducing probability’s role. In Wizardry IV, Werdna could only summon new monsters upon reaching a new floor of the dungeon. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest V simply required players to defeat monsters in combat. Whether or not they would ask to be in your party after the battle concluded was left to chance.
By giving players a definite means with which to capture Pokémon in the form of the Poké Balls, the process relies more on the player’s observational and tactical skills. Generally speaking, the less HP a Pokémon has, the greater your chances of capturing it become. Each individual Pokémon has what is called a capture rate, an undisclosed variable that determines your probability of success. As one would expect, stronger Pokémon have lower capture rates than common ones. If you intend to capture a particularly strong Pokémon, you must make sure your team is prepared to tough things out. You can have up to six Pokémon on your team at a given time. If you try to capture a seventh, it will be stored on someone’s personal computer. You can access it by logging into any computer provided by a Pokémon Center. From there, you can deposit or retrieve a Pokémon as you see fit. Each box can hold up to twenty Pokémon. Because boxes must be manually selected, you must make sure the one you have chosen has empty slots. If it doesn’t, the game won’t even allow you to throw a Poké Ball.
It simply wouldn’t be an RPG without an array of status conditions. Upon being hit with certain attacks, Pokémon can be poisoned, burned, paralyzed, frozen, or made to fall asleep. A poisoned Pokémon will lose HP at the end of each turn. Burns are functionally similar to being poisoned with the added detriment of the afflicted Pokémon’s attack being significantly reduced. Despite the word choice, a paralyzed Pokémon can act in combat. However, their speed is significantly hampered and there is a fifty percent chance that they won’t be able to move. If a Pokémon is frozen, they are completely incapable of doing anything until they thaw out; falling asleep follows a similar principle. Steadily losing HP or being unable to move is markedly more detrimental when you only control one character at a given time. It’s also important to know that status conditions persist outside of battle. This means your own Pokémon is poisoned outside of battle, they will steadily lose HP as you walk. On top of this, certain moves can confuse Pokémon. This isn’t a status condition in the traditional sense, as it is cured upon ending a battle or switching Pokémon, but it is no less of a threat. A confused Pokémon has a fifty percent chance of hurting itself when you select a move. A silver lining is that unlike in your standard RPG, the rules are applied equally across the board. While such a game would prevent you from poisoning or paralyzing a sufficiently powerful enemy, no such limitations are in place in Pokémon Red and Blue. To wit, the paralysis-inducing Thunder Wave works just as well on a common Pidgey as it does against Pokémon whose power can level entire cities.
As you journey through Kanto, you will happen upon many other trainers traveling the countryside. If you wander into their field of vision, an exclamation mark appears over their head and they begin walking towards you. Once this happens, there’s no turning back; you must engage the trainer in combat. Trainer battles differ from random encounters in that you are made to fight multiple Pokémon in succession rather than a single one at a time. Trained Pokémon are also notably smarter than wild ones. Wild Pokémon tend to use moves at complete random with no rhyme or reason to their decision making. In trainer battles, you get the sense that your opposition is using a deliberate set of tactics, whether it’s exploiting your Pokémon’s weakness or making them fall asleep several times in a row.
When you receive the Pokédex, Professor Oak encourages Red to take the Pokémon League challenge. This is your overarching goal for the remainder of the game. Eight cities within Kanto have a Pokémon Gym. Their purpose is different from that of a real-life gym. In charge of these institutions are Gym Leaders. They are markedly more difficult than standard trainers, and they can use items to recover the HP of Pokémon just as easily as the player. To even challenge them in the first place, you must defeat the other trainers residing in the gym. Though it may seem tempting to make a beeline for the Gym Leader, it’s usually a better idea to fight all of the trainers first. This is because trained Pokémon tend to reward more EXP than wild ones, and you cannot fight them if you defeat the Gym Leader first. Defeating trainers also happens to be your only source of income; knocking out wild Pokémon won’t cause money to spontaneously manifest.
Gym Leaders specialize in a specific Pokémon type. Brock, the leader of the Pewter City Gym, uses Rock-type Pokémon. This presents an interesting conundrum for the player. If they chose Squirtle or Bulbasaur as their starting Pokémon, they will steamroll Brock with little problem. However, if they chose Charmander, then Brock will be quite the wake-up call. It’s entirely possible for the player to have made it this far without being aware of Pokémon types or “super effective” damage. This hypothetical player would be taken aback when they realize Charmander’s otherwise reasonably powerful Ember attack is rendered nearly powerless. Brock’s Pokémon have a greater defense than special, so it’s still not a terrible strategy to repeatedly use Ember. Indeed, with the lack of Pokémon capable of inflicting super effective damage outside of your potential starter, leveling it up and healing it regularly is arguably your only option. Though it does make the fights a little predictable, I like this aspect because it encourages players to build a balanced team. Not only that, but there is the odd instance in which a Gym Leader’s Pokémon will know a move capable of felling the type capable of damaging it the most, so these battles aren’t always straightforward.
Upon defeat, a Gym Leader will give Red a TM (Technical Machine). TMs are one-time-usage items that teach a Pokémon a move. A Pokémon need not be able to learn the move naturally in order to make use of the TM. In fact, many Pokémon can only learn certain moves through the use of a TM. A Gym Leader is guaranteed to award Red a TM, but more can be found when exploring Kanto. More importantly, Gym Leaders award Red a badge along with the TM. Badges serve various purposes. Depending on the badge, your team’s stats will increase, you can utilize certain moves outside of battle, or Pokémon up to a certain level will begin obeying your commands.
The last of these is worded a little deceptively because it implies that Pokémon will stop obeying you if they reach too high of a level. In reality, your own Pokémon will obey you without fail; this caveat only applies to ones that were not originally yours. No, this doesn’t mean you can steal Pokémon from other trainers; if you try, they will prevent the Poké Ball from reaching its target. Instead, you can agree to trade Pokémon. It’s a simple process; if an NPC wants to trade, they’ll specify what Pokémon they want. If you have it, you can trade it for the one they have. Certain Pokémon can only be obtained through trading, so it pays to keep your eyes peeled.
It’s important to know that your trading options aren’t limited to NPCs. In fact, you can opt to trade with other players. Every Pokémon Center has a Cable Club. True to its name, this allows players to use the Game Boy’s Link Cable to trade Pokémon with each other.
Using the trade machine is simple. Each player selects one Pokémon and they will be sent to the other cartridge. Before Pokémon Red and Blue, the Link Cable was only ever used for competitive multiplayer. Therefore, the idea of sending information between these cables from one cartridge to another was quite revolutionary. It does have something of a precursor in how certain pioneering computer RPG series such as Wizardry or Ultima allowed players to import characters from one game to its sequel. However, that process involved two programs reading from the same hard drive rather than occurring across two separate consoles. What Pokémon Red and Blue does is encourage a more advanced degree of socialization than simply having people play the same game simultaneously. The most significant difference between these versions is the Pokémon available. If a player wants to complete the Pokédex, they will need to find someone with the opposite version and trade for the appropriate Pokémon. This ends up being mutually beneficial, allowing the player to help their friend by providing them with something they need as well.
For good measure, the Cable Club also gives players the option to battle against one another. Interestingly, these games weren’t originally intended to have Player Versus Player support, but Nintendo executives requested that it be made so. In light of how battling Pokémon constitutes practically the entirety of the experience, it’s for the best that this feature was added. Player Versus Player battles are similar to in-game ones with a few slight differences. The game gives you the option to switch Pokémon before an NPC sends out their next fighter. To make things fair, this option isn’t available to either player. On top of this, there is no prize for winning. This means you don’t have to worry about losing money or your opponent’s Pokémon leveling up and learning a new move in the middle of a fight.
For 1996, Pokémon Red and Blue were admirable efforts. As you progress in the game, you really get a sense of how much thought the writers put into building this world. With every patch of grass and dungeon housing different sets of Pokémon, Kanto is a thriving biome that felt more alive than the worlds of most contemporary efforts. In a typical JRPG, monsters’ habitats were somewhat arbitrary. It didn’t matter what monsters you encountered, as they were solely a means for players to gain EXP and money. In Pokémon Red and Blue, it’s evident that the designers put a lot of thought into what can ambush the player in a given area. Caverns often house creatures that thrive in dark places such as the bat-like Zubats. Meanwhile, a structure on a volcanic island is home to many Fire-type Pokémon. It even shows that, much like real-world animals, certain wild Pokémon have adapted well to the human’s modernization of the world around them. The most notable case is how many wild Electric-type Pokémon decided to take up residence in an abandoned power plant.
One touch I like is how in this universe, Pokémon aren’t solely used for battles. When Red reaches Vermillion City, the primary harbor of Kanto, you can observe a man laying the foundation for a new building. To accomplish this task, he uses his Machop, a strong Fighting-type Pokémon to level the ground. Red himself can use Pokémon in more mundane fashions to help him on his journey. Is there a thin tree blocking your path? Have a Pokémon with sharp claws cut it down. Can’t see in the dark? Use an Electric-type Pokémon to light up the area. Is there a heavy boulder in the way? Take cues from the aforementioned man and ask a strong Pokémon to move it for you. Flying-type Pokémon can even be used for transportation, allowing the player to return to any previously-visited city. Similarly, Water-type Pokémon can transport Red over large bodies of water.
One of my favorite aspects of the Pokémon reveals itself once you’ve trained them enough. When certain Pokémon reach a level, they will undergo a process known as evolution, transforming into a new species. As this process more closely resembles the real-life phenomenon of metamorphosis, the term “evolution” is something of a misnomer. Nonetheless, the effects it has on your Pokémon are numerous. Visually, this new species of Pokémon retain many recognizable psychical traits from their old forms, but have a more mature design to them. In terms of gameplay, evolution is the Pokémon take on the promotion system found in Fire Emblem or Shining Force. Evolved Pokémon invariably have better stats across the board than those of their previous form. There is something of a catch, however. Evolved Pokémon tend to learn moves more slowly than their unevolved counterparts. Similar to how savvy players would hold off on promoting a character in Fire Emblem until they reached level twenty, it may be prudent to prevent your Pokémon from evolving until they obtain their best moves. To do this, all one needs to do is press the “B” button as your Pokémon is evolving. This will startle it, canceling the evolution process until it levels up again.
Leveling up isn’t the only means with which to evolve Pokémon. A selection of Pokémon can evolve making use of evolutionary stones. There are five such stones: Fire Stones, Water Stones, Thunder Stones, Leaf Stones, and Moon Stones. Other Pokémon can only evolve by being traded to another player. Pokémon that evolve using these methods learn a different, typically worse set of moves upon doing so. Therefore, it’s important to make absolutely sure you’re fine with the moves they know before inducing an evolution.
Above all else, the best aspect of Pokémon Red and Blue is how much of a personal, auteur touch went into its creation. Kanto is named after and heavily based off of the real-life Kantō region in Japan. Accordingly, many of communities in these games have real-life counterparts. Pallet Town’s location roughly corresponds with Machida, Mr. Tajiri’s hometown. Both Celadon City and the neighboring Saffron City, are parallels to Tokyo. Specifically, Celadon City, with its gigantic department store being a prominent feature, is a reference to Shinjuku, the city’s commercial center. Meanwhile, Saffron City, in which the large Silph Corporation is headquartered, is modelled after Marunouchi: Tokyo’s business center, and by extension, all of Japan’s. The aforementioned Vermillion City is the region’s largest harbor much like the real-life Yokohama.
Aspects of Japanese culture can also be observed with various subtle details as well. The ultimate goal of the player is to collect eight badges. Eight is considered a lucky number in Japanese because the kanji resembles a widening road, foreshadowing prosperity and growth. After collecting eight badges, Red must journey to Indigo Plateau and challenge the Elite Four. True to their name, these are four elite trainers that must be faced in succession in order for Red to become Kanto’s newest champion. Savvy or bilingual players are likely aware that in Japanese, four is an unlucky number. This is because the Japanese word for four, “shi”, is phonetically identical to the word for death. This belief is so ingrained in Japanese culture that people avoid mentioning the number around ailing family members and buildings such as hotels or hospitals often lack rooms or entire floors bearing such a digit. Though the Elite Four could be seen as an invocation of a common trope in Japanese media that foretells a great challenge or impending doom, they are actually a reference to the Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhist mythology. In fact, that is exactly what they’re called in the Japanese version. These gods, known as Jikoku-ten, Zōjō-ten, Kōmoku-ten, and Tamon-ten in Japanese, are said to watch over the four cardinal directions. It’s an interesting touch, and one that manages to convey a lot of personality with the minimum amount of context.
Unfortunately, as a probable result of throwing so many ideas at the wall at once, there is a treasure trove of execution issues. To begin with, trainer battles become very repetitive. When these games were released, advertisement campaigns claimed there to be 150 different types of Pokémon. However, this alleged variety doesn’t reflect in the experience proper. A significant number of those Pokémon are part of the same evolutionary line. If you count each Pokémon in such a line as a singular species, there are far less than 150 Pokémon to fight against. Because Pokémon have varying rarities, this means you’re going to see a lot of the same ones used against you.
In a move that might be explained by “Poison” being a common affliction in RPGs, you have to fight many Poison-type Pokémon in these games. This has many negative ramifications when it comes to game balance. Poison-type Pokémon have three weaknesses: Ground, Psychic, and Bug moves. Poison-type Pokémon tend to have reasonably good defense, meaning that Ground and Bug moves aren’t your ideal choice with which to handle them. This leaves the Psychic-type. Luckily, with Psychic-type Pokémon possessing high special stats, they are more than a match for any Poison-types they may happen upon. In fact, if you capture a Psychic-type and raise it properly, you might notice that any pretense of challenge the game may have presented is shattered into a million pieces.
It’s not as though the Psychic-type lacks weaknesses entirely. Theoretically, Bug and Ghost-type moves should seal their fate. In-game dialogue even advises players to use a Ghost-type against them. Once again, these perfectly viable tactics don’t match up with the reality. This is because the only Ghost-type Pokémon in the game also happen to be of the Poison-type, meaning such a match-up would leave both combatants at a mutual disadvantage. Even if you had the idea to use them against Sabrina, the Gym Leader who specializes in Psychic-type Pokémon, you’ll discover that, due to a programming error, they are completely immune to any Ghost-related tactics you may have dreamed up. This ostensibly leaves Bug-type moves as their sole weakness. The reason I say ostensibly is because the only damaging Bug-type moves are Leech Life, Pin Missile, and Twinneedle. Not only are these moves pitifully weak, most of the Pokémon capable of learning them are also Poison-types, thus allowing the terrible balance to go full circle.
Though I appreciate being able to use Pokémon to circumvent obstacles, the mechanic for doing so is deeply flawed. Moves capable of dealing with these obstacles are learned by using an HM (Hidden Machine). The five moves Pokémon can learn from these HMs are Cut, Fly, Surf, Strength, and Flash. HMs are different from TMs in that they are not expended upon use. Not only that, but even fainted Pokémon can use HM moves outside of combat. This is appreciated, but less defensible is that HM moves cannot be forgotten by any means. While this design decision was likely in place to ensure that players wouldn’t trap themselves in an unwinnable situation, it does have the potential to doom them indirectly. This is because two of the moves, Cut and Flash, aren’t terribly useful in combat. The former inflicts decent damage by the time you get its HM, but it is soon outclassed. Meanwhile, the latter merely decreases the opposition’s accuracy. It’s a much better strategy to increase your own Pokémon’s stats than lower those of your opponent’s, so it too is fairly worthless.
This often requires you to swap out Pokémon that can learn multiple HM moves, which gets cumbersome once you’ve amassed your main team. It’s nice that the other three moves are reasonably powerful, but without any way to remove them, you must be wise about how you use HMs. If you decided to give your Charmander or Bulbasaur the move Cut, it’s stuck with a pitiful attack for the rest of the game. With only four move slots, you can see why this would be a problem.
The probable explanation for why these moves cannot be forgotten is because there is no guarantee that the associated HM will be in your inventory. This is because you only have twenty inventory slots. While this is admittedly generous, your capacity isn’t made clear in the game proper. The item box only shows a few items at a time, and there isn’t a counter that tells you how close you are to exceeding your limit. Item management works much like swapping Pokémon. You must go to a PC provided by a Pokémon Center and log into your own account. By doing this, you can deposit any unneeded items into a storage unit. The PC itself has fifty slots, so if you have seventy different items, you must decide on an item to sell or discard. This is troublesome because every unique item takes up a slot. This includes plot-important items that cannot be removed by any means – even once their associated scenarios have been resolved. By the end of the game, quite a few item slots will be effectively unusable.
A subtly annoying aspect of Pokémon Red and Blue is the sheer amount of trading you have to do to fill the Pokédex. Given the tagline of “Gotta catch ‘em all”, one would expect that doing so is of utmost importance. If someone attempted to do so, they would encounter many difficulties. The back of the boxes suggest that you can obtain 139 different Pokémon. However, there are many instances in which you must make a choice between multiple Pokémon that cannot be obtained by any other means – the most obvious example is the one you start with. Factoring in any unchosen Pokémon, the total number one can get in a single playthrough is actually 124. To get the remaining ones, you must trade extensively. This means getting every single evolutionary stage of each species.
The only realistic way to do this is to play the game concurrently with friends, and hope they all choose a different starter Pokémon. From there, you would have to trade the starters whenever they evolve and get them back a few minutes later. Such a process would be overly annoying under ideal circumstances, and this is an aspect of Pokémon Red and Blue that didn’t translate well overseas. Japan has a high population density compared to other countries, making it find another enthusiast playing the same game. In a country such as the United States wherein the population can be sparse in certain areas, this is a much trickier proposition. Even if you did find a group of people all playing this game at once, you would have to communicate well to avoid choosing the same Pokémon at critical moments. This led to many instances of players using a tiebreaker of some kind in order to determine who gets what if they couldn’t reach an agreement. This facet is not a deal-breaker because it’s ultimately an elaborate sidequest, but it is quite a hassle for completionists.
One of the biggest flaws with these games concerns the art of error handling. On many later consoles, games would simply lock up if the player managed to completely go off the rails. With Game Boy titles, programmer’s options were a bit limited. They could specifically code the game to crash if certain scenarios occurred, but this premise only works if the programmers accounted for every single thing a given player might do. For most games developed for the Game Boy, this wasn’t an issue because they tended to be relatively simple. However, Pokémon Red and Blue were markedly more ambitious than anything the Game Boy had seen up until then. There exists data for each individual Pokémon, which includes their stats, growth rates, and habitats. This is why there is only one save slot; there is a lot of information that gets recorded every single time. Because of this, it’s remarkable that Pokémon Red and Blue are as stable as they manage to be.
However, while it’s incredible that the games are playable from start to finish, the amount of glitches awaiting the persistent or chronically unlucky is equally unsurprising. One of the easiest ways to break the game is to have 99 of one item in your inventory and more in storage. If you try to withdraw more of that item, you get to watch the world fall apart at the seams as it tries, and fails, to comprehend what’s going on.
This is the basis for practically every glitch you may encounter. The game doesn’t crash or prevent you from doing things that should be impossible; it keeps on rolling, desperately trying to return to its coding until it becomes a completely unplayable mess. The number of glitches present in these games is such that people have recorded or written entire playthroughs consisting of exhibiting each and every one of them. Though everyone seems to have a favorite, the most famous one of them all concerns the mysterious zeroth Pokémon.
That Pokémon’s name is Missingno. It’s not a real Pokémon insofar that it wasn’t deliberately programmed into the game. Instead, it only exists as a glitch. It occurs when the player gets the game to load data for an area that doesn’t otherwise define any wildlife habitats. Merely encountering it can cause many strange effects on your game from making it unplayable to multiplying the sixth item in your inventory. Actually catching it reveals that its existence defies the game’s rules, having two of the same move and being of the nonexistent Bird-type. Given the popularity of these games, Missingno. too garnered a following, with some fans proposing that it’s the Pokémon equivalent of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Admittedly, these glitches require a fair bit of extensive planning to execute in full, but they don’t speak well for the games’ overall stability.
Drawing a Conclusion
There’s no denying that Pokémon Red and Blue were mold-breaking games in 1996. Before then, almost every single Game Boy title could be described as inferior versions of console experiences. Games such as Super Mario Land, The Final Fantasy Legend, and Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge all had a standard to which they could be compared and they often fell short of it. Even The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, which featured one of the most memorable video game narratives of its day, still ultimately came across as a watered-down version of its direct predecessor, A Link to the Past. One of the only games to fully escape from this trapping, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, did so by virtue of providing players with something that hadn’t been done on consoles.
However, Pokémon Red and Blue, managed to succeed in a way even Wario Land hadn’t. Specifically, they were the first games that meaningfully used the unique properties of Game Boy platform for a purpose other than for the convenience of portability. Pokémon Red and Blue could not have delivered their unique experiences on consoles. Any interactions between multiple players well and truly depended on each participant owning a separate Game Boy unit, making progress in their own way, and linking the systems via the Link Cable. Attempting to implement such features on the SNES would have been impossible without fundamentally altering the system’s hardware. Because the Game Boy was the most popular handheld console the world had known by 1996, it’s entirely possible that had Pokémon Red and Blue not been as successful as they were, handheld gaming as a whole would have faded away as a curious nineties fad. Instead, Pokémon Red and Blue wound up revitalizing interest in the system, thereby showing developers a giant potential that hadn’t yet been tapped. Mr. Tajiri, Mr. Sugimori, and everyone else involved in this project should have been very proud of their work, for the impact these games had on the medium was incontestably positive.
Unfortunately, even after acknowledging their importance to the medium’s history, there is no getting around that, as games, Pokémon Red and Blue, have not aged well. The games are poorly balanced, repetitive, and require a fair bit of level grinding on the player’s part. This isn’t to say that they’re wholly inaccessible from a modern perspective. In fact, even looking at these games today, the amount of ambition that went into making them is easy to appreciate. Because of this, I can picture a newcomer delving into them and legitimately having fun. However, this premise only works under the assumption that said newcomer has an affinity for older games. Anyone who doesn’t would find Pokémon Red and Blue tedious experiences, and I couldn’t fault them for that.
In 2004, Pokémon Red and Blue were remade for the Game Boy’s successor, the Game Boy Advance. Sharing the original Japanese versions’ naming conventions, they are called FireRed and LeafGreen. It stands to reason that these remakes would be easier to recommend, but I personally feel they aren’t significant improvements over the originals. Paradoxically, I feel the remakes lost a lot of the charm of the originals with their updated graphics and rebalanced gameplay. If you want to delve into the series, it’s up to you whether to play the originals or remakes because I don’t feel the latter to be objectively better than the former. Irrespective of whether or not you decide to experience this piece of gaming history for yourself, know that had Pokémon Red and Blue not existed, the current state of the medium would look vastly different.
Final Score: 5/10