With Pokémon celebrating it's 20th anniversary this year, and the digital releases of Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, I decided to revisit the games that started a global phenomenon. Each step of the way, I took careful notes on what I encountered, particularly keeping an eye for brilliant or interesting game design choices. I wanted to better know what made these first games so good—and they are quite good.
So, without further ado... Let's revisit the wonderful world of Pokémon!
ADVENTURE JOURNAL – WEEK 1
Today my adventure begins! I named my trainer KYE and my rival ACE. The first person I encounter is my character's mother, and she tells me PROF OAK is looking for me. I don't find him in any of the town's four buildings, so I head north, leaving PALLET TOWN. A man stops me from entering the tall grass, though; it's PROF OAK! Turns out that tall grass is where wild Pokémon roam. OAK leads me back to his lab and invites me to choose a Pokémon of my own. I choose Charmander and name it BLAZE. We're going to be a great team. ACE picks Squirtle and promptly challenges me to a battle, which I win. (Because Charmander is the best.) Now that I have my own Pokémon, I'm allowed to walk through the tall grass and leave town. I make my way north to VIRIDIAN CITY and am entrusted with a parcel from the Poké Mart to deliver back to OAK. Unfortunately they don't have any Poké Balls in stock. So, I trek back down to OAK's lab and deliver the parcel. In return, he gives me a Pokédex, along with the mission of capturing and recording data on all of the Pokémon in the world—more than 100! Alright, BLAZE and I will do our best!
I return to VIRIDIAN CITY and explored all of the buildings. The gym leader is nowhere to be found. I head back to the Poké Mart and am able to buy some Poké Ball this time. On ROUTE 1, between PALLET TOWN and VIRIDIAN CITY, I catch a Pidgey and a Rattata. West of VIRIDIAN CITY I meet my my rival and beat him in another battle. He tells me about the Pokémon League, and what I need to do to get in. Sounds like a fun challenge. I also caught a Nidoran ♀ and a Spearow. Looks like I can't go any further west for now.
Heading north from VIRIDIAN CITY I catch a Caterpie and enter VIRIDIAN FOREST. I have a full team of six Pokémon now! I'm excited to find other trainers in the forest I can battle with. They all have Bug-type Pokémon which my team has no problems with.
I catch a Pikachu while wandering VIRIDIAN FOREST! Oh, and Caterpie evolves into Metapod—my first time seeing Pokémon evolution! I make my way out of VIRIDIAN FOREST and arrive at PEWTER CITY. There's a gym leader here, so I go back to the forest to train up my team some more. BLAZE isn't going to fair too well against Rock-type Pokémon. Once I feel my team is strong enough, I challenge BROCK's gym and win! It took my whole team working together to get the victory. I leave town to the east along ROUTE 3. There are a lot more trainers here. I catch a Jigglypuff in the grass near the base of MT. MOON. While battling on the way here, my Metapod (named KATE) evolves into a Butterfree.
I enter MT. MOON and promptly catch a Zubat. This cave is full of them—which makes great training for my Pikachu and Rattata. Plenty of trainers here, too. While wandering the cave, I also catch a Clefairy, Paras, and a Geodude. I swap out my Butterfree for Paras so that I'll have one less Flying-type on my team and add a Grass-type. Deep down in the mountain I encounter Team Rocket, a nefarious organization looking to steal rare Pokémon. I almost lost to one of their grunts and his level 16 Raticate with Hyper Fang. My Rattata, RIZZO, is my MVP in the fight. And BLAZE evolved into Charmeleon while down here! I meet a strange man who lets me take a Helix Fossil with me for fighting off the Rockets. Shortly outside of MT. MOON, Nidoran ♀ evolves into Nidorina. I then make it to CERULEAN CITY, where the next gym leader is, though I can't enter yet. Oh, and just before arriving at CERULEAN CITY I catch a Sandshrew and add it to my team. Since the gym leader isn't around, I head north from town to challenge what the locals call the NUGGET BRIDGE. On my way I encounter ACE again and defeat him a third time.
I visit Bill on the edge of town and he gives me a ticket for the S.S ANNE. There are lots of trainers leading to his house, so I spend some time training my team. My Pidgey evolves into Pidgeotto. Back in CERULEAN CITY, I can now challenge MISTY and her Water-type Pokémon—once again, BLAZE is going to have a tough time here. Pikachu is an champ, though. I win without too much trouble.
It seems that's all to do in CERULEAN CITY for now. The way east is blocked by a fallen tree. I head south toward VERMILION CITY. A fisherman is kind enough to give me an OLD ROD. I try it out in the bay and catch a Magikarp.
Starting Your Adventure
The layout of the early game is quite clever. There's only one way to leave Pallet Town, making it very clear where to go, and in the process the player is also told explicitly that walking in tall grass will result in battles with wild Pokémon. The message is clearly understood: stay out of the grass if you don't want to battle; go into the grass if you want to catch Pokémon.
The first battle with your rival is a strange one since the odd's aren't exactly in the player's favor. Having Charmander as a starter may give the best advantage (higher attack); choosing Bulbasaur may present the bigger challenge (average attack and defense against higher attack). However, there's no punishment for losing this battle, so it's a good sample of what's to come. In this game you will (1) collect Pokémon and (2) battle other trainers with those Pokémon.
Having the player arrive at Viridian City just to be given Oak's Parcel and sent back to Pallet Town ensures that the player's starter (Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle) will gain a few levels. It's not possible to travel Route 1 without entering tall grass, and Poké Balls aren't yet made available. This teaches two crucial lessons: be prepared for random encounters when traveling between destinations; and battle often to gain exp. points in order to level up your Pokémon, making them stronger.
Pallet Town only has one path for the player to follow but Viridian City has two. Going west results in another rival battle—the oddest rival battle placement in the game, in my opinion. It's very early on and the player's rival has a significant jump in Pokémon levels; it's not unlikely that players may stumble into this fight with only one level 7 starter Pokémon and not stand much of a chance. Win or lose in the battle, taking this path reveals the game's second and more direct goal: obtain eight badges and challenge the Elite Four. It's also now clear that the game's path will not always be straight.
It's no accident that the game's first dungeon is full of Bug-type Pokémon, arguably the weakest type in the game. Caterpie and Weedle are fairly weak, particularly against Charmander, Spearow, and Nidoran. Metapod and Kakuna are great, as they provide more experience, are non-threatening, and teach about in-battle stat-changes—a key strategy for winning battles. There are trainers to fight here, though most can be avoided; there's also a path through the Forest that avoids most of the tall grass. This is a great place to learn how to explore, catch, and battle with minimal risk.
Your First Gym Battles
Brock and Misty are quite distinct. On the one hand, Brock is very defensive; even his 'signature move' Bide is passive aggressive. His Pokémon spend just as much time boosting their Defense—something the player is quite familiar with thanks to Metapod and Kakuna in Viridian Forest—as attacking. This is good, too, because there are few options to counter his Rock-type team. Obviously Bulbasaur and Squirtle aren't going to have a problem, but trainers with Charmander will need to rely on other Pokémon to win the fight. Rattata, Pidgey, Spearow, Nidoran, Caterpie, Weedle, and Beedrill won't be able to do a whole lot either. The best bet for Charmander trainers is to level up a Caterpie to evolve into Butterfree and learn Confusion (then hope to avoid a Rock Throw) or to play smart with stat drops (Sand Attack, Growl, and Tail Whip). Even the one rare Pokémon available so far—Pikachu, found in Viridian Forest—is useless here. So players will either have this one easy or will be forced to learn to use their team well quite quickly.
Misty, on the other hand, is much more aggressive. Staryu and Starmie are fast and have good Special stats for attacking with Water Gun and Bubblebeam (one of the highest power attacs encountered yet). If the player caught a Pikachu in Viridian Forest, this fight isn't too much of a problem; same if the player started with Bulbasaur. Squirtle and Wartortle will stand up well enough. Again, Charmander and Charmeleon won't make it very far in this challenge. If that player catches an Abra and evolves it to Kadabra the battle becomes easier; Butterfree and Paras can hold up fairly well also. So now the player has more options to approach with, but if the player isn't ready, this can feel like a sudden difficulty spike.
To approximate a difficulty curve, I averaged the levels of the Pokémon encountered in each area. Instead of tracking every route, I'm only marking rival battles, gym leader battles, and areas which function as dungeons. The averaged levels are also modified -10% or 10% according to the strength of the Pokémon encountered (i.e, Starmie is modified +10% while Caterpie or Magikarp are -10%), since not all Pokémon are created equal. I also apply modifiers to take into account weakness and resistance. This is a little subjective as teams may vary from player to player but I try to take into account Pokémon which have been made available and therefore could be on a team (such as Pikachu or Spearow). The resulting value is then plotted on the y-axis as a 'Functional Level' meaning this is approximately the level it may feel like the player is fighting; in other words, players should have an easy time these areas if their Pokémon meet the Functional Level. As you can see, Charmander fans have a much harder time (60% harder!) against Brock than other players.
These charts will continue to be updated each week.
While Viridian Forest has few trainers whom are fairly easy to avoid, Route 3, leaving Pewter City, has quite a few trainers with little option to avoid them. This is more typical for the rest of the game and indicates the training wheels are off.
Mt. Moon does not have a 'safe path' through. There is no way to avoid battling a lot of Zubat and multiple trainers.
Three of the first rare Pokémon available are revealed to the player just before they can be caught. Trainers use Jigglypuff and Clefairy near the entrance of the regions they can be found and the player's rival has an Abra just before entering the Route where Abra can be caught. This is not the case for Pikachu.
Normal-type Pokémon, namely Rattata and Raticate, are quite capable in the early game, thanks to decent Speed and STAB (Same-Type Attach Bonus) on all of their moves.
Tune in next week to continue the adventure!
Pokémon Blue was developed by Game Freak and Creatures Inc. and published by Nintendo. For this analysis, I played Virtual Console release on Nintendo 3DS.