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.
I wander VERMILION CITY and meet a few noteworthy individuals. First, I meet a fellow looking to trade his Farfetch'd for a Spearow. I accept the offer and add DUX (the Pokémon's nickname) to my team. I also meet the Pokémon Fan Club president—he loves his Rapidash—and he gives me a bike voucher. I decide to take the voucher back to CERULEAN CITY and get myself a bicycle. Back in VERMILION CITY, I find the S.S. ANNE docked and decide to board using the pass BILL gave me back in CERULEAN.
There are many trainers to battle aboard the S.S. ANNE. I encounter ACE, my rival, again and handily defeat him. As my team gets stronger, I find he's easier to best each time. (My Pikachu is the MVP in this fight, taking out both Pidgeotto and Wartortle.) Afterward I meet the ship's captain and help him recover from his illness. He gives me HM01 CUT as thanks. I teach the move to my Farfetch'd. I deboard the cruise liner and watch it sail away, then head to the tall grass just north of town to train my team a bit and look for more new Pokémon I may have missed. I catch a Meowth while here. Finally, I enter the VERMILION CITY gym to challenge LT. SURGE. His Electric-type Pokémon are no match for my Sandshrew.
Today I trek through DIGLETT'S CAVE and, naturally, catch a Diglett in the process. On the other side of the cavern, I meet one of PROF. OAK's aides who gives me HM05 FLASH as a reward for having caught more than ten Pokémon. A guy nearby offers to trade me a Mr. Mime for an Abra but I decline. Since I'm near Route 2, I head back to VIRIDIAN CITY and catch a Nidoran ♂. With that in my Pokédex, I return to VERMILION CITY, following DIGLETT'S CAVE again, and follow the road heading east from the town. I battle plenty of trainers and catch a Drowzee. At the end of the road, a large sleeping Pokémon is blocking the way, so I have to take another route. I hop on my bicycle and head back to CERULEAN CITY to follow ROUTE 9 to ROCK TUNNEL. Battling trainers on the way, Sandshrew evolves into Sandslash. When I make it to ROCK TUNNEL the cave is too dark to see anything inside! I swap Abra into my team and teach it Flash so we can continue forward. Before entering the cave, I train a bit outside, evolve Abra into Kadabra, and catch a Voltorb. Now that I have more than thirty Pokémon in my Pokédex, I make a quick trip back to VERMILION CITY and have PROF. OAK's aide give me an Item Finder.
Today I resolve to travel all the way through ROCK TUNNEL. This cave is larger than MT. MOON and the Pokémon are stronger, too. Things get a lot easier when I decide to teach Dig to my Sandslash—it's a good move in battle and makes it easy to escape the cave when my team is weakened or low on PP. My Paras evolves in Parasect near the exit of the tunnel. I make it to LAVENDER TOWN. The Pokémon Tower is here—a place to pay respects to perished Pokémon. I meet my rival there and beat him in another battle.
I make my way to the top of Pokémon Tower, battling several Channelers and running from plenty of unidentifiable ghosts along the way. Near the top, an angry ghost is blocking the staircase. Since I can't identify it, I decide to leave and head south along ROUTE 12. That sleeping Pokémon is still blocking my path. I return to LAVENDER TOWN and go west.
The player can only carry up to twenty items at a time, not including duplicates—a limitation that's been removed later in the series. This presents interesting challenges, since the player now has to consider what he's bringing along with him into a dungeon, not just in regards to Pokémon team but also inventory. Stocking up on status-healing items such as Antidote and Burn Heal can quickly take up a lot of space, making it difficult to carry any of the new items which may be found out in the world. Early in the game, I found myself enjoying this task of preparation. However, later in the game, after Ethers, Elixirs, TMs, and HMs have been added to your stock, inventory management becomes quite cumbersome. It would be pretty typical for a player's inventory to look like this most of the game:
That only leaves three to five empty slots for other items. (Note that items like "Potion" and "Poké Ball" above are representative of that type of item. It's expected that players will have at least two types of potions, one kind of ball, and one HM or TM.) Some of these can eventually be consolidated with Full Heal or Max Revive, but that still doesn't leave a lot of options. Add to this the limited item space in the player's PC storage and you'll eventually be forced to toss or sell away some items. There's a message here of getting rid of weaker items for better ones often. Hoarders beware.
In my estimation, Vermilion City marks the end of the game's 'tutorial' and the start of the larger, more open experience. The player is treated more maturely from this point on. I'll make two points on this.
For one, there's Lt. Surge and his gym. This is the first gym with puzzles instead of a straightforward path. This means it's also the first gym where the player is given the opportunity to 'outwit' the other trainers in the gym. In Brock's gym, if you didn't want to fight the Youngster, you simply walked around; in Misty's gym, you could avoid one trainer but had to fight the other. Now, you can either solve all of the puzzles yourself and avoid any extra fights ('outwit'), or engage in battles to gain hints to solve the puzzles. There's a risk-reward setup. Lt. Surge himself is the first gym leader to utilize status effects, namely paralysis. His signature move is Thunderbolt, a power 95 attack. Both of these are legitimate, competitive battle-worthy techniques. This doesn't necessarily make him more challenging, however. Diglett's Cave being placed just on the edge of town gives an easy answer to this gym, if players are willing to go explore first.
Which leads me to my second point. The path forward appears to open up much more when the player reaches Vermilion City. Upon arrival, there's the S.S. Anne, Diglett's Cave, and Route 11 all laid before you. It's true that there's really only one path to take in order to progress but that's not broadcast to the player except in breadcrumbs. Until now, there's only been one direction to go: north to Pewter City, east to Cerulean City, south to Vermilion City. It's clear that the training wheels are coming off. This is a great time for the player to be given a bicycle. It's also an appropriate time for HMs to be introduce, providing players with a tool for accessing new areas they may have seen but couldn't get into.
Difficulty & Type Availability
Charmander trainers definitely have a tougher time against the first two gym leaders but things are balancing out more now. The level curve also isn't moving up nearly as quickly as it was between Viridian Forest and Cerulean City. Squirtle/Wartortle trainers have the toughest time against Lt. Surge and Bulbasaur/Ivysaur trainers actually have a harder time against their rival in Pokémon tower—Ivysaur is weak to or resisted by every Pokémon on the rival's team. Charmander/Charmeleon trainers actually have the easiest time in that battle, as they don't have to face a Gyrados with Dragon Rage and Hydro Pump.
Normal-, Flying-, Poison-, and Bug-type Pokémon are still the most common up to this point. Fighting-, Rock-, and Ground-types are becoming more available. Water- and Fire-types are still virtually non-existent.
The player's rival has nearly the same Pokémon on the S.S. Anne as he had back at Cerulean City. His starter is now evolved and his Abra has evolved into Kadabra, but the levels are nearly unchanged.
Rock Tunnel is a great dungeon. Since there's no way to avoid random encounters in caves they naturally feel more threatening. Rock Tunnel is larger than Mt. Moon, has stronger Pokémon, and requires Flash in order to navigate, which forces a specific subset of Pokémon into the player's party. It takes the everything Mt. Moon established and builds on it very well.
The Pokémon Center outside of the Rock Tunnel entrance on the north end of Route 10 is the only Pokémon Center not in a city or town and the only Pokémon Center the player cannot Fly to. This adds to the sense of vulnerability and 'off the beaten path' the player has when trying to reach Lavender Town.
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.