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 return to ROUTE 9 and explore the POWER PLANT. I catch ZAPDOS and other Electric-type Pokémon there.
Today I start my approach tot he Pokémon League. My rival, ACE, meets me at the entrance of VICTORY ROAD and challenges me to another battle. I beat him once again.
I find my way through VICTORY ROAD and arrive at INDIGO PLATEAU.
I make a quick trip back into VICTORY ROAD and catch MOLTRES!
I spend the day in VICTORY ROAD, training my team to take on the Pokémon League.
My RHYHORN finally evolves into RHYDON!
Throughout my travels I accumulated quite a few RARE CANDY. I use them now on my DRAGONAIR to evolve it into DRAGONITE. My team is ready to for their final challenge: KANGASKHAN (level 45), RHYDON (level 45), LAPRAS (level 46), DRAGONITE (level 55), ZAPDOS (level 52), and CHARIZARD (level 50).
Today I challenge the ELITE FOUR. I stock up on REVIVE and FULL RESTORE in order to keep my team strong between battles. First up is LORELEI with Ice-type Pokémon. LAPRAS and ZAPDOS prove to be the MVPs here, thanks mostly to THUNDERBOLT and THUNDER. Next is BRUNO and his Fighting-type team. LAPRAS handles his two ONIX without a worry; ZAPDOS takes out the rest with DRILL PECK. That's two down. Though my Pokémon are very much under level, type advantages are working well in my favor. AGATHA has Ghost-type Pokémon so I have to be a little more careful. RHYDON's EARTHQUAKE makes short work of them. Number four is LANCE and his powerful Dragon-type Pokémon. My KANGASKHAN handles GYARADOS; I then let my DRAGONITE take care of his DRAGONAIR and DRAGONITE; finally ZAPDOS easily bests AERODACTYL. That's all four down! Now, I find I have to defeat my rival one last time. His Pokémon are much higher level—nearly twenty levels higher in some cases—but again I can make type advantages work in my favor. My RHYDON takes out PIDGEOT; CHARIZARD beats ALAKAZAM; LAPRAS dowses ARCANINE; ZAPDOS drills EXEGGUTOR; LAPRAS drenches his RHYDON; and ZAPDOS shocks BLASTOISE. That's it! I'm the champion!
Before I conclude my adventure I return to CERULEAN CITY to explore the cave just north of it. The guard is gone now that I've beaten the ELITE FOUR. Inside I find many high level Pokémon. This would be a great training ground. Deep down, I encounter the enigmatic MEWTWO at level 70! This is where I use my MASTER BALL—and MEWTWO is caught! I make my way out of the cave and consider my adventure complete.
Pokédex: 79 caught
Two Ways to Play
Pokémon is a very enigmatic game. To start, there are 150 creatures you're tasked with catching, 20% of which you can't actually get on your own. Finding them is another task. Then, as you catch them, there's the question of how to evolve them, if they do evolve. Level up? Trade? Use a specific evolutionary stone? Some Pokémon are only available once, so if you miss them, or knock out Articuno, there's not another chance. And that's just the catching them. Training them for battle is a whole different challenge. It's tough to know what moves a Pokémon will learn or use well. There's a lot of trial and error in building an effective team of Pokémon with strong, varied movesets. Add in the risk of a limited supply of good TMs or evolving Pokémon too early (with evolution stones) and a player may quickly feel like he or she has made a mistake that can't be taken back.
This idea of risk and reward is present from the get-go, from the moment players have to choose their starter Pokémon. What will my Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle become down the road? And nowhere within the game is it even slightly suggested that Charmander-players will have such a harder time early on than players who picked one of the other two starters.
I see this theme of risk and discovery key to Pokémon's success. There are so many choices available to players, some of them better and some of the worse, that each person really gets to craft their own adventure through Kanto. Sure, Charmander-owners are going to have a harder time against Brock and Misty, but they'll overcome and that will be a part of their story. The team I used in this replay will look very different from the teams most of you readers probably used. And the game is designed so finely that you'll never end up stuck because of your decisions—players will never feel punished, though they may find later that there was or is a better possibility available. A lot like living life, you will meet consequences for your decisions, though in the end that's just a part of your story and how you overcame your challenges. There's a great meta-narrative happening.
This theme also creates two ways to play. Aspiring Pokémon trainers can dive in, completely unaware of what lies ahead, finding wonder at every turn, giving it their best, making good with all they find, and making it to the end feeling confident and accomplished, though not masterful. Alternatively, players can consult guide books for breakdowns on battle strategy, Pokémon availability, and best move choices for their team, staying one step ahead of the choices the game will throw at them, seeking that masterful, golden path. Both are available, and the two aren't exclusive. Most players will probably sway between the two, especially as they approach or enter the post-game content. But that's up to each player individually. And I think that allowance, that choice for players inside and outside of the game for how to craft their meta-narrative, gives the world of Pokémon so much of its staying power and potential.
Pokémon was not a happy accident. It was a carefully crafted, well-considered story about how people are going to connect with one another through a virtual world. And it's very good.
Here's to another decade of catching them all.
Difficulty & Type Availability
The final stretch of the game sees a dramatic increase in difficulty level. Victory Road doesn't ramp up the toughness of Pokémon much—there are still plenty of wild Pokémon in the 20's—but the Elite Four quickly jump from level 50 into the 60's. There are really two ways to handle this challenge: either players have built up a high level starter to brute force their way through with or they will take liberal advantage of favorable type match-ups. While the former is doable, albeit difficultly for all three starters, the latter is the preferred and even intended option. The designers aren't so much testing the players meta-gaming skills (read: outwitting your opponent) as they're testing a proficient understanding of type advantages. For example, my Lapras or Zapdos could easily handle all of Lorelei's team despite being up to ten levels lower thanks to Thunderbolt or Thunder; in Lapras's case I even enjoy type resistance. Obviously Lapras or Zapdos won't get me all the way through Indigo Plateau (though Lapras will do a darn good job with Surf, Ice Beam, and Thunderbolt), I know I can build my team such that one Pokémon trumps all of a single Elite Four member. And that was the entire test of the gym leaders, was it not? Gym leaders aren't challenges because of the power of their Pokémon or the intelligence of their strategies; gym leaders test type understanding: bring a Fire-type to Erika's gym and you win, or a Psychic-type to Koga's gym. The Elite Four simply up the ante by force players to take on four differently typed teams in a row, encouraging the players to have more balanced teams: an Electric-type type for Lorelei, a Psychic-type for Agatha, and Ice-type for Lance. The exam is cap stoned by the fight with the player's rival. This is really good design and prepares players for competitive battles, if they choose to pursue them.
Normal-, Poison-, and Flying-type Pokémon remain the most common, in that order, even including Cerulean Cave; Dragon- and Ghost-type Pokémon are tied for the rarest Pokémon types to come by. Coincidentally, Dragon- and Ghost-types have the least number of advantages against other types (due to a bug, Ghost-types actually have zero). Normal-type attacks are the most prevalent as well, making Normal-types a viable option for the entire game. Poison-types really get the short end of the stick, being very common, yet having no good move options. Even Nidoking and Nidoqueen have few options that properly utilize their typing and stats. If all of the fishing options are counted, Water-types skyrocket to the most common and generally fair well thanks to the usability and power of Surf.
This concludes my analysis of Pokémon Blue/Red! I hope you've enjoyed this walk down memory lane and have revisited the games that started a cultural phenomenon as well. If you have any additional thoughts, think I got something wrong, or think I missed something, please leave a comment.
...Smell ya later!
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.