When considering how best to approach the multiple releases of the Pokemon franchise we made the decision to review each generation as a whole, with a focus on the ‘special’ version of the game usually released last with additional tweaks and features. In the case of the original Pokemon generation of titles (‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ respectively, with ‘Green’ included if your Japanese) this would be Pokemon Yellow.
By a random twist of fate I actually had a copy of this game a month or so before it was actually released in the United Kingdom. A copy had accidentally made its way into a crate of the regular Red and Blue editions and I casually picked it up from the shelves when I eventually gave into the pressure to buy a copy for myself from my younger brother who had become quite addicted to it but wouldn’t let me play it for myself for fear I’d overwrite his save. They obviously had no idea what they’d got, but then neither did I until the adverts for the new game appeared a little while after I’d cleared it. It’s one of those charming childhood stories that make life interesting.
The changes for Yellow were largely graphical, updating the somewhat ugly in-battle sprites for the Pokemon with new artwork, although the game changed some plot elements. This was largely to bring the game more in-line with the then-popular anime of the same name and tweaks to the narrative enabled the player to start the game with Pikachu (who followed you around on-screen and had his own moods) before recruiting the original three starting Pokemon as the story progressed. Team Rocket were more pronounced as characters and an optional mini-game where your Pikachu could surf was included. A mix-up of Pokemon from both Red and Blue was included, carefully balanced so that you still had to find friends with either cart, and better Game Boy Colour compatibility was ensured. Otherwise it was business as usual.
Graphically the Pokemon series got the best out of the aging hardware of the Game Boy, which had begun to wain in popularity before re-surging with the Pokemon series. Character designs were chunky and lacked detail but transitioned into recognizable sprites at such a small scale very well because of this, and each of the 150 original Pokemon was individually designed in such a manner. NPCs didn’t fair as well being a handful of characters repeated endlessly, and every town used the same basic graphical set, but they were all crisp and well proportioned on the screen. From a design perspective the game was similar in its look to ‘Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest’ which had been out on the SNES for some time, with JRPG conventions firmly in place. Still the games original assets made it stand up extremely well beside other RPGs on the system at the time. ‘Final Fantasy Adventure III’ and ‘Link’s Awakening’ were the benchmark for Game Boy RPGs and the design of Pokemon’s world showed far more care and attention at times. Indeed, some areas of the world were carefully constructed puzzles that could only be solved by utilizing the right skills at the right time in the game and encouraged exploration. The aesthetic of the Pokemon series is an interesting fusion of fantasy monsters, modern Japan and science fiction ideas. One that is quite unique in its presentation and where sprawling forests can share screen space with shops that feature sliding doors and escalators. Plugging the games into a Game Boy Colour added a basic palette to each town that accompanied its name, making each region a different shade.
Musically the game was less ambitious with tracks past the title screen being largely forgettable. Still, the main Pokemon theme was well visualized on the Game Boy and churps away in a recognizable fashion that has been refined since into a series staple. Sound design is solid, although the battle cries of the various Pokemon are flat-out horrible. The fact that these games give you the option to hear their individual sounds in the Pokedex is wishful thinking on the part of the game devs. Combat noises are simple but satisfying, though repeated several times across different moves in order to save space on the cart.
The story of Pokemon is always largely unchanged between releases, but works in a classic ‘you as the hero’ manner. After naming yourself and your rival you are quickly introduced to a world where monsters known as Pokemon (short for Pocket Monsters) are a part of every day life. To some they are pets, but they also function as tools for workmen, power cities and are eaten as food (I kid you not, there are several instances of this mentioned across the series!). As a coming of age ritual you are given your own Pokemon from a traditional choice of three. Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charmander are your basic Grass, Water and Fire type monsters and each features three evolutionary changes throughout the game as they evolve through experience. In the case of Yellow you oversleep and instead receive a Pikachu, who is far less helpful from an elemental stand-point due to the way that the games bosses are structured. Once you have a Pokemon tradition dictates that you can take time away from your schooling and family to explore the world. Along the way Professor Oak asks you to also help him fill out his Pokedex, charting all 150 types of monster and you’ll help to foil the plans of Team Rocket before rising to take on the ultimate challenge of the Elite Four. It’s a very open plot that encourages exploration and although it is technically possible to get lost and forget your place, there’s always the next gym badge to guide you town-to-town. NPC dialogue is reduced to slight world-building and tips because of the lack of internal narrative, although the Yellow edition does try to add additional scenes to flesh this out.
Gameplay is where Pokemon shines because it is mixture of tried-and-true JRPG conventions (exploration of the world and turn based combat) coupled with an addictive party building mechanic that encourages shared play. Battles take place in a fairly standard manner, with you being able to only field one Pokemon from a party size of 6 at any one time. Each Pokemon can learn 4 moves at a time, dropping one out to replace it with another and progressively learning better ones through leveling and according to type. Pokemon are highly elemental and the game leans on the strength/weakness mechanic seen in other titles to an extent that makes powering through a boss a matter of grinding the right party on occasion, which can belay the challenge but feels great. The games tactics come from finding, catching and training as many of the 150 original Pokemon as the player can get his or her hands on (the original game sticks you with a male only avatar that is named Red in series canon) and this offers massive tactical depth as certain skills are unique to particular monsters. Skills for exploration or additional moves (included in the max of 4) can be learned through items, adding an additional layer of development and some items boost base stats. A clever addition was the notion that wild monsters of the same level as trained ones have lower overall stats, meaning that your encouraged to catch them as low a level as you can to better train them yourself, which all amounts to grinding. Experience is initially only rewarded to party members to take part in a battle, which can be tough early in the game, but later an Exp share device can be found to better help train up your new monsters and some can be left at a nursery to level while you explore. Some Pokemon can evolve into different forms, with some having third stage evolutions on top of that, and this can be done in different ways depending on the Pokemon in question. Where the games really work however is in the multiplayer mechanics. Players with a Game Boy link cable can trade monsters between them to fill out missing Pokemon in their Pokedex or battle their teams to see who is strongest. Nintendo and Game Freak cleverly split a total of 149 Pokemon between the titles in order to make this a necessity to 100% complete the game, and saved number 150 as a road-show event that could only be recruited through attendance. This caused sales of hardware and games to rocket at the time. Pokemon not in the active party are stored away and any monster caught over the 6-party limit is sent directly to storage. These can be swapped in and out to make up the party you desire at any computer you see in-game. Actually catching a Pokemon is a case of using special items and whittling a wild monster’s HP down to practically zero before using them to increase the chances of success. This makes for a compelling mechanic as it’s not always 100% guaranteed that you’ll catch the monster you’ve set out to get.
It’s worth mentioning that games before Pokemon had used the mechanic of recruiting monsters, but usually this wasn’t the main crux of gameplay. Both the Lufia and Dragon Quest series’ had already played with this idea in various forms to great success but their focus on story and strong Human characters made the monsters fade into the background. Pokemon made the monsters the stars of the show, heavily making them the marketing darlings of the period and giving characters such as Pikachu super-star status in a great many countries. Ultimately the games hold up remarkably well in this modern age, showing good overall design and combat systems. Red and Blue have since been remade for the Gameboy Advance as Fire Red and Leaf Green respectively in order to keep their relevance in an evolving series and allow players to hold on to their monsters across multiple titles, and whilst the Pokemon series wouldn’t see its true potential realized until the second Generation release of Gold and Silver it was a strong initial entry.