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Pokemon Red (Game Boy) artwork

Pokemon Red (Game Boy) review

"But it doesn't have to be Mankey; it could be Ratatta. It could be Nidoran. It could be Pidgey, or Pikachu, or Geodude. There is a tendency for the Pokemon you start with to become one of your strongest, but it's not a necessity, and any Pokemon can eventually be beneficial to your six member team. Moreover, you can have well over six Pokemon; you can only carry six with you to use in battle, while the others are stored remotely and recalled from the Pokemon Centers."

Pallet Town is quiet; though most role-playing games begin in quaint, humble settings, this is as modest as they come. Three structures compose the entirety of the villa, and their purposes are clear: one is the house where you live, another is the house of your childhood rival, and the third is the research facility where the mentor you both share spends the bulk of his time. It's a strange world you live in; wild animals roam the landscape in abundance, and it's a popular hobby to catch, train and battle these animals against others. The animals are called Pokemon. You and your rival both dream of being the most powerful Pokemon Trainer, because bragging rights matter. But it's a big world. And there's a lot to learn. And you don't even own a Pokemon yet!

Maybe you should talk to that mentor.

Though being the most powerful trainer is obviously important, the bonds between the Pokemon and trainers are stressed. Be the best, but do it the right way. Team Rocket is a SPECTRE-level criminal organization composed of hundreds of trainers in identical outfits doing the evil bidding of one shady character, and you'll have run-ins with their world dominating dreams several times along the ride. Your rival trains Pokemon with the same dream, but makes distinctions between strong and weak, his hopes of glory clouding the bonds of friendship he should be forming. Few games are as vigilant about a common moral theme as Pokemon; it's annoying and childish but subtly delightful to see a game preach ethics and morality in this manner, focused on achieving your dreams the right way rather than at all costs. It's strange Pokemon received such a negative reaction in circles; it's more persistent and effective at showing a proper moral scope than nearly any other game I've played, and actually incorporates its message into play (rather than just branding a title screen with "Winners Don't Do Drugs").

But choose to play as you wish; battle your Pokemon until they faint or are too tired to move, healing and resting free of cost at a Pokemon Center only when absolutely necessary. The game won't know or distinguish a difference; you won't have to subscribe to an ethos or perform unnecessary virtuous tasks to get the most of out it. Like most role-playing games, fighting a lot of battles to gain experience and levels will see you straight through to the end. Unlike most role-playing games, though, how you get to that end is completely customizable and left entirely up to you.

Your mentor, the esteemed Professor Oak, offers you three Pokemon to choose from at the start. Some say the beginnings of the adventure are unbalanced depending on who you pick, but it's absolutely nothing an additional twenty minutes of leveling up cannot change; claims here are almost entirely unfounded. With a starting Pokemon in tow, you'll soon be able to buy PokeBalls from the market to catch additional creatures. Between Red and Blue versions of the game, there are 150 Pokemon total, and roughly 130 shared between the two titles.

Needless to say, you're going to have options for your party. In the early going, pickings are somewhat slim; it's almost inevitable you'll catch some low-level rat and bug Pokemon, many of which won't seem too useful in battle whether they have a complete repertoire of four moves or not. From this point, you have options though. More and more Pokemon are able to be secured the further you journey into this world; these weak Pokemon will almost naturally be replaced by one of several more adept ones if you don't want to invest much time. But you could also choose to extensively train your weaker Pokemon in battles against other trainers or confrontations with wild Pokemon. Choosing to train Pokemon will often yield incredibly positive and rewarding results; the weakest Pokemon, Magikarp, ultimately evolves into one of the strongest, Gyarados. Others may not change form but learn additional moves that prove incredibly useful; it might be a long time before Mankey becomes Primeape, but with Low Kick and Karate Chop attacks he could be instrumental in the early going.

But it doesn't have to be Mankey; it could be Ratatta. It could be Nidoran. It could be Pidgey, or Pikachu, or Geodude. There is a tendency for the Pokemon you start with to become one of your strongest, but it's not a necessity, and any Pokemon can eventually be beneficial to your six member team. Moreover, you can have well over six Pokemon; you can only carry six with you to use in battle, while the others are stored remotely and recalled from the Pokemon Centers. Two of the same type of Pokemon -- let's say two Ratattas -- could have entirely different movesets, each adept for different situations. "Hidden moves" (HMs) and "technical moves" (TMs) can be discovered and taught to Pokemon in addition to the moves they learn at pre-set experience levels. The beauty of Pokemon is that no two people are going to have the same exact team, no team is perfect to handle all situations and battles, and it's incredibly unlikely a team formed in the early legs of the adventure will have the same exact members come the end. New bonds form. New skills -- cut, surf, strength -- are necessary to advance. Every time a new Pokemon pops up, curiosity is raised as to whether he can help you. What new skills could he learn? What does he evolve to? Choosing which Pokemon and when to find out these mysteries is most of the fun, with advancing from town to town by obtaining items or completing objectives following traditional RPG protocol.

Ultimately, the greatest failings of Pokemon are due to the hardware limitations of the GameBoy platform. There is plenty of depth here to explore, yet such a simplistic menu interface doesn't lend itself well to exploring. Though Pokemon are all rated in categories such as attack and defense, there's no way to compare them all head to head. When you have tens of Pokemon at your disposal, its easy to lose track of where they are stored in the convoluted "box" system the game implements. Before you teach a Pokemon a move, you have little idea how useful that move will be; there are some indicators, but trial and error is necessary. Your pouch can hold no more than twenty items, so you'll have to be conservative and try to pick only items you really need when exploring caves and facilities. It's all a bit frustrating to negotiate at times.

The game also moves slow. Text is slow. Battles are slow. Walking from place to place is slow. Part of the original appeal of Pokemon was the trading gimmick of linking together two GameBoys to exchange and battle creatures; Nintendo capitalized on it substantially, but it doesn't change the fact a system like the GameBoy is ill-fit to reveal the amount of non-linearity available.

The legacy Pokemon left is becoming more obvious. It was about catching them all. It was about trading. It was about level grinding (but it was level grinding with a sense of mystery and surprise, assuming a guidebook didn't lead you). It was about collecting the gym badges, thwarting Team Rocket, beating your rival and living happily ever after as the Pokemon Champion. And it's a shame these are the popular enduring memories.

However linear its progression is, few RPGs, let alone ones over a decade old on first generation portable hardware, provide such a bevy of ways to achieve your final goal. Each time through the journey you learn more, you combine old and new ways of party building, you find new and entertaining approaches on your way to victory. Yes, take a step back and Pokemon reveals itself as a very simple design and a very easy game to finish.

How you choose to get to that finish is the fun part. And sadly, once there, it's too easily forgotten.

drella's avatar
Staff review by Jackie Curtis (November 26, 2008)

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