Pokémon Retrospective, Part 1: Pokémon’s Magic Spell

Pokemon’s 9th Generation is nearly upon us. With the franchise experiencing so much growth along with so much scrutiny, it’s unclear what kind of legacy Pokemon Scarlet and Violet will leave behind once they come out in November. However, as we anticipate these new games, I want to look back at Pokemon’s evolution throughout the years, focusing in particular on the 1st Generation.

I hope I don’t need to say it, but I’ll say it anyway: Pokemon is old. Even back in 1998 (the year of Pokemon Red and Blue‘s USA debut), the Game Boy was considered ancient and restrictive. It’s all too easy to discuss how dated the first games feel to play today. The path forward is unclear; you need to constantly level grind; the game balance is painfully one-sided; HMs eat up your Pokemons’ movesets… I could go on.

Screenshot from Game Freak’s original concept design document created in 1990.

That’s not what this post is about. Today we’ll discuss how, despite all of those problems, the Pokemon games managed to burst onto the scene and cast its magic spell upon millions of players, myself included. In the context of its release, Pokemon Red and Blue were an ambitious pair of games. They created a winning formula that carried the franchise through numerous generations and iterations. It certainly captured my heart and imagination, and to this day I can still feel that magic through the series’ pixelated nativity.

It’s true that Pokemon stands on the shoulders of RPG giants such as Earthbound and Shin Megami Tensei, but no other game blends all of the genre’s elements together the way that Pokemon does.

Not Your Dad’s RPG

Like most role-playing games, Pokemon aims to capture the universal fantasy of embarking on an epic adventure. By the time Gen 1 was first released, Japanese RPGs had already been simulating this experience on consoles for over a decade, starting with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and branching out with Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and Shin Megami Tensei. Pokemon exists as we know it today thanks to the groundwork that these games established. However, it’s the way Pokemon subverts most of the genre’s tropes and blends unique elements together that makes it so refreshing for its time.

Ken Sugimori’s artwork from the Nintendo Power Player’s Guide for Pokemon Red & Blue

Pokemon’s modern aesthetic is perhaps the most obvious shake-up. The Pokemon world doesn’t feel as distant as a High Fantasy or Science Fiction – it feels closer to home, with items and locations that kids can easily recognize. Instead of wearing a cloak and a sword, you wear a hat and a backpack. Instead of resting at an inn, you heal at a hospital (aka Pokemon Center). You buy items at a convenience store. You board a cruise ship. You ride a bike, log into a PC, and visit museums. Not only does this make the game stand out from other JRPGs, it makes the game approachable. Game Freak smartly removes a layer of translation — you already know what these things do because you see them in your everyday life. It makes you see your own world differently. An adventure (and perhaps a new Pokemon companion) could be waiting for you just around the corner.

Screenshot from concept art for Pokemon Red & Green.

Route to Success

Pokemon’s next magical element is its sprawling interconnected world. Most JRPGs at the time relied on putting the player into a miniaturized overworld, symbolically evoking how one might travel across entire landmasses, almost like a movie montage. Once the player entered a town or a dungeon, the game would “zoom in” to a more realistically-scaled version of an environment. Pokemon, on the other hand, never leaves the “zoomed in” view. Instead, routes connect the world together. If you want to get to Pewter City, you need to walk through Route 2 and navigate Viridian Forest. Game Freak put careful thought into the world design. You can access shortcuts like Diglett Cave, take alternative paths like Cycling Road, and loop around the region like from Cinnabar Island to the staring area, Pallet Town. Places that were once blocked off will open up, giving the player a compelling reason to explore the world. You could honestly call Pokemon a Metroidvania/RPG hybrid, and it was a revelation back in its day.

The routes in the old Pokemon games are deceptively simple – there are actually quite a few things to think about when you’re walking from town to town.

When you focus on individual areas, you can see how Game Freak put even more layers of thought into the environmental design. Routes make a clear distinction between “safe” areas (aka roads) and “unsafe” areas (aka tall grass / trainers). Not only does this give the player some choice over combat, this mechanic allows Game Freak to craft some areas to feel more tense than others. Throw in puzzles, secrets, maze-like paths, and a dash of environmental storytelling, and you have yourself a seamless, immersive journey across a Pokemon region.

A story that gets the player to feel like they’re living inside of the game’s world is much harder to pull off than you think.

Insert Player’s Hopes and Dreams Here

Pokemon is a coming-of-age story. On the surface, there isn’t much of a plot, but once you begin your journey, you can’t help but begin to create your own narrative. It feels a bit like Minecraft and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These games give you several narrative tools: a setting, an overall goal, and a cast of characters, but the moment-to-moment plot is up to you to complete. Your Pokemon journey becomes entirely your own. You insert your own hopes and emotions; you create your own purpose to the adventure. I don’t think players truly appreciate how difficult it is to create a game like this. If you give too much story, then the player will expect a complete A to Z experience and won’t try to fill in the gaps; but if you give too little story, then the player won’t invest themselves in the game in the first place. It takes a careful balance to put players in the “self-insert” mindset.

Of course, that buttface of a rival gets you so mad, you can’t help but invest yourself into the game.

Of course, the game couldn’t just rely on the player’s imagination alone – its characters and challenges also needed a strong appeal. Thankfully, the early Pokemon games offered plenty of that. There were the 8 Gym Leaders, each specializing in a specific type; Team Rocket, a mafia-like organization that literally takes over an entire city; and of course, your Rival, who checks you every step of the way. Even if you do always win against him, he manages to stay one step ahead of you, and boasts about it every time you cross paths. It reminds you of your purpose and gives you a sense of urgency to your actions. You don’t want to fall behind! Not only that, you can find legendary Pokemon hidden within their own dedicated areas, plenty of mysterious locations like Cinnabar Island’s Pokemon Mansion, and a simple yet effective plot twist regarding the final gym leader.

At least for me, Ken Sugimori’s art direction added that polishing charm to the game. Pokemon just wouldn’t be the same without it.

And of course, there was Ken Sugimori’s charming art direction and Junichi Masuda’s epic chiptune soundtrack. I was so drawn in by it all, I frequently pretended that I lived in the Pokemon world and made my own stories based on the Pokemon I caught and the adventures I had in the games. I’d leave my Game Boy on just to listen to the soundtrack and set the Nintendo Power guide on a shelf as a picture reference while I wrote and illustrated my own Pokemon picture books. Sometimes my brother and sister would join in the pretend play, too. We all loved Pokemon so much; it was a unifying bond that we all shared, and still do to this day.

Keep in mind, Pokemon was still an 8-bit RPG designed to play on a handheld from 1989.

All of this Happened on the Game Boy

Games as ambitious as Pokemon Red and Blue were rarely seen on the Game Boy. Few contemporaries (The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Donkey Kong (1994)) can even stand close to it. The Game Boy’s library consisted mostly of stripped-down ports and spinoffs from the NES and SNES. While they were certainly impressive in their own right, it was also easy to dismiss the Game Boy as just a time waster, an footnote in gaming’s history. It’s even in the name – the “boy” of Game Boy makes you think it’s the Junior version of the “grown up” gaming experiences found on home consoles.

Pokemon shattered that notion completely. It proved that even an 8-bit handheld could be a home to innovation and ambition if you work with the limitations in the right way. Satoshi Tajiri’s vision of Pokemon took a whopping 6 years to develop, and an additional 2 years more to localize into English. That’s an oppressively long development cycle back in the 1990s. They encountered several road blocks, their success was yet unclear, and yet through it all they managed to create a masterpiece for its time. While later games would improve upon the formula, and Game Freak would make exhaustive references and remakes that dilute Gen 1’s impact today, the first Pokemon games still deserve their respected spot in video game history.

We didn’t even get to the fourth element of Pokemon’s Magical formula: the Pokemon themselves. That will have to receive its own analysis for Part 2.

Sources / Further Reading:

  1. https://helixchamber.com/media/capsule-monsters/
  2. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html
  3. https://tcrf.net/Pok%C3%A9mon_Red_and_Blue
  4. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2017/08/09/game-freaks-origins-and-non-pokemon-games.aspx

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