Retro Review – Pokémon Red / Blue

Time for a retro review! To be honest, I’ve never officially reviewed anything in my life, so this will be fun. I recently played through the entirety of Pokémon Blue for the first time since childhood. I have very little nostalgia for the original duo of Pokémon games, as I didn’t start playing the series till Gold / Silver. So, let’s get started.

Core Mechanics

The Pokémon franchise is an interesting beast. At the time of writing, the Pokémon core series is on its seventh generation of games with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Over the years, the core gameplay for the Pokémon series hasn’t drastically evolved. There’s a good reason for this, however: the core gameplay for Pokémon has always been engaging. While there have been new frills and tweaks over the years, the gameplay cycle remains the same:

  1. Capture Pokémon
  2. Level up Pokémon in turn-based fights
  3. Once skilled enough, complete challenge to progress to next segment (gym leader, Team Rocket, etc.)
  4. Repeat

Most RPGs back in the 90’s only had phases 2-4. Adding phase 1 — capturing Pokémon — was what truly made Red and Blue so special. In a time where you had a set party of a handful of characters, this was a pretty groundbreaking move.

In the eyes of a modern gamer with no earlier attachment to the series, however, Pokémon Red / Blue’s core gameplay can seem a bit sparse. The game lacks some of the variety of the later additions to the series (obviously). Kids growing up today probably wouldn’t get the same enjoyment out of the original games as they would from something like Sun or Moon.



The game suffers from pacing issues by modern standards. There are segments where you’ll need to grind. The default walking speed is quite slow. The battles move just as fast as the hardware could manage (so not all that fast). These small quality of life issues could impact your overall playing experience.

On a personal note, I like that Pokémon Red / Blue doesn’t hold your hand or over-tutorialize like the later games in the series. Sun and Moon are especially bad offenders with hours of exposition before the game actually starts.

Aesthetic

I want to note that I will almost never directly address the “graphics” of a game. Frankly, graphics aren’t all that important in a video game. There are many games in the Xbox 360 era that strove to have realistic graphics, and now they look like crap. Games that don’t age well generally don’t have the best aesthetic. Aesthetic is what makes a game like Super Mario Odyssey look better than something like Fallout 4. While Fallout arguably has better graphics and requires better hardware to run, Odyssey has a cohesive art style that looks better from the get go, and will age better as well.

Anyway, enough of that tangent, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s first Pokémon game. Being a game originally on the Game Boy, the graphics are black and white by default, with coloring added for playing on the Game Boy Color.

The Overworld

Image result for pokemon red pallet town

Here is Pallet Town; the place where it all begins. The art design here is impeccable, especially considering the huge limitations of the original Game Boys’ hardware. Most Game Boy games have horribly designed tiles that poorly convey what an object is. Here, everything is very clear. Signs look like signs. There are two small houses and one large lab being a point of interest. There is thick grass, thin grass, dirt roads, fences and water. There’s even a couple of pedestrians whom I can only assume are homeless. Everything you see is very clearly defined.

From an RPG perspective, this is pretty straightforward, but Game Freak’s ability to intuitively convey exactly what everything is in the environment was pretty impressive at the time. By modern standards, the aesthetic here looks incredibly dated and hasn’t aged all that well.

But who cares about the overworld. “Buildings look like buildings!!!!” isn’t printed on the back of the box. No, the selling point for the Pokémon series is the wide range of monsters to capture and fight with.



The Pokémon

Spoilers! These are the original 151 Pokémon. Some of them look like how you’d recognize them today, and some of them look a little goofy. Seriously, check out Kabuto. It looks like a scallop with dots for eyes. Anyway, these beautiful creatures are the main reason the original Pokémon games sold so well. Even with the technical and budgetary limitations, the aesthetic of the monsters made each of them immediately recognizable. If you’ve studied character design, you know the importance of silhouettes. Every Pokémon in this game has a unique sillhouette, making them easily identifiable. The designs are so unique that the anime series released later used them in their “Who’s that Pokémon” segments.

Is it fun, and does it still hold up?

So, the original Pokémon games, should you bother playing them? There are many avid fans who would say “yes, they’re the best”, but I don’t think that’s actually the case. If you are the kind of person who appreciates the history of a long-running series, and wants to see where it all started, by all means give the original games a go. However, the series has made huge strides since the original, and newcomers to the series likely won’t enjoy the original games all that much. The aesthetic is a good baseline, but isn’t all that attractive to a modern audience. The gameplay is a bit on the slow side, and there are many segments where grinding is required.

Unless you have a strong nostalgic feeling for the game, I’d recommend picking up the remakes for the GBA, Fire Red and Leaf Green. Don’t get me wrong, those have their own host of issues (tutorials for days), but I believe they captured the spirit of the originals, but have all the necessary quality of life improvements to make it an enjoyable experience.

 

Do you agree? Disagree? Leave me a comment!

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