Friday, 19 May 2017

Obligatory Retrospective Review of a Beloved Childhood Thing #4: Pokémon Red and Blue (Video Game)

For a brief few months in 2016, the Pokémon franchise again possessed more reach and sway than Fascism in 1930's Europe. This was thanks to Pokémon Go, an Augmented Reality game which succeeded in getting lazy bastards to go outside. But modern trends develop and fall with such rapid inevitability they’re like fucking Emperors during the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And now no one cares about Pokémon again.

I still happen to like the Pokémon franchise as a whole, however, and have fond memories of getting up at six thirty in the morning to watch the latest episode of Ash Ketchum’s perpetual journey of failure. Oh my early-twenties were a simpler time. It’s also the 20th anniversary of the franchise - the game wasn't released in the USA until 1999, two and a half years after its Japanese release, but then Japan always were a few years ahead of America, just look at the Second World War.

With this in mind, I decided it’s high time that I review Game Freak’s debut effort – Pokémon Red and Blue – and take a look at the state of the franchise before it grew a pair of stonking tits. 

Buckle up; it's gonna get weird.

The Consensus:

The public's feelings for Red and Blue have already been made apparent with the unhinged popularity of Pokémon Go. In terms of actual gameplay Go may have little in common with the original games, but all the same, it is an exercise rooted entirely in nostalgia for Pokémon’s debut generation.

There’s a reason for Pokémon Red and Blue’s enduring popularity, even though, objectively, they’re fairly generic monster collecting games. Back in the Nineties Red and Blue single-handedly popularised the monster collecting JRPG sub-genre, and this impact can still be felt today: one look at the Android app store will reveal more shoddy knockoffs than a Chinese market selling ifones.

Pokémon, second only to Tetris, was the killer app for the Game Boy. Even franchises that forged their own identities using similar concepts fell down when under the scrutiny of Pokémon fans. At every school there was always that one kid who thought he was so fucking clever with his Monster Rancher game. Or there was the kid who was adamant that Agumon (Digimon) didn’t look like the type of hideously mutated relative the Charmander family would keep locked in the basement. But I don't see a Digimon Go game in the works, Ben. Contrarian prick.

How I Remember Them:

I received my copy of Pokémon Red and a Game Boy Colour for Christmas '99; Red because only a Charizard would do for this flame t-shirt wearing badass. While everyone was obsessed with the impending machine apocalypse by way of the Millennium Bug, I was more concerned with incrementally increasing the stats of deformed virtual cats. And ignoring my actual pets.

Pokémon fever hit me hard. I knew the layout of Kanto better than my mum's house. And although I couldn't remember what saith Othello in Act IV Scene II for my English exam, I could recite the names of all 151 first generation Pokémon. As a nine-year old fan of the animé, I thought Red and Blue were hot shit - the cutting edge in digital animal abuse.

More or less my style in the late 90's.

Do They Hold Up?

I'm not going to get into the nitty gritty regarding the game's mechanics, as they've barley changed in twenty years, but yes they hold up. Mostly. 

Red and Blue's static battles, sprites, and bland visual design looks quaint by today's standards, but these games established the blueprint for all future Pokémon games. You picked your starting Pokémon (from three), set off in the world, and captured, battled, and traded living beings. Most vitally of all (for Nintendo's money vault), Red and Blue established the concept of Nintendo releasing two (or three) virtually identical games with exclusive Pokémon on each to encourage trading. They're essentially exactly the same as any of the series' main games.

As Matthew McConaughey once said: "That's what I love about these Pokémon games, man: I get older, they still play the same way."

A simple concept carries Red and Blue: it's a bildungsroman style journey through a world with a disregard to traditional education that's second only to Hogwarts. I remember the initial excitement of choosing my first Pokémon (Charmander, 'natch) from Professor Oak - who was almost definitely slinging one up my character's mum - with the promise of the vast quest ahead of me. The drive to be the very best (like no one ever was) took me from my early days savaging a lowly Pidgey or Rattata, to defeating the region's eight gym leaders and, ultimately, the Elite Four. 

Kanto's barren, linearly plotted open world may seem lame these days - what with identical towns only differentiated by their colour scheme, and endlessly bland caves and forests- but back in 1999 this was a epic world second only to A Link to the Past. It tapped into the faux-desire for responsibility we all felt as a child. I had to capture and raise these living creatures, collect all eight badges, defeat the badguys, and complete the Pokédex. There was even a rival (Gary 'Motherfucking' Oak) in case you needed to feel inadequate in the virtual world too.

Unlike the loosely structured open world games we have now, Red and Blue felt like a natural progression from humble beginnings to God-Emperor of the Universe. Technically, you could progress through the gyms in any order. Just like how you can 'technically' go home from work whenever you want. Whilst this was possible, the level-scaling of the wild Pokémon and NPC encounters and the key items required meant that you were supposed to follow the intended path.

Otherwise you'd be unable to follow Red and Blue's complex story. The young protagonist repeatedly encounters a criminal organisation on his journey; in this game it's Team Rocket but they're interchangeable with the later groups. And as the police and military forces in this world are as rare as devoted fathers in Liverpool, it's up a solitary ten-year old to deal with such threats to national security. The more things change. 

Besides Red and Blue are companion games and are best when you're playing alongside a friend, so playing 'properly' is advised. I had no friends growing up, but I did have two Game Boys (and Pokémon Yellow too) so I was still able to complete the Pokédex. Looking back it's funny how revolutionary the concept of trading Pokémon (data) from one cartridge to another using a link cable seemed at the time. Before the age of ubiquitous technology such as USB drives, internet-streaming, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, the trading aspects of Red and Blue were like some William Gibson wank fantasy. 

Death to Bulbasaur: the worst starter Pokémon

Upon revisiting Red and Blue one thing about its world building which struck me as particularly suspect - and let's be fair, there were quite a few things wrong with this setting - was how one is unable to progress in society without a Pokémon. You couldn't even leave Pallet Town (with three buildings, that should be Pallet Hamlet) without one. Just substitute Pokémon for 'Travel Permit' and it'd be like Stalinist Russia.

The only way one was permitted to move about Kanto was in devoting your life to chasing the elusive dream of finally owning all of the critters. A dream that's getting further and further away with each game. As of 2017 there's what, 800 of the buggers? There are more Pokémon than there are peers in the fucking House of Lords.

Considering the impact of Pokémon Go, I'd say that GAME Freak inc were bang on the money with their presentation of Pokémon. What made the weirdness of the setting truly noticeable was that there was nothing else to it beyond the Pokémon mechanic. Battle, capture, rinse, and repeat - it's as insanely unilateral as the Yorkshire Ripper. Was an Orwellian law passed in Kanto that prevented the NPCs from discussing anything other than Pokémon?

Elemental themed cartoon versions of real-world animals are cool and all, but there are other things to life. Like cider and pizza. And where are all the disgruntled janitors ready to go postal after another day cleaning up Ponyta shit?

I don't remember getting 'the vibe' from Red and Blue back in the day. The setting perfectly mirrored my fanaticism for these creatures. When I had the likes of a blade-handed insectoid (Scyther) and fire-bird (Moltres) to keep me distracted, it was little wonder I never really thought too much about The Stepford Wives' style creepiness under the surface.

Red and Blue had enough overtly disturbing material anyway. Illegal gambling dens, child-abducting Pokémon, Italian gang leaders, parasitic Pokémon, and a genuine Pet Sematary in Lavender Town. 

The singular focus on the Pokémon themselves meant that there was more grinding than a night club in the early-Noughties.

Most other JRPGs - yes, it may not be cool enough to hang with Final Fantasy but this is a JRPG - usually have something else to distract from the merciless grind. Even if that something is dressing up your female companions in the most hentai-friendly outfits possible. Everything in Red and Blue relied on your devotion to the cause of capturing, training, battling, and trading the 151 critters. It's as though the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ended up in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Being a monster collecting game, Red and Blue obviously hinged on the appeal of their titular creatures. A lot of 'fans' still uphold the first generation as being not only the best, but the only generation of Pokémon that's worthwhile. Genwunners they're called, and they possess the same brand of strawman nostalgia popular with Brexiters and Trump voters.

Objectively speaking, however, the designs of many first generation Pokémon are iconic. Everyone knows Pikachu, the game's rather interpretive depiction of mouse that's more like something Doctor Moreau would knock up. The little yellow critter, one of the franchise's most enduring creations, is (alongside Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty) emblematic of what I like to call 'Friendly Capitalism'.

There are tons of popular Gen 1 'mons which hold up today. A better reviewer might dwell on these classic designs, but this is The Crusades of a Critic, and you've already played these games. So I'm going to make fun of some of the shite ones instead. It should be noted, however, that a lot of these are down to bad sprite work, an issue that was fixed from Gen 2 onwards.

(Left) Lickitung: This one's always bad though. Do I go for a window-licker joke, or a KISS reference?

(Right) Exeggutor: Jesus. I saw The Void recently. I think this monstrosity was in it. Wait a minute - is it supposed to be a palm tree or an eggplant? Get your story straight, GAME Freak. Better in the later games, rad name too.

(Left) Tangela: The sprite work gets better, but really this is just another naff design. It's like a mass of Seventies' pubes straight from the Joy of Sex.

(Right) Gastly: Garbage 1st Gen design for one of the better Pokémon. Whilst an ace black sphere surrounded by purple flame in later appearances, here it looks as though someone Dutch Ovened Willem Dafoe.

(Left) Electrode: The Voltorb/Electrode line represent a problem with Pokémon that has existed since Gen 1. Take an existing Pokémon, make it bigger and add angry eyes onto it when it evolves. Electrode is the laziest example of this. At least it gets a mouth. Voltorb was a bit too I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

(Right) Mew: Good lord. Is this an aborted fetus? Bad sprite. Very bad 
sprite. Makes me wonder why I followed my friend Liam's insane made-up instructions to unlock this secret 'mon. Let's be honest: childhood game rumours were more convoluted than rituals to summon Great Old Ones.

I could do this all day. Surprisingly, for a game as nostalgia proof as Pokémon, there were tonnes of piss-poor designs. The absolute worst had to be Dragonite: after two sleek serpentine evolutions and 55 levels, it became the camp cousin of Charizard. If this were any other generation, a lot of these Pokémon would (rightly) have been angrily chased off like an atheist in the Middle East.

Some of the sprites were so radically different from their later, or anime, appearances that I can only imagine the original designs were accidentally put in the wash and had to be drawn from memory. 

In fact, speaking with knowledge gained from my 2017 perspective, this same complaint can be levelled at Red and Blue across the board. The pure essence of the Pokémon franchise is to be found here, for better and for worse. After Red and Blue's successors loaded their gameplay with useless mini-games, and changed the core focus from raising a virtual creature to endless micromanaging hidden stats and attributes, it was nice to just get back to basics.      

Red and Blue are certainly rough around the edges, but they were released on ageing hardware after all. And I'm not just talking visually - the games look no better or worse than Link's Awakening (also for the Game Boy). There are numerous glitches, unrefined gameplay elements, and inconsistencies with the later games (such as how a Pokémon's stats work, effects of certain moves, etc). 

The immediate sequels - Gold and Silver - are in my opinion the best in the franchise. They used Red and Blue as a launching point to tidy up the gameplay and bring in needed key features (such as Pokémon natures and breeding). From the third generation onwards the games were bogged down with more unneeded crap than my grandmother's magnet laden fridge.

But if you want to recapture the experience that was for children of the Nineties what Pac-Man was to those in the Eighties, you have to play the originals. Even warts and all there's nothing else like them. Not even the new Pokémon games (or indeed Go) can capture me the way these games can. Give them a go. Just stay clear of the infamous MissingNo glitch.

MissingNo (not Missingo as I used to call it) is a nightmarish collective of unused data who, through various exploits, could be battled or caught like a normal Pokémon. Doing so would create 99 copies of any item. But as well as providing you with everything you could either need, the glitch could also screw you and leave you with absolutely nothing. Not unlike the upcoming UK General Election. 

Giovanni for PM

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