Pokémon Red & Blue
Developer: Game Freak
Based on: Exploring the world (and feeding obsessive compulsion) by way of glorified cockfighting.
Pokémon has become synonymous with Nintendo handhelds these days, so it's strange to think that the Game Boy had been around for almost ten years before the RPG juggernaut arrived. The system certainly had no shortage of high-profile releases prior to Pokémon, but this was the game that reinvigorated the Game Boy brand.
Flash back to the fall of 1998. While most of the people in my high school class were looking forward to Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time?'s fall release, another pair of games had caught my eye: Pokémon Red and Blue, complementary RPGs that had been hyped to death in the pages of Nintendo Power. The premise was simple enough: capture a team of eclectic monsters with which to defeat all comers. While the story in both versions was identical, each one contained a handful of unique monsters unavailable in the other title. I bought a copy of Blue at the first chance and prepared to tear into it. The adventure had an unassuming enough beginning, with a quaint little town and an eccentric professor handing out monsters to random children, yet it quickly became my obsession. The main story was incredibly simple—especially for someone having come off of Final Fantasy VII the previous year—but that very minimalism made it all the more endearing. Most of the cities in the various regions of the world of Pokémon (Kanto, in this case) have a type-themed gym setup, each gym populated by various trainers blocking the way to their leader. Defeating a gym leader will not only net the victor a nifty TM -- a device that allows you to teach a special move to a single monster—but also endows you with a corresponding badge as proof of your achievement. The overall objective of the Pokémon story is not only to catch 'em all, but also to collect all eight of the region's gym badges and gain access to the grand masters of pokémon battling, the Elite Four.
Before you can do any of that, though, you must expand your stable of available monsters. This is accomplished by first weakening the monsters in battle and then throwing a pokéball -- a sort of collectable prison capsule -- at them. While early monsters are easily captured though dumb luck, some of the hardier (or legendary) pokémon take loads of work to get, even when asleep or paralyzed. Not only that, you only get one chance at these ultra-rare monsters, making for a frustrating replay if you didn’t remember to save right beforehand.
Over time many of the pocket monsters will evolve into more powerful forms. Some require trading special stones with a friend, but the majority change through straight-up grinding. That's not really a particularly grievous burden, though, as these battles are the real meat and potatoes of Pokémon. Battles play out a lot like the early Dragon Quest games, with a single monster on each side of the battlefield (and up to five in reserve), each creature taking a single action per round. Where Pokémon deviates from its inspiration is in the way it handles the monsters' moves. Each pokémon has access to a maximum of four moves at any given time; when learning a new move, it must forget one of its previous abilities. Forgotten moves are effectively lost forever. Some moves, such as those learned from the Hidden Machines necessary to overcome certain obstacles on the world map, can never be forgotten. This leads to the majority of players keeping an “HM Slave” whose only purpose is to learn these required abilities, freeing the rest of their team to focus on perfecting more practical move sets for battle while still being able to continue their quest.
Along the way, players are challenged by a huge number of random pokémon trainers. Not only that, but every section of grass, water and cave houses an endless supply of random monster encounters. I hope you like Pidgey, Ratata, Geodude, Zubat and Tentacool—you see a lot of them in the course of the game. There are a few major antagonists in the form of Professor Oak’s nephew (your rival, whose initial pokémon choice is conveniently the one to which your starter is weak) and the nefarious Team Rocket, who accost you at key points of the story. Team Rocket has vague plans of global domination in mind, somehow involving taking over a technical company, a pokémon crypt, and a casino. This ultimately comes to a head when the final gym leader is revealed as none other than the crime lord you had foiled previously. Your rival, on the other hand, somehow beats you to the punch and actually becomes champion of the Pokémon league by defeating the Elite Four.
Beyond the story and mechanics lies a deep social aspect, one of the main reasons for Pokémon’s continued success. Pokémon Red and Blue had spread themselves across the nation, and everyone was trying to catch 'em all. This was accomplished through the Game Boy’s first and oft-ignored peripheral, the Link Cable. Linking up two Pokémon cartridges not only allowed the players to battle it out for superiority but also facilitated trading of monsters. Looking for that Meowth that isn’t available on your copy of Pokémon Red? It’s as simple as finding someone with the Blue version, linking up, and trading. Within the first year of the game’s North American debut, Nintendo even had official traveling tournaments for trainers to showcase their battle abilities and trade monsters.
Pokémon went on to be just as rousing a success in the remaining regions of the world and its popularity continues to this day. It’s amazing to think that with the humble, 8-bit monochrome power of the Game Boy Nintendo was able to produce such enduring classics. The simple mechanics, memorable monsters and social aspects make for a portable experience that can’t be beat. As ever, we gotta catch 'em all.