Pokémon is the world’s most lucrative media franchise, with games, TV shows, and merchandise galore. It’s hard to imagine a time when this franchise wasn’t dominating the world. This is especially true for me since I was literally born the day before the original Pokémon games released in Japan. That’s right; I am a day older than Pikachu.
Obviously, a newborn can’t play Pokémon, so it took me a long time to ingratiate myself with the series. In fact, my first Pokémon game was Alpha Sapphire, and I’ve played all of them since. None of the games prior to the 3DS have ever been played by me. So, I thought it would be interesting to try out the original Pokémon Red for the first time ever, and see what all the fuss is about.
Why Not Before?
Pokémon is a series that, on the surface, doesn’t appear to change too much between installments. The key gameplay has basically remained the same for twenty-five years. You get your first Pokémon partner, go off on a journey across your home region, defeat some villainous group causing mischief, recruit some Gods to your cause and finally defeat the Elite 4 and the Champion. This template has remained consistent throughout basically every main series title, with a few tweaks here and there.
What makes each game different are the smaller, quality-of-life improvements that each game fixes from the last. Even from Gen 7 (Sun & Moon) to Gen 8 (Sword & Shield), we saw a number of tiny adjustments that make the gameplay so much smoother, such as accessing the PC from wherever you are in the game or the EXP Candies that make grinding all the easier. It’s insane to me that Pokémon Sun & Moon, 20 years into the franchise existing, was the first time you could choose to switch a member of your party with a newly-caught Pokémon if you wanted to rather than it automatically being sent to the PC.
Of course, the effect of this is that the further back you go, the more dated the series becomes. A lot of it is obviously down to the hardware limitations of a GameBoy compared to a Switch, but the limitations are still there. Jumping from the 3DS/Switch era of Pokémon straight back to where it all began can sound daunting, which is largely why I haven’t. It’s the same thing with Mario Kart: why bother returning to Mario Kart DS when Mario Kart 8 contains everything the older version does and more?
A Simpler Time
The answer is, of course, simplicity. There’s something strangely charming about playing this game for the first time after becoming so familiar with the newer games in the series. There are no bells-and-whistles, no gimmicks, no flashiness. It’s just pure Pokémon. The game almost seems too eager to get you out of the house and exploring Kanto. There’s no deeper story like the Island Challenge or the Ultimate Weapon. It’s just “beat the Gyms, defeat Team Rocket, smell ya later”.
That’s one of the things about this being on the GameBoy that weirdly improves the experience. If there was a similar lack of story in a modern Pokémon game, it would just be lazy. Here, it’s oddly satisfying. The lack of a day-night cycle, no Abilities, no distinction between Physical and Special attacks beyond their type. It’s all stuff I thought I would miss. But, no.
Again, being on the GameBoy helps. It weirdly gave me some kind of nostalgia, even though I never owned a GameBoy in my youth. The DS could play GameBoy games, but it’s not the same. I’ve strangely found a deeper appreciation not just for these original Pokémon games, but this era of gaming in general. Simple gameplay, nice music, and something that hooks you to get to the end. That’s all you really need.
The Original 151
Unfortunately, that’s where my praises end, since a lot of the stuff I thought I wouldn’t like… Yeah, I didn’t like them. First, and this may be a little controversial, but the original 151 Pokémon largely do nothing for me. They all just seem really basic. Say what you will about how insane some of the newer Pokémon can be, but at least the majority of them have some kind of deeper meaning behind their design and philosophy. Here, we get a seal Pokémon named Seel, a monkey Pokémon named Mankey and a mime Pokémon called Mr. Mime. It’s not interesting to me.
Also, for there being 151 of these guys, there oddly isn’t that much variety. Like, there are four different bird Pokémon (Pidgeot, Fearow, Dodrio, and Farfetch’d) that are all Normal/Flying-type. Three different lines are Grass/Poison (Venusaur, Victreebel, Vileplume). There are so many pure-Water types it’s ridiculous, and why create two different fossil Pokémon just to make them both the same typing? With 15 different typings in this game, surely it makes the most sense to get a bit more unique with more of them? Not doing that seems completely… *snicker*… farfetched to me…
Not that the typing matters that much in the end, since basically, every Pokémon’s level-up move set is garbage. It’s 80% Normal-type moves; the worst move typing. And the fact that ‘Gust’ isn’t Flying-type continues to make no sense to me. My Pidgey evolved and got close to Lv. 20 before it finally learned the fourth move, any fourth move. It’s not that exciting when a Pokémon learns a new attack since 90% of the time it’s not a very good one, usually a status move I’m not gonna use or some variation of Tackle. This is likely a result of a hardware limitation, which is not the only such limitation that annoys me.
“But Weren’t You Just Saying…?”
Yeah, I know I was just talking about how charming the limitations of the GameBoy can be, but this is different. Not every hardware limitation works in favor of this game. This is where we come back to the smaller quality-of-life adjustments from earlier. What’s obviously super annoying right away is the item system. You may call it a challenge, I call it a headache. The worst feeling in the world is going to pick up an item only to be told you have no room for it, so you hastily use a Rare Candy you could have saved for a better moment.
Storing items in the PC is fine enough, but it’s such a hassle to walk back and forth to a Pokémon Center every time your bag gets full. Speaking of the PC, I hate it. I hate this damn thing. It’s so frustrating to have to manually change boxes in the PC when one gets full. In case you were unaware when a PC box fills up, and if the PC is set to that box, you will not even have the option to throw a Poké Ball. Particularly annoying when you’ve spent a long time trying to find a rare wild Pokémon just to have to slump back to the Pokémon Center and readjust.
There’s also a huge balancing error, which certainly isn’t new to point out. Essentially, due to the Pokémon-types and move-list, Psychic-type Pokémon are grossly overpowered. The only types effective against Psychic are Bug and Ghost. Unfortunately, the Bug-types in this game are famously weak, and there is only one Ghost-type, with only two Ghost-type attacks. Also, the use of ‘Special’ as a stat means that Special Attack and Special Defense are judged by the same stat, which is stupid.
An Undisputed Truth
This final point is something I’ll never understand no matter how many years I remain a gamer. I don’t understand how a glitch-filled game from the past can be met with praise, while a similarly glitchy game from today gets maligned. Pokémon Red and Blue are notorious for their glitches and poor coding, and I can’t fathom why people are willing to let it slide here when it’s on this scale, yet something as small as how the world stops moving when you climb a ladder in Pokémon Sword & Shield is treated as the worst thing that ever happened.
It’s not like the world is bugging out constantly here, but there are a couple of things that are hard to look past. The main thing that keeps getting in the way is the critical-hit system. In Generation 1, a coding error means that the likelihood of a critical hit is tied to the Speed stat. The faster the Pokémon is, the more often it’ll land a critical hit. This effectively renders slower Pokémon unusable, as they will constantly take more damage. Alakazam in particular is broken in this game, being both fast and Specially-strong. It sounds like a small thing, but the computer especially loves to exploit this. For example, one of the trainer battles resulted in the opposing Pokémon landing 6 critical hits in a row, which objectively should be illegal.
The Nostalgia Goggles
It amazes me that people return to this game time and time again. Don’t they know there are more user-friendly Pokémon games for them to play? I know some people prefer a challenge, which is fine, but this game can be a slog at times. I’m 33+ hours in, and I’ve only beaten the third Gym, and I haven’t whited out once.
Nostalgia is 100% the cause here. It’s the same thing with the Nintendo 64, specifically Super Mario 64. If you grew up with it, it’s amazing. If you’re picking it up for the first time today, it can be borderline unplayable. It just comes down to time. If you grew up with a Nintendo 64, it was likely all you had, and you devoted more time to pushing through the limitations and mastering it. Playing it for the first time today, you’re used to the smoother, inarguably better gameplay and control of Super Mario Odyssey. Older games can feel downright stiff if you didn’t spend hundreds of hours on them growing up.
That’s sort of how I feel about Pokémon Red. I am having a good time with this game, don’t get me wrong, but I’m really only playing it so I can say I’ve played it. I doubt I’ll return to it once I complete the PokéDex. It’s just that I miss too much about the newer games. I miss my bottomless item bag, my abilities, my good boy Rowlet. But, hey, a lot of people miss the stripped-back, pocket-sized, unquestionably flawed Kanto region. I would never want to take that away from them. Just… keep it away from me.