The Pokemon Retrospective - Part 1: The Blue Period

By Mike on 9:00 am

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When it comes to video games, nobody can match Nintendo's level of innovation. While Sony and Microsoft have always boasted the superior hardware, their systems and games have always followed convention and rarely stray outside the lines. Big N revolutionized the gaming industry as we know it in the post crash era; inventing the platformer we know and love today and setting the standard for adventure titles. One of their biggest gambles took on the conventions of the console role playing game, something considered sacred with Japanese gamers.

During his youth, Satoshi Tajiri would spend his days catching and collecting bugs in the forests near Machida, a suburb of Tokyo. Like many Asian countries, Japan is dominated by massive cities. In the 1970s, a rapidly growing urban population demanded more living space. Tajiri's forests where paved over as the city expanded. To make a long story short, he eventually got into gaming, starting the magazine Game Freak, which eventually evolved into a full fledged game developer. In 1991, Tajiri was introduced to the Game Boy and immediately saw the system's potential as a social gaming platform. By simply connecting the two systems together via a cable, gamers could interact with each other anywhere at anytime. According to Bulbapedia, it was said that he imagined his beloved insects crawling along the cable. The idea eventually evolved into a bug catching game that allowed players to trade their creatures. By the 90s, Japan had fostered a whole generation of children who had never left the cities and never saw the countryside. Tajiri wanted to recreate the rural bug catching experience for those who were no longer able to enjoy it the way he did. The concept originally received mixed opinions took some time before it was greenlighted by Nintendo. Nobody was sure if a bug catching game would catch on, no pun intended. Eventually, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto teamed up with Tajiri on the creature catching project. The game was developed over the course of five years, considered long for a game at the time, particularly one for an 8-bit system. In 1996, Pokemon Green and Red were finally released in Japan for the Gameboy.

Pokemon Green and Red were role playing games but were unlike other titles in the genre. In most JRPGs, the playable character formed a team, usually of three including themselves, and the player's character was the one that did the actual fighting. Pokemon rather set the player as a trainer for the monsters they had caught; allowing the monsters to battle each other. Your trainer would travel the fictional world of Kanto trying to defeat rival trainers, win the eight gym badges, defeat the Elite Four, and become a Pokemon Master. Pokemon did not really have any solid storyline to it, unlike other RPGs at the time. Rather it was a mix of side quests such as defeating the evil Team Rocket, a group of Pokemon poachers, or descovering the whereabouts of the legendary Mewtwo.

At the beginning of the game, Professor Oak would give the player one of three Pokemon, which was chosen by the player. The choice would determine the difficulty of the first part of the game. From there, the player needed to catch additional Pokemon to build their team using special Poke Balls, capsules that contained their monsters. Pokemon could be encountered in the wild in grassy patches, the sea, in buildings, and in caves. Once weakened enough, you could try and catch them. A team of six could be held at a time while the rest were stored in Bill's PC. There were 151 monsters to catch and battle, each with their own specific skills, stats, and move sets. As you trained them, they would gain experience and grow stronger. Pokemon could learn new, better moves as they gained experience points and levelled up, and most could evolve into stronger forms. The starter Bulbasaur for example had two evolutions: first evolving to Ivysaur and then to Venusaur.
Pokemon and their individual moves were further broken down by elements in a sort of rock/paper/scissors on steroids approach to battling. Originally, there were 15 element types, each with different strengths and weaknesses. A grass Pokemon for example was strong against water types, but was weak against fire. Flying types were immune to ground types while ground was immune to electric. Pokemon still retained elements from more traditional RPGs though. Combat was turn-bases and featured levelling up based on gaining experience points. Different items were available to enhance and heal Pokemon, or even teach them new move sets. With the Gameboy Link Cable, gamers could trade their Pokemon and battle their friends. Multiplayer to this degree was something that had been unprecedented on the Gameboy and rarely seen in RPGs in general. Pokemon was split into two different versions; neither containing all 151 monsters. Gamers were encouraged and indeed needed to hook up with their friends if they wanted to "catch 'em all". That is unless of course you had a Gameshark.

Despite having an overall deceptive kiddie appearance with its kawaii characters, Pokemon involved a great deal of depth and strategy making it appealing to young and old gamers alike. The game was a huge hit for Nintendo and Tajiri. Pokemon rapidly became the top selling Gameboy title in history, moving over 10 million copies in Japan alone. Most games were lucky to reach that figure for global sales, let alone on a portable supposedly nearing the end of its life. Pokemon eventually spawned a massive multimedia franchise that even gave venerable characters like Hello Kitty a run for their money. In late 1996, a slightly updated Blue version was released which tweaked some of the issues in the original Red and Green titles. In 1998, Blue version finally made its way to North America, just in time for the Christmas season. The titles were once again split into two as Red and Blue versions. The games sold out quickly and topped the North American Gameboy charts, proving that the game had iron clad international appeal. Tajiri noted in an interview with Time that he thought North Americans better understood the whole cooperative concept of the game; that it was not just about the Pokemon but also about the human element. He noted the strong North American fandom for both Ash and Pikachu from the anime rather than most Japanese fans who focused only on Pikachu.

Speaking of which, in 1997, the franchise was further expanded with an anime cartoon series that followed Ash Katchem and his Pikachu travelling through Kanto as Ash tried to become a Pokemon master. Originally, Nintendo had not decided on which Pokemon should be the mascot for the entire franchise and left it to fans to decide. Their instant attraction with the electric mouse in the anime launched Pikachu to superstardom. He was hardly the most powerful Pokemon in the game but people loved his cuteness and determination. In fact, he was so popular that he even got his own game in 1999, titled Pokemon Yellow. Yellow version was similar to Red, Blue and Green but featured Pikachu as the player's only starter Pokemon. Their rival received an Eevee rather than one of the original starters. Anime characters would make cameos. Jesse, James, and Meowth replace the Team Rocket Grunts in several parts of the game. The player's Pikachu would follow them in the overworld outside of their Pokeball, just as Ash's did in the anime. The game also introduced a rudimentary happiness system. Player's could talk to their Pikachu and see its mood. As you trained him and spent more time with him, he would grow to like you more but if he fained too much in battle or was stored in Bill's PC, he would grow angry. Pikachu was even voiced in Yellow by Ikue Ohtani, who voiced Ash's in the anime. The voice was resampled to be able to play on the Gameboy's hardware. Additionally, it was the only game where Pikachu could be taught the water type HM03 move Surf without cheating. Teaching him Surf unlocked the Pikachu's Beach minigame on Route 19, a side scrolling surfing game where Pikachu would do tricks on his surfboard by jumping off waves. The biggest improvement in Yellow though was the graphics. One of the biggest complaints with the originals was the poor art quality of the Pokemon sprites. Gamers felt they looked nothing like they did in the anime and promotional artwork. The art for the Pokemon received a complete overhaul to reflect how they were originally supposed to look. Human character sprites in the game were also redesigned to look more like they did in the anime. Furthermore, it was the first of the series to be in colour, provided the player owned a Gameboy Color, while retaining backwards compatibility with the older black & white Gameboys. Multiplayer was also expanded to include several different battle modes which limited the Pokemon that could be used depending on which Cup was selected.

My introduction to the series began with Red Version, which I got for Christmas in 1998. I fell in love with the anime and eventually picked up Yellow version. Since then, I have played every single game in the main series. In as little as three years, Nintendo had developed a multi-billion dollar franchise out of Tajiri's vision, something they had thought would never catch on. Of course you know they could just stop there. In Part 2, we'll look at the second generation of Pokemon as it sparked controversy, developed into spin-offs, launched trading cards, and gamers went for the Gold,

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