The Pokemon Retrospective - Part 2: Going for Gold

By Mike on 10:34 pm

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Major trends that reach mass appeal inevitably become dogged by criticism and controversy. Pokemon was no exception. One of the earliest criticisms were in regards the aggressive marketing tactics employed by Nintendo. One prominent child psychologist claimed that the game brainwashed children into buying merchandise. This particular controversy as well as many others were lampooned in the South Park episode "Chinpokomon". Animal rights activists also lashed out against the game saying it promoted animal abuse and bore similarities to cockfighting. Major religious groups joined in on the attack, claiming it promoted the occult as well as violent themes. Abrahamic religions took particular offence to the game's inclusion of evolution, even though it more closely resembled insect metamorphosis rather than the Darwinian kind. Islamic fundamentalists claimed the game was a Jewish plot while Jews complained about supposed Nazi imagery. Fundamentalist Christians thought it contained satanic references. All these claims were proven false.
After the Pokemon trading card game was released in 1999, school yard fights broke out between kids over trade disputes. Parents saw this as indisputable proof that the game promoted violence, gambling, and brainwashing. More level headed individuals such as myself simply saw it as kids just being kids. (Pokemon came out towards the end of my childhood days, but I can remember similar problems with Pogs.) To add to the grief caused by various special interest groups, Nintendo was sued by the creators of the obscure 90s toy Monster in My Pocket for trademark infringement in 2001. Nintendo eventually won the case.
The anime didn't escape controversy either after the episode "Electric Soldier Porygon" caused hundreds of Japanese children to have epileptic seizures. TV Tokyo immediately pulled the episode from distribution and it has not been seen since. It became the first one of the infamous banned episodes. The Pokemon Jinx was accused of being a blackface stereotype of African American women, leading the episode "Holiday Hi-Jinx" to be pulled off American airwaves. Jinx's skin colour was subsequently changed from black to dark purple. (Ironically, Jinx's appearance was based on Ganguro, a fashion trend among teen girls in Japan at the time involving bleached blond hair, deep tans, and thick white eyeliner. Ganguro could almost be called a form of "whiteface" as it mocked the California blond beach bimbo stereotype.) "The Legend of Dratini" was pulled because the Safari Zone Warden is seen pointing a gun at Ash, while Team Rocket's James is later seen holding a gun to the Warden's head. All banned episodes were shown in Japan and can be seen on Youtube. Some have been subtitled by fans but none were dubbed into English.

By the early 2000s, most of the controversy surrounding the series had passed. Pokemon had gone beyond a mere fad and evolved into a much larger pop culture phenomenon. Pikachu got his face on everything from toys to several jumbo jets and even had a protein named after him. Several spinoff games were created including virtual pet Hey You Pikachu for the N64, which used a special voice recognition unit, and Pokemon Pinball for the Gameboy, the first Gameboy game to feature a rumble pack. In 1999, mutterings began coming out about a new Pokemon game that had been released in Japan. Concept arts of new Pokemon not seen in Red, Green, and Blue began spreading online. One, named by fans as Pikablu, showed a round, blue, mouse-like creature which later became Marill. Most infamous was the strange bird shown at the end of the anime's pilot episode. In 2000, Nintendo released the first true sequel of the game in North America under the titles Pokemon Gold & Silver. The bird seen in the anime turned out to be Ho-oh, a legendary phoenix Pokemon that the game's central plot revolved around. Gold & Silver took place three years after the original in Johto region, located just west of and connected to Kanto. Like the previous generation, Gold & Sliver was the first Pokemon game to contain a solid plot revolving around the player's abusive rival, searching for the legenday Ho-oh and Lugia at Brass & Tin Towers, and brining down Team Rocket once and for all. While the basic game mechanics were identical to the original, many new features were added. The graphics were given a complete overhaul to take advantage of the significantly more powerful Gameboy Color. The game was now in full colour and featured far more detailed Pokemon sprites and overworld scenery. Move animations were also vastly improved over the original. The game also increased the number of Pokemon with 100 new creatures being native to only the Johto region, bringing the total to 251. Two new element types, steel and dark, were also added. Other new features included day/night cycles that varied the kinds of Pokemon that could be caught in an area, healing berries, hold items, the Pokegear smartphone, and Pokemon breeding & gender. The clock feature was by far the most critical since certain events would only happen on certain days and certain Pokemon could only be caught at specific times. Talk about forcing kids to play the game 24/7 if they wanted to truly finish it. Unlike other games with day/night cycles, Gold & Silver functioned in real time. To add to all this, the game itself was twice as large as its predecessors. As with the original, the goal was to collect the eight gym badges and defeat the Elite Four. Once you had accomplished that, Professor Oak would give you the NationalDex Pokedex allowing you to travel to Kanto and see how it looks three years after Red & Blue. There you could collect Kanto specific Pokemon and challenge the gyms there. With all 16 badges, you got the chance to fight the reclusive Red on Mt Silver, the protagonist from the original series. Until recently, Red was the most powerful NPC trainer in any Pokemon game, wielding all four starters from the original series, an Espeon, and a Snorlax at levels between 75 and 81.

One year later, Game Freak expanded on the second generation by adding a special edition as they had done with Pokemon Yellow. Pokemon Crystal was released in 2001, making it one of the last Gameboy Color games to be made. While Gold & Silver were backwards compatible with the original Gameboy, Crystal was a Gameboy Color exclusive. Crystal received further visual upgrades; the biggest change being animated Pokemon sprites. This made the creatures seem far more lifelike than they had been as static images. It also expanded the story slightly with new side quests featuring the legendary dog Suicune and the mysterious Unown. The Battle Tower feature was also introduced in the game which added Stadium style single player battle tournaments to the game which tested a trainer's endurance. While not well received by critics as a major improvement over Gold & Silver, it is still coveted by collectors and still regularly sells on eBay for at and above it's original retail value. The Gold, Silver, and Crystal generation is widely regarded by fans to be the best of the series. In my opinion, it's one of the easier Pokemon games out there but is still a lot of fun and as intricate if not more so than any other in the series. The good news is that Nintendo has announced that Gold & Silver will receive remakes for the Nintendo DS, coming out in Japan later this year.

In part 3, we'll examine the spinoff titles and the move to the Gameboy Advance.

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