The mid-Nineties saw a huge leap in the video-gaming industry as 3D games and the consoles to play them on became available. This put the likes of the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo’s N64 up against the previous generation of the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis or the SNES; a battle which would, of course, reveal only one, true winner. What would become, then, of the two-dimensional handheld market? Nintendo’s classic but now fairly scrawny 8-bit Game Boy system would surely lack support and die a not-so-slow death, right? Surprisingly, no. Despite the new home consoles being far more powerful than the Game Boy and offering both full colour and realistic 3D worlds, the Game Boy (in its various early guises) sold an incredible 118 million units, leaving the competition in the dust. The N64 managed just 32 million and the PlayStation an impressive 102 million, but still 16 million units less than the GameBoy. So what drove this tremendous popularity?
For one, I remember walking into my local Toys R Us with my sister, having both saved enough pocket money to buy a Game Boy each. The assistant suggested, “for the same price, you could get a PlayStation”, a notion at which I scoffed back, “but we can’t play that in the car!”. So clearly for us kids, the mobility helped, but I’d say more importantly it was the games. Games like Super Mario, Tetris, Zelda, Kirby and of course, Pokémon.
The Pokémon franchise began as Aka and Midori (Red and Green) in Japan, before being re-branded and exported as Pokémon Red & Blue to the rest of the world and once it arrived, what a reception it got! Young kids loved the cutesy imagery and the adorable Pokémon, while older kids enjoyed the collecting and battling them. Even adults enjoyed the games for the same reasons, though perhaps enjoying the RPG elements, too. The games flew off the shelves and quickly became the second and third best-selling Game Boy games of all time (after Tetris). This trend has since continued on every Nintendo handheld, with Pokémon either featuring or even dominating the top five sales slots on each device.
“Young kids loved the cutesy imagery and the adorable Pokémon, while older kids enjoyed the collecting and battling them. Even adults enjoyed the games for the same reasons, though perhaps enjoying the RPG elements, too”
A massive marketing push helped to make these games such iconic and popular titles, with the games receiving their own Anime series (more on that later) with stuffed toys, clothing, spin-offs and all manner of other things cashing-in on the popularity. The best part about these games though, was the gameplay itself. You begin as “Red” who’s asked by local professor and Pokémon fan, Professor Oak, to complete what he calls a “Pokédex”, which is kind of a hand-held, electronic, Pokémon encyclopedia. He says it was his life’s work, but he never filled one and now he is too old. You take the Pokédex and the professor offers one of his Pokémon to help you on your journey. This decision would become one of the hardest of your life!
Pokémon works, in part, by having “types”, and each type has its own unique strengths and weaknesses; for example Fire was especially powerful against Grass types, while Grass was effective against Water and Water against Fire. A fairly simple cycle which became more complex with the inclusion of a total of 16 types including Poison, Ice and Flying types, for example. Each city you visit also hosts a gym which has a leader. These gym leaders each specialise in a particular type; like Vermillion City’s gym leader Lt. Surge, who battles only with electric types.
This is why choosing your starter is such a struggle; ask any fan and they’ll face the same inner-turmoil to this day! The three starter Pokémon available to you in Red or Blue are:
Bulbasaur – A small, grass (specifically Seed) type Pokémon who would evolve to Ivysaur and eventually Venusaur. Bulbasaur was considered especially easy to train, mainly because the first two Gym Leaders, Brock (Rock type) and Misty (Water type) were weak against Grass types.
Squirtle – A tiny water-type Pokémon whose evolutions were to Wartortle and then Blastoise. Squirtle’s lower evolutions are not rated as highly as Bulbasaurs, but the final form is a favourite for many fans. As for battling those Gym Leaders, Squirtle would be strong against Rock type, but neutral against Misty’s Water types, or even weak as they were so many levels higher and this kind of pro/con against gym leaders continues throughout the game.
Charmander – A small fire and dragon type Pokémon. Charmander is classed as more difficult to train, as it put you at a big disadvantage when faced with the earliest Gym Leaders, but his evolution to Charmeleon and finally the mighty Charizard are well worth the effort and he makes mincemeat of Celadon City’s Grass type leader, Erika.
When Pokémon Yellow was eventually released, it tied in much closer with the Anime show (I promise I’m getting to it!), so your starter was now the tiny, electric type, mouse Pokémon (and series mascot ever since) Pikachu who could evolve into Raichu (and we eventually learn, was evolved from a Pichu).
Once you’d agonised for a bit (or chosen whichever Pokémon you thought looked best/cutest) you’d be forced to battle your rival, Blue, who’d generously let you go first but only so he could pick whichever type was strongest against yours.
The battling was what many fans enjoyed most, with each turn-based fight requiring a tactical mix of offensive and defensive moves balanced with item use (health potions etc.). As you made your way through the game, most NPCs that you saw outside of the city hub locations were fellow trainers looking to do battle, so stepping into their line of sight would trigger a fight. The premise was simple; you could carry up to six Pokéballs, each of which contained a Pokémon (any excess Pokémon you captured were stored as files in a PC that you could access at Pokémon Centres or other specific locations). The first Pokémon in your list would be sent to battle first but could be swapped out at will, or if it fainted (lost all of its HP). Succeed and you’d be rewarded with money, XP and occasionally an item. Fail and you’d forfeit some cash before passing out and waking up at the nearest Pokémon Centre.
“The battling was what many fans enjoyed most, with each turn-based fight requiring a tactical mix of offensive and defensive moves balanced with item use”
Outside of battling, there was also plenty of adventuring to be done. The storyline was pretty simple as you took Red from being a lowly trainer to eventually defeating the most powerful Pokémon trainers around, the Elite Four. Once you finish the final one of these battles, you discover that your rival, Blue, had only just defeated the Elite Four himself, so the two of you do battle to decide who is the ultimate Pokémon trainer (obviously it’s you).
Once the game is completed, you are free to roam around Kanto, trading and capturing as many Pokémon as you can in an effort to complete that pesky Pokédex. The thing is, each version of the game has Pokémon which are unique to it and without trading, which is mentioned later in this article, it’s not possible to collect every Pokémon.
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It depends very much on your own personal taste as to which is better, as they are incredibly difficult lists to choose from. For me, I always go with Red as Scyther is awesomely cool and the Oddish evolutions are really useful, allowing you to use Sleep powder, Poison powder and Stun spores, giving you various status advantages in battle (a sleeping or stunned Pokémon can’t fight while a Poisoned one loses health slowly each turn). Once Pokémon Yellow launched, it became possible to own all of the starter Pokémon and so it became very popular for that reason.Pokémon Yellow also tied in much closer with the Anime show and certain elements were brought across to the game. These included things like Pikachu being your starter Pokémon, your rival now being Gary who picks an Eevee as his starter and the characters of Team Rocket are now like those in the series, instead of less well-defined standard grunts or hoodlums.Yes, the Pokémon Anime series (told you I’d get to it!) launched a full year after the games and follows the adventures of Ash Ketchum (Catch ’em) from Pallet Town as he trekked around the Kanto region (based on Japan’s own Kanto region) collecting, battling and recording Pokémon in his Pokédex. As the series wore through its 52 episode run outside of Japan (80 episodes in total plus several movies) Ash met and captured a whole bunch of Pokémon including Pigeotto, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Muk but many fans say he never catches enough, considering the plan was always to “Catch ’em all”. To be fair to the writers, though, trying to capture 151 Pokémon and build meaningful relationships with them, like Ash has with Butterfree, would be impossible within a single series, or even across a few of them. Plus, the rate at which new games released meant there were new Pokémon coming thick and fast, so that’s probably why Ash never quite got to be the very best, like no one ever was.
“The gameplay was influential, introducing tens of millions of fans to RPG elements in their games. Even if only in small ways, like levelling up your characters or juggling your inventory, these were things that were completely new to many gamers”
So what makes Pokémon Red & Blue so important that we’d consider them Games That Changed Our Lives? For starters, there aren’t many games that still have such a humongous following after 20 years. The legacy Pokémon created is so culturally influential that the recent release of Pokémon GO has featured in news headlines around the world as it almost doubled Nintendo’s stock upon its launch (stock which then almost halved when people realised Nintendo are only a shareholder in the app, its creator being Niantic and the Pokémon Company itself) but it still shows the power those tiny critters have that they can make or break already established companies.The gameplay was influential, too, introducing tens of millions of fans to RPG elements in their games. Even if only in small ways, like levelling up your characters or juggling your inventory, these were things that were completely new to many gamers. The storyline meant that many kids could relate to the main character, as they wanted to just travel the world and catch Pokémon. This hooked people from a young age and lends towards that nostalgic feeling you get every time you spy one of the adorable little tykes online somewhere.The trading system was also innovative. This allowed people who bought either the Red or Blue version of the game (and then later Fire Red and Leaf Green,Black and White, X and Y and so on) to capture the Pokémon exclusive to their version of the game and then trade them with a friend who owned the counterpart. This was a revolution as previously the cable had only really been used by other games to battle opponents, rather than to work with them. We see this far more these days with items and commodities being shared across the world and we have Pokémon to thank, at least partly, for that.
Pokémon has always had an awareness that many other games lack. Mention the word to most people and they’ll know it’s something to do with that “yellow mouse thing” (Pikachu). This kind of understanding is why Pokémon GO is now doing so well; people’s vague interest or previous knowledge of the subject has meant they’ve wanted to at least try the new craze, rather than avoid it. I know people who thought it looked daft, but are now really enjoying it and I can’t be the only person to have seen that.