Pokemon arrived on North American shores in 1998 and became an overnight sensation. The seminal games Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue were instant critical and commercial successes that spawned a multimedia, and multi-billion dollar, empire. After the initial buzz and controversies died down Pokemon was written off as a fad. I remember this all because I was the center of Nintendo’s market. I was eight years old when Red and Blue were released.
It turned out that Pokemon wasn’t a fad. Pokemon proved that it was a franchise to last the ages. Since the initial games, five ‘generations’ have been released and a sixth, X and Y, is around the corner, not to mention numerous remakes and spin-offs. I’ve been playing Pokemon myself recently, and rather than playing Black 2 or White 2, or any other modern games, I’ve found myself drawn back to Red. Not FireRed. Not Ruby. Red, on the crusty, original Game Boy cartridge.
I’ve been considering why these games that came out fifteen years ago are still as appealing today as they were back then, and why Pokemon, a series known for stagnation, is still as successful, if not more successful, fifteen years after its inception. In particular I’ve been thinking of why Red and Blue, the primitive initial games are still considered by many to be the ‘best’, despite later games being ‘better’ in almost everything like graphics, polish, and new features.
This I believe to be one of the strongest reasons why Pokemon, Red and Blue in particular, are still so fondly remembered and received, and why Pokemon as a franchise has soundly crushed all its competitors and imitators. Pokemon webcomics, pictures, and videos are still produced at a staggering amount and almost all the love is directed towards Red and Blue. It’s easy to see that a lot of hate for the newer Pokemon games is the new Pokemon designs, which are considered to be either uninspired , ‘trying too hard’, or just plain stupid.
Pokemon’s initial roster of 150, and even extending to the next 100, are so well crafted, appealing, and interesting that there isn’t hardly a single Pokemon I personally wouldn’t want to not only to capture, but actively use in my party. For the record I still think most of the new Pokemon are quite well made, interesting, and totally hold up to the original 150.
It’s true however, that there is something magical about that original 150. Perhaps it’s simply the newness (more on that later), or simply the fact that most of the ideas hadn’t been done yet in Red and Blue. There are over 600 Pokemon now, after all. Coming up with a brand-new butterfly Pokemon, or bird, or new fire-type starter each game that is creative, appealing, and different from anything before must be an immense challenge.
Simple is as Simple Does
The main reason I usually reach for Red or Blue when I’m craving a Pokemon fix more often than recent games is mainly due to my aversion to the complexities and added mechanics of new Pokemon games. Natures, EVs, IVs, day/night cycles, eggs, shinies, genders, Pokerus, held items, and all the extraneous features that can suck the simple enjoyment that Red and Blue once had. Remember when Pokemon was about seeing a cool Pokemon, catching it, and leveling up? Now the competitive battle stuff, and other neurotic things like date captured, are creeping into the games where I feel they shouldn’t.
The saving grace is that all that stuff is optional, and the games can totally be enjoyed at their base level. Pokemon is like a rabbit hole, and it goes deep. The beauty is that Pokemon allows the player to follow it as far as they want. Personally, I’m fine with catching Pokemon, evolving them, and matching types to win battles.
I will say that one newer mechanic I do admire is abilities. Abilities expand the strategy of the game without an exorbitant amount of added complexity and the reason is lack of choice. Pokemon have one ability or the other. There is no dozens of ‘soft-resets’ to get ‘the right’ ability, as with something like natures.
While I’m at though, the number one best improvement I think the series made from the Red and Blue, more than the new Pokemon, types, graphics, or anything, is the expanded backpack. Juggling the tiny inventory in Red and Blue is a nightmare, and few things are worse than passing by an item that can’t be picked up because your inventory is full.
The Pokemon series is vulnerable to what I call ‘franchise fatigue’. As more and more sequels get produced and the franchise expands, we all look back at the original games with a sort of nostalgia for the simpler times, even if the newer games are better or more impressive in terms of technology, mechanics, or aesthetics.
This is true of many franchises such as Animal Crossing or Halo, and crosses into other media like film and books as well. Bioshock was a watershed moment in gaming history. Bioshock 2 was just, a sequel, regardless of its actual objective quality.
The solid mechanics and experiences however, will never die
This is definitely not true of all franchises, but sequels are often better in almost all aspects but still don’t capture the same level of awe that the originals did. I have a theory that if X and Y had been the original games (regressed to Game Boy technology of course), they would be the classics. It’s often a case of being there first.
At the end of the day, the case may be made for either the old-school or the new Pokemon games. I think that’s a testament to how solid the fundamentals of Pokemon are. Fifteen years later, dozens of games later, and Pokemon is still critically and commercially successful and even with some fan hate, still going strong. I think the reason that the older games in a series like Pokemon are often more warmly remembered is because the magic and newness of the original games cannot be replicated. The solid mechanics and experiences however, will never die, no matter how many more shades of Pokemon are released.