Rare Transitions: Revisiting Pokemon Red and Blue
What’s it like coming back to the original Pokemon titles?
Pokemon has always been a staple of my life. It’s been there through thick and thin, Snorlax and Snivy. I’m in a rare kind of transitional period right now, and Pokemon is once again here for me. My wife and I are moving to England next month, so in turn I’ll be leaving the U.S. for the next couple of years. Saying goodbye to family and friends is never easy, especially as I get older. I’m pushing 30 (!) years old, which is a little freaky all on it’s own.
As things become uncertain and my life shifts, is it any wonder I’m looking backward?
I’m playing Pokemon Blue again. I’m not doing the 3DS Virtual Console release or going the sketchy ROM route. I’m borrowing my wife’s old Game Boy Advance SP (the same system I’m using for Retro Coin) and I’ve picked up a worn cartridge bearing Blastoise’s rotund visage. You can blame my friend Daniel for this; he suggested that we play through Red and Blue together and have an epic battle at the end of our respective quests. We’ve done this for several titles (including Sword and Shield), so this will serve as a final in-person adventure before I move overseas.
So, that begs the question. How is playing Pokemon Blue in 2020? I can’t help but love it all over again. It’s a comfort game for me; it’s like a cup of coffee and an episode of The Office. It’s a dog-eared paperback, but without all the pesky story and characterization.
It’s a true adventure, even if it’s a pint-sized one. I remember playing through this game when I was a kid. The details stick with me still. The mysterious scroll of the grass field on the other side of Route 1’s fence. Searching all corners of the map for rare Pokemon and secret items. I imagined the gym leaders and the League members hanging out, battling together.
The memories like these are hitting me hard. I remember playing through this from the comfort of my childhood bedroom, straining my eyes to make out all the pixels on the dark screen. I feel like these games are an ingrained part of my psyche.
Badges and the 151
Playing this dinosaur in 2020 is truly an experience. It’s slow, archaic, and understandably shallow. It’s a product of the late ‘90s, for better and for worse. For starters, the hand-holding in Gen 1 is at a bare minimum. Once you’re past the first two towns, you are on your own. You have a general heading, but you have to train and explore to proceed. HMs (the Pokémon moves that let you interact with your environment) are given at key points in the story, opening up little bits and paths that were inaccessible before. I find it telling that modern Pokemon games have WAY more tutorial than Red and Blue. In the early days, Game Freak rolled with a ‘You’ll figure it’s out!’ mentality.
It all begins with the starter. You choose one Pokemon to accompany you on your quest to be ‘The Greatest There Ever Was’. Everyone has their favorite. I think they may be the best batch of starters. Each is interesting and continue to dominate the collective minds of Pokemon fans the world over. Charizard, the blazing sort-of dragon. Blastoise, the aquatic cannon turtle. Venusaur, the gargantuan tropical frog-beast. Each Pokemon’s strengths and weaknesses feels unique for the Gym Leaders and ending battles. It’s a major part of what makes Pokemon great. One balanced choice to start it all.
Red and Blue have plenty of problems. Pokemon Yellow does take some steps in the right direction to fix them, but most of them wouldn’t be shored up until future generations. But even with its rough spots, Generation 1 is iconic for a reason. Ken Sugimori’s designs have stood the test of time, and have elevated this motley crew into certified gaming legends. The towns are distinct and the gym leaders leave a lasting impression. Most Pokemon fans can rattle off the Gym Leaders’ names with relative ease, which is interesting considering how small of a part they play. The anime likely helped, but I think that the show only solidified what players had already internalized. Red and Blue were constructed to introduce the world of Pokemon, and they succeeded handily.
In spite of its age, I love so many individual parts of Red and Blue. The rival is still one of the best. He’s such an arrogant slimeball, and makes the perfect foil to our silent protagonist. I also miss the longer dungeons that have vanished with recent titles; Rock Tunnel, Mt. Moon, even this version of the Victory Road. These dungeons are padding, but only in the best way. Leveling happens slowly, so you need lots of Pocket Monsters to fight.
(The dungeons are one example of a feature just kind of vanishing over time. Game Freak has removed the Battle Frontier, the Day and Night cycle, Contests, Z-Moves, and Mega Evolutions. The list goes on and on. This was always baffling to me and maybe one day I’ll cover the phenomenon in an article here on Game Loot. Will Game Freak bury the Wild Areas in the next mainline title? It could happen.)
Coming back to Red and Blue after spending 80+ hours with Pokemon Shield doesn’t annoy me as much as I assumed it would. The gameplay is certainly slower, and I definity miss all the modern flourishes. Trying to level up my team (Ninetales, Zapdos, Lapras, Alakazam, Snorlax, and Starmie) to match Daniel’s is a chore. But it’s the classic method. It brings me back. After catching 50 Pokemon, I was able to get the Exp. All item, which helped quite a bit. Overall, the slow pace isn’t a deal breaker for me.
I find my way back to the Pokemon games every couple of years. They are comfort food and they are some of the most iconic RPGs ever made. They are perfect handheld games, built to travel with me and be forever accessible.
I’ll never not be excited for a new mainline Pokemon title. After all this time, I think that’s pretty incredible.