Poké-Revisit I: Pokémon Yellow
Revisiting the original formula sprinkled with anime-inspired extras
Revisiting Yellow in the year 2019 is a strange commitment. After getting a little disillusioned with the more recent Pokémon games, I have decided to embark on a little personal sidequest to re-discover what made them so good to begin with. The newer games which seems to be getting better in terms of graphical prowess and new features, but losing some of the original indescribable charm that made me consider myself a lifelong fan with pride.
I am here to discover exactly what is that charm again, and I am going to start from the beginning of the game itself.
Pokémon Yellow is not exactly the first game that brought the series to its legendary fame, but it is a well-known add on and is considered to be the definitive ‘directors cut’ version. It is still part of the original Generation One games, which launched the original turn-based, travel-and-collect-Pokémon, beat-eight-gyms, beat-Pokémon-League-and-become-Champion, and pull-off-heroic-stunts-along-the-way RPG formula. Specifically for Yellow, this comes with some interesting twists that slightly alters the experience. For the most part, those are considered enhancements. You get a companion Pikachu that you can interact with, all three original starters who are battling powerhouses, and some minor anime references, all without losing anything much from the originals aside from some version exclusives!
Why Yellow though?
Honestly, I think one has to be a really really appeal to nostalgia to even prefer Red or Blue over Yellow. For the rest of us who just want to experience the original games for the sake of it, Pokémon Yellow is honestly the most fun choice because of the better aesthetics.
I was greeted with a unfamilar but nostalgic ‘Pika Pi’ upon the loading screen. The game samples a unique cry for your own mandatory starter Pikachu, which is a refreshing twist. However, it can get stale over time and even feels a bit out of place in this 16-bit game world. Soon after starting the game, I was given a Pikachu, sent into a surprisingly treacherous first battle against my annoying petty brat of a rival, and off I go into the wide world of Kanto for no apparent reason after delivering a package for Professor Oak.
Beyond the monochrome world of Red and Blue, Yellow was much more vibrant, with each area and Pokémon species having a distinguishing color. This does not begin to compare with the more vibrant worlds of later games, but it shows that the game is already progressing beyond its monochrome origins, now running on Game Boy Color engines. Soon I travelled past Viridian City and its Forest, and walked into my first formal challenge of Pewter City Gym (without any invitation!).
The adventure leads us into the game’s first real antagonists, Team Rocket, in Mt Moon scouring for rare fossils. Team Rocket are the mainstay villain in this game, as they are basically the underground criminal gang of the region, trafficking Pokémon, bullying the weak, and theft. We will then proceed to cross paths with Team Rocket a few more times and foil their missions by defeating them, despite having never really explicitly being told to deal with them.
So without a clear purpose, what started as a journey to help an old professor collect species lead us to collect gym badges and become the hero that dismantled an evil gang alone. We toured back to Viridian City and discover that it is actually headed by the leader of Team Rocket himself, and happens to be one of the most experienced trainers outside the Pokemon League.
Eventually beating him, we find ourselves on our way to the Indigo Plateau, clearing checkpoint after checkpoint with our Gym badges. After a long treacherous route through the Victory Road, we find ourselves in the presence of the Elite Four of the region. That’s not all, as our rival who have been a nuisance and constantly butting heads with us throughout our journey was a few steps ahead and become Champion before us. Still took him down one last time, business as usual.
In terms of pacing, the game is pretty acceptable. The game actually proceeds very smoothly with a lot of freedom most of the time, but can slow down when we get into ‘dungeon areas’ such as forests and caves. In the middle, there will be a part where there is non-stop confrontation with Team Rocket, which is where the pacing gets a little too intense. Then the story pace drops almost entirely once the ordeal with Team Rocket ends mid-game, leaving us with a relatively slow and boring later phase of the game.
The plot of the game barely exists. There are two main storylines guiding our hero’s progress, first is keeping up with our brat of a rival in terms of battling strengh (while keeping his ego in check), the other is with getting rid of Team Rocket. Beating our rival and watching him make up newer excuses for his inferiority actually feels kind of good, but at the same time his character is very one-dimensional. He makes little to no development as a character, but continue to get even stronger in terms of battling. Our whole journey is basically about getting the final laugh in the rivalry. It does feel good, but in hindsight doesn’t feel significant.
Meanwhile, the ordeal with Team Rocket is impactful, but not as much as it could have been. The main issue is that our hero is never given a good reason to take them on, other than them simply being in the way. We didn’t do any of the deeds for the sake of others: Mt Moon seemed like a happy accident, the one off confrontation at Cerulean was a pretty convenient side-track, and the Game Corner scuffle was merely a result of simple curiosity. Resolving the hostage situation in Pokemon Tower did feel pretty significant and altruistic once I piece the situation with Cubone’s mother together. However, the final confrontation at Silph happened only because they were getting in the way of our gym challenge. Nothing felt particularly heroic about it, even though navigating through the complex teleporters deserves a good pat on the back. Getting Giovanni to acknowledge us as the better trainer and disbanding the team after his final defeat does feel kind of relieving.
Generation 1 games have the reputation of being non-linear, as reflected in the lack of obstacles to decide where the player wishes to travel to next, especially past the 2nd Gym. However, this does not say much as the game is designed for players to complete in a particular way, even if we may challenge the gym leaders in a different order. There is no significance to this, as challenging a later gym leader too early requires a lot of further travelling, involves a much more difficult fight early on, and leaving the earlier gym leaders to battle later makes them too easy to handle.
While the townships are connected in a non-linear manner, I do feel that most of the routes are actually very linear, with very little avenue for exploration. There might be some Cut-able trees that we can revisit later for some rewards, but there aren’t a whole lot of this. The dungeons and forests have minimal branching that leads us to sidetrack for some items, but there aren’t a lot of actual alternative paths or exits. All of the caves basically have one entrance and exit. The most ‘explorable’ area for me is surprisingly the Safari Zone, which is quite diverse geographically and massive in scale. It was quite fun simply spending time trekking around Safari Zone for rare Pokemon and items.
IV. Features, activities, and side quests
a. Safari Zone!
The original Safari Zone is still one of the most fun features in the series, where players don’t battle wild Pokemon but make economic decisions about capturing Pokemon through balancing catch and flee rate.
b. Partner Pikachu.
Having a partner following you outside the Pokeball is a trademark feature of Yellow, as we won’t be getting this for most of the future titles. This is the first time where the game explore the idea of Pokemon happiness, which you can gauge by interacting with it. Seeing Pikachu interact with the environment and displaying different emotions is surprisingly cute and fun.
c. Gift Starter Pokemon.
Paying homage to the anime series, this game allows you to not be limited to one starter Pokemon. In Yellow, by talking to various NPCs along your way, you are gifted all three Kanto starter Pokemon, in the same way Ash Ketchum gets to have all of them. While this de-incentivizes players to experiment with other teams, it saves the player a lot of trouble in building a competent team.
d. Pokedex Completion Rewards
For every ten new species of Pokemon caught, Professor Oak aides offer the player some pretty significant rewards that elevate the quality of life on our journeys, from HMs to key items like Item Finder. This is the only feature that actually encourages us to capture Pokemon for the sake of capturing, and is noticeably absent in future games. Considering capturing Pokemon is what this game is about, it is surprisingly that this simple feature did not make it into the later games.
V. Pokémon Availability and Quality
This game hosts the original 151 Generation 1 Pokémon, with common critters like Ratata and Pidgeys available in the wild early on, to rugged beasts like Graveller and Rhyhorn in the Victory Road area. It can be very tempting to run through the game with trusty Pikachu, but truth is Pikachu’s stats aren’t exactly robust enough to get through serious battles that it does not have an type advantage in. It is pretty important to have other reliable team members to not struggle excessively in this game.
To sum it all, the diversity in a single game is not impressive, as the common critters were basically everywhere and make for very repetitive encounters. Some areas have more exotic offerings, but most of them did not stand out battling wise. It takes a lot of experience to recognize those with potential, although most players can get by with just sticking to the ones that they like. Things get better once you hit the Safari Zone, which is home to many of the game’s battling powerhouses. Not only that, but Yellow also redeems itself a little with its interesting and exotic gift Pokémon: the Kanto starters, Eevee, Lapras, and one of the two ‘Hitmons’. If I were to allow myself to look beyond the poor in game illustration, this world does host a decent and healthy variety of species for collection and use.
This is the most difficult to comment on as I am pretty much as veteran as it gets. Prior to playing it I would have assumed this is the most challenging game to play through, but I quickly realized that most of the dungeons weren’t as ‘mazey’ as I remembered as a kid and the fights were surprisingly easy. My own deep experiences with Pokémon games guided my intuition in travelling, searching for hidden item, and winning seemingly impossible battles. I actually did not have to grind a lot as super effective moves and critical hits are surprisingly lethal, allowing me to conquer level gaps that are normally impossible.
In terms of navigating dungeons, neither Mt. Moon or Rock Tunnel was difficult, although the encounter rates made me want to strangle someone at times. Some places such as Silph Co, Game Corner, Victory Road, and Seafoam Islands are respectably challenging, but they can be cleared with some basic trial and error provided I ignore the encounter rates. As mentioned earlier, these dungeons ultimately could not be too difficult as there is only one entrance and exit. There were occasional difficulty spikes in Gym fights and Elite Four especially with level gaps, but my experience with intuitively knowing their weaknesses in typing and stat distribution stopped them from feeling even close.
As a side note, this is the first time that I trained a Nidoking as I wanted to experiment having a Nidoking right after Mt. Moon, which made many of the early battles easy. I also experimented a lot with abusing Amnesia boosts on my Snorlax that runs Special moves with hilarious effects.
The postgame is almost non-existent, which is very excusable (but still a major drawback nonetheless). Aside from replaying Elite Four over and over again, there is no real replayable content. That being said, there is still some pretty cool legendaries to capture.
a. Trio of legendary birds
While not tied into the main story directly, legendary birds are still cool to take on and capture if you haven’t done so already. They are not exactly forced onto the player to capture, and are mostly located in entirely optional areas.
b. Cerulean Cave and Mewtwo
The cave outside Cerulean City you see early on but could not access even after getting every single badge in the game? It is now finally open after you beat the main campaign once. Full of super strong wild Pokémon that makes the victory road feel like a cakewalk, this dungeon is surprisingly simple to get through to the true final boss of the game, Mewtwo, waiting at the bottom. I recommend having your Master Ball for this because as the single strongest Pokémon in this game at level 70, you are going to have a ridiculously difficult fight (and an exponentially tougher time trying to capture it) otherwise.
VIII. Player experience summary (how it treats the players)
Despite its charms, this game has a lot of difficulty getting me emotionally invested in it. I liked being able to play with some of the original species in the game as they became quite inaccessible in the later generations, so I had some good fun building my team. I also enjoyed the freedom given to me as a player, as there is very little handholding going on in the game.
Some obstacles were pretty poorly designed, with no indication where to go next. I especially did not enjoy the Saffron border guards giving us a hard time, which made a supposedly non-linear game that offers freedom in progression and exploration needlessly difficult to get through. The wild encounter rates in dungeons are frankly horrifying, which really ruins the exploration experience. I especially hated the hordes of self-destructing Geodudes and Gravellers in caves, like who thought this was a good idea in a game?
The plot was also relatively disengaging. While I was aware that I am taking on whats basically criminal gang, it felt mindless. I was basically running them and their teams of Ratatas and Zubats through like hot knife through butter, without registering that I was tackling crimes. The high points come in confronting Giovanni or Blue in battles and defeating them, but that did not last long.
What really killed the experience is actually in the horrid user experience design when navigating the Bag function. I hated how the bag was not organized, the limited amount of slots available, and the fact key items like bicycle and Itemfinder took a slot and were difficult to access. I especially hated how the TMs were not labelled, which led to tons of wasted time.
IX: Area of improvements
Without making reference to the future games, this is a pretty difficult segment but I can make a few recommendations that might have not been looked at. Kanto has been one of the most referenced after region in the series, so remakes and remasters are definitely in the horizon. I hope Game Freak does not do them simply only to pander to the nostalgia. Naturally, any game can have virtually unlimited avenues for improvement, so I am going to focus more on frustrating aspects that are realistically possible within the same engine. I will also think from a remake point of view, which assumes more technical resources being available.
a. For the love of everything that is good, fix the Bag user experience
This has been obviously addressed in the future games, but this also happens to be my number one reason for not being able to recommend Generation 1 games to basically anyone that isn’t on board with the walking Pikachu plus all three starters. The Bag interface is as awful as an unorganized student’s bag with one compartment only. Whatever Game Freak does, don’t do UX like this game, ever. Minimalism is charming, but having categories and labels are quite essential.
b. Stronger plot
Gen 1 plot is noticeable absent. Give us a better reason to take on Team Rocket rather than them simply being in our way. Show their cruelty to Pokémon and others more blatantly, flesh out more complex underlying motivations, and give us an actually solid theme of morality to experience. Some of us might notice that this game does have a underlying theme dealing with genetic modification and pollution when we take a step back to look at it while comparing with other games, but that has rarely if ever being fleshed out in the playthrough. There is so much potential with the themes: profit driving away basic empathy (in Pokémon Origins you can see Giovanni being reminded of his early days as a budding trainer), corporate capitalism (Silph can play a strong role here), and the complex ramifications of genetic modification. There is so much room for these complex philosophies if the plot writing was just stepped up.
c. Stronger connections of legendary Pokémon to the narrative
I like how legendaries are optional, and that we mostly run into them when we venture into optional areas for the sake of exploration. However, aside from how difficult they are to catch and their high base stats, they don’t really feel legendary, when there are barely any legends available that they are referenced in. No mentions if Zapdos disrupts the powers up the plant occasionally, if Articuno whips up terrifying blizzards for travellers near Seafoam, or Moltress brings light to dark areas. I hope to see more clear references to the birds that lay in their respective lairs. Mewtwo is referenced if you bother to examine the documents that lie in Cinnabar's mansion, which is great! However, I think it is also fair to ask that this reference be elaborated into an actual postgame optional quest, involving Team Rocket scientists and League representatives having to block access to the cave. One might be able to slide Mew (or just a cameo) in somewhere there too!
The polish simply isn’t there, the rough edges show and can sometimes hurt. But it might not hurt to give it a go.
Everything lovable about Pokemon games is here and starts with here. Many of the flaws have been fixed or improved upon in later games. That being said, Yellow ultimately makes for a very difficult recommendation, when put next to basically any other game. The Kanto experience is more polished in FireRed/LeafGreen, there are 493 Pokemon followers in HeartGold/SoulSilver, which still has Kanto bundled in. The Let’s Play series are more appealing aesthetically despite lacking the same battling difficulty. The deal breaker about appreciating Yellow is how much it felt like a work in progress. There are countless documentation about its various bugs, its battling imbalances, and the lack of quality of life features. The polish simply isn’t there, the rough edges show and can sometimes hurt.
When compared to the rest of the franchise’s series, Yellow has almost nothing to boast about aside from being ‘one of the originals’ and actually making references to the anime.
That being said, it might not hurt to give it a go. This is a game with a pretty short playtime (even faster on an emulator) and allows you to experience how is the games are actually like in its infancy. It won’t be sinking too much of the player’s time that eventually leaves them upset, and it has close to zero replay value. One time is all it takes for any interested player to experience one of the original formulations of the beloved franchise, and they can move on happily detailing their experience and appreciating how far the franchise has come. Even better if you always wanted to experience starting with the evergreen mascot that is Pikachu.