How Pokémon Captured A Generation, 20 Years Ago
There aren’t many people under 30 in the world that can say Pokémon hasn’t consumed their life in some way at one point or another. Few videogame franchises have dominated the global consciousness in quite the same way; cards, a cartoon series, a string of animated films, endless toys, and Pikachu merchandise peeping out at you pretty much everywhere you turn.
Pokémon has remained a phenomenal success, hoovering up scary amounts of money on a daily basis. Over 100 million Pokémon games have been sold worldwide, with 718 of the little critters currently in existence at the time of writing (although by the time I blink that will probably have doubled).
It’s the second best selling videogame series of all time, only missing out on the top spot because of some Mario dickhead.
The obsession can be traced back to 1996, with two games and a measly 151 Pokémon. The humble Gameboy saw the release of Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue (Pokémon Green in Japan), and the legacy began.
While the series has seen endless improvements over the years in terms of visuals, music, connectivity, gameplay, difficulty, length, and anything else you may care to mention, the essential foundation of what makes Pokémon so compelling was laid down in these games 20 years ago, and has remained pretty much completely unchanged after all this time
You probably know what it’s all about, but in case you’ve been living at the bottom of a well, here’s Pokémon in a nutshell:
You take control of a young boy, or in later games a girl (after society realised girls play games too). You’ll usually start off in some sleepy little town where you get to choose between three Pokémon.
Pick yours, and set off on a journey battling trainers and levelling up your team of Pokémon so that you can beat the eight gym leaders and eventually become the Pokémon Champion.
There’s also something of a secondary mission that runs alongside your quest to be the best, and that is to catch every single Pokémon and complete your Pokédex for some weird old man who can’t do it himself because reasons. To be honest, the theme tune for the old series actually sums it up really well – and it’s a banger.
Okay, so now we’re all on the same page yeah? Catch ’em all, and be the very best. That’s literally been the entire point of Pokémon. Story beats, characters, locations and the Pokémon themselves have changed across the years sure, but if Red and Blue hadn’t gotten it so damn right first time out, I wouldn’t be writing this article 20 years later.
For the time, Pokémon Red and Blue offered a shit ton of content. Seriously – 151 creatures to track down and catch, a world to explore full of caves, rivers, towns and cities, and honest to God content after the “main game” that opened a cave with one of the coolest Pokémon of all time hidden inside (we’ll get to that in a bit).
These days you can probably emulate the original games on the back of a crisp, but having such a massive world to explore on a portable device back in 1996 was astounding.
For my money, Red and Blue were the very first games that felt like they were really made for gaming on the go. For all the fans demanding a core Pokémon title on the Wii U, I just can’t imagine playing the series any other way. Did Pokémon start the mobile gaming revolution nearly two decades ago? I’d certainly say it played a part.
But this is what I consider to be Pokémon Red and Blue’s strongest achievement: Nintendo and Game Freak crafted an RPG series that was incredibly accessible, but also endlessly deep for those willing to get stuck in to the game properly.
You’re allowed a maximum of six Pokémon on your team at any time, but the key to success is making sure you have a diverse selection of types.
See, Pokémon (like ice cream) come in different types. Certain types are either weaker or stronger against other types (unlike ice cream). For example, electric type works well against water, but a ground type would ruin an electric Pokémon’s day.
It’s a genius move that adds a very simple, but immensely rewarding layer of strategy.Putting together a balanced team of monsters is a top priority for any would-be Pokémon master, but those looking for an extra challenge were welcome to attempt to beat the game with one type, or even just one Pokémon.
Some fans have even managed to take on the Elite Four with nothing more than six Magikarp. The game may have told you where you needed to go, but never the best way to get there.
I also have to point out that your journey to becoming Champion is one of the most satisfying arcs in any videogame. From the first battle with your rival, as two tiny lizards scratch feebly at each other, to the final challenge as you lead your team of fully grown monsters in an epic struggle against dragons, giant birds, and resurrected dinosaurs, the sense of progression is constantly tangible.
In Pokémon, you’re always getting better, and that sense of constantly rewarding the player was a big part in why so many of us could never put it down. We were always just a few levels away from evolving, learning a new move, or being able to take down a particularly troublesome gym leader.
Of course, anyone who had already mastered an air tight team of Pokémon, could look towards the prospect of completing the Pokédex and catching all 151 monsters.
Back in the day, this was the ultimate videogame achievement. I can’t count how many kids used to bullshit on the playground, claiming to have nabbed every last beast in the game. I must have told that porky myself a few times.
On a perfectionist’s quest, they would no doubt notice that there were certain Pokémon that were simply impossible to get unless you traded with a friend. This opened up a whole new world.
Suddenly, Pokémon was no longer an adventure to be undertaken alone. It was something to be shared, whether you were bragging about your latest achievement or helping a mate by bringing out the old Link Cable and trading ‘mon. There can’t be many of us who didn’t smuggle their Gameboy into school for a spot of lunchtime trading or battling.
With such a huge variety of monsters, there was no right or wrong answer to who was the best Pokémon. Maybe Eevee was the one for you, or maybe you were a Gengar man. Perhaps you were all about Charizard, or preferred the Muk, the purple pile of slime.
I mean, that last one would be a very unconventional choice, but if it was your choice then I respect you. Kind of.
And then of course there were the legendary Pokémon. These days there are over 50 mythical ‘mon knocking about, which kind of makes them lose their edge a tad. In the original games there were five. Five super strong Pokémon hiding across Kanto.
Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres made up a trio of powerful legendary birds, while Mewtwo was the game’s final challenge and reward. Only after beating the Elite Four could you step into the cave Mewtwo called its home. Anyone who caught Mewtwo probably remembers how easy it was to fuck shit up after that.
Finding the legendary Pokémon felt like a real event, as each of them were tucked away somewhere pretty hard to get to. Battling them was a grand struggle, and finally managing to catch them? That sweet click as the Pokéball closed firmly around your target after an eternity of squinting down at your murky Gameboy screen was one of the greatest feelings you could experience.
Side note: whoever invented the backlight is the most incredible human beings in the world, and they inadvertently revolutionised all night Pokémon sessions.
Then there was Mew, impossible to get without cheating, glitching the game, or going to a special event. Thankfully, it was the hidden 151st Pokémon, so anyone who got the first 150 could sleep easily enough.
You’ve probably got your own, very specific memories of Pokémon Red and Blue. That’s a big part of what made those games so special, really. We all had our own adventures, but it was full of moments we could all share. Endless Zubats, a hatred for caves, and the general consensus that Bulbasaur was a bit shit all spring to mind.
Maybe you continued with the series, past Gold, Silver, Ruby and beyond. Maybe you’re still religiously following the newer games and the current gen Pokémon to this day.
It’s undeniable that the games have gotten better, and more expansive with each new entry – but maybe you just dust down your copy of Pokemon Red every now and then, to remind yourself what it was like to be a kid exploring Kanto, trying to catch ’em all.