Games often age poorly. More so than any other form of entertainment, games change at a rapid pace, and new innovations can make older titles feel downright archaic, to the point they’re no fun to play. That’s why a modern remake of a game like Final Fantasy VII is such a huge undertaking; it’s not just the visuals that need updating, it’s the entire feel of the game. Last weekend Nintendo rereleased the original trilogy of Pokemon games — Red, Blue, and Yellow — on the 3DS, and I was able to experience them for the very first time. I came to the series in later sequels. I have no childhood memories clouding my visions.
So, how are the original Pokemon games in the eyes of a first timer? It turns out that, 20 years later, they’re still amazing.
Growing up I had a Sega Game Gear, a bright, flashy, and colorful alternative to the Game Boy that was more powerful but had a much less interesting lineup of games. The initial wave of Pokemon madness is one of the things I ended up missing out on. It wasn't until I was in university, spending a long commute playing games on the Nintendo DS, that I finally gave the series a shot with Pokemon Pearl. I fell hard, and have played every game in the series since.
The Pokemon games are somewhat infamous for making only tiny, incremental improvements. Sequels often only change the experience in seemingly minor ways, and the basic structure remains largely intact from one entry to the next. After all, it wasn’t until Pokemon Black and White — in 2011! — that the series embraced 3D graphics.
This is what Pokemon is about
With all of this background, playing Pokemon Red (I chose it over Blue solely for Growlithe) is strangely familiar in 2016. Everything works the way you’d expect it to, from capturing and battling pokemon to traveling the world and collecting gym badges. That said, Red gets off to a very slow start. After the thrill of picking your starter — Squirtle, of course — the first few hours are a bit of a slog, with a surprising amount of grinding. And the battles are really boring at first. Early on, none of the creatures you can use have any particularly strong or unique abilities, so the battles are mostly just exchanging blows until one pokemon faints. There’s little in the way of strategy: apply brute force, and repeat.
Worse still, the early portion of the game is restrictive, with little room for exploration. For the first five hours or so, it feels like you’re walking down a series of drab hallways fighting one boring battle after another. But something happens after that, not long after you collect your second gym badge. The world opens. You learn a new ability, cut, which lets you slice down trees to open new paths. You can buy a bike to make exploration so much faster. And then it clicks: this is what Pokemon is about, that wonderful sense of a huge adventure looming in front of you.
I often have a hard time playing old role-playing games, as new genre conventions can make the classics feel clumsy and unforgiving. Things like random battles, where enemies are essentially invisible and can start a fight at any point, can feel particularly dated. But I haven’t really felt that way after spending an entire week playing Pokemon Red. In fact, after playing so many modern Pokemon games, which often overwhelm you with options and side activities, I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of the original.
A barebones version of a modern hit
This is the formula at its most streamlined. I don’t have to worry about dressing my pokemon up for fashion shows, or learning the secrets of weird legendary pokemon. I can just construct a team of creatures and explore without a burning sense of fomo. Even the pokemon themselves are more interesting. Over the years, the number of creatures has ballooned to more than 700, most of which are entirely forgettable. But all of the creatures in Pokemon Red are ones I know and understand intuitively, which makes building a team much more enjoyable.
That said, there are a few things I miss. Managing your pokemon and inventory is especially clunky and time consuming, in large part because you have such limited space. It’s also a lot easier to organize your pokemon collection by dragging them around on a DS touchscreen. And while I quite enjoy the black-and-white visuals and wonderfully detailed pixel art portraits, color serves more than just an aesthetic purpose in the series. It’s also an easy identifier for the many different types of pokemon and their moves. When you go through thousands of battles, knowing to simply tap the yellow attack button is much simpler than searching for the word "thunderbolt." The game also gives you far less information on basically everything, from moves to items, forcing you to experiment quite a bit.
Aside from those few bothers, though, it’s amazing how well the original Pokemon plays two decades after it was released. Instead of feeling like a dated throwback, it’s more of a barebones version of a modern hit, without a host of unnecessary add-ons weighing down the experience. All of the elements that make Pokemon so great were there from the very beginning, and they’re still easy to appreciate — even if it’s your very first time.
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