Today marks 20 years since Pokemon debuted here in North America, kicking off one of the most consistently successful franchises in gaming. To mark the occasion, I’m taking a look back at the impact this simple RPG franchise had on me as a gamer, why it works so well, and the lasting infulence it’s had on gaming in general.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big Pokemon gaming fan here on the site. My fanboyish-ness comes out with just about every press release we get regarding new games coming out, and I’ve been steadily playing PokemonGo since it’s release. Something about the simplicity of the game, that belie deeper mechanics is really appealing. They’re RPGs stripped down and combined with a collecting mechanic that’s so addictive it borders on the ridiculous. Over the many years and several iterations, the basic formula of the game has remained largely unchanged…and there’s a good reason for that. It’s a great formula, going all the way back to the seminal entries in the series, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue.
Pokemon Red is where I got started with this franchise, even though I fought playing it tooth and nail for a long time. Like many adolescents, at the age where I thought I was too cool for school, I believed Pokemon was something silly for kids. Once I got my hands on it, though, I realized how addictive it truly was. Not long after, I purchased a copy of my own for the Game Boy and haven’t looked back since. I’d had my Game Boy for a little while at this point, but playing Pokemon is the reason I had to buy an AC adapter for it. I simply couldn’t keep enough batteries around to justify the amount of time I played it.
As I mentioned, the true genius behind the first Pokemon game was it’s ability to suck you in with what appears to be simple mechanics. Once you get deeper into the game, however, you realize how much more complex things get, and you discover an RPG that compels you to keep moving forward. It’s an accessible game in which newcomers to the RPG genre won’t feel overwhelmed, but with enough depth to attract even hardcore fans. This ease of access is a big part of it’s appeal, as many gamers felt put off by more complicated RPGs of the time period.
No one has ever accused the Pokemon games of having an engaging storyline and in many of the games the primary story is generally wrapped up well before you face down the Elite Four. Yet, the desire to keep moving forward is ever present. The reason why is another genius aspect of the game’s overall design.
Think of why you do anything in an RPG. You’re sent on quests around different parts of the game, by a numerous amount of people. Sometimes these lead into the overall story and other times they only offer up some extra loot. Regardless of the reason for the quest, it adds to the gameplay and helps move you forward in some way. Pokemon offers plenty of mini-quests within it’s game, but mostly importantly…the game itself is one big quest!
I’m not meaning this in a general sense of the story has it’s own mission (just about every other RPG is a quest to save the world), I mean this in a more literal sense. Within minutes of booting up a new game, you are tasked with a quest, given by an NPC (as others are), and this quest becomes your reason to keep playing long after the story dries up. Your quest? To catch all the Pokemon out there.
Gamers, by our very nature, are all about challenging themselves. That’s what games are for, to have fun by accomplishing something. While not everyone is a completionist with games, the drive to dominate a game’s challenges is seated within us all. It’s what we were raised on with retro games, and it’s the reason why Achievements and Trophies have become as successful as they have. Pokemon Red/Blue gave you the ultimate challenge right at the beginning and it’s impossible not to feel yourself drawn into it.
Couple this with a leveling and reward system (new moves and evolutions) that remains one of the best in the genre, and you have something unique and highly addictive. All of this started with Red and Blue, and has continued to be the foundation on which all other Pokemon games have followed. There have been some minor tweaks and changes throughout the years and iterations, but on the whole the core of the Pokemon gameplay has remained unchanged since this initial outing.
Many game franchises have been through multiple iterations, but they quickly grow stale and fans begin complaining about them (sports titles, various FPS franchises, etc.). Pokemon has been doing it for two decades now and no one seems to mind! That’s testament to how well crafted the initial mechanics were that they could leave the core of everything intact and only need to make minor changes.
Beyond introducing new elements into the RPG genre, however, Pokemon Red/Blue instigated other changes as well. Playing games with friends is nothing new, and has been around since video games were born. Yet games on the Game Boy or other handheld devices were largely solo affairs. Sure, Nintendo already had their Game Boy Link Cable out on the market, but these were mostly used to play competitively with your friends. Pokemon Red and Blue did something different with it; something which hadn’t been considered before…it traded data.
While this may not seem like such a big deal now, back when the game first released, this wasn’t a common concept. In order to truly “catch them all” you had to link up your game with the other cartridge (of a different color) and trade Pokemon back and forth. For the first time on the handheld, you were able to change the elements of your game, introducing all new characters via data dumps, into your experience. It’s something that hadn’t really been done before and it changed the way a lot of developers thought about how to utilize the connectivity features of the handheld system going forward (even into future generations of the console).
I know what you’re probably thinking. Other Pokemon titles, like Gold and Silver or Ruby and Sapphire were far more revolutionary (and less glitchy) than the original Red and Blue titles. While those games may technically be better, it’s hard to deny the impact the original Pokemon games had on the video games industry and the RPG genre in general. Without Red and Blue, the other innovations may never have happened. The core of what makes Pokemon so engaging, even in the newest titles, came from these original Game Boy titles.
For these reasons, plus the amount of hours of enjoyment I got from them (and spent with friends), Pokemon Red and Blue remain among my favorite Nintendo titles. These titles were among the first RPGs I truly enjoyed playing and pushed me to explore more titles within that genre. They’re simple to look at, but deep in the gameplay they offer. Even with what’s out there today, they are still fun to pick up and play.