Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In The Beginning -- Pokémon Red and Blue -- The Pokemon Retrospective (1/7)

I don’t remember the exact moment I was compelled to rush out to the store and buy my copy of Pokémon Blue, but I imagine the scenario went something like this. As a borderline-religious reader of Nintendo Power magazine, I was constantly (and I mean constantly) bombarded with previews and sneak peeks and inside looks at this new franchise coming stateside. A franchise that reached frothing levels of popularity in Japan, and now threatened to ensnare North American gamers everywhere.

This sounded like a right treat for me; it had all of the adventuresome thrills of a Super Nintendo epic, but could fit in my ‘ittle bitty Game Boy. Like so many other times in life, though, I was waiting for just the right reason to rap me on the head, tell me to quit procrastinating, and get my mom to take me to Target and buy it. The reason finally came in the form of Nintendo Power issue 111—bundled into the back was a mini-magazine called “Pokémon Power,” a six-part walkthrough spread out over six issues. “Pokémon Power” had in-game area maps, item and trainer placements, and details on all eight Gym Leaders as only Nintendo Power could bring it to me (can I have my money now, guys?).

This little bugger was invaluable in getting my addiction started.

The combination of the media blitz, supplemental magazine goodies, and a powerful ten-year-old’s imagination finally won out, and I settled on Pokémon Blue (and would continue to buy the “alternate version” for every iteration after that). Dear readers, if I can’t remember the exact circumstance that lead me to buy Pokémon, I will remember, until my dying day, the thrill of standing in my kitchen, commanding my Charmander to victory over Brock’s Onyx, earning me my first Gym Badge. The taste of victory was sweet, the smell of adventure musky, and before I knew it, I was a Pokémaniac.

To get an idea of why Andrew from 1998 fell head-over-heels for this little 8-bit wonder, please allow me to repeat myself a bit. First of all, Pokémon Blue is absolutely ENORMOUS. Far from the small-sized Game Boy adventures I was used to, and large even compared to many SNES games at the time, Pokémon Blue was a game that could occupy much—MUCH—of my time. At an age when new games were scarce, and I had to milk every fresh cartridge I had to the very last, Pokémon Blue’s longevity was heaven-sent.

Blue was also bursting with imaginative possibilities. The Game Boy was not a graphical powerhouse by any means, but this added to Blue’s appeal by letting me fill in the details with my mind. The game’s graphics showed only part of the scenery’s look, but I loved picturing how the game “really” looked, and imagining going through it with my trusty team. Far from stunting my imagination, Pokémon Blue acted as a catalyst for many adventures I would have in the years to come.

Lastly, I think Blue was my first epic quest. In the days before Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII opened my eyes to sprawling worlds and myriad journeys, Pokémon Blue gave me a massive countryside and told me, “Go get ‘em, tiger.” I felt important, like I could conquer everything. I was destined for greatness. I was gonna catch ‘em all.

Adventure is out there!

As a sidenote, Red and Blue was a veritable Wild West for what was possible with was possible to accomplish in a video game. Rumors abounded with what you could find and do: “Hey, if you go back to the S.S. Anne at the exact right time, you can ride it to the Orange Islands!” “Dude, go back to the spot where you found Mewtwo, then use the Pokéflute and Moonstone, and you can catch Mew!” “Aw man, when you catch all 150 Pokémon, go talk to Professor Oak, and he’ll take you to a new town where you can buy Rare Candies!” In the days before internet walkthroughs, these sorts of discussions happened all the time, and Pokémon was an especially popular target for them.

There was a good reason for all of the rumors and homespun remedies, though. The early Pokémon games were glitchy as hell. Exploits for duplicating items, finding certain Pokémon in places you weren’t supposed to, and even a new game-breaking glitch-émon were both possible and public knowledge, leading us to wonder what else was out there.

What the deuce is that?!

Blue is my favorite Pokémon game to date, but oh lordy, they did not make it easy on us back then. Pokémon Blue was the Isla de Muerta of video games, nigh unplayable except to those who already knew how to play it. The game certainly didn’t explain how the mechanics work, and the few tutorials that were there acted more like theoretical guidelines. It was pretty damn sink-or-swim, and I often wonder if I would have liked it was much if it wasn’t for my beloved Nintendo Power.

Blue would see its many kinks ironed out in later iterations, but I’m going to name off a few of my favorites. First and foremost, future installments would allow Pokémon not in battle to collect Experience Points through an item called Experience Share; this would allow weak Pokémon to level quickly while stronger ‘mons did the battling for them. In Blue, this feature was ABSENT. I won’t go into the finer details of why this was a pain in the ass, but it basically made leveling weak Pokémon incredibly time-consuming.

There are several other niggling complaints I have with the game, my favorite being the system that stores Pokémon after you’ve caught them. Pokémon are stored in boxes, and each box can hold 20 Pokémon. Well and good, but the game doesn’t do a good job of telling the player how many are in each box at a time. This leads to the inevitable encounter with an über rare Pokémon, only to find that game won’t allow it to be caught because the box is full, and there’s a half-hour hike to the nearest Pokémon Center if you want to do anything about it.

Great. Just great.

These complaints are just peanuts, though, considering how well the game comes together. The franchise was set in motion, and Red and Blue sparked a worldwide phenomenon. Though many, arguably superior versions would follow them, Red and Blue will always be the ones that started everything, and there will always be a special place in my heart for Blue.

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