Welcome to Greatest.Games.Ever! If you have not, I highly suggest you take a look at my introduction post, that discusses what this series is all about. Read it already? Great! It’s time for us to dive in headfirst into the land of Pokemon! Generation 1 that is!
It’s amazing to live in an era in which you don’t have to explain what Pokemon is to most people. Even during the beginning of Pokemon hysteria the average Pokemaniac would have to explain their newest obsession. We would have to explain how to pronounce it, what it meant, and why it was worth our time. Eventually everyone caught on, because Pokemon was inescapable in 1998 and 1999. At the time it felt like it would be a fad, the new THING for the holidays, like the Furby (also 1998). We were gravely mistaken and the combined efforts of Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures Inc. have ensured that Pokemon will be here to stay.
Pokemon’s Western Beginnings
The first Pokemon games crept up on me and many of the kids I went to school with. In 1998, the anime appeared on The WB (which is now CW) on weekday mornings. I remember distinctively watching the anime before going to school. At first I didn’t realize it was a video game or a manga, I just knew it as the cartoon that was on after (or sometimes before) Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z. It was quite intelligent for the local WB affiliate to air the show at that time, as it was all we would talk about on the bus on the way to school. I remember first experiencing the Game Boy version of Pokemon on a friend’s Game Boy Pocket. I had become pretty familiar with JRPGs as I had played my fair share of Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. It did seem a bit odd that this NEW game was released solely on the Game Boy, but I bit.
I immediately dusted off my old “brick” Game Boy and saved up to get Pokemon. On Columbus Day of 1998 I finally had Pokemon Red, and that was a special day. Having been released in 1989, my original GB was almost 10 years old and playing a new game on it felt insane. This would be the equivalent of releasing Final Fantasy VI on NES, but somehow this made things work for Nintendo. Pokemon’s look and appeal fit perfectly on Game Boy. It was easy to pick up and play, easy to put down, and could be played in short bursts. Additionally, many kids in the US already had a Game Boy so they didn’t have to buy a new console for the game that would ultimately take over the world. Nintendo had an ace up their sleeve, the Game Boy Color. While Pokemon Red and Blue weren’t designed to use the effects of the Game Boy Color, almost every kid who got Pokemon for the holidays in 1998 also got a Game Boy Color to go with it, nice work Nintendo. Within a few months of the release of “I, Choose You Pikachu”, which aired on September 8, 1998, full-fledged Pokemania had begun in the US. As a twelve-year-old gamer, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before…I never got to experience the hysteria that surrounded Disco, Star Wars, or Pac-Man, so complte mainstream hysteria was completely new to me. We all were getting everyone else into Pokemon as it swept across the nation like a plague. It was everywhere there were: Pokemon toys, games, clothing, snacks, and cards, only the luckiest had a Charizard..jerks…
Pokemon’s Cultural Significance
I’m not sure if many predicted that Pokemon would continue to “evolve” (pardon the pun) over the twenty years since its release and still remain just as popular as it was in 1998. Pikachu has become one of the most recognizable characters on the planet and Pokemon games still continue to sell millions of copies all over the world. It’s a testament to the series’ great design, but also to the wonderful impact it’s had on our culture. Pokemon releases are reminiscent of a massive summer blockbuster or a Pixar film. Pokemaniacs talk about these games for months, learn about all the new monsters, and wait at their mailboxes for it to arrive in the mail. Equally intriguing about Pokemon’s appeal is how it is suitable for all ages. I have had conversations with players who are in their thirties as well as young cousins in their teens. The games speak to everyone, mostly due to the massive impact they made bacin in the late 1990s.
Pokemon is designed to spread. The game is just hard enough for many five year olds to understand, but not too hard to where their older sibling, cousin, or friends couldn’t play it. It’s always something a kid would want to aspire to. Luckily, there’s a new Pokemon every two years so it would give any eager kid enough time to brush up on their reading skills. It taps into the nostalgia of an adult while enticing the excitement of children, like any good cartoon should. The world has also accepted Pokemon as something that holds cultural significance, as best illustrated in 2016 during the Pokemon Go phenomenon, even if it was fairly short lived.
We can’t just judge the greatness of a game by it’s social clout, that would be stupid! From the beginning Pokemon gameplay has been simple enough for it to make sense to the masses while harboring deep systems that allow for incredible customization and expansion. At face value, Pokemon is a fairly simple turn-based JRPG. You get into battles, fight, upgrade, continue. Your main character makes their way through a story and eventually ends up the Pokemon champion for the region. It’s deceptively simple though. Even when I was younger I grossly misjudged how deep the systems were. The basic veneer of rock, paper, scissors gameplay hides a plethora of deep options for each monster. Pokemon is about tricking out your monsters and making the most versatile team you can build with the tools you have. It’s always got that special Nintendo-level polish as well, smooth and familiar.
I think what has allowed Pokemon to withstand the test of time is that each release finds new and exciting ways to utilize and empower what came before it. It always feels as though Game Freak has referred to all of the past games to create newer titles. It follows a classic Nintendo tradition of making experiences that always find a way to stay fresh while also paying homage to its lineage . Game Freak has created an environment that is suited for both new players and devotees alike, which has continued to contribute to Pokemon’s appeal for the past 2 decades. While it’s deceptively deep, the Pokemon series has always been inviting.
It all started here with Red, Blue, and Yellow. These games are unforgettable and nigh perfect in their execution. Given the restrictions of the Game Boy, Game Freak had found a way to make each town, dungeon, and Pokemon feel incredibly different. The success of the series ties itself directly to the continued success of the games. Their great and solid gameplay speaks for itself once you turn the Game Boy on. I took a twelve year hiatus from Pokemon and when I jumped back in with Pokemon X, it felt as though I never stopped playing red and blue. The formula isn’t reinvented, but it’s expanded in bursts that make it an easy transition for the player. I was a bit hesitant to get back into Pokemon at first, but after a few hours of adventuring with my newly acquired Froakie, I was ready to take on the Poke world! It’s a series that makes the player feel powerful without the unnecessary grit, grime, and darkness that has pervaded the video game industry. Pokemon is bright and colorful, wistful and imaginative something that video games have needed since the series inception. Its broad appeal due to its masterful gameplay has absolutely provided a much needed escape within the worlds of video games. It’s something many people have learned to love and enjoy.
It’s often difficult to predict what a series will do moving forward. Pokemon, however has left an incredible and lasting impact. Whether or not the series continues to deliver excellence doesn’t matter nearly as much as the first 20 years of its lineage. Pokemon is a cultural icon and a significant piece of the tapestry of entertainment media. I also feel that Pokemon helped Americans finally appreciate Anime and other pieces of Japanese culture, giving birth to generations of otaku. It has exposed Americans to the wonderful animation being created over seas. Pokemon is a tool of unification, as we saw with the Pokemon Go insanity back in 2016. I was in Huntington Beach, CA right after Pokemon Go launched. We walked around the city, chatted with other players, and bonded over our love for these imaginary monsters. It was beautiful, really. Nothing felt more exhilarating as someone shouting “OVER THERE! THERE’S A POLYWRATH!” as a massive group of people ran to that spot to catch it, laughing and enjoying this fun little game. Those moments are impossible without Generation 1. Red, Blue, and Yellow laid the foundation that this all built upon. They are special games, and need to beheld in the utmost regard.