Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pokémon Blue and Red

Oh Game Boy. You can make any franchise mediocre and painful. Mario, Zelda, fighting games...nothing is off limits to your green-tinted erosion. And then 1996 came along. Ask anyone to name the best game on the original Game Boy. 10% of people will say Tetris, but they had social problems growing up. The other 90% will proudly proclaim "Pokémon!" and they'll be right. Pop quiz for anyone reading this who has played Pokémon Blue or Red Versions:

Did you enjoy the game?

1) "Yes."
2) "No."
3) "Yes...I! No, Pokémon is for queers dude. Of course I wouldn't like it...hahaha...ha..."
4) "Yeah, that game is sweet. But uh, I never watched the show or played the card games or anything. I mean, Pokémon still sucks, but the games are good."

Let's be honest, almost nobody falls under number 2. So this review isn't to tell you whether or not the game is good - it definitely is - but rather the extent to which you should be embarrassed and ashamed for liking it.

Enslaving babies.The concept of the game is pretty straightforward...ish. You are a young boy, let's say of the tender age of 8, living in a world that is populated (some might say downright infested) by 151 different species of creatures called Pokémon. They lurk in caves, in any kind of body of water, and are attracted to tall grass like freaking velociraptors. This obviously has a pretty heavy effect on how human beings live within this world. And while basic occupations like doctors, shopkeepers, and police officers still exist, it seems that the vast majority of people spend their lives as trainers. Your goal, then, is to become the greatest trainer in the world. To do that you will need to subdue and enslave as many Pokémon as you possibly can, and force them to fight other Pokémon over and over whenever you let them out of solitary confinement.

You see, the word "Pokémon" is actually an abbreviation of sorts for "pocket monsters," which refers to the devices you use to hold the creatures. Conveniently termed Poké Balls, they are spheres only slightly larger than a ping pong ball that hold an extradimensional space in which whatever Pokémon you entrap can while away its existence. There are claims that each ball contains full flora and other sorts of "natural" environments that are friendly to the Pokémon, but this is clearly unsubstantiated. So you have to "catch" (the kid-friendly form of "imprison") all kinds of different Pokémon and raise their levels through combat until they are powerful enough to defeat the ones "owned" by the Pokémon League Champion.

BUYcycle.But first you're going to need to get around the world, called Kanto. Of course, they haven't invented cars in this world, so that sort of sucks. But hey, you can buy a bicycle if you want. It only costs....oh good grief, a million bucks?! A million dollars for a bicycle?! You're kidding me! That's totally ridiculous! And you know what? The game only lets you carry 999,999 bucks at once. If you max out your cash, you will still be a dollar short of purchasing a BICYCLE. I don't even want to know what it costs to get, say, a canoe.

And while we're speaking of navigating the geography of the land, it's worth pointing out that the "world" is actually pretty small when you think about it. There are seven cities, two towns, and an island with a few buildings on it, and they're all named after colors in some way. And that's all. And the word "city" is pretty generous here, since apparently all you need to qualify is a gym. Take Viridian City, for example, which is a mere 2 minute walk from the next closest locale. It's got five buildings. Total. The total human population of the world has got to be somewhere under 200 judging from the sheer lack of living space, and yet all these people keep appearing everywhere, and all of them do nothing but incarcerate Pokémon for some purpose or another. How does this world even have an economy in the first place?

Please don't squirtle.And what would any epic quest be without a rival keeping you on your toes every step of the way? The rival, here named Herpes, is a total douchebag. When Professor Oak, the world's foremost researcher of Pokémon, gives you one of your own to start off, Herpes snatches the one that is specifically designed to kill yours. Ass. He also happens to be related to Professor Oak himself, so you can't just secretly assault him and leave him to a pack of wild Growlithes. Come to think of it, nobody ever actually attacks anyone else directly in Pokémon. Why is that? I mean, I understand that Pokémon training is something of a sport in these games and that competitive battling for its own sake is what it is, but even the criminals don't do anything themselves. There are huge sections of the game in which you single-handedly defeat and cripple an entire criminal organization, Team Rocket, led by a mafioso named Giovanni. And you pull it off because all they do is tell their Pokémon to fight other people's Pokémon. Seriously. I'm not sure they even know what guns or knives are. It's pretty confusing, but man are the police happy.

Battling the monsters is pretty interesting, really. The entire combat system is set up like the most complex version of Paper, Rock, Scissors that you've ever seen. Pokémon are divided into 15 types: Normal, Fighting, Flying, Fire, Water, Grass, Electric, Ice, Rock, Ground, Poison, Bug, Psychic, Ghost, and Dragon. Every Pokémon has at least one of these types, though many have two simultaneously. These determine your Pokémon's strengths and weaknesses. For example, a Water type is going to be weak to an Electric type, but that same Electric type can't hurt a Ground type. Most of it can be explained rationally in such a way, really, which is impressive.

Hey Sailor.So as you battle the Pokémon, they'll gain experience and level up, and learn new moves to kill one another. Occasionally they will even "evolve," altering their physiological structure to become bigger and more powerful. And it all starts with Professor Oak offering you that first Pokémon. When you think about it, he's sort of like a drug dealer. "Hey man, let me hook you up with this. I just got it the other day. Yeah man, totally free, try it out. Oh by the way, here's this Pokédex to catalog all of them if you want more." He's just trying to get you addicted for the sake of his research. Sly old man. Well, he offers you a Squirtle (Water-spitting turtle), a Bulbasaur (Grass type baby dinosaur with a Poison flower growing on its back), or a Charmander (fire lizard). Now because your quest begins with fighting the Gyms in the cities, which all specialize in a certain Pokémon type, conventional wisdom states that you should pick the Bulbasaur. The first two Gyms are Rock type and Water type, and the Grass type is powerful against each. It's even resistant to the third Gym's type, Electric. I counter that winners choose Charmander, because fire lizards are sweet, and it's eventually going to evolve into a big dragon named Charizard and kill things and that's cool.

The game also expects you to assemble a team of six (the maximum you can carry) Pokémon designed to sort of cover all your bases and ensure you're not particularly susceptible to any kind of attack. This means leveling them all fairly evenly, and you'll find that the levels of your enemies' Pokémon scale appropriately. However, what I found to be effective was to kill everything with my massive Charizard and make it unstoppable. For real. Oh sure, it's weak to the first couple Gyms, but that just drives you to level it up so highly that it overcomes its weakness with sheer brute force. And from there it can pretty much single-handedly annihilate everything in the game, to the point where I got to the Pokémon League Champion (the game's final battle), and he used a Pokémon with a level around 65, give or take a couple. Charizard? 91. It wasn't even close.

Everybody CHILL.As you go you'll see and hear tales of certain legendary Pokémon that, unlike every other species, are one of a kind. There are the rulers of ice, thunderstorms, and fire, and somehow you manage to capture all of them and force them to do your bidding. Not sure how that works, but hey, you won't be complaining. There's also some mysterious Pokémon named Mew that you can only get in the game by exploiting a programming glitch. The in-game researchers believe that Mew is the common ancestor to all Pokémon and start performing experiments on it. They eventually clone it before it escapes. The clone, named Mewtwo, is genetically engineered to be stronger in every way, and so it becomes a violent killing machine, and it escapes too. And you know what you can do? That's right. After you become the Champion, you can hunt down and capture Mewtwo. What sort of child are you anyway?

And capturing these legendaries is necessary if you're looking to complete the other objective of the game - acquiring data on all 151 species (minus Mew) in the Pokédex Professor Oak gave you. You get data just by owning that Pokémon. But the devious people at Nintendo deliberately made some species unobtainable in each version of the game, forcing you to trade with others to "catch 'em all." Some Pokémon also only evolve when traded, and some (like the starting three Pokémon) you'll have to trade with multiple times to get everything. So while it might not seem like a terrible ordeal to get a full Pokédex, it's not exactly easy. And your reward? An in-game "diploma" telling you that you did, in fact, get them all. Burn.

That is, to say, you're probably gay.It's not exactly accurate to say the replay value on Pokémon is high, because the game was designed in such a way to never end. After you become Champion, you can still play indefinitely on your file, and level up your team. And you can battle your friends using a Game Boy link cable, which was great. You'd go to school and talk trash with people about how your Rhydon could totally kill their Wigglytuff, and you could do it while never losing confidence in your sexuality. I mean, so long as having people too insecure to admit they liked the game making fun of you didn't drive down your confidence, you were fine.

There are a lot of details about the game I didn't hit on, of course, but there's quite a lot going on in this title. And don't worry - there are umpteen sequels to cover eventually. We'll get there. As for the original stuff, Pokémon Blue and Red are good games with a bunch of minor flaws and annoyances - the inventory system is terrible, just to name one. When in caves, you battle literally every three steps, which is excruciating, to name a second. And the message it sends to children (stick animals in little balls and make them fight) is questionable. But you're going to like playing anyway. And there's no reason to be ashamed about enjoying a good game. So, in the immortal words of that one commercial for Monday Night Football, "Play on, playa."

Bottom Line: 14/20

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