On February 27th, 2016, the first pair of Pokemon video games ever released will turn 20 years old.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Pokemon Red and Pokemon Green almost never hit the market in Japan after an extremely troubled development cycle. Originally conceived in 1990 by Satoshi Tajiri, development studio Game Freak narrowly avoided bankruptcy during the 6-year development cycle of the Gameboy RPGs. Tajiri himself even forfeited a salary to keep the company afloat. Once released, Pokemon initially received minimal media coverage, and the games were anticipated to fade into obscurity due to poor sales. However, once Japanese gamers caught wind of the titles among rumors of a mysterious 151st Pokemon inaccessible in the game, sales steadily increased until the games began topping sales charts on a regular basis.
Today, Pokemon is the second-best selling video game franchise worldwide, only trailing behind Nintendo’s own Mario series.
To celebrate Pokemon‘s 20-year legacy that many of us hold fondly in our hearts, we’ve decided to go all out and do a complete retrospective review covering every main entry in the series to date. We’ll sort each set of games by their respective “generations,” as that’s how they’re properly referred to in the Pokemon community.
It’s almost hard to talk about the Generation 1 Pokemon titles without saying stuff everyone knows. Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue are among the most beloved video games of all time, and gamers everywhere can recall even the most banal moments of the game by heart (“Smell you later!” or “I like shorts! They’re comfy and easy to wear!”). However, before we can even ask whether these titles have stood the test of time, we have to address how these games have shaped gaming culture ever since their release.
In the late 90s, Japanese role-playing games had just started to take off in the international market. 1997’s Final Fantasy 7 was a smash hit that changed the face of the genre forever, and game developers raced to cash in on that game’s success with stylistically similar titles. Yet for the casual gamer, complex game mechanics and melodramatic stories of mercenaries and wizards could still prove to be a significant barrier of entry for the genre. Only a single year later, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue would make their international debut and appeal to this one remaining niche left by Final Fantasy 7′s release. Pokemon is certainly not the first monster collecting video game series ever made, but it was the first notable game of its kind to ever see an official English translation.
Right out the gate, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue were literally so simple that a child could understand them. Players are given the tasks of “be the best that no one ever was” and “gotta catch ’em all,” but from there the story doesn’t demand gamers to keep track of quest objectives or uncover side stories. The battle mechanics are introduced as a basic variation of “rock-paper-scissors,” only to slowly unfold its surprising complexity as the game progresses. However, as we all know, the greatest appeal of Pokemonwas catching and training an elite team of monsters. Whether gamers preferred cute creatures like Pikachu or ferocious monsters like Gyrados, there was something to resonate with just about everyone. Not only was this genius design from a marketing standpoint, but this unprecedented level of party customization allowed players to personally bond with a unique team of six creatures that appealed to their specific tastes and interests. It’s no wonder that fans still talk about who their favorite Pokemon are to this day.
All of this is to say nothing of how vast the worlds of Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue were. Though the games debuted on a system that was considered dated technology even when it was released, the first Pokemon titles sported a myriad of secrets among numerous memorable locations. Whether the player was boarding the S.S. Anne for the first time or exploring the gloomy Lavender Town, the game knew how to make each location pop amid limited graphics and sound. Modern statistics cite the initial Pokemon games as taking approximately 30 hours to complete, which is comparable to games like Final Fantasy 4 on the more powerful Super Nintendo. However, whether gamers wanted to complete their Pokedex or power-level their party to use in Pokemon Stadium, play times could easily exceed 100 hours. The fact that a single game could keep players engaged for so long was practically unheard of for the time, and the vast roster of monsters meant the titles could be replayed countless times in different ways.
Truth be told, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue haven’t aged perfectly. The slow-paced gameplay and high random-battle rate (hello Zubats!) make the games feel a bit archaic, and quality of life improvements taken for granted in later iterations of Pokemon are sorely missed here. However, for those who can stomach those issues, Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue are still just as fun to play today. Even if you’re not bringing your Gameboy to the playground to trade with friends, hunting rare Pokemon and battling gym leaders remains a fresh and invigorating experience. Plus, for those who still have Pokemon Yellow, players can even have Pikachu follow them while they battle Jesse and James from Team Rocket. In short, kids in the late 90s had every reason in the world to fall in love with this series.
With Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow starting one of the world’s largest multimedia phenomena, expectations for proper sequels to the first generation games were sky high. While Pokemon Gold and Pokemon Silver were bound to sell millions of copies regardless of their quality, Game Freak needed to prove to gamers that the Pokemon series wasn’t just a one-trick pony. Thankfully, Pokemon Gold and Silver not only met the lofty expectations held of them, but they exceeded them.
Not only did the Generation 2 titles expand the world of Pokemon with the brand new Johto region and 100 new monsters, they added features that truly pushed the limits of what the Gameboy was capable of. The game’s real-time clock reflected day and night as it corresponded to the real world, and events such as the bug-catching contest were held on specific days of the week. While these features are common in modern video games, seeing a game designed so intricately around the real world was unheard of for its time. This is to say nothing of the refinements brought to the core gameplay, such as the addition of Dark and Steel-type Pokemon, the division of the “special” stat into two separate stats, and the ability for Pokemon to hold items that modify their abilities in battle. Combine this improved and innovative gameplay with a lovingly crafted world that even extends into the Kanto region from Generation 1, and you have yourself a pinnacle example of a video game sequel done right.
Pokemon Gold and Silver are considered by many fans to be the best games in the entire series, and Pokemon Crystal further built upon these timeless adventures with the challenging Battle Tower and a more involved story of Johto’s legendary Pokemon. While these games still suffer from some of the same issues that the Generation 1 Pokemon games do, they’re so well designed that the negative aspects are easier to overlook. Retro gamers owe it to themselves to play these classic titles if they missed them back in the day.
The third generation of Pokemon games represented a crossroads for the series. On one hand, new Pokemon games were inevitable considering the massive success of Generations 1 and 2. On the other, kids who picked up Pokemon during the days of Red and Blue were either approaching or well into their teenage years. While the brand was still massively successful, Pokemon‘s popularity died down from the unreal heights it once held due to its reputation as children’s entertainment. Either because of this or in spite of this, Pokemon Ruby and Sapphirestayed faithful to the games’ formula for the most part, but they also made a few key changes to appeal to seasoned fans.
As the first mainline Pokemon games to appear on the technologically superior Gameboy Advance, the improvements to the visuals and audio were obvious. Though the chibi sprite art is faithful to the original titles, details like reflections in the water and footsteps in the sand bring the world to life in ways that weren’t feasible before. However, with this technological improvement came an unexpected change to how the new Pokemon were designed. Though Generation 3’s additional Pokemon featured a good mix of cute and cool monsters as the older games did, the new monsters looked noticeably more vicious than any Pokemon ever had before. For instance, while legendary Pokemon such as Lugia and Celebi had a majestic air to them, Generation 3’s Groudon and Deoxys really put the monster into the original Japanese title of Pocket Monsters. Pokemon designs from this era onward would become a point of contention for fans of the franchise, even though Generation 3 brought with it fan favorite Pokemon such as Skitty and Mudkip.
That said, key changes were made to the core gameplay as well. Generation 3 introduced the running shoes to the franchise, allowing players to circumvent the notoriously slow walkspeed and navigate the world quicker than before. Double battles were also a heavily advertised feature, allowing trainers to fight 2 on 2 battles as opposed to the classic 1 vs 1 combat from before. While double battles turned out to be only occasionally utilized in Ruby and Sapphire’s main adventure, their inclusion was welcome nonetheless. That said, one of Generation 3’s most controversial additions to the franchise was “effort values,” also known as “EVs.”
With a host of technological improvements held up by classic Pokemon gameplay, there’s no doubt that Ruby and Sapphire are quintessential Gameboy advance titles. However, Generation 3 marked a change in tone and style from Generations 1 and 2 that persists to this day. That said, not only did Generation 3 include the now-standard special edition game in the form of Pokemon Emerald, but Generation 3 also sported full remakes of the Generation 1 titles with Pokemon Fire Red and Leaf Green. Because of the technical limitations that plagued the original games, Fire Red and Leaf Green were very welcomed updates due to the addition of upgraded graphics and sound among other quality-of-life improvements. Though Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald remain popular entries, Fire Red and Leaf Green are among the most commonly replayed by the community.
With Generation 3 lasting a year longer than any generation preceding it, fans were eager for a new installment in the series. After all, the Nintendo DS launched as early as 2004, and the system was without its own Pokemon game for over 2 years. However, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl finally made their international debut in 2007, and fans were treated to a mostly traditional title that capitalized on the new features brought by Nintendo’s latest handheld console.
Generation 4’s most notable change to the series is the addition of online components. Thanks to the addition of the Global Terminal (replaced by the Global Trade Station in later games), players are capable of freely trading and battling other trainers from around the world. For a series that focuses so heavily on its social features, this was a massive improvement. Those interested in competitive battling could test their skills in ways they never could before, and others who just wanted to catch ’em all could do so with significantly greater ease. The Pokemon series continues to use the framework established by Generation 4’s online components to this day.
Aside from that, Generation 4 boasted modest generational improvements. As to be expected, over 100 new Pokemon were added with the all new Sinnoh region, and greater distinction in how Pokemon attacks were influenced by respective stats further deepened the gameplay. Some critics were upset that the games stuck to 2D sprite graphics while only using 3D in the overworld, but in truth Diamond and Pearl still look good to this day. The new Pokemon designs continue on the trajectory set by Generation 3, though Generation 4 notably raises the stakes of what its legendary Pokemon are capable of. For instance, legendary Pokemon Arceus is – no joke – said to be the creator of the universe. It almost makes it silly to think that the player could tame such a hyperbolic beast by just throwing a Pokeball at it.
With four fully realized Pokemon games and two remakes under their belts, it’s possible that Game Freak was afraid the Pokemon franchise would become stale. Even though Diamond and Pearl enjoyed greater international success than any of the Generation 3 games, the series had not been immune to criticism either. As a result, one month after Nintendo debuted the new Nintendo 3DS at E3, Game Freak formally announced Pokemon Black and White for the Nintendo DS. As the first generation of games to share the same platform as a previous generation (Pokemon Crystal was Gameboy Color exclusive), the developers took unexpected strides to switch up the formula for arguably the most divisive games in the entire franchise.
Although Pokemon Black and White featured few significant changes to the core gameplay, battle sequences went much faster and featured fluidly animated Pokemon for the first time in the series. Triple battles were added to the games, but similar to Generation 3’s double battles, they went largely ignored throughout the main adventure. However, Pokemon Black and White’s most controversial decision was to exclude all previous generations of Pokemon throughout the main adventure. To compensate, 156 new Pokemon were designed for Black and White, setting the record for the most Pokemon introduced in a single game. Though complaints about Pokemon designs had been around since Generation 3, Generation 5 saw even greater criticism for the alien and unusual designs of the new monsters. Regardless, the developers hoped to recapture a sense of awe and wonder by featuring only new Pokemon, and in that sense, Black and White succeed.
That said, Black and White demonstrated a surprising new direction for the series by targeting an older audience and expanding its story elements. For example, whereas past Pokemon protagonists were designed to be around 12 years old, Black and White’s cast are established as being into their teenage years. The mysterious antagonist N also asks the question that some consider an elephant in the room for the series: is Pokemon battling a form of animal cruelty? In truth, the story elements never go as deep as they could have, but this also means the game is still accessible for kids. Either way, it’s an unexpected but welcome change for the series to mature a bit to match its increasingly older demographic.
We finally arrive at the current generation of Pokemon titles, and anyone who’s kept track of the evolution of the series should spot something new about Pokemon X and Y right off the bat: it’s in 3D! Gone are the 2D sprites from before, as we now have 3D characters, 3D Pokemon, and even 360-degree movement to an extent. As both the first Pokemon game on the new Nintendo 3DS and the follow-up to the experimental Pokemon Black and White, it would be easy to assume that X and Y bring about the major evolution that fans of the series have been asking for all these years. However, though X and Y contain a slew of new features that appeal to modern gamers, Generation 6 instead capitalizes on nostalgia for Generation 1 more than any game in the series (Fire Red and Leaf Green notwithstanding).
The most widely advertised addition to Pokemon X and Y are mega evolutions, which give temporary super-powerful forms to classic Pokemon such as Charizard and Mewtwo. While this means the count for new Pokemon sits at a comparatively paltry 72 monsters, it’s a sensible approach when considering that we’re at over 700 Pokemon now. Other notable additions to the series include the new “Fairy” type that changes up many encounters, along with horde battles against 5 Pokemon at once. Players can also enable online modes that allow them to interact with other trainers in real time, which can be as significant as challenging someone to a battle or as minor as giving a friend a bonus that increases their Pokemons’ stats. The basic Pokemon gameplay does remain the same for the most part, but all of these changes make the games feel like true generational advancements for the series.
As for the main adventure itself, everything feels very familiar. Generation 1 starters are given to players early in the games, and even generation 1 legendary Pokemon appear with the original Gameboy music mixed into their battle themes. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but it does feel decidedly safe after Generation 5. This is not meant to undermine the giant world of X and Y, of course, as the games feature loads of secrets, minigames, and other side attractions to keep players entertained. X and Y also feel a little bizarre due to being remarkably easier than previous titles, especially given how the heavy emphasis on nostalgia seems to appeal to longtime fans of the games. Of course, given how Pokemon has always appealed to kids, this was perhaps the result of feedback from Generation 5’s generally increased difficulty levels.
As you can clearly see by making it this far, Pokemon has come a long way over the last 20 years. There are so many things we weren’t able to talk about with each game, which just goes to show how much there is to see and do whenever a new Pokemon game comes out. While we don’t know what the next entry in the main series will be, we do know that the original Generation 1 titles will be returning to the 3DS Virtual Console this February, marking the first official rerelease Pokemon has ever seen. We also know that spinoffs are aplenty, including the announcement of the virtual-reality Pokemon GO for smartphones. Many fans speculate that we’ll be seeing a Pokemon Z that acts as a special edition of X and Y, but only time will tell at this point.
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