Josh Plays Pokemon #1 - Back to the Beginning
Despite my grievances with some of GameFreak’s choices in direction of the most recent Pokemon games, I’ve found myself getting swept up in the hype for Sword and Shield. They don’t look like the step forward I was hoping for from the franchise with its move onto consoles, but GameFreak are trying out some interesting ideas and some of the quality of life fixes look nice as well. Plus, it’s Pokemon; a franchise that’s always been close to my heart and I’ve been wanting to continue enjoying it despite its best efforts to stop me. I decided the best way to work with my hype would be to replay my way through previous games in the series. I’ve transferred Pokemon from game to game so I can start a new save without losing Pokemon, I’ve set up my Wii with all the gear I need to play Pokemon Colosseum and get bonuses from supplementary programs like Pokemon Box, and I’ve even bought some of the games I didn’t have while I found them on sale. I’m really excited to take a trip through the series’ history and see whether each of the generations I visit matches my memories of them. I’d be excited to transfer all my Pokemon over to the Switch and play with them in Sword and Shield, but that might be a bit difficult now with the transfer restrictions GameFreak have revealed. Long story short, you won’t be able to use every Pokemon in those games like you have been able to in the other games. Nonetheless - very excited.
I’ve already recently gone through the 3DS Virtual Console releases of Blue Version from Generation 1 and Crystal Version from Generation 2. Despite being quite old now (as much as that pains me to think about) they’re still remarkable achievements. The Generation 1 games are held together with tape and glue, with all sorts of weird bugs and quirks seeping out of the seams (the most shocking discovery for me was that some Pokemon barely learn any moves of their own type), and yet they possess a scope and ambition that had never been seen before. They were RPGs with over a hundred unique party members who you could catch and train as you see fit, with a large world to journey through, all on underpowered handheld tech. They also pioneered the ingenious means of encouraging multiplayer by splitting the available monsters across two versions of the same game, forcing you to find people with the other version and play with them. This makes using some Pokemon much less viable when playing a re-release of the games so far removed from the Pokemania of the late 90’s to early 2000’s though.
And then you’ve got the second generation of games. The announcement of these blew my mind as a kid. After I’d studied the ins and outs of 151 different Pokemon and all kinds of rumours about mysterious new Pokemon like Pikablu and Flareth, there was now official news about brand new Pokemon and whole new games to play through. It would have been easy to coast on the hype of the previous games and just provide more of the same, but GameFreak went all out - new types, new evolutions that redefined existing favourite Pokemon, new battle mechanics, you name it. And then the most shocking inclusion of all - the entire world from the original games was brought back. The Kanto region had to be condensed a bit to fit onto the small Game Boy cartridge, and all of the changes made had curious in-universe explanations that gave a dark and sombre undercurrent to your victory lap through the world. This trip builds up to what’s possibly the most epic moment in the entire series, as you ascend the final dungeon in the game and find none other than the Gen 1 protagonist at the summit of the mountain, waiting to take you on in battle. This isn’t even getting into the Crystal Version-specific changes that would become series mainstays, like a female protagonist and the Battle Tower. This generation added so much into the series that we just take for granted now.
I think the allure of Gen 2 for me comes from the fact that it takes the game we got familiar with as kids and turns it into something new and weird. Not only does it play with existing monsters, changing their types and giving them new evolution paths, but Gen 2 more than any other has its own unique style about it. The distinctly Japanese architecture in the Johto region lends its cities distinctness and consistency not found in other regions, which is aided by the music as well. The dated Game Boy hardware did its best to capture that traditional Japanese style of music, and the remakes of Gold and Silver on the DS would later fully deliver on the original vision. There’s also a weird, mysterious feel to the world, with hidden things to uncover like the various legendary Pokemon you’re never led directly to and the Ruins of Alph puzzles.
God, those ruins. They perfectly encapsulate this feeling I associate so heavily with Gen 2. They start off as just a strange, empty series of chambers with nothing of note. But what about the weird patterns on the walls? Or that creepy radio station that only plays when you’re near the ruins? Rumours would spread around the playground about what these ruins were for, and gradually as more and more of us solved the puzzles and encountered Unown the more they began to make sense. But new rumours would arise of course, only exacerbated by the additions to the ruins in Crystal Version. The main one of course being the addition of new puzzles that uncovered the lore of the Unown left by a past civilization, which required you to travel around the Johto region and solve even more puzzles. The ruins provides some great, weird side content that has only really been matched by the Braille sidequest in the third generation of games.
Generation 2 isn’t perfect however, possessing weird quirks just as its predecessors did. The most notable ones being the weird level curve and distribution of Pokemon. Experience points to level your Pokemon up are much harder to get and there’s weird gaps in the levels of enemy Pokemon where you go from hideously overlevelled to equally underlevelled in no time at all. It’s also hard to find some of the new Pokemon, with them either being restricted to late game areas or requiring items whose appearance is all down to random chance. I was lucky to have skipped Gold and Silver straight to Crystal in my replays because these issues are even worse in the originals. It’s wild that Houndour and Houndoom, the poster children of the new Dark type, can’t be caught until you’re pretty much done with the game already.
The games’ dungeons aren’t great either. I was astonished to discover that some of the climactic dungeons like the Victory Road leading up to the Pokemon League at the end of the main storyline could be cleared in a couple of minutes with no threat of ever getting lost. This aspect definitely hasn’t held up well at all.
Playing through these games it’s clear that even back then Pokemon had a winning formula. The flow of hunting down Pokemon, catching them, and then training them up to take on tougher foes is so engaging and it’s aided by simple mechanics that could be understood even when we were kids, and some brilliant monster designs. One thing that surprised me by these older installments in the series was how open they were compared to more recent games. There’s large segments that you can take on in whichever order you feel, much more than I remembered. This does lead to some balancing issues due to a lack of level scaling, particularly in Gen 2, but it’s cool realising that you could, say, head over to Saffron City early on and use your strong Psychic types to defeat the Fighting Dojo and get a Hitmonchan if you felt like it.
I’m so happy to be feeling excited about Pokemon again and I can’t wait to play through each of the games. I’m even considering doing the wild challenge of trying to get every available ribbon onto a single Pokemon (these are basically Achievements that you can carry through from game to game). I can only hope that I can transfer enough of the Pokemon I’m going to journey with into Sword and Shield, and carry them forth into some brave new worlds going forwards. With the Virtual Console releases completed I was aiming to start with Emerald Version and go from generation to generation in order, but long story short I’m going to be starting with Moon. I’ll be posting my thoughts on each game every now and then, along with a sort of informal review once I’ve finished each one.