Retro Review: Pokémon Red and Blue (Gameboy 1998)

Catching ‘Em all was a much simpler task back then…

Welcome to a new feature here on Pop Culture Pipe Bomb, where I’ll be revisiting the games of yesteryear, seeing how they hold up today and exploring what made them so revered (or not) when they were first released. Undisputed classics. Niche oddities. Unfounded disasters. I’ll be covering the lot. To kick things off though I thought I’d start with some games that took the world by storm when they were first released, and whose impact, judging by events last year, seem to be everlasting. I present: Pokemon Red and Blue. I originally wrote this review at the start of last year, as celebrations for the series’ 20th Anniversary were getting into full swing, but before the franchise saw a resurgence following the unbridled phenomenon that was Pokemon Go. Now seems just as appropriate as ever though to look back on the games that kickstarted one of gaming’s most popular franchises, with the latest in the series, Pokemon Sun and Moon, the fastest selling Pokemon games of them all. Pokemon is truly back in the spotlight, so let’s take a moment to appreciate the games that started it all.

Pokémon Red and Blue first released in Japan on February 27th, 1996, coming to the US over two years later in September 1998, and Europe even later in May 1999. Looking at that release schedule today it’s wonderful to know that worldwide releases are a given now, however back then no one was quite sure the games would take off in the West as they had in Japan. I mean they were pretty eccentric games. Collect weird monsters that you then train to fight each other in order to win trophies, money and glory! Probably sounds a tad odd to an outsider. Luckily, however, the games turned out to be a significantly deeper (and less dog-fighty) affair and ignited a fiery passion for the series in many that still burns to this day.

Just in case you’ve been sleeping like a Snorlax for the past 20 years, I’ll explain the basics of the game. You start your adventure as a young boy named Red who seeks to be the greatest Pokémon trainer of them all. In order to achieve this dream, you must travel through the region of Kanto, catching Pokémon and battling them against other trainers to level them up, before fighting the eight gym leaders scattered across the land to earn badges. Collecting all of said badges allows you to take on the most powerful trainers of all at the Pokémon League. In between all this, you must also humiliate your rival Blue by constantly defeating him in battle, whilst also taking on the nefarious Team Rocket to halt their plan for world domination.

All in all, it’s fairly straightforward once you get the hang of it, especially as these games are (obviously) the simplest of them all, making them rather accessible. The story of these games has never been the most important aspect, however fighting for justice against Team Rocket always provided a sense of satisfaction. Like the best RPG’s, your actions actually affect the world around you, even if it isn’t necessarily a visible change. The main attraction of the Pokémon games was and always has been, filling out your Pokédex. With these first games, we were introduced to the original 151 Pokémon. The designs ranged from weird (Mr Mime), to wonderful (Dragonite), to downright bad (Exeggcute). Some cited obvious inspiration from common animals, whilst others were simply the wacky creations of Ken Sugimori’s wonderful mind. No matter how original they were, every kid wanted every one of them. But with a handful being exclusive to each version, how was this going to be possible without spending a large amount of money on two games that were virtually the same?

Enter, the Link Cable.

Nintendo sought to increase connectivity between players of its games, with the Pokémon series soon becoming the ultimate example of how to do multiplayer right. Whilst it was certainly thrilling to do battle against, and trade with your friends, this aspect of the game was only in its infancy and thus easily proved problematic. Whereas nowadays trades can be done over the internet with just a few taps of the touchscreen, back then you needed to physically link up to another Gameboy. Therefore, if you didn’t have a friend with a copy of the other game, not only were you prevented from completing the Pokédex, you were alienated from a huge aspect of the game that made it so revered.

When it does come to completing the Pokédex however, the games are pleasingly varied in the methods required to both catch and evolve Pokémon. Exploring every inch of the game world is required to find the different Pokémon, meaning a firm emphasis is placed on exploration, and affirming the games’ similarity to more traditional RPG’s, in relation to the world being a significantly important aspect. Every part of the world is utilised. Oceans can be swum in; ponds can be fished in, and caves can be spelunked in. The variety ensures that hunting for that next creature never feels like a chore, although endless parades of Zubats, Pidgeys and Rattatas are problems that have continued to plague the series to this very day.

A major way in which the series stood out from traditional RPGs was with the idea of Evolution. You could always level up characters in RPGs, but the only change you ever saw was the stat number get a bit higher. Pokémon introduced the unique concept that the creatures you level up would change at certain points. It ensures battling with the same Pokémon is constantly worth it, as you never know if or when it’s going to change, granting you access to a more powerful beast. The majority of final evolutions are so well designed that once you obtain said Pokémon you’re sure to never get bored. Who wouldn’t want to fight with a fire-breathing dragon lizard all day long? In fact, to this day I’ve got at least five level 100 Charizard’s stored on Omega Ruby.

The battle system itself is also fun and varied, even in the limited state it’s in with these games. The constant rotation of moves to be learnt calls for legitimate concentration when customising your favourite Mon’s move set. Meanwhile, the wide array of types adds a much-needed layer of strategy to the games that make battling just complex enough so that it’s not simply a matter of mashing the most powerful move you have, instead, requiring you to think about which Mon should do battle. Status effects also add to the complexity; however, I’ve always found that outside of modern day competitive battles they’ve never really been necessary for any Pokémon game, and in these games, in particular, the balance is not the best, so they’re more of an annoyance than anything else.

Overall what impresses me most about these games is how surprisingly well they’ve stood the test of time. Of course, they don’t have the myriad of features today’s games have, but I think they prove that Pokémon is still fun without them. Even with today’s vast number of Pokémon, when playing Red and Blue now, you get the sense that catching and training them all back in the 90’s was a harder task. Whilst the connectivity limitations were obviously an issue; these games didn’t feel the need to hold your hand so much. You want to train a Pokémon to Level 100? Then go fight the Elite Four a billion times. There was no gratuitous handing out of Lucky Eggs, and the Exp Share wasn’t grossly overpowered, you had to really dedicate yourself to these games. At the very least it was a heck of a lot simpler.

And that simplicity is wherein the charm lies. If you find yourselves revisiting these games following a playthrough of the brilliant Sun and Moon, or even if you’re playing for the first time, you’ll be playing Pokémon at a time where the objective simply was to Catch ‘Em All. So whilst the newest games are amazing with all the features they bring to the table and have vastly improved the gameplay experience with much-needed changes to the UI, there’s a lot to be said for playing the games that simply embody the core premise of the series. They’re not perfect, and they’re definitely not the very best the series has to offer, Red and Blue are quite simply Pokémon games that are still fun to play to this day. And that’s not a bad takeaway for a pair of games that were released more than 20 years ago.


As you might be able to tell, Joe is a big Pokemon fan. To check out more of his ramblings about the series, be sure to follow him @resonantrevs on Twitter.

The Good
  • Tons Of Content
  • Unique Gameplay Mehanics
  • Brilliant Character Design
The Bad
  • Unbalanced Types
  • Too Many Zubats!
4.5 Superb

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