Retro Review: Pokémon Blue Version

Pokémon Red and Green initially released in Japan on February 27th 1996 for the Nintendo Game Boy with the English Red and Blue Versions releasing two years later in 1998 in the United States, and in 1999 in Europe. The games would go on to spawn a cultural phenomenon the dominated the late 90s and early 2000s. After recently completing a replay of Pokémon Blue Version, here is a retro review for the games that started it all.

Pokémon Blue Version is a JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) where the player lives in a world inhabited by fantastical creatures called Pokémon. Wild Pokémon can be captured by humans and trained to become stronger and even evolve into new stronger forms. The people that team up with Pokémon and engage in battles against others using Pokémon are known as Pokémon Trainers. However, there are bad trainers that exploit Pokémon and use them for nefarious ends, the notorious Team Rocket criminal organization terrorizes the region making life miserable for people and Pokémon alike.

In the game the player takes on the role of a brand-new Pokémon Trainer that chooses their starting Pokémon from among three offered by a Pokémon Professor. This trainer is tasked with a mission to record data on every known Pokémon in the Pokédex, an electronic encyclopedia on Pokémon. Alongside this task the player pursues their personal dream to travel the region and battle the 8 Gym Leaders and earn their badges as proof of skill, and to ascend the ranks to eventually challenge the Pokémon League. The Pokémon League is home of the Elite Four, the four strongest trainers in the whole region, and anyone that can beat these four trainers gains the title of Pokémon League Champion. On their quest the player will have to try to put a stop to Team Rocket’s plans, explore the region to find as many Pokémon as possible, and discover the mysteries behind the legendary Pokémon that rarely appear before humans.

The game play in Pokémon Blue is very typical fare for a JRPG on the Game Boy, using the directional pad the player can navigate the top-down world map. There are various environments that have puzzles and obstacles that the player will have to overcome by activating their Pokémon’s abilities on the world map to do things like licking up dark areas, moving large boulders and surfing over the water. When the player enters a Pokémon battle the perspective shifts to a 2D side-perspective battle screen. The battles are turn-based and via menus the player decides on which attacks to use, they can also decide whether to swap out Pokémon, or use items, or flee in the case of wild Pokémon.

The controls are simple to learn, and this simplicity belies the deeper strategic elements of the game. Pokémon and their moves are all aligned to various elemental types and in a rock-paper-scissors style chain each type has advantages and disadvantages against others. For example Fire-type is against Grass-type, and Grass-type is strong against Water-type, and Water-type is strong against Fire-type. When at attack is strong it does increased damage (known as super-effective) and if a Pokémon is hit with an attack it is weak against it will take increased damage. In the first generation Pokémon there are 15 types in the game, and individual Pokémon species can have up to two types like a Fire/Flying-type or a Grass/Poison-type. Pokémon can also learn moves that might cover for their weaknesses and let them do super-effective damage to opponents that they normally wouldn’t be able to, for example in some cases you can teach a Grass-type attack to a Fire-type Pokémon so they can damage Water-types.

The graphical presentation is excellent for a late-era Game Boy title. The sprite work is vivid and brings the humans and Pokémon to life. The over world sprites suffer a bit being somewhat generic, this is likely due to storage limitations on the console, and doesn’t hurt the overall experience much thanks to the amazing sprite work in the battle portaits. Pokémon are well-rendered in expressive sprite art that oozes personality and really drives home the nature of each monster. There are many clever details that become iconic signatures like items that are on the map appearing as Poké Balls (the item used to capture Pokémon) rather than the more traditional treasure chests. This is even cleverly exploited with a Pokémon that resembles a Poké Ball that acts as a mimic enemy in some areas. The animations for the Pokémon attacks are another feat with unique effects showing the element and power of each attack and creating a real sense of impact with each move.

The sound design in the game is another of the shining points. Clever and creative use of the Game Boy sound system creates a bevy of memorable earworms that enhance the environments where they play. From the battle themes which carry a heart-pounding sense of action and excitement that suits the contest of skill between opponents, to the town themes which range from bustling and busy to serene and whimsical, to spooky and unsettling. The sound designer also achieved the amazing feat of creating cries for the 151 monsters within the game, the cries themselves have become as iconic as the music. Again, due to sound limitations a few of the Pokémon species ended up sharing the same cry.

There are some weaknesses in the game, the largest of which might be the replayability, once the main story is completed there is only one post-game dungeon. Once the trainers and gym leaders are defeated they can never be battled again leaving the only replayable trainer battles being the Elite Four battles at the endgame. This limitation might not be as important to players that get into the multiplayer and trade and battle Pokémon with others.

Speaking of battles, another of the weaknesses in the game is in the battle system. The type chart is unbalanced and this results Psychic-type and Dragon-type Pokémon are somewhat broken. Another issue is a lack of variety in some Pokémon types. The Ghost-Type and Dragon-type only have one evolutionary line each making the options essentially one Pokémon each for players wishing to use these types. There are several glitches in the game that if encountered can mess with the game data even causing erasure or corruption of the save file. Thankfully, these glitches are not easy to come by in natural play. There is one glitch that is much more impactful to the game, in this glitch the Speed stat of a Pokémon affects the odds of landing a critical hit, this makes it so that faster Pokémon land critical hits much more frequently.

Final Verdict

This game is an instant classic that pushes the Game Boy hardware to the limit. The story and gameplay draw the player into the world of Pokémon and the selection of monsters and abilities let players customize their Pokémon teams to suit their playstyles and come up with a variety of strategies. The multiplayer options are fun and making engaging with other players one of the best experiences in the game. Minor limitations in the game might be frustrating for some, but overall this game is something that is a must-play for fans of the Game Boy and JRPGs. It is also some thing that newer fans that joined the franchise after should go back and experience if they get the chance.

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