Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal are available for Gameboy Color or on the Nintendo 3DS’ eShop. Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver are available for Nintendo DS.
My gut reaction to Pokémon: Let’s Go, Cute Critter! was admittedly on the pessimistic side, and while I stand by what I wrote, it definitely comes from a certain perspective that doesn’t represent all – possibly even most – potential players of that game.
So I’d like to leverage that same perspective to talk about what has and still does excite me about the Pokémon games, and a huge part of the reason why I’m still willing to come back to the table every single time one of these games comes out.
I was pretty much bang in the middle of the target demographic for Pokémon Red and Blue when they hit stateside, which means that I was a bit young to have latched onto the proper computer RPGs at the time – I love Ultima IV now, but seven-year-old me wasn’t quite equipped for it. But it was the big wave hitting, dangit, so I saved up for over a year until I could pick up a Gameboy Color with Pokémon Gold, which had just released in the meantime.
That was effectively my first time playing through a role-playing game, digital or otherwise.
And boy howdy, did I put it through its paces.
Oddly enough, Pokémon reverses the trend a bit in the divide between Eastern and Western styles of role-playing games – especially early in the series. While as a general rule, Japanese-developed role-playing video games games borrow tabletop role-playing mechanics to spin a particular yarn about a pre-baked set of hero characters, their Western-developed counterparts tend toward blank-slate, player-made protagonists and a less rigid plot structure.
Despite being clearly a game made in Japan, Pokémon is very much in the latter camp.
The games are remarkably open about how you build your own party of monsters – barring a few deliberate exceptions, there are virtually no two players who will have the exact same team of cute-and-fearsome critters (nobody else in my schoolyard saw the value of a Mantine), and to this day the huge volume of options means that in over a dozen adventures in as many years, I’ve managed to avoid training up the same monster twice. It lead to all sorts of those “water cooler” conversations that people can have about Bethesda’s games like Fallout these days, as everybody would encounter roadblocks in slightly different places depending on what their team can best handle.
For nine-year-old me, that was failing to understand that Ash’s flippant Charizard in the show had no bearing on the games mechanics and therefore refusing to ever evolve my starting Cyndaquil into something with respectable stat values, but that’s neither here nor there.
All the series do this to some extent, but to this day I hold that Pokémon Gold and Silver are the best in the series at creating what feels like a very full world – within the first few hours, you’re introduced to at least three areas that you can see but not access until you come back much later with more at your disposal – not just little beaches with few items or NPCs, but whole new floors of dungeons and, in the earliest case, a path to the last boss characters in the campaign. In fact, almost every roadblock in the game seems organic (an immovable tree blocking the road, a waterfall you can’t surmount, etc.), and there so much yet to see even after the credits have rolled that you’re perpetually driven by your own curiosity to explore and discover more of the world, which inherently keeps you more invested in your own journey.
(A sense of investment that would also lead me to interacting with fanfiction for the first time, but that’s a whole other can of Wurmples).
To go with this, there’s always been a sense of progression being made almost entirely at the player’s leisure. Sure, you’re required to collect the move Surf to get across the sea to the fifth (sixth?) gym, but you’re never pushed into it, rather obtaining it from a dance hall that otherwise reads very much like a sidequest. Only in very recent games are these things even formatted in the way of quests; you’re predominantly expected to seek out all the major content on your own and forge your own way forward. It’s an incredibly empowering thing for a young player, that a game will trust you with solving your own problems and un-sticking your own ruts rather than whispering a stream of suggestions in your ear.
And with the game’s bright sense of wonder and delightful range of goofy-to-cool character designs, it’s got much of the most attractive parts of JRPGs for me, too. It’s fun and big-hearted in equal measure to being a real self-directed role-playing adventure. Truly the best of both worlds.
And, when it gets right down to it, Pokémon still hasn’t lost any of these endearing elements. You’re still (almost) never forced into actually using a certain monster, there are still a few areas in each game waiting for a player with the initiative good memory to unearth them, and the characters and settings have only become more inventive (even going overboard sometimes).
The coating and delivery has changed, but the core of these games is still strong. Here’s hoping that it shines through ever clearer in the future.