If you were a kid in the late 90s, chances are you were obsessed with Pokémon. I sure was. Pokémon was inescapable. Initially dismissed as another 90s fad, Pokémon has shown incredible staying power. 20 years later and Pokémon is still going strong. The only video game franchise with more sales is Mario. While Pokémon is still a big deal, it could never replicate the Pokémania phenomenon back in 98-99. Pokémon was a multimedia take over of the likes never before seen. Anime, video games, trading cards, and more combined to create Pokémania. Pokémon merchandise was everywhere you looked. But for today I’d like to focus on the original games, Pokémon Red and Blue.
Let’s take a trip to the past. The year is 1999. It was my birthday and I received a blue Gameboy Pocket with Pokémon Blue Version. I’ll never forget the awe and wonder I felt upon beginning my first Pokémon journey. The journey begins humbly in your hometown of Pallet. Aptly named if you ask me. Pokémon gives you a blank canvas and a pallet. Use a brush to color it however you like. Other than receiving your starter and Pokédex from Professor Oak, you aren’t given much direction of what to do next. You wander around looking for new Pokémon. Everything is completely new to the player. This was a time when the internet was still in its infancy. Progression was all guess work (unless you had the strategy guide).
One of the best aspects of Pokémon is choosing a team of 6 out of the 151 Pokémon available. Your starter will most definitely stay in the party throughout the journey. Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander, the toughest decision of my childhood. Whoever is chosen, they will grow with the player. They start as adorable little creature and evolve into powerful Pokémon by journey’s end. It represents the player’s growth from humble beginnings to League Champion. You return home having learned and grown so much. The rest of the team is made up of your favorite Pokémon. No meta game or Smogon tiers, just Pokémon you loved.
One part of Red and Blue that makes it special is the open-endedness. After defeating Brock in the Pewter City Gym, the rest of the Gym Leaders (except Giovanni) can be fought out of the intended order. Chances are, you were facing a Gym Leader that kicked your ass. You had to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Either find a Pokémon with advantages, come up with better strategies, or move on to face another Gym Leader. Having played it again recently, I found it harder than recent Pokémon entries. There wasn’t a way to efficiently grind, meaning your level would be about the same as the Gym Leaders and Elite Four. It felt satisfying to overcome the challenges through strategy rather than level grinding.
The story in Red and Blue is almost non-existent but for a kid this allows for imagination to fill in the blanks. Its your journey, you experience it how you want. The game doesn’t direct you anywhere. The player must figure out what to do next. A kid will come up with their own idea of what’s happening.
Red and Blue had a very personal rival. He was someone you grew up with. Now you’re both starting you’re Pokémon journeys at the same time. Blue (or as I named him, Douche) is always two steps ahead of you. He always has more badges and Pokémon than you. No matter how many times you defeat him, he always dismisses and belittles you. Finally, you’ve beaten Lance and the Pokémon League Championship is yours! Or it would be if Douche hadn’t already defeated the Elite Four. Now you must fight your bitter rival one last time. This time everything is on the line. After a long, tenuous battle, you emerge victorious. The title of Champion is finally yours. Blue is defeated before Professor Oak had a chance to congratulate him. What a satisfying feeling.
While Pokémon Red and Blue is very primitive now, it was all we had back then. There was something magical about it. The series has advanced considerably since then, but the core experience has remained relatively the same. I no longer consider the originals my favorite, but they will always have a special place in my heart. It may be difficult to go back to the beginning, but all Pokémon fans need to experience the originals at least once. After all, they are the games that started it all.