In SwitchRPG Versus, we task a staff member with playing through every major game in a popular RPG series, reviewing each game and ranking various game elements as they go. Today, we come to the first review article of our SwitchRPG vs. Pokémon series, with Jeremy’s reivew of Pokémon Blue.
Growing up as a 90’s Nintendo kid, there’s no way I could have avoided Pokémania. Game Freak’s debut Pokémon titles spawned an entire franchise of games, cartoons, movies, card games, and merchandise. Growing up in a family of dedicated Nintendo fans – with a healthy dose of RPG love to boot – I was just the right demographic for the love of Pokémon to take hold. My fandom started strong and has never really let up – I’ve played almost every major release in the series thus far. I’ve seen how the franchise has grown, matured, and advanced over the years, all while keeping a special place in my heart for that very first release.
Diving into this SwitchRPG Versus series, I hoped that my love for Pokémon Blue would be well-founded. I hoped that my nostalgia was based in more than simply, childlike wonder, and that the core gameplay elements that have improved over all these years would still be just as compelling in their primordial state. At the same time, I had to force myself to take on this challenge with a critical eye. One hundred percent objectivity may realistically be out of reach, but I wanted – if nothing else – to dig into these games to see what value they hold now, 20+ years later, to a gamer looking to experience the greats. And of course, as the first part of this series, I wanted to set Pokémon Blue as the baseline for judgement for all the other titles. Each game I play will feature an updated set of rankings – starting off with rose-colored glasses will do me no favors.
So let’s dive into this, the cornerstone of one of the biggest media franchises in the world, and see just how Pokémon Blue holds up today.
To answer briefly: The game holds up remarkably well, despite its age and the limitations of the original Game Boy.
I can only credit the core gameplay elements: monster catching, training, battling, and evolution are all elements essential to the Pokémon formula that haven’t changed much in 20 years. Playing through the game with fresh eyes, I saw repeatedly how much care the developers put into their design – from the way the early bug Pokémon evolve quickly – giving players a taste of the evolution mechanics – to how the gym leaders and wild Pokémon are carefully arranged to help players learn about specific type advantages. Meanwhile, a good amount of depth that lives under the surface: things like EV’s, IV’s, and other mechanics competitive players have worked out over the years, though these also exist for the casual player to make each monster they catch feel unique.
From a pacing perspective, the game moves along at a solid clip, never staying too long in a given area and always changing up the formula to keep players on their toes. It does a good job throwing consistently growing challenges the player’s way, whether they be in the form of rival Pokémon trainers, forests and caves infested with wild Pokémon, or environmental interaction in the form of HM moves – cut, strength, fly, flash, and surf. Little touches like this make the world seem both dangerous and interactive, filling first-time players with a sense of wonder at the world around them.
Even with no consideration for where the franchise as a whole is going from here, Pokémon Blue itself is a rock solid – if simple – RPG that does an excellent job teaching core RPG mechanics, building its game world, and providing a fun challenge for players of all stripes.
For the precious few of you unfamiliar with the story of most Pokémon games, here’s the rundown: You start the game as a young preteen, set to embark on a journey spanning multiple towns and villages, catching, raising, and battling monsters known as Pokémon. Pokémon are an essential part of life for most people in this world, many of which keep these monsters as pets, use them for construction, travel, and other useful jobs, and for battle against each other as a popular form of sport. The journey our young protagonist embarks on is considered a rite of passage for many youngsters, as they travel the region for the Gym Challenge – a series of competitive battles against Pokémon trainers who specialize in specific types. Along the way, our protagonist will encounter problems large and small to help the citizenry, build their collection of Pokémon, and – if they are up to the challenge – try to catch them all.
This core framework is common to most Pokémon titles, with the individual, episodic adventures that occur from town to town underscored by two overarching stories. First, there’s the player’s rivalry with a fellow Pokémon trainer from their hometown, who is canonically named Blue in the Pokémon Red and Blue games. Our protagonist, Red, faces off against Blue when the receive their very first Pokémon from Blue’s grandfather, Professor Oak. A former trainer-turned-scientist, Oak tasks the two boys with helping him complete the famous Pokédex, a growing, digital encyclopedia of knowledge about individual species. Throughout your adventure, the player will battle Blue time and time again, each time seeing how his team has grown and getting updates on the status of his Pokédex. In this first game, Blue comes off as a bit of an obnoxious jerk, who frequently finds himself in the face of the same local problems as Red, but does nothing to alleviate them. His focus is not on caring for the people around him, but instead solely locked on his own goals.
Interspersed and increasingly intermingled with the local events is Team Rocket, a criminal organization of Pokémon trainers who enact various dastardly plots along the way. In their first appearance, Team Rocket looks to steal valuable Pokémon fossils from scientists exploring Mt. Moon, and their deeds only get worse from there. They are responsible for thefts, gambling rings, the death of Pokémon, and eventually the entire takeover of a town and mega-corporation. However, Red and his team of Pokémon counter Team Rocket’s every move, leading to Red having multiple showdowns with Team Rocket’s leader, Giovanni. In the final battle, after Team Rocket’s biggest plots have been unraveled, Giovanni reveals that he is the last Gym Leader Red must defeat to challenge the Pokémon League, the championship and final destination of the story.
All these story beats are told through relatively small amounts of dialogue, with many background details revealed by NPCs scattered throughout the game. Jumping back after years of more “modern” storytelling, I found this more minimalist approach satisfyingly economic. Game Freak accomplished much with their limited resources, keeping several plot threads moving without ever feeling slow or rushed. Pokémon sets a solid baseline for future installments, which will balance similar plotlines with an increasing capability to tell more complex stories.
- Pokémon Red & Blue
- Blue (Pokémon Red & Blue)
Best Evil Teams
- Team Rocket (Pokémon Red & Blue)
So what is special about this world our intrepid Pokémon trainer is exploring? These first games are set in the region of Kanto (based the real Kantō region of Japan), an grassy, mild-weathered land full of towns, cities, and caves to explore. As you start out your adventure, you’ll find a relatively straightforward path, as each town is connected by numbered routes, all following a sequential order. This trend continues as players set out from their native Pallet Town through the next two towns to Cerulean. However, when the player tries to go south out of Cerulean, they find their way to the central Saffron City blocked by a cranky security guard. With their way blocked, the player must take an underground path to Vermillion. This kicks off a series of interrupted Routes, where the player must talk to NPCs, acquire special abilities for their Pokémon, and obtain specific items to progress to the next destination. Eventually, a few branching paths become available, giving the player a choice of what route to take, what challenge to tackle, and what threats to overcome next.
Overall, the Kanto region is well-designed and keeps the player on their toes. Backtracking is never too egregious, and secret items and pathways are littered throughout the adventure to encourage exploration as new abilities are unlocked. Linear paths open up and loop around on themselves, the biggest being unlocking Saffron City itself, which acts as a central hub between several locales. The Hidden Machine (HM) system, which gives specific Pokémon moves that allow players to better traverse the overworld and unlock secret paths, is a sort of double-edged sword. In practice, HM moves create a wonderful sense of immersion and give Pokémon usefulness outside of fighting. However, the requirement that each of these moves permanently take up a slot in your team member’s move list serves as a inconvenience.
Interspersed throughout the Kanto region, meanwhile, are a series of well-designed dungeons and Gym Leader challenges. Early dungeons like Viridian Forest and Mt. Moon serve as fantastic introductions to various RPG design elements, and late-game dungeons like Sylph Co. Headquarters and the Seafoam Islands offer great puzzles and unique challenges to mix up the standard formula. The pacing at which players will face these dungeons also varies throughout the game, at first being part of the standard route-town cadence, before giving players a blast a several dungeons in a row before tapering off again. The Gym Leader challenges, meanwhile, act as little mini dungeons of their own. The earliest feature just a few trainers you can try to avoid with a walking path, and progressively adding more puzzles, mazes, and other unique challenges to the mix. The Gym Leaders themselves are not always the most challenging – depending on a player’s knowledge of game mechanics and individual playstyle – but they each bring at least some sense of personality and flair, despite their brief appearances. The order in which the Gym Leaders appear also gives players a steady, measured introduction to type advantages.
In all, the Kanto region remains a solid, well-designed world to explore and a wonderful introduction to the multi-faceted world of Pokémon.
- Kanto (Pokémon Red & Blue)
- Kanto (Pokémon Red & Blue)
Best Gym Leaders
- Kanto (Pokémon Red & Blue)
Anyone familiar with modern-day Pokémon knows that the first generation of Pokémon, the original 151, are beloved by both fans and developers. We’ll likely never stop seeing new versions of Charizard pop up for every mechanic added to the games, whether they be Mega Evolutions, Gigantamaxes, or something else entirely.
I think the reason these original designs are so beloved goes beyond simple nostalgia. The first generation of Pokémon all followed a relatively simple design philosophy, perhaps driven by the limitation of the Game Boy’s hardware, that relied on recognizable features inspired by real-world and mythological creatures. Early game Pokémon players can capture are all just juiced up version of actual animals – rats, pigeons, rabbits, and bugs. This design philosophy both makes these Pokémon easy to remember and vivid to the imagination of young players, as they could easily look out their window and imagine what the world be like if Pokémon were real. At the same time, the evolution mechanics – of which players get a showcase early on the forms of the Caterpie and Weedle lines – reveal a system begging to be explored.
As the game progresses, players are introduced to less recognizable, more monster-y designs. Jigglypuff and Clefairy don’t really resemble anything in the real world, Pokémon like Geodude and Oddish are just rocks and planets come to life, and by the time you get to the likes of Psychic types like Drowzee, Mr. Mime, and Abra, you’re dealing with more esoteric forms that still yield to the simplicity dictated by the core artistic direction. Combine Pokémon who steadily increase in complexity with creatures straight out of Japanese and American folklore – Gyarados, Ninetails, Dragonite, etc. – and you’ve got a mix of inspiring creatures with memorable designs ready to stick in the brains of players for two decades. Simplicity is the core strength here, not a weakness.
Into this fray players also get their choice of starter Pokémon – Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander – all cute, reptilian, and infused with fundamental elements like grass, water, and fire. The evolutions of these starters gradually ramp up the coolness factor, particularly with Blastoise and Charizard. What kid wouldn’t want a giant, canon-equipped turtle or fire-breathing dragon on their team? And while I don’t find Venusaur’s design as compelling as the other two, there’s no doubting that this grass-type’s moveset brings a ton of utility to the casual player. Late game additions like sleep powder make him a powerhouse, particularly with Generation I mechanics.
Finally, we come to the last set of memorable designs – the legendaries. I personally loved how the Legendary Birds – Zapdos, Articuno, and Moltres – were hinted at through NPC dialogue throughout the game. I can see how such hints would give the attentive player something to aspire towards. At the same time, the entire scenario of Pokémon Mansion, with little snippets of journal entries detailing the creation of Mewtwo, go a long way to making him seem like the dramatic powerhouse the #150 is known as today. While this batch of four (five if you count the event-only Mew) is limited compared to later titles, they are all iconic additions to the overall Pokémon lexicon and contribute to the overall legacy that is the pool of Generation I Pokémon.
- Pokémon Red & Blue
- Pokémon Red & Blue
- Pokémon Red & Blue
Of course, all these elements would be moot if not for Pokémon Blue’s excellent gameplay foundation. The turn-based combat system is simple in design – each Pokémon has access to four attacks at any given time, learning and replacing attacks as they level up. At certain level milestones, these Pokémon will evolve into a more powerful form, giving them better base stats and (usually) a cooler design. With a party of up to six Pokémon with you at any given time, 15 Pokémon types with their own strengths and weaknesses against each other, and 150 Pokémon to choose from, players can drive a lot of variety out of this core combat system. Status effects like sleep, paralysis, confusion, and more also bring in a variety of strategies for both winning battles and catching new Pokémon.
One area where these classic Pokémon games fall short – especially in this first generation – is quality of life features. Your inventory limit is surprisingly small, requiring frequent trips to the PC to swap out items and store others for later. Even then, you can run out of PC space as well, forcing you to use or discard items that you might have wanted to save for later. At the same time, while new Pokémon will automatically be sent to this PC storage system when your party is full, they are split into individual boxes. If your current box is full, the game has no way to automatically switch. You’ll just be told you cannot catch any new Pokémon at this time. This happened to me when trying to catch a Moltres of all things, so the system can get irritating fast.
In terms of side content, each Pokémon game offers some side areas where the gameplay differs from the central experience. In some cases this bonus content helps you buff your existing Pokémon, or else gain special items, gold, or other rewards. In others, you’ll find yourself with a unique batch of Pokémon to capture that cannot be found anywhere else. In Pokémon Blue’s case, we get a little of both worlds with the Safari Zone and the Game Corner.
Of the two of these, I think the Safari Zone certainly has the more enjoyable potential. With a variety of unique Pokémon to catch, a looming deadline, limited resources, and a new puzzles to solve – it really should be a slam dunk. In some cases, it succeeds. I certainly felt a sense of accomplishment when I caught my first Rhydon, Exeggcute, and Tauros. However, I found the absolutely ridiculous catch rates and associated grindiness for other Pokémon to be a major turnoff. Only once in my life have I had the patience to grind out the rarest Pokémon in the Safari Zone, and this playthrough was not one of those times. This makes the Safari Zone a bit of a mixed bag for me – a side game with a ton of potential, despite faltering in execution.
The Game Corner, meanwhile, is nothing but a pure grind and something I’ve always avoided at all costs. With one truly unique Pokémon locked behind this system, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to sit at a slot machine to get all the necessary coins to unlock it. In the past, I’ve used glitches to amass huge sums of money to trade for the requisite coins to get all the rewards I need. In this run, however, I just skipped over it entirely. These sorts of systems are rarely well-executed in games, and Pokémon Blue is no exception.
- Pokémon Red & Blue
Best Quality of Life Features
- Pokémon Red & Blue
Best Bonus Content
- Safari Zone (Pokémon Red & Blue)
- Game Corner (Pokémon Red & Blue)
There isn’t much to say going into final rankings at this stage, as Pokémon Blue is really just setting a baseline for the games to follow. The foundation laid by the first generation of Pokémon games is a strong one, establishing a legacy that lives up to the hype – particularly if you are a casual player. Competitive Pokémon fans may gripe about imbalanced typing, limited movepools, and other deficiencies existent in this first Generation – I do believe some of these trickle into the single-player experience as well – but overall, this was a phenomenal game that sets the standard for an entire franchise.
Best Games Ranked So Far
- Pokémon Red & Blue