SwitchRPG vs. Pokémon Yellow: Review and Rankings

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 bring our latest in our SwitchRPG vs. Pokémon series, with Jeremy’s review of Pokémon Yellow.


A few months ago, I dropped the first review in this long series, covering Pokémon Blue. The first entry in this legendary series proved to stand the test of time. Yes, it showed its age at times. Gen I Pokémon certainly lacks some quality of life features we’ve come to know and love in later installments, and its spritework can be shaky here and there. Despite this, the first generation of Pokémon titles provide a surprisingly tight and robust experience, with a core design that remains compelling from start to finish. This series started strong, just like many of us older gamers remember.

For the second part of the series, I tasked myself with jumping into the first in a long line of enhanced, third entries in each generation: Pokémon Yellow.

Pokémon Yellow sees the player bringing the fan favorite Pikachu along as their starter and constant companion, as – just like in the anime – Pikachu refuses to enter his Pokéball. As such, Pikachu follows the player around on foot, with a brand-new custom sprite that is clearly inspired by his older, fatter character design. Other changes, including redone sprites and artwork, a few additional story beats, and some minor revamping of gym leaders also occur.

It’s taken a long time to both finish the game and gather my thoughts – particularly in the midst of a global pandemic – but at long last, I offer my review of this “enhanced” experience and my opinion on whether or not this is truly the magnum opus of the first generation of Pokémon.

General Impressions

Pokémon Yellow builds upon the solid foundation of Pokémon Red and Blue, bringing the same core gameplay, with 151 Pokémon to collect, eight gyms to challenge, and the sprawling Kanto region to explore. The changes made here are relatively minor, compared to what was done in future third installments in other generations. Because of this, the core gameplay remains excellent.

However, the changes that did come with Yellow could hardly be called an enhancement. Gone is the choice between three starter Pokémon, as Pikachu is now your only option for starting your adventure. I’m sure when Yellow came out – with millions of young Pokémon anime fans eager to relive the franchise’s adventures – this was considered an amazing change. But coming back to this game as an adult, I find the lack of choice stifling. Blessedly, you are able to box Pikachu and run with a team of all captured Pokémon – though some players (like myself for a good portion of my playthrough) may assume Pikachu is locked in and unable to be boxed.

This loss of freedom – one of franchise’s greatest strengths – weighed on me significantly early in my adventure. Instead of bonding with my perennial companion, I found myself resenting him. Even after realizing that Pikachu could indeed be boxed, I still felt compelled to keep him in my party, if only out of a desire to play the game as it was intended to be enjoyed.

Story

From a story perspective, Pokémon Yellow barely veers left or right from the core brought by Red and Blue. Our hero journeys across Kanto, taking on the Pokémon Challenge and slowly unraveling the plans of the dastardly Team Rocket. Gym leaders may sport slightly different designs or anime-consistent parties. Overall, however, the story is largely unchanged. You’ll also find the opening scene with your rival changed slightly. The game takes our somewhat crass, but not entirely unhelpful or malicious rival and turns him into an egotistical and selfish jerk, who steals what should have been your first partner Pokémon, Eevee. I found this characterization to actually be less compelling than the original, even more so because the game changes none of the other interactions with the rival throughout the rest of the story.

The biggest addition story wise is the insertion of Jessie and James, the two members of Team Rocket who hound Ash Ketchum in the anime. These two mooks, differentiated from other Team Rocket members by their trainer sprites, go unnamed here, and only appear for short, added bits of dialogue and unintimidating battles. They largely fail to deliver an “anime-accurate” addition, as their appearances are inconsequential and actually serve to break up the established story, rather than add to it.

Outside of Jessie and James, a few other changes are dropped in as a means of fan service. All police officers in the game now resemble Officer Jenny, and all Pokémon Center attendants resemble Nurse Joy (with a chansey in tow).

Finally, the game drops in a few NPCs who will hand the player the original starter Pokémon – Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur. But again, the bare minimum was done for these characters inclusion – just a few lines of dialogue. Again, it feels rushed and forced, and having these starters dropped in your lap makes it feel as though you are expected to add them to your party – again flying in the face of the core conceit of the series – building your own, personal team of monsters to face the Pokémon League.

Best Story

  • Pokémon Red & Blue
  • Pokémon Yellow

Best Rivals

  • Blue (Pokémon Red & Blue)
  • Gary (Pokémon Yellow)

Best Evil Teams

  • Team Rocket (Pokémon Red & Blue)
  • Team Rocket (Pokémon Yellow)


Region

Marching through our next set of categories should be relatively painless.

Kanto remains an excellently designed region, almost identical to what was found in Pokémon Red and Blue. The slow ramp up of increasingly more complicated dungeons is executed masterfully, HM’s and story progression slowly open up the world to more exploration, and there are plenty of Pokémon to discover, trainers to battle, items to collect, and mysteries to uncover. The first generation of Pokémon games is beloved for a reason – its core RPG elements are lovingly crafted and tightly designed.

I fully explored my thoughts on the Kanto Region in our first review, and Pokémon Yellow delivers more of the same.

Best Region

  • Kanto (Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow)

Best Dungeons

  • Kanto (Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow)

Best Gym Leaders

  • Kanto (Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow)


New Pokémon

While Pokémon Yellow delivers the same 151 Pokémon as the original games in the generation, there are a few changes here that players may love or hate depending on their personal preferences.

First, Pokémon sprites have been redrawn to better reflect the intended anatomy and proportions of each creature. In most cases, these updated sprites look great. They clear up some of the muddier and fatter designs from the first batch of games hitting the West. However, there are a few cases where the new designs don’t quite accomplish their goal (I’m looking at you, Onix) and end up being better left alone. All in all, I think the new sprites offer an improvement, but can be jarring for those that have played Pokémon Blue to death – like myself – and can see some of the uglier redesigns.

Of course, my biggest gripe with the Pokémon selection in Yellow comes from the starter himself – Pikachu. I’ve never personally been a huge fan of Pikachu in the games and being forced to use him as a starter just feels like an objectively worse experience. Nostalgia is all well and good, but I would never choose to hinder a core gameplay mechanic just to see the electric rat following me around everywhere I go. Even after discovered that I could box the Pikachu, I still kept him around to see the little added story bits, so he was my constant companion, like it or not.

In terms of gameplay for these Pokémon, you’ll find the vast majority of the move sets and capabilities unchanged – with one notable exception. Players can now teach Fly to Charizard and use him as their preferred mode of travel. It’s a small change, but a welcome one for fans that remember seeing Ash ride on the back of his Charizard in the anime.

Best Pokémon

  • Pokémon Yellow (yay, flying Charizard!)
  • Pokémon Red & Blue

Best Starters

  • Pokémon Red & Blue
  • Pokémon Yellow

Best Legendaries

  • Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow

Gameplay

As said above, Yellow shares all the core gameplay elements with Red and Blue – which means you’re getting a solid RPG experience from start to finish. I have some gripes with the starter choice and a sense that the game wants me to formulate my party in certain way, but these things can be mostly ignored (with the exception of Pikachu) in favor of still building out your own custom team. But Pikachu causes some other gameplay problems outside of occupying a coveted party slot.

The implementation of Pikachu following you around the game world just doesn’t work. Jumping over ledges causes delays (as Pikachu jumps behind you), using the Pokémon center takes longer, and his added bits of action during cutscenes adds very little meaning to the story other than to remind you that he is there.

But these are minor gripes.

The worst part of Pikachu’s implementation comes from simple movement itself. The player can run into Pikachu, with the game making the bonk noise like you ran into a wall, and this happens almost every time you want to reverse direction. RPGs had been handling multiple party members for years when Yellow was released, but in this case, the tacked-on nature of Pikachu’s inclusion meant programming him in like an NPC. This leaves all sorts of problems like the ones mentioned above.

In terms of bonus content, Yellow adds one new minigame to the mix: Pikachu’s Beach. Found on Route 19, this is a simple little surfing game which requires the player to control Pikachu as he tries to catch big waves. As Pikachu jumps each wave, he can do a certain number of flips to receive “radness” points. Landing safely and getting back to shore in a timely manner will also increase Pikachu’s final points. For those who have played it, expect an experience similar to Excitebike on the NES. It’s a cute little addition, though not something you’ll find yourself dumping a huge amount of time into.

Best Gameplay

  • Pokémon Red & Blue
  • Pokémon Yellow

Best Quality of Life Features

  • Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow

Best Bonus Content

  • Safari Zone (Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow)
  • Pikachu’s Beach (Pokémon Yellow)
  • Game Corner (Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow)

Final Rankings

Ultimately, I can’t bring myself to agree with the many people that find Pokémon Yellow to be the best of the bunch in Generation I. The changes implemented are mostly minor, with a mix of a good and bad. But while the good changes barely move the dial in a positive direction, the negative ones were a thorn in my side throughout my second adventure through Kanto. That being said, I’d have to recommend Pokémon Red or Blue to anyone looking to give Generation I another (or first) try.

Best Games Ranked So Far

  • Pokémon Red & Blue
  • Pokémon Yellow
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