We all know the truth about Pokémon. The formula was born nigh on perfect and while several bells and whistles have since been added over the last couple of decades, the core gameplay loop has remained unchanged for over 20 years. Nonetheless, every iterative title provides a new, tweaked experience, sporting new regions, specific sets of creatures, new characters to overcome and different extra-curricular activities to undergo. It is in these areas that the Pokémon games manage to stand out from one another. Yet with that in mind, how do the original titles shape up against the rest?
The thing is, nostalgia goggles put aside, these should be the worst games in the series. The type match-ups are so unbalanced that the Psychic type takes total dominance over everything else. Their prey, the Poison type, are aplenty and there are no reliable Bug or Ghost types or attacks to challenge them at all. Furthermore, a lot of Pokémon can only rely on Normal type offensive moves meaning that Rock types actually come out rather well overall. Using a combination of Alakazam and Rhydon practically guaranteed a swift defeat over everything. And the inequalities continue; the Sleep status was ridiculously overpowered and certain other tricks such as stacking up damage with Toxic and Leech Seed combined meant there were plenty of ways to ensure total control over each battle.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of lacking any post-game material aside from completing the Pokédex, a task that isn't exactly unique to this pair of games. The remakes, FireRed and LeafGreen, attempt to resolve this issue by adding the Sevii Islands with a post-game Team Rocket plot, alongside a powered-up rematch for the Elite Four. However, there are no Battle Facilities or Pokémon Contest side-quests to get on with, which are elements now common to every new release. Thus we are left with one post-game task of completing this Pokédex, which falls short these days considering catching 151 Pokémon doesn’t really seem a great undertaking now 802 of the creatures are running around.
So what is it that draws so many people back to the old 8-bit games? Why do players who grew up with Pokémon swear by the original 151 and look down on Red and Blue’s successors despite how much more feature-dense they've become? I recommend we sit down with them once more, because anyone will soon see why!
Pokémon Red and Blue capture our imaginations more so than any other games in the series to date. All of the tropes established in the originals have become standard in later releases. We’re a young child sent out into a world of dreams and adventure with a rival to best, gym leaders to challenge and a villainous team to thwart. However, what’s so refreshing about the original games is that none of these aspects are being crammed down our throats. Our trainer is left entirely to their own devices to explore and develop as and when we choose. The games are far less linear than those released since (Koga is supposed to be battled before Sabrina people!) and there are no NPCs constantly popping up posing rhetorical questions and then telling us how amazing Pokémon are.
In fact, the few characters we do meet along the way are much more beloved than many we've seen since. The rival Blue does whatever he wants and we love his arrogance for it. Team Rocket genuinely feel like a crime syndicate who are ever present in all aspects of city life (they kill a Marowak people, that’s pretty horrible stuff). This much more independent approach in future would not go amiss (so please no more chasing Furfrou or strange conversations about bones).
Furthermore, the Pokémon seem implemented better within Kanto than any other region and part of this is helped by the imbalance at play. Still to this day I have not quite come to terms with the Psychic type's fall from glory. Mewtwo may still be a great Pokémon, but he doesn’t have the God-like status he used to (something that even the Creation Pokémon Arceus hasn’t been able to replicate).
The concept of legendary Pokémon seems to carry more weight in these first titles with real exploration being required to find them. Ghost types genuinely feel like a type unknown, requiring the Silph Scope item to even see them. The cocoon Pokémon, Metapod and Kakuna, really could protect themselves from most of our attacks spamming Harden. Clefairy were these mythical creatures rarely found atop Mt. Moon. Power plants, burnt out buildings and icy caverns all contained specific sets of wild Pokémon recognizable within such environments and the Unknown Dungeon (later renamed Cerulean Cave) truly had the most powerful and intimidating Pokémon inside than most dungeons seen since. The creatures we could catch fitted within the context of the world, which really helped to entice our imaginations.
Finally, with there being so few Pokémon sporting certain types it meant that the Elite Four actually seemed like quite a challenge, because they used creatures we had very little prior knowledge about. This didn’t quite make them fair at times (I still pull my hair out battling Agatha’s Gengar and without a strong Ice type attack to use, Lance’s Dragonite can be a nightmare), but it meant they were characters who knew more about this world and, by overcoming them, would only strengthen our ability to understand the type match-ups and the mechanics of the game.
Once we overcome them and face our Rival once more, there truly is a sense of having become the most powerful trainer in the world, because at the end of Pokémon Red and Blue we really have fought against everything and won. Never has the sense of becoming a Pokémon Master felt so tangible.
Ultimately, you’d think Pokémon Red and Blue should not be as celebrated still as they are today; the series has progressed so much since their release it almost seems unfair to undermine 20 years of achievements. But, it’s the more reserved qualities that make them still the most imaginative and personal experiences in the entire series.
Wherever the Pokémon series may tread in future, there is no doubt that players will always be able to spare some time to switch on their old Game Boy and give these revered classics another playthrough.