There’s a lot about the Pokémon series that makes it interesting to discuss, but the thing that stood out to me above all else when I played through the original instalments – Red Version and Blue Version – was how impressive of a technical accomplishment they are. I love to see great things achieved in the face of major limitations, and for games, limitations don’t get much more major than being developed for the original Game Boy – a handheld platform from 1989 with a black-and-white, 160×144 screen that was already seven years old at the time of these games’ release. Not only did these games go on to collectively become the best-selling game on the platform bar the pack-in port of Tetris and kick off one of the biggest pop culture phenomena the modern world had ever seen, but they also manage to be fleshed-out, fully-featured titles that hold up even to this day thanks to solid battle mechanics, a varied and detailed world, and, at the core of it, really good creature designs that pull a fair chunk of the weight in making me want to explore that world.
Sure, there are some sub-par designs in the mix, but the major advantage that Red and Blue have over their successors is the concentration of Pokémon that are not only interesting and full of enough personality to make me want to use them, but also fit within a coherent style well enough that you’ll never run into something and feel like you’ve stepped into a whole new game. This is a problem that a lot of players, new and old, seem to have with the most recent instalments – any specific period of the series’ lifespan carries with it a distinct style, and where later games mash together a selection of them from different games, this pair have the original 150 and that’s it. Even if there’s a weaker character design in there, it at least fits in with those around it in a way that means that even if it’s ugly or boring, it’s never jarring. I love how much the Kanto Region’s cast of characters work well together in this way, but even more than that I love how every bit of personality that is conveyed through these colourful designs is done with tiny, low-resolution and totally immobile sprites. Every time an exciting new species appears it activates a little neuron in the 10-year-old boy brain that’s never far from the surface of my own, and it all just speaks to how much Game Freak’s art team was able to do with so little that even after playing all of the series’ 3D titles, I still get so much joy out of these tiny sprites and their horrible screeches.
This would all be for naught if Red and Blue weren’t fun games, and bar a few little frustrations (including some that the series never quite shook off), they are. It feels far less like a game that can be mastered than the later entries, given the scarcity of items and the limited variety of techniques that each Pokémon can actually learn. Most of the roster have their effectiveness tied to the availability of TMs – rare, single-use items that teach a single, powerful attack to a compatible Pokémon, which incentivises thoughtful planning and forces you to agonise over who you actually want to have in your party of six.
Most of the game’s enemies are pushovers, and all except for the recurring ‘rival’ use entire teams of a single type, meaning that fights aren’t so much about tactically switching Pokémon to maintain a favourable matchup as they are about coming in with a balanced enough team that you always have somebody who can completely sweep the opponent’s team with little hassle. I’ll admit that this is my biggest frustration with these games. I cultivated a team of six fairly powerful guys, and although I didn’t go with the ones that everybody knows are ridiculously strong (think Alakazam, Snorlax, etc.), I still found myself absolutely pounding through every boss until the very end. This is obviously a side effect of the rock-paper-scissors concept being developed alongside the game itself, which is also clearly the reason why almost every boss in the game specialises in a type, but it really does make longer areas like the late-game water routes or the Team Rocket hideout feel like a chore, as each is just a long series of battles against trainers whose entire teams will be swept easily by the same handful of attacks.
The thing that’s always gotten me excited about these games is the sense of exploration, though. Not only in the literal sense – although Red and Blue do have a nice set of dungeons and abandoned buildings just waiting to be spelunked – but also in the sense that you always get to feel like you’re discovering something new. The Kanto Region is carefully laid out in such a way that certain areas – like the sprawling central metropolis of Saffron City – are locked off until you’ve sufficiently explored the surrounding plains, and you’d be surprised by how much variety a series of rural roads can have, even on the Game Boy. Every location, no matter how commonplace or unassuming, manages to feel like a new experience to the last, to the point where you can identify a location from a screenshot with no other information, despite the fact that the game uses a very limited set of assets. Another thing that helps is the way that despite mostly just spouting a random line about the area you’re in or a fourth-wall breaking gameplay tip, NPCs will occasionally gift you with incredibly valuable items or offer to trade you for a rare and powerful Pokémon. These people are sprinkled just thickly enough throughout Kanto’s population that it feels worthwhile to explore every nook and cranny of cities just in case something spectacular might be waiting in a random house. This also helps to make the player feel like they’re doing something in the game’s populated areas, where battles are few and far between and wild Pokémon are virtually absent.
This leads me into the final, most subjective thing that I want to discuss about this game, and that’s the way it dealt with dishing out legendary Pokémon. If you’re not familiar, a legendary Pokémon is an incredibly powerful Pokémon that usually appears in a single, scripted encounter and then can’t be found elsewhere. Where later games incorporate these encounters into the story or even just give you the Pokémon as a reward for finishing side content, Red and Blue simply have their four legendaries sitting around in the deepest part of four different caves. Nobody tells you that they’re in there, so the only reason you would encounter them is if you were exploring for exploration’s sake, and finding one of these guys for the first time fires off the greatest dopamine hit my lizard brain has ever experienced, especially given the exhilarating and challenging battle that you’ll need to carefully plan out if you want to have any hope of snagging one of these bad boys.The legendary encounters are the brightest feather in Red and Blue’s cap, and that’s honestly a cap I like a great deal, because it’s a cap that’s about exploration and discovery above all else. Playing these games can be bittersweet given how comfortable its successors have gotten with linear corridors and the complete stripping out of anything remotely challenging, but if you’re into this kind of game enough to be willing to try something as dated and technically limited as this, I do genuinely think that this is one of the best games on the Game Boy. It’s easy to see why this game exploded the way it did and why the cultural ramifications of that explosion are still being felt today.