Pokémon (Game Boy) Review
November 23, 1998
Note: OK, so I normally only review Nintendo 64 games. But I had to make an exception with Pokémon for Game Boy; I had to make sure no one missed this game. Pokémon is just that special. This game single-handedly renewed interest in the Game Boy for me and one of my friends. Interestingly, I remember writing this review in my college accounting class. It is now presented in its original, unedited form.
Pokémon is an old-school RPG that is cute on the surface but has a much more deep, strategic, and addicting inner side than you can possibly imagine. The game centers around the quest to become the World's Greatest Pokémon Trainer. You're Ash (or whatever you name him), a young teen from Pallet Town. Professor Oak, also of Pallet Town, is an elderly Pokemon collector who wants someone to finish his work of collecting every Pokémon in the world. Unfortunately, since he is old, only three of his Pokémon still obey him. He decides that both you and Gary, who is your neighborhood rival, will get one to start your collection. So both you and your rival embark on a surprisingly long adventure to become the World's Greatest Pokémon Trainer. But as you'll find out, there are literally hundreds of other trainers throughout the world who will challenge you.
So what are "Pokémon," anyway? Well, they're found throughout the world and come in many different types, shapes, sizes, and colors. They are wild creatures until you capture them. Once they're captured, they become your property until a) they get too strong for you to control (you need badges to prevent this), b) they get traded, or c) they are dropped by you. You can only capture wild Pokemon; you cannot capture other trainers' Pokémon.
As you probably know, Pokémon comes in two different versions: red and blue. The gameplay and story are exactly the same in both versions. What's different is that there are some monsters only available in one version and not in the other. For instance, Ekans cannot be caught in the blue version. A person with the blue version will have to get Ekans from someone who has the red version. Another difference is that some Pokémon are much easier (or harder) to find in one version over the other. For example, you'll encounter Weedle in the red version much more than in the blue version. You can capture multiple versions of each Pokémon, so don't forget to get one for your friend, too!
Now that the general background information is out of the way, let's go into detail about the gameplay of Pokémon. First off, I just want to mention that you can save anywhere, anytime (except in battles) in Pokémon, which is very cool. You must go to a Poké Center in towns to restore energy, though. Anyway, there are approximately 25 "routes" in the game. A "route" is basically just a linear path you'll follow throughout the game. It took me about 10 hours to get through about nine of the so-called "routes" in the game. However, I only captured about 20 Pokemon in that time. And, of course, you have to remember that I spent time exploring every inch of the routes, catching Pokémon, building up experience levels, and fighting two-player duels. Actually, Pokémon might be a little on the easy side. The linear progression is set up so that you will be challenged, but there's a good chance you'll never lose all your Pokémon in battle. Where the real challenge lies, though, is collecting all the Pokémon and building up their experience levels. I don't ever recall a game in which it was so entertaining to build up experience.
For the most part, collecting Pokémon requires you to reduce a Pokémon's energy to low levels, and then use a Poké Ball (purchased in towns) to capture it. If it loses all of its energy, it will "faint." (That's Nintendo's nice way of making sure nothing dies.) As stated before, Pokémon can only be captured in the wild. In a great change of pace, random battles only occur in grassy areas of the overworld. A lot of the time you can avoid fights by staying on the path. Caves, on the other hand, have random battles everywhere. There are varying numbers of each Pokémon specimen in the game. Some early Pokémon you'll encounter are very common and appear throughout both versions. So you can capture a Rattata, but you'll fight other Rattata the rest of the game, which will have different experience levels, of course. And as I said, some Pokémon are harder to find. You might have to concentrate in one small area and fight random battles for 5 to 15 minutes before a more rare one appears! Furthermore, there are a few Pokémon in each version that you have only one chance to catch. If you miss that chance, you cannot capture that Pokémon again. So you'll find that as you get further into the game, you'll need to use stronger Balls to capture stronger and heavier Pokémon—Great Balls or Ultra Balls, for instance. There's also only one Master Ball in the game, which you might be wise to save for the extremely rare Pokémon. Finally, some Pokémon are only obtained through evolution. What's evolution, you ask? When certain Pokémon reach certain experience levels, it will evolve into a different, more powerful creature. For example, Zubat evolves into Golbat at level 22. You can prevent Pokémon from evolving, but you should let them 99% of the time, especially since you still get credit for the original Pokémon.
Battles in Pokémon are fought in the traditional turn-based RPG style. Enemies that are faster generally get to attack first, or several times, before slower ones. But your opponents will wait until you input your commands before they attack. So you can take your time. You can carry up to six Pokémon with you at one time. (The others are stored in a computer you can access from any town.) After you collect a dozen Pokémon or so, you'll start to find out who are your favorites and most powerful ones. You'll get experience points for each Pokémon you defeat, but you only get money for winning trainer battles. While you can have six Pokémon in your party, a Pokémon will only receive experience points if it actually appears in the battle. But what's very nifty is that you can have a weak Pokémon quickly appear and then change it before its harmed. That's an easy way to build up experience for the weaker ones. Also, traded Pokémon get extra experience points, which means they will evolve faster. So that's another bonus of trading.
The actual battles consist of one-on-one Pokémon conflicts. The screen will show a picture of the two Pokémon currently battling and their experience levels, along with a life bar for each Pokémon. There's also a numerical representation of how much health is left for your Pokémon, but not for your opponent's. Four menu options will appear: Fight, Item, PkMn, and Run. If you pick "Fight," you'll have anywhere from one to four attacks to pick. Some attacks physically hit the opponent, while others reduce an opponent's defense, attack, speed, etc. "Item" lets you give a Pokémon some energy (Potion), cure a disease like poison (Antidote), capture a Pokémon (Poké Ball), and more. "PkMn" is the option to pick when you want to switch to a different Pokémon during the middle of the battle. "Run" is what to choose when you don't want to fight. The ability to run is determined by the speed of your Pokémon currently fighting. You cannot run from trainer battles, however.
Just as a side note, another interesting part of Pokémon is how you have a certain number of "Power Points," or "PPs," for each attack under the Fight command. You may be able to use one attack 35 times before needing a rest, while another creature's attack may only be used 5 times. On average, you'll have 20 to 25 PPs for each attack. If an attack runs out, the Pokemon cannot use it again until it gets rest. This can become critical if you try to push it too long in between rests or during long trainer battles.
Tied into Pokémon battles is the different types of Pokémon. The 150 Pokémon in the game can be classified into 15 types: normal, fire, water, electric, grass, ice, fighting, poison, ground, flying, psychic, bug, rock, ghost, and dragon. This is where part of Pokémon's incredible strategic depth comes from. For instance, if you have an Electric-type creature, like Pikachu, then you can easily defeat Water- and Flying-type Pokémon. But Pikachu has little hope of defeating a Ground-type Pokémon -- that is, unless Pikachu is much, much more experienced. Figuring out which Pokémon would be at an advantage or disadvantage is pretty much common sense. Fire won't work on water. A heavy ground creature would have trouble against a flying one. And so on.
In the traditional RPG sense, Pokémon also contains tons of items and hidden abilities to find. I can't even begin to list them all here, but you'll be able to find various health potions, various curing substances, various ways to increase your offense and defense, various items that are critical to the story, and much more. A little tidbit is that potions and such are sometimes hidden in the overworld or in towns. There are also hidden abilities to find, which are called TMs (Technical Machine) and HMs (Hidden Machine). Some are found and others are won in battle. A TM can only be used once, only on one Pokémon. An HM can be used on all Pokémon who can learn it. These "Machines" will teach your Pokémon new abilities for battle, whether they're attacking or defensive.
Let's talk about the two-player link-up options. Although the one-player adventure is tremendous fun in itself, much of the fun of Pokémon comes from finding and trading creatures with your friend. The way the trading (and duel feature) works is that you need a Game Link cable to connect the systems. There are third-party cables available now so you can connect different kinds of Game Boy systems together -- whether it's the original, Pocket, or Color. Then each player turns on the game (it doesn't have to be at the same time) and goes to a Poké Center in some town. What's nice is that you don't have to be in the same town to link-up. If you talk to the Cable Club person, then it will make sure both players are talking at the same time and will save your game.
If you pick the Trade Center option, you will go into a special room where you can talk to your opponent. Unfortunately, only the six Pokémon in your party are listed. So you should discuss about which Pokemon you want to trade before going to the Cable Club. Trading in Pokémon can only be done on a one-for-one basis. So you can't give your friend a Pokémon for free, nor can you muscle them into giving you three Pokémon for your one. You also must each give consent before the trade is made. If either you or your friend decided to give the Pokémon some weird name you don't like, there is one place in the game where you can change the name of the Pokémon. A neat little tidbit is that the game keeps track of who was the original trainer.
If you pick the Colosseum option, that's where you and your friend fight it out. You don't get any experience or money for winning, but you aren't punished if you lose, either. Although the feature is somewhat limited in that respect, it still serves as a fun way to see who has the strongest Pokémon and who is the best trainer. So once again you each can take up to six Pokémon into battle. Fights are then fought in the same manner as in the regular adventure.
Since this is a Game Boy title, it's hard to be objective when it comes to graphics and sound of Pokémon. Basically, the graphics are very good. There are 150 distinctly different Pokémon in the game, and each has its own simple animation. There is a sufficient amount of detail throughout, and the surroundings don't get too repetitive for a Game Boy game. However, there is some slight blurring in the overworld, but the graphics are large enough that it's not a problem. Also, there is full support for the Super Game Boy (if you're lucky enough to already have one, since it's impossible to find right now). On the sound end, Pokémon can be annoying, as expected. All 150 Pokémon do have their own "cry" sound effect, though, which is impressive. And there are many other useful "alert" sound effects throughout the game. The music will probably get on your nerves, though.
After providing all this information and giving Pokémon lots of praise, there must be some negatives, right? Well, I think most of these items are moot points, but I'll mention them in fairness. As with almost any game that comes from Nintendo, the childish nature of the story and character design could be a turn-off for die-hard fans of violent games. Another potential turn-off is the mostly cute and sometimes weird-looking Pokémon. Some of the names of the Pokémon could have been better, too. A slight problem in the gameplay is that it can get repetitive. You basically go from one town to the next, fighting battles and catching new Pokémon along the way. Then you must defeat what's called the "Gym Leader" in each town. Now you'll fight through a stint of battles against other trainers, then will head on to the next town, doing the same thing again. A final area of improvement is needed in the link-up feature. There's no kind of cooperative adventure, you get no reward other than bragging rights for the two-player duels, and it just takes too long to trade monsters.
For all I've explained and said about Pokémon, there's still more to learn. Take it from me, though: Pokémon is an absolute must-have for the Game Boy. Yes, the game will appeal to children under the age of 13 the most. But if you're a true gamer, you'll enjoy Pokémon no matter your age. The challenge of finding and collecting all the Pokémon is more complex than many modern-day RPGs. So if you don't own a Game Boy but one of your friends does, then you should go out and get one for Pokémon. Yes, Pokémon is a so-called "killer app" of the new generation of Game Boy players. The fun and rewarding one-player collecting adventure, along with the ability to trade monsters and fight with friends, makes Pokémon a timeless classic. Red or blue, does it matter? Not really. Just make sure you get one and your friend gets the other. Pokémon once again proves the old adage that graphics and sound do not make a game.
Overall rating: 9.5 out of 10