Editor’s note: Join us over the next two weeks as we look back at the most outstanding and influential games of 1996.
Although it would be 2 long years before they arrived on Western shores, two of, if not the most important new releases of 1996, were Pokemon Red and Green; a pair of turn-based RPGs developed by Game Freak that, perhaps surprisingly, given the popularity of the original PlayStation and N64 at the time, were only available on Nintendo’s iconic Gameboy.
Precipitating a global craze for the games’ cast of colorful critters – one that would eventually lead to a popular anime series that’s still being made today, a thriving trading card game and numerous toys – it’s difficult to overestimate the impact Pokémon Red and Green had on popular culture in the mid-90s.
But, despite the evolution (pun intended) of Nintendo’s critically-acclaimed Pokemon RPGs over the last 20 years, it was Red and Green’s highly-satisfying core mechanics and intelligent design choices that laid the foundations on which the entire series has subsequently been built.
As the tagline “gotta catch ‘em all” suggests, the main aim of Pokemon Red, Green and all successive titles, was to register each individual monster in the player’s Pokédex. However, back in 1996, with a maximum of 151 creatures on offer, it was a relatively straightforward job; unlike now, it was actually possible for the average child to complete his or her collection before they graduated university.
That’s not to say capturing Pokemon was easy. Without the slew of specialist equipment available in modern iterations – Dusk and Timer Balls and TM’s like False Swipe – players had to rely on their own abilities and the standard mixture of Poké, Great, and Ultra Balls. It might sound a bit simplistic to the uninitiated, but it was all the more rewarding for this lack of ornamentation, giving the games’ a level of difficulty that belied their childish exterior.
There were a few additional complications, of course, most notably the fact certain Pokemon could only be obtained in one of the two games. However, even before the internet simplified the trading process, because the series was so popular, it wasn’t difficult to find someone who owned a link cable and a copy of the opposite title that was willing to trade.
Once the player had mastered the technique of catching regular Pokemon, there was another, sterner challenge: acquiring the titles’ quartet of legendary creatures which, in generatin one were Zapdos, Articuno, Moltress, and Mewtwo. One-off finds possessing a range of powerful offensive moves and enviable stats, procuring them would almost certainly require repeated, increasingly frustrating attempts (assuming the player opted out of using the Missingno/infinite Master Ball glitch).
All in all, the catching mechanics were certainly enjoyable, appealing to the ordinary gamer’s obsession with perfection.
Yet, without the main narrative holding it all together – beat every gym leader; obtain 8 badges; wipe the self-satisfied smirk off rival’s face; become Pokemon League champion – it’s fair to say the task might not have been quite so inviting. Especially as it could take upwards of 100 hours to completely fill the Pokédex and the only reward for doing so was a congratulatory in-game diploma and bragging rights.
As compelling as catching Pokemon for its own sake could be, however, arguably the most enjoyable feature of Red and Green was the ability to raise the creatures themselves.
Gradually turning a level 5 Charmander into a versatile powerhouse capable of going toe-to-toe with the league champion over the course of the adventure was a uniquely enjoyable experience that created a bond between the player and their digital companions that was far stronger than it had any right to be.
Of course, evolving Pokemon, either through leveling or application of one of the game’s 4 catalyst stones, was absolutely fundamental to the appeal of this particular mechanic. Just as the absence of a central quest would make capturing Pokemon feel somewhat empty, so too would the joy of painstakingly developing a Pokemon over countless hours of gameplay be diminished if their appearance remained unaltered from start to finish. Especially at a period when creature sprites were composed of nothing more than a handful of pixels.
Indeed, before the original 151 had become so well-known, seeing how the different species changed with each evolution created a tangible sense of anticipation. Who can forget that feeling of excitement when, after emerging victorious from battle, the evolution animation kicked-in and began to unveil a brand new, typically more impressive-looking, beast?
Raising Pokemon has, understandably, been refined since generation 1. Since the introduction of breeding in Pokemon Gold and Silver, players are now able to rear their ideal partner, affecting everything from nature to starting attributes. In recent titles, players can even increase each party member’s affection toward the trainer through a series of activities, creating the illusion of reciprocity which, in Sun and Moon, affords a variety of practical benefits. It’s hardly surprising that for many players, the Pokemon-raising metagame is now the franchise’s biggest draw.
Pokemon Red and Green’s rock-paper-scissors-style combat mechanics, on the other hand, have changed little over the years. The graphics and animations might have improved, but, in essence, the blueprint remains the same.
Splitting Pokemon into 15 distinctive types – grass, ghost, dragon etc. – the system might, at first glance, appear to share much in common with traditional JRPG’s such as Final Fantasy or Earthbound. However, look beneath the surface and it becomes apparent this isn’t the case at all.
The sheer quantity of and relationships between the disparate elemental types, restrictions on the number and type of moves each Pokemon can learn, and the limit on the number of creatures the player can carry at any one time gives the Red and Green an incredible level of depth that few titles in the genre can match.
Overcoming a strong human or AI-controlled trainer thus demands the player learn how to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses without leaving their companions open to a super-effective counter-attack. The emphasis was very much on strategy.
And, with an absence of support features that have appeared in recent generations, such as passive abilities, held items, status healing mini-games and the like, Pokemon Red and Green were substantially more challenging than future iterations. Take competing in the Pokemon League, for instance. Unless the player purposefully trained their sextet of companions to level 80+, defeating both the elite 4 and the champion in one sitting depended as much on the liberal use of Full Restores and Revives (not to mention luck) as it did on tactical know-how.
Not that the increased difficulty or unembellished combat mechanics were necessarily worse by comparison with modern titles. Forcing players to think strategically and plan ahead, to explore areas properly, to defeat every NPC, and to develop a balanced party of strong Pokemon that complemented one another, rather than relying on a single, all-powerful individual was arguably a better, far more satisfying setup. As its presence on the Nintendo 3DS’s virtual console implies, it still has appeal to this day.
Admittedly, it would be fatuous to claim the success of Game Freak’s Pokemon series is due solely to the above-mentioned features. The player’s rivalry with professor Oak’s unnecessarily arrogant grandson and numerous encounters with Team Rocket, not to mention the unique, immersive world of Pokemon itself all contributed to its current popularity and ubiquity.
Equally, it would be wrong to suggest there haven’t been any improvements since 1996. The point is that, if Pokemon Red and Green weren’t the well-crafted games so many of us adore, the franchise would look very different today – if it existed at all.