So it begins, the great battle of our time– Gandalf, The Return of the King.
The number of video game-based media franchises in this world that touch Pokemon’s canopy are few and far between. It’s incredible to think about how vast the empire is after over twenty years. And in that time, the design of these games has evolved quite a bit. Many of these concepts affected the overall challenge level of the games, sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much. Over the next few weeks, we shall discuss and examine this twenty-three-year evolution across the seven current generations. The focus of these articles will be the overall challenge of the games, based in the time period they were originally released. Naturally, we shall start with the originals, which began with the only two core games to never be released outside of Japan.
Pokemon Red and Green started it all when they were released in Japan on a brisk winters day in February 1996. The start of the First Generation, which didn’t receive the moniker for another few years. The earliest version of Pokemon was a game designed for a system on its last legs. The Game Boy, which was originally released in 1989 (my birth year), had already gone through a redesign, and its successor was only two years away. Game Boy games were vastly different from the modern portable games we know today, mostly having to do with the level of technology.
The Game Boy was only capable of displaying in 2-bits of colors, using greys, using 8-bit graphics. With such low-tech graphics, games at the time depended heavily on dialogue to tell the story, and Pokemon was no different. In fact, it’s because of this dialogue-based storytelling, we were originally given the “Jerk Rival,” which later evolved into the “Friendly Rival” in the modern 3D games. According to Pokemon Director, Junichi Masuda, as he told GameSpot in a recent interview, “I think the biggest reason that rivals were more of a jerk in the early days is that we were just limited in what we could express with the pixel graphics, There’s not much that you can do with that kind of little sprite on the screen, so we worked harder to characterize them through dialogue and give them certain personalities.”
As the challenges in telling a story have gotten easier, it has left designers more open and free to change the design of their games to convey more challenges to the player. In recent years, players commonly complain that Pokemon, a games franchise designed for ten-year-olds, is too easy. In the old days of Generation One, Game Freak only had so many tools available to them, many still being adapted from the old arcades.
One such concept borrowed from the arcades was the idea of a progressive challenge. Believed that have originated with games such as Space Invaders, for example, the idea is the game gets harder the deeper the players go. In the case of Pokemon, the player is first granted a starter monster, taught the basics of battling, then thrust in the low-level wilds of the first route. The player reaches the first Gym and is challenged by the first boss, where they learn if they’ve made the correct choices in their monster team members. After conquering that first Gym, the player is introduced more to the story, which is to stop the vile Team Rocket from stealing all the Pokemon and taking over the world. The player continues to push forward into higher level wilds, checked along the way by other Gym bosses, taken off track by the Rocket dirtbags. It all culminates in the final battles of the Pokemon League.
It’s the same progression that’s been told over and over the last twenty-three years. In Generation One, players were challenged by Gym levels, and how they managed type advantages. Originally, there were only fourteen types; Water, Grass, Fire, Poison, Psychic, Ghost, Normal, Fighting, Bug, Electric, Ice, Flying, Ground, Rock, and Dragon. The different types challenged each other in a version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Additionally, each of the types was defined as “physical” or “special,” which added an extra level of challenge when it came to the corresponding stats.
First of all, I honestly didn’t understand the true significance of Generation Four’s Special/Physical Split until about 10 years ago when I watched a Let’s Play of FireRed/LeafGreen, remakes of the original Red/ Green, where the LP player explained how the original types worked within the original Special/Physical system. The simple version is, some attacks are considered to be “physical” and their power is determined by the “Attack” stat. Other attacks are classified as “Special” their power is determined by the “Special Attack” stat. Now, in Generation One, this system came with two little quirks. First, Special Attack and Special Defense were combined into a singular “Special” stat. Secondly, the classification of Special and Physical was type dependent, in other words, for example, all Fire-type attacks are classified as Special, and all Ghost-type, odd as it may sound, are classified as Physical.
All of this meant, battling with the monsters came with some odd challenges, such, sometimes a monster’s move set wouldn’t quite mesh with their stats, such as most Ghost-types having high Special stats, but their corresponding attacks actually being Physical. Or the monsters would mesh with their stats in more unique ways, such as some Normal types. Normal is classified as Physical, however, some Normal types have higher Special stats. This ends working in their favor since Normal types are famous for being able to learn moves of multiple types. So even though their same-type attacks are slightly nerfed, they can still learn Fire-type attack moves to take advantage of the high Special and earn some unique advantages.
While the battle system was quirky, dungeon design was much less so. The first “dungeons” in Pokemon were seemingly complex mazes heavily dependant on warp tiles. In fact… with the exceptions of the Caves, and everyone’s favorite Forest, Gen One’s dungeons abused the crap out of warp tiles and conveyor belts. On the surface, the warp tiles give the illusion of super complexity within the mazes, at least they did in the 90s when I was eight years old and experiencing Blue Version for the first time. In truth, if one were to google the overall design of these dungeons, they would find they were in fact pretty simple, with most warp points leading to the same place, and only maybe five unique warp points leading to special items and further progression in the dungeon. And the non-warp dungeons were, honestly, just as easy to go through. In other words, the dungeons of Gen One really didn’t challenge the player as much as older players might have lead themselves to believe. However, for a child playing the game for the first time, with none of this prior knowledge, these dungeons can offer some difficulty, such as all the red herring warp points.
For the children of the time, the dungeons, the battle system, and everything else presented unique challenges for a monster-collection RPG from the late 90s. It’s easy to forget that playing these games as kids was indeed hard. Pokemon has evolved through the generations, as we’ll see going forward, but has always stayed grounded in the fact that they are games for children of the era. Love or hate the challenge level, each generation is always unique in the changes brought to challenge the players in unique ways. And, going forward, one can hope only that Game Freak can continue to do so.
Pokémon Red & Blue. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.serebii.net/rb/
Wikipedia contributors. (2019b, February 12). Game Boy. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_Boy
Kevin Knezevic, K. K. (2018, November 16). Pokemon Dev Explains Why Your Rivals Aren’t Jerks Anymore. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.gamespot.com/articles/pokemon-dev-explains-why-your-rivals-arent-jerks-a/1100-6462397/