Pokémon RIVALS — Red and Blue Version

A Pokémon Retrospective Between Friends by Jade and Charlotte

art by Jade @mintxdrop herself!

INTRO

Our names are Jade and Charlotte. We’ve been online friends for more than a decade now, and we’re also long-time series fans of the Pokémon games; we are neither super fans nor lapsed, disgruntled hanger-ons, but rather girls who have played the games more and less at different points, have liked some entries and been less keen on others. Lots of people have previously done “retrospectives” on individual or franchise wide games, but most of the time, these are solitary affairs in terms of play experience, focused often on the context of the games, especially in thinking about their cultural status and the mythos of how Pokémon came to be; while interesting perspectives in their own rights at times, we are focused first and foremost on our experiences with the series as games, approaching them from Jade’s perspective as an artist, and Charlotte’s perspective as a writer and sometimes game critic, and our shared perspective as friends and rivals for this experience. We are going to be writing through our differing experiences, be it in individual versions or shared remakes and version ups, presuming audience wide familiarity (if not intimacy) with the games and their contexts, focusing in on what it’s like to experience many of these games again, our expectations, our play, and our takeaways.

JADE

Pokémon Blue Version

Player Name — Bunny

Background — Pokémon Yellow version was my introduction and primary experience of any Gen 1 Pokémon game. I got LeafGreen when I was about 9 or 10 (which turned out to be a fake copy…) and that was most of my experience with Kanto. I’ve also played some of Let’s Go Eevee. A common theme however is that I didn’t get very far in any of my runs, usually stopping around Celadon City as the rush of having access to Vulpix gets to my head and I don’t know what to do with myself afterwards. I know a lot about the games from my own experience but also from watching speedruns, glitch videos, scrolling lots of (perhaps too much of) Bulbapedia as a child (and sometimes to this day). I find them interesting conceptually, but actually playing them is another matter.

Expectations — I was not expecting to enjoy Pokémon Blue at all. From my experiences with older Pokémon games, but in particular Gen 1, I knew that balance was a huge issue namely in terms of movesets and stat distribution. The game was also full of glitches and poor environmental design, which while adding to its charm also can make play infuriating. I knew that the gameplay was not particularly refined and simple things like type effectiveness and critical hits were buggy; this sometimes worked to your favour but often lead to unpredictability and thus frustration. Although it includes ‘iconic’ tracks, RBY’s soundtrack is probably one of my least favourite in the series. With all considered I didn’t really have much to look forward to going into the game.

Final Team — Nickname Theme: Sweets! Loveheart (Venusaur, 60) — Flump (Raichu, 61) — Twix (Dodrio, 60) — Buttons (Marowak, 60) — Milky Way (Starmie, 61) — Maoam (Magmar [Charlotte’s Pick], 60)

MVP A tie between Twix and Milky Way. Twix was surprisingly powerful even when newly captured and carried my team when I didn’t have a fire type and was deadly against most Psychic types (presumably due to their low defence). Towards the later game, however, Milky Way was expectedly powerful due to its typing. Water has very little weaknesses and Psychic tends to destroy everything in its path in Gen 1. It also had Ice Beam, which made very short work of Lance. These are two Pokémon that I hadn’t used before so it was nice to be able to make some new friends.

Experience As expected I didn’t enjoy Pokémon Blue wholly, at least to begin with. My experience with Kanto made me anticipate the game being a drag until you got your third Gym Badge and made it to Lavender Town and I was right for the most part. The Pokémon distribution (or lack thereof) was really frustrating. It’s even present in trainer battles, which is weird, because you would expect them to include rare Pokémon in trainer’s teams so you’d wonder about how to find them? It’s like trainers in Kanto all have a briefing where they’re told that they MUST have three Pidgey — or two Rattata — or maybe an Oddish if they’re feeling adventurous. Alongside the repetitive nature of the game, Trainer AI was also very silly, which while funny at times and good for plot progression, made it so that any kind of difficulty level arose from fighting trainers over and over again. But then you can always just go back to the Pokémon Center to heal, which makes the process of wearing you down feel redundant and more time wasting than anything.

Continuing with the thought of balance, the level curve was weird, Gym leaders would often be 10 levels ahead of you but any balanced team with good moves could easily defeat any of them. Kanto does have some openness in its midgame — Erika, Koga and Sabrina can be fought in any order — which while allows for varied playthroughs also hinders what little balance the game already has. Blaine and Giovanni are higher levels than you but are also easy to defeat and have stupid AI and movesets. The biggest gap in difficulty comes to the Elite Four who have Pokémon in around Level 60, which feels atrocious when you consider the game expects you to grind to a similar level to them, or use ~Level 40 Pokémon… I opted to use everyone’s fav Gen 1 Poke-glitch, Missingno., to get rare candies and train that way instead. I don’t feel guilty about it.

Gen 1 Pokémon designs are iconic and for good reason. The spritework is inconsistent in terms of quality but I think it adds to the game’s charm. What I like about them in particular is that they’re drawn from different perspectives and fields of view, some with extreme foreshortening like Magmar and Marowak, whereas others are more normal looking like Charizard and Dugtrio. Kanto however I feel has a lot of hidden unsung heroes that don’t really see the limelight, and a lot of them you really have to go out of your way to even see. Trainers don’t have a very varied pool of Pokémon that they draw from. I wish the game included less Pidgey, Rattata and Spearow and more Tangela, Farfetch’d, Pinsir, Lickitung… but anyways. To be fair to the game developers I didn’t exactly go out of my way to explore or catch ’em all, so I guess the charm in a lot of these weird Pokemon that don’t really appear in-game was that you found them by chance or you could show them off to your friends. Which makes sense, and rewards exploration, but also makes a standard run limited in terms of Pokemon exposure. And you don’t necessarily know where to look without a guide. Additionally, a lot of Pokemon just aren’t viable in-game and the TM list doesn’t even supplement their poor learnsets (who on earth wants a BIDE TM??), so they feel more like Pokedex fillers than anything. It also means in repeat runs of the game it’s hard to branch out and use different Pokemon (which proved difficult for me as I was abstaining from using my favourites).

RBY’s soundtrack is often hailed for being iconic and good but I found it to be only okay. Though catchy, I oftentimes found it grating due to the soundfont and uninspiring arrangements. However it did pleasantly surprise me at some points — the Surf music is very sweet and the Team Rocket themes are full of suspense and drama which I loved. The game corner music was also fun and energetic. Pokémon Mansion actually has very interesting ambient music — some of B2W2’s OST sounds reminiscent of it. It was a surprisingly good find amongst a rather lacklustre OST.

Kanto is a region that I think has sweetened in player’s minds over time. The locations themselves are rather barebones and leave a lot to the player’s imagination, as I mentioned before. Most cities are pretty barren and have weird layouts (why is Celadon’s gym behind a Cut bush, and then like 50 steps away from everything else in the city?) and instead rely on a particular set piece or flavour text to characterise it, which is understandable given the graphical limitations. I did find myself supplementing the lack of detail with my own headcanons and ideas, which is what I imagine kids who were playing it at first release were doing — there’s a real sense of dodgy history surrounding scientific research in Cinnabar, for example. What I will say is I like how grounded everything is compared to each other and you always have a sense where you are in relation to other places in Kanto; Saffron feels like a hub, Fuchsia can be reached via Celadon or a long passage from Lavender that intersects with Vermillion — these details make Kanto feel interconnected and coherent which I appreciate. I also like the colour naming scheme.

I finished Pokémon Blue in around 13 hours. Granted I did rush through but that wasn’t entirely because of Blue being a bad game, I’m just very excited for future Generations.

Favourite Locale — Celadon City is probably my favourite. As mentioned before, Pokémon RBY often leaves a lot to the imagination in its worldbuilding, meaning I had to fill in a lot of the gaps myself. Celadon however is (comparatively to the rest of the region) rich in environmental storytelling — it really felt like a bright commercial hub with a casino, department store, restaurant, hotel… what more could someone want? The secret Rocket Base under the game corner also added a seedy underside to Celadon which I also liked. Erika, my favourite Kanto gym leader, is also here which adds to my appreciation of the city.

Least Favourite Locale — Pewter City in terms of cities — there isn’t a lot going on — and Rock Tunnel overall. Flash is a pointless move slot waster and cave dungeons in Pokémon games are generally boring and irritating to go through. Rock Tunnel seems to be the blueprint for the rest of them.

Favourite Tracks — Celadon City — Surf Theme — Pokémon Mansion

Favourite Moments — Leaving Rock Tunnel is always one of my favourite moments in Kanto. Other than that, using an underleveled Flump to destroy my rival’s team in Cerulean felt lucky and satisfying, and finding out that Doduo is a very good Pokémon (at least in Gen 1) and having Twix help me breeze through the midgame was a nice surprise. I also enjoyed the atmosphere of Celadon Game Corner’s secret base, I just wish the move tiles propelled you faster…

Maybe I will return to my Blue file at a later date and help Trainer Bunny explore more of Kanto. I didn’t touch the Seafoam Islands or the Power Plant… but for now I’m just excited for Gen 2.

CHARLOTTE

Pokémon Red Version

Player Name — Chuck

Background — Pokémon Yellow Version is the iteration of Generation 1 Kanto I am most familiar with; the games all came out just before I was born, and my first handheld console was actually the Advance, so with both Red/Blue/Green/Yellow as well as Gold/Silver/Crystal, I did not play them at all until much later, mostly relegated to seeing my upstate NY cousins play them on their GameBoy Colors at holidays and wanting so badly to own a Cyndaquil and Scizor (my favorites from the anime). Moreover, my first experience with Kanto was with Pokémon Fire Red; my brother got Leaf Green version instead. I quite enjoyed those at the time, but my most active experience with Kanto since has been romhacks, going on Pokecommunity and downloading the essentially vanilla plus mod base by MrDollSteak that adds in Fairy typing, updated movesets, and most essentially, physical-special split for moves. I would play that on emulator a number of times. I have also played about half of Let’s Go Eevee version. It’s very charming but it lacks nearly all of the blunt and gruff worldbuilding of earlier Kanto iterations. Finally, while I have played substantial chunks of Yellow, I’ve never finished a Gen 1 game. So, this is a very fresh, very vanilla experience for me.

Expectations — Going in to properly finish Red for the first time, and not having played it in several years, I expected that it would be rough around the edges and kind of falling apart at the seams. I also expected it to be quite slow and significantly more challenging than the most recent generations, especially with the streamlined and easy-mode gens six through eight. I expected to be really frustrated with movesets; I find older Pokémon games somewhat frustrating to conceptualize without the physical special split, and I am aware that Gen 1 is largely balanced around normal-type movesets like Explosion, Body Slam, Screech, and Softboiled. I also expected psychic typing to be overpowered in comparison to later gens.

Final Team — Nickname theme: Candy! Sourpatch (Jolteon, 54) — Swedish (Blastoise, 57) — Trolli (Arbok [Jade’s Pick], 52) — Baby Ruth (Snorlax, 53) — Cadbury (Exeggutor, 55) — Tamales (Moltres, 61)

MVP — Absolutely Baby Ruth. Snorlax is walled somewhat by defensive Pokémon­­ with Normal resistant typings (so Rock), at least conceptually, but as there are no defensive Ghost-type Pokémon, and because my starter was Blastoise so Rock-types are a nonentity to my team, my girl Baby Ruth just had no issue with nearly any situation. At level 38, she took on Blaine’s level 47 Arcanine, and 2KO’d it with Body Slam. Absurd.

Experience — Aside from Snorlax, one of my all time favorite Pokémon, I abstained from a lot of my favorites (as we’ll be revisiting this dex and I want something to look forward to then!) My Kanto favorites are Slowpoke, Growlithe, Clefairy, Zubat, Poliwag, Sandshrew, Psyduck, Cubone, and Ghastly lines. So my team wasn’t a lot of typical picks for me; I definitely relied on my Beedrill for some time, and my Dugtrio was very useful, but neither could really keep up for me in terms of moveset/team composition. I also forgot a flyer for most of the game, so that rotated frequently (Pidgeot first, then Aerodactyl, until I used Moltres in the last rush of the game). I didn’t go for 150 completion, and will probably refrain from doing so in the future, especially as the dex inflates in size.

Most of my preconceptions were more-or-less correctly proven, with one major exception: difficulty. Which is also the primary thing I need to talk about here. I understand the design for the most part. You will typically be overleveled by a fair margin, and your Pokémon will be significantly more resilient and usable than any wild encounters or general grunt trainer encounters, because difficulty is primarily about attrition. You aren’t battling one trainer; you’re battling thirty, at least in a proper dungeon like Silph Co., so the difficulty is modulated as such. Unfortunately, gym design more or less mirrors this, but with very few encounters overall, and the very convenient and real opportunity to just leave whenever and heal up. Which I did a lot. So, then,, conceiving of the game around balance in that regard really doesn’t work. The front-end of the game isn’t difficult so much as tedious; you fight the same five to ten Pokémon evolutionary lines, so it feels very redundant, like the mechanics are never really worked through. This is compounded by the frankly bizarre level curve — the middle three gyms (from Erika to Koga) are all basically around the same level, and you will have done two separate dungeons by the end of them, so regardless of order you’ll end up really overpowered for the vast majority of the game. Blaine, then, has such a higher level set of Pokémon, but with the badges and their permanent passive stat boosts, it’ll hardly matter. The Elite Four is similarly a cakewalk, so once you get past the tedium of trainer gauntlets and have a stable, six Pokémon team, it never feels like there’s significant challenge, all further punctuated by the barely functional AI.

It was not quite as glitchy as its legacy has sort of left; it requires very specific movements and exploitation to acquire the glitched rare candies, and while its replicable, it’s not *infinite*. Instead, most of the jank is balance, distribution, and the miniscule inventory space. Technical Machines include Rage, Bide, and Teleport, all functionally useless, and yet they take up both Box Inventory space and Bag Inventory space, lest you toss them out wholesale. This is a gen where TMs are single use and useless, and Pokémon do not have the naturally good movesets to back it up; it’s all normal-type all day baby. Aerodactyl, my once sixth team member, was boxed when I realized they don’t actually have any Rock-type moves in their entire level up set. This gives Kanto this overwhelmingly low-stakes feel; moves are sort of disinteresting, movesets are common, and in general, damage output is very low in a theoretical sense. But in terms of actual play, those badge stat boosts and the generally poor AI make for extremely exploited difficulty. Up front, it will be a dry run, just Tackles ad nauseum. Late game, Tackles become Body Slams, but it becomes a matter of quantity of enemies rather than quantity of attacks needed. It also doesn’t help that every Pokémon is best used with all stats maxed equally; the Effort Value formulations have it so every stat can be maxed comfortably, making grinding significantly more rewarded, and unavoidable. Altogether, it is proof-of-concept rather than solid execution out of the gate, which is fine. In some ways the paltry metalevel play is probably more psychologically accessible to kids playing for the first time in the 90s; use the best Pokémon and train them super hard and nonspecifically and focus solely on dealing maximum damage. Fairly neat and easy.

Another quirk: Wrap. It’s fucking hilarious to shut down a Pokémon by spamming Wrap, Bind, or Fire Spin, weak attacks, but attacks that wholly shut down lower speed tier Pokémon by means of slow but inevitable death without retaliation. I can take the broken stat-boosting moves, but moves that shutdown entire teams alone slowly and unavoidably? Lord.

Lastly, Psychic really is broken in terms of efficacy, and the distribution of same type attack bonus moves on high level Pokémon is shockingly rare (Aerodactyl, Pinsir, Gengar, and Dragonite come to mind), which means all strategies are based around shutting down aggressive and physically fragile Psychic types (many have dual types that are more vulnerable) and then using Snorlax, whose high special, HP, and attack make it nearly the best possible response to Psychic-type domination. I don’t think the chart works well in this game, and it’s hard to ignore that, but it’s also easy to negate it, actively.

I like the art a fair bit; the monster designs are so charming and weird, and sans Geodude and Jynx, perhaps, they make me long for a series that embraced this aesthetic of weird little gremlins instead of the continuously polished and aggressively designed later mons (of which I am also a huge fan!). I get the nostalgia for gen 1 sprites. And while its not quite as charming as some gameboy contemporaries (it’s no Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru, Trip World, or Kirby’s Dream Land), its a good looking game, especially in the back-half, as the designs of Viridian, Cerulean, and Pewter are really underdeveloped here beyond their respective landmarks (screaming coffee geezer, bridge goons, museum). It communicates a lot through a little in its overworld. The music, however, is a harder pill for me to swallow. Or maybe more of a horse tablet. It’s well composed in the sense that it evokes each places individual personality well, and there’s some standout compositions as such, but the soundfont coming from my DS Lite speakers was more jarring than nostalgic. And, like, goddamn, the Safari Zone music was a letdown.

Finally, I never got the bike? Which was very funny as it slowed momentum down quite a bit, at least in terms of clock, and still I finished it fairly expediently, taking somewhere between ten and fifteen hours to complete (my in game clock was messed up by speed-up function). Some of this comes down to the ease of the back half, but I think, mostly, it’s reflective of the relatively brisk pace here. The writing is minimal, the story is minimal, the dungeons are twisty, but they collect relatively painless battles, and the balance ends in a place where battles are over as fast as the screens will let them. I’m excited to continue this retrospective and dive into the series but I also have to just be honest and say I didn’t enjoy my first five hours with this game.

Favorite Locale — Saffron City probably has the best sense of scale in this game (inaccessible homes are HONESTLY really nice for building out a place and its vibe), but the Safari Zone in Fuschia is probably the best overall environment. The switch in gameplay is honestly pretty interesting and the sprite pallet is roughly evocative of this sort of hazy, sunbeaten savannah where you would find things like Kangaskhan and Exeggcute. How it connects to the local gym, an ostensible ninja academy, I couldn’t say.

Least Favorite Locale — Fuck Silph Co. Navigation mazes are some of the least interesting parts of Pokémon game design, in my experience, but even something like the much later Victory Road feels better. The first several towns are also largely insubstantial and without worthwhile gimmicks or worldbuilding.

Favorite Tracks — Surf Theme — Lavender Town — Pallet Town

Favorite Moments — Honestly? Seeing Zubats original sprite for the first time. What a cutie! Jade’s pick for my team was Arbok so I couldn’t afford the double Poison-type representation on my team, but Zubat and Golbat have only gotten less charming as the series goes on. That, or going to Celadon and finding a bar/restaurant where a man was swearing off gambling and gave me the his Coin Case. I think they sanitize it in later games to just a generic house rather than a slightly seedy sort of local establishment. Sad.

THE BATTLES

At the end of every game, our goal is to pit our teams against each other. Because of differing access, hardware, availability, and the living in different countries with many games now lacking reliable means of netplay, we are recreating out teams in Pokémon Showdown, a really useful tool and game in its own right, and pitting them head to head after each game. Showdown also recreates each gens own bizarre nuances in game balance, so we can use this to approximate link cable antics each time.

JADE — I lead with Loveheart (Venusaur) and Charlotte lead with Baby Ruth (Snorlax). Knowing Snorlax is incredibly bulky in Gen 1, I anticipated she would be trouble for my team so I set up with Toxic and Leech Seed, which I knew was particularly deadly in this generation. I didn’t know the specifics of why or how, but it made quick work of Baby Ruth so I was grateful. The rest of the battle involved trying to switch out into Pokemon that hers were weak to. Switching out to Buttons (Marowak) when she attacked with Sour Patch (Jolteon) was satisfying for me and I’m presuming — and hoping — was frustrating for her. I had a moment of surprise when she sent out Tamales (Moltres) as she hadn’t mentioned that she caught it, and I panicked for a second, but surprisingly it went down in a few Thunderbolts. Who needs legendaries when you have a giant chubby orange mouse? Milky Way (Starmie) also came in handy when she sent out Trolli (Arbok). I think she tried to use the wrap strategy on me, but due to Psychic having a tendency to destroy any poison type that stands in its way it didn’t last very long. Overall the battle wasn’t too difficult for me, but I think that was mainly because I used an exploit to make short work of Baby Ruth (I’m sorry!). Next time, however…

CHARLOTTE — Anticipating the same exploits (which I was unaware of but learned between battles) I threw that mother fucking Rest up after getting Toxic’d, and was before that able to launch two different Body Slams, one paralyzing her Loveheart. Switching the resting Snorlax out, we played a lot of footsies with the match, alternating match ups; Swedish was not a strong performer, and Sourpatch, while valiantly taking out Flump, was paralyzed and then taken out. Trolli was able to do approximately nothing but provide a safe switch in for Sourpatch, but they did do good damage against Flump with Earthquake. After that, though, my stall and smash strategy with Baby Ruth was able to play out far more successfully; Tamales was bulky enough to match and outpace Maoam, but the sweeping was primarily carried by Baby Ruth, whose bulk, stats, and Rest just… were so good. I was unaware at the time, but evidently I had a very standard build for Snorlax, and I can see why the meta biases towards it so hard! That said, it was a much more even match as a result, with three losses on my side before the end of the game. It was very fun, even with how busted Gen 1 feels.

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