When Pokémon arrived in the west it was already a franchise, an attractively wrapped, Pikachu-adorned package of games, TV shows, toys, films and lunchboxes. It can be tempting to overlook that Pokémon Red and Blue were indie underdogs once, made by a tiny, almost-bankrupt team for a technologically limited handheld seemingly at the end of its lifecycle. And like many of Nintendo’s more recent handheld blockbusters, the games’ astronomical success at retail wasn’t instant, but the result of slowburning but continuous sales over the course of years. Pioneering community interaction in an age prior to the mass popularisation of the internet, they were truly mainstream videogames, embodying the inclusive ethos that has since made their publisher very rich indeed. But Pokémon’s popularity is mystifying from the outside. How did a quirky, number-heavy, labourintensive strategy game make its name as something for the kids?
To find what it is about Pokémon that’s so captivating, look at what its many imitators do wrong. They bombard the player with hundreds of collectible critters, for a start, but it wasn’t mere quantity of content that drove Pokédex obsessives. They engineer cutesy, bright character design, but that wasn’t part of Red and Blue’s appeal – there was literally no room for bright colours and zingy effects on a three-and-a-bitcentimetre Game Boy screen. They encourage you to fight and trade with your friends, but often pare the combat down to a basic slapping contest and reduce creatures’ individuality to little more than a name. Its rivals have always failed to understand that, ultimately, it’s the complexity that makes Pokémon so consuming, and that the basic presentation actually contributes to its appeal. The complete absence of pretty audiovisual stimulation leaves room for the imagination – of child or adult – to work its magic.
Red and Blue also have a rather unexpected sense of place that transcends technical limitations and goes some way towards explaining their absorbing nature. The plot is hardly a masterclass in interactive storytelling, and the inhabitants of the games’ world rarely trouble the player with more than a line or two of inane conversation, but Kanto is nonetheless a believable, cohesive place. The symbiotic relationship between humans and Pokémon permeates every aspect of its inhabitants’ lives, often in touching ways – witness Lavender Town, where the mourning owners of dead Pokémon come to honour them at a giant commemorative tower. The towns and cities have character despite their drab appearance, from Pallet Town’s provincial houses to the enormous Celadon department store, which bears an eerie resemblance to the giant Pokémon Centre superstores that would eventually sprout up in New York and Tokyo. In depicting a world in which nobody could talk about anything but Pokémon, Game Freak proved oddly prescient.
And just how complicated is Pokémon? There’s a vast amount to memorise: not just the 151 Pokémon names, but their types, which moves they can learn, and which are strong against which others. Then there are the various items and their disparate effects, and the PC-based Pokémon management system. Playing Red and Blue often feels like a series of ruthless mathematical calculations. To what extent will a type advantage compensate for a level deficit? Exactly how many more hits can this Pokémon survive before switching it out? Which distribution of XP is most beneficial for the team? What percentage chance of a critical hit does this move have in this situation? There are numbers, numbers everywhere – hit points, power points, stat points, numbered Technical Machines that teach new moves – all forming one massively complicated equation within a tiny 1MB cartridge. Pokémon is the world’s most popular form of algebra.
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