This column originally ran on January 25, 2010.
Call it a fad, a ruse or a hoax. Call it a shallow game for kids. But you’ll also have to call Pokemon the highest-selling portable franchise in gaming history. With DS remakes of Gold and Silver on the horizon in two months, Checkpoint takes a look back at the Pokemon series through that point, encompassing Red/Blue/Yellow and Gold/Silver/Crystal, and (with the return of Jason Hagerty and an appearance by Gary Sundt) debates the importance of catching ‘em all.
Catching the Fever
Shaun: Pokemon is possibly the game I anticipated the most in my youth. The idea of capturing monsters to use in combat was so unique and addicting at the time. The diverse monsters and collecting aspects appealed to the youth, while the strategy and battles attracted older demographics. It was a cash cow from inception.
Jason: It really brought traditional JRPG elements to a new generation. I myself have never been a huge fan or all that exposed to JRPGs, but Pokemon gave me that same experience without, you know, questionably gendered protagonists. Plus, the “catching” aspect was just perfect for an addictive marketing scheme.
Chris: I’ll admit: I was hooked by the TV show first. I’d seen some other people in my class playing that on their Game Boy, but it didn’t sell me. Seeing the show was the key.
Shaun: The show, for the first few seasons, was spectacular. That’s a good point, too; the advertising campaign hooked so many gamers before the games even came out. My friend and I once wrote all the Pokemon — all 150 — on individual pieces of paper, then took them in the backyard and pretended to catch them. Lame as hell in retrospect, and then it rained and killed all of our paper Pokemon, but I think the point stands that there was something inherently addictive about the premise of Pokemon.
Chris: The TV show also made me a terrible trainer. I tried to be like Ash, so I had a way over-leveled Pikachu that knew Thundershock, Thunderbolt, Thunder and Seismic Toss. Not my proudest moment as a gamer.
Lee: I was suspicious of the game. A 10-year-old boy/girl sets off on a quest to enslave the animal inhabitants of his/her world. It doesn’t sound like it would be fun. But it was. My God, was it fun.
Chris: Secretly, Pokemon seems to me like part of the natural progression to achievements and other collectibles in games. Some gamers just love getting everything they can in a game, and to be fair, it really helps with replay value. Pokemon has that value in spades.
Gary: I think the game helps instill that more than it capitalizes on it. I know that I have that intention way more in games now.
Jason: Plus, they split it up between two games. So you HAD to get together with your friends. It really was a social gaming experience.
Gary: Exactly, Pokemon is essentially what paved the way for multiplayer, accomplish-everything gaming.
Lee: I didn’t understand why there were so many. I mean, I used maybe 20 of the original 150. Who would even want to use Lickitung?
Shaun: Especially when the number was at a reasonable level. Now there is like 40 million of them, and their designs are all bleeding into each other. No, Nintendo, I don’t want to catch them all anymore. Which brings up a good point; the balance was never as good as it was in Red/Blue and Silver/Gold.
Gary: You know, the future games have yet to establish a good way of catching them all. I loved in Diamond and Pearl when they said “Now catch them all!” and then I realized what that meant. And it completely sucked.
Chris: Especially Gold/Silver. The one game-breaking mechanic of the first games was that Psychic types were waaaaaay overpowered. G/S took care of that by introducing the new Steel and Dark types, and the balance was much better.
Shaun: I also liked the implementation of a specific legendary to each version, as well as trading with items to get certain evolutions. They really tried to provide reasons to create two versions.
Jason: Gold/Silver offered all of the options and original concepts of the first games, but was way more balanced. I mean, I love Mewtwo, but psychics were ridiculous.
Chris: Hell, Abra only had Teleport and he was still top-tier.
Lee: Oh, THAT’S why it was hard to catch it.
Jason: He can bend spoons. WITH HIS MIND.
Gary: I wanted that Alakazam so damn badly, but then boom – goodbye.
Chris: Let’s face it: Pokemon managed to take the turn-based RPG and turn it completely on its head, even though it wasn’t that different. It was genius, and whoever thought it up has been handsomely rewarded.
Shaun: And back then, the balance of starters — water, grass, or fire — was so well done, and also scaled gameplay. Water and grass were easier in the beginning of the game, but fire was more useful later. It provided a unique gaming experience regardless of your choice.
Chris: Not to mention the simplicity. Some of the more obscure type matchups (Poison is resisted by Fighting??) aren’t intuitive. But water/grass/fire is simple, and appealed to the young demographic.
Jason: The paper/rock/scissors concept as a whole really made it easy for a younger audience to grasp.
Gary: But they had to create some arbitrary weaknesses. Not everything counters each other. In a world of psychics, in reality, we’d all be done.
Chris: Well, to be fair, they’d know your attack was coming.
Shaun: At its heart, the actual battling system is very typical. Yes, type advantages were heavily emphasized, but this is as basic that RPG’s get. It’s all the other features in Pokemon that offer the real distinctive qualities.
Gary: But had that style of character battle been brought to the handheld systems before? I felt, as a young Game Boy addict, that it was really new.
Chris: Not like this. Not this thorough. There were a few notable titles, but this epitomized portable gameplay.
Lee: I think the date Pokemon was released helped get me hooked. I was in my early teens, wanting to go out into the world and trap small animals. It really fit into my life goals.
Jason: Not only could your Pokemon level up and learn abilities as they went, but you could teach them and “hand-craft” them in a way, making them truly your own.
Shaun: You wanted to trap small animals and use them to fight each other? It could work, but the attacks would all be pretty similar I think.
Chris: Bite! Bite! Bite! Scratch! Bite!
Shaun: You’re pretty much limited to scratch, bite, and in some case, peck.
Gary: I had a field mouse that was way good at water gun. It tortured my dog all the time.
Chris: And no one would ever use Tail Whip.
Gary: Never ever. Wasn’t that the saddest move ever? He twitched his tail, and you thought “Oh I am gonna kill you…”
Shaun: Pokemon didn’t introduce the genre, but it unquestionably brought it mainstream.
Jason: And to a new generation. One that would grow up buying its merchandise.
Gary: Not only to the mainstream, but also the handheld, which paved the way for the other games that preceded it to enter the handheld world (i.e. Final Fantasy)
A Storied Franchise
Chris: Pokemon’s plot won’t go down in history as being compelling or rich, but at the time it was still original. A 10-year-old out on his own, trying to collect badges and become the champion. Along the way, he meets a worldwide crime syndicate and beats their ass. Simple but effective, right?
Gary: I entered my own imaginative world when I played that game. You couldn’t bother me because the world immersed my 12-year-old brain.
Shaun: It’s funny, because at the beginning, I was wishing for a story that was a little more…serious. Then, after the bad guys want to rip apart the space-time continuum, and there is a Pokemon that is basically God, I longed for the simpler times.
Chris: Yeah, Diamond and Pearl really marginalized the whole experience outside of that space plot. You saved the world from being ripped asunder, and then….went to get the eighth badge. Yay.
Gary: How could you have ever wanted this game to be more grown-up? Its simplicity is what made it great.
Jason: It was your basic “hero” tale of a kid going from obscurity and becoming a champion. You felt that you, just like Ash, could go form being just some normal person to a Pokemon Champion if you trained and worked hard enough.
Lee: They even had you deal with heavy issues. Like the Pokemon graveyard, where all Pokemon that have been trained to death go.
Chris: You roll up that tower and you find out they slaughtered a Marowak, and you’re like “…Dayamn.”
Gary: I know you’re dead, but I’m gonna trap your ghost for eternity in this small, cramped space.
Jason: If a Tyrannitar can kill a whole town every time he gets “angry,” I don’t think I’d be sad for a Marowak.
Shaun: I would really like a change in the pace now, but there was nothing more captivating to my young mind then earning those eight badges. It was genius.
Chris: Still, even something that simplistic, coupled with the mechanics of the game, was enough to keep me interested. As soon as I got a badge, there was another one waiting to be conquered.
Jason: It was a clear-cut goal, geared perfectly for our young minds.
Lee: And each badge had a different look and feel. They really had the designers work on that one.
Chris: It didn’t matter that I had to fight a bunch of peons in between, including kids who really liked their shorts. It was all part of the process.
Lee: The worst peons were the people in the ocean. They swam out there for days, waiting for a hapless trainer to roll by on a Lapras or what have you. Damn it people, you can drown doing that.
Gary: The peons made it worth it. You couldn’t just go in the gyms and fight. You really felt like you earned something with the peons.
Jason: The look, feel and puzzles of each Gym made it feel like a whole new place every time. Even though it was effectively just a leader and 3-4 grunts.
Chris: Plus, you had to fight at least some of them, or the gym leaders would kick your ass. That need to keep gaining levels is probably what makes me not despise the random encounters like I normally would.
Shaun: The diversity of the gym leaders really encouraged you to build a balanced teams. Fighting Blaine with an all fire type team: bad idea.
Chris: The hot-headed quiz master! What a pimp. Did you guys buy Team Rocket as being evil? Or was it a more cartoonish sort of thing?
Gary: In the game, I did. Not until I watched the show did I think they were cartoony.
Lee: Evil. Definitely evil. But they had no way of evoking their rage. They were all playing a children’s monster game.
Jason: I felt it was more of a cartoon evil, at least until you ran into Giovanni. Because you knew that guy didn’t screw around.
Gary: Giovanni was the Notorious BIG of Pokemon.
Shaun: I think that’s what bothered me in the beginning, is that Team Rocket was so cartoony and stupid. They couldn’t take it seriously, even in the lighthearted world of Pokemon.
Chris: That’s one point in favor of the new games — the writing team recognizes that the Team <Whatever> grunts are useless, so in D/P they gave them some good humor. In R/B/Y/G/S/C/BBQ, they were just unintentionally bad.
Gary: Oh yeah they did.
Jason: I don’t know, I liked the cartoon feel of them. It was a kids game, after all. Plus, the show offered a clear example of how sometimes stupid people work for truly evil Giovanni types.
Shaun: Meh. I didn’t want them slitting the throats of wayward trainers or anything, but something that I could take at least a little serious would have been appreciated.
Chris: That would have been pretty hardcore, though.
Gary: Shaun, that’s exactly what you wanted.
Shaun: A small part of me, yes, but that’s just bad business.
Jason: Sometimes, you gotta kill kids for their pokemans.
Lee: Team Rocket would have been better if they expanded their purview. Honestly, diabolical plots with Pokemon are trivial if guns exist.
Jason: Officer Jenny had a nightstick. And a Growlithe.
Shaun: Yeah, isn’t that a big plot hole if you really want to think about it? What’s stopping the gamut of Team Rocket from just ganging up and taking my character’s Pokemon with guns? I mean, my Pikachu was bad ass, but he couldn’t take 3,000 Pokemon at once, and I’m pretty sure he could never block bullets with his tail. But what do I know?
Chris: It’s true. He didn’t have Iron Tail until later.
Jason: Psychic Pokemon are the flaw in that. They can ruin your mind and make you shoot yourself AND your friends. So guns are a bad tactical choice.
Gary: You know, speaking of guns, I never understood why Pokemon put up with people’s BS. They were smart enough, why not rise up and overthrow… everything.
Jason: The Pokemon themselves helped follow the story, and amp up the epic feel as you went. You started with a Pidgey and a Rattata, but ended up catching Dragons and Phoenixes and genetic experiments. It scaled very well.
Gary: The story was great and simple in R/B, and I think they should have maintained that perfect simplicity — and made something amazing out of actually catching them all.
Chris: Let’s be honest: part of what makes the story work is the end of the game. You roll up with eight badges and take on the Elite Four in some intense battles, only to find out that for the 300th time Gary beat you to the punch. So you take him out too, to ruin him in Professor Oak’s eyes and claim your spot on the throne.
Lee: That Gary was a tool. I never lost a battle to him. Not once. He took it like a bitch.
Gary: Gary always beats you. I always renamed him.
Lee: But seriously, Gary would show up at the most inopportune times. I need to get to that Pokemon Center before all my Pokemon die from lead poisoning and horrible burns. Who’s in the way? Gary Oak.
Gary: But even after the Elite Four, you were not done. You still had at least 50 Pokemon to get at that point.
Shaun: What was great about my first time with the Elite Four was that I was pretty underpowered, so my battles were all super epic and came down to the wire. It made the whole experience better for me. That, and my Fire Blast missed about 89 percent of the time.
Chris: I liked everything about Gary except “Smell ya later.” That can die in a fire. But still, I loved the end of the game except for one thing: After you won, it was like it never happened. You just woke up at home and had to beat the Elite Four again and again. At least the later games addressed that somewhat.
Gary: It was a dream, Chris. It was all a dream.
Lee: And by Chris, you mean Mario.
Gary: I do.
Chris: Sorry Chris, your Pokemon are in another region.
Shaun: Poor Super Mario Bros. 2.
Chris: With 251 Pokemon (at the time), 16 gyms, countless towns and locations and people…there’s something to like for everyone. What did you guys like?
Shaun: My favorite was Articuno. I loved that ice bird.
Lee: My favorite Pokemon was Squirtle from the show. Badass glasses.
Chris: Back then, I was a big fan of Starmie. I have no idea why, but that’s the way it was until Piplup came around and changed my life.
Jason: For Pokemon, my favorite was Mewtwo. Not only did he have a movie (in which he KILLED people) but he was unique and had a back-story. Plus was pretty dang overpowered at the time.
Gary: A best Pokemon award is complicated. What do you honestly pick? I mean, Charizard is a pimp dragon. Venasaur is ridiculously powerful with Solarbeam, Infernape is a flaming monkey clown, Haunter looked cool and had sweet powers, Gyarados was a sea dragon…
Chris: I wasn’t a big fan of the Johto starters. I went with Chikorita, but didn’t really care much one way or the other.
Shaun: Yeah, I didn’t like those starters either. I actually have not universally liked all the starters since the original game. Those guys felt so unique.
Jason: I have a special place in my heart for Blastoise and Feraligatr though, as they were large reptiles that kicked butt. And you started with them. So that was a plus.
Shaun: I also have a soft spot for Glaceon. It’s an ice kitty. Ice. Kitty.
Gary: Maybe Magikarp, because everyone hates him. I gotta root for the underdog.
Shaun: Magikarp has good potential. Useless, but good potential.
Gary: Exactly! He was this sad Pokemon, and he turned into an awesome dragon.
Shaun: Oh, Metagross. I loved Metagross. He’s as close to invincible as Pokemon get.
Gary: How about the Snorlax. Going to sleep: best move ever
Chris: I never really understood why a flute could wake him up (or a radio station with a flute), but I allowed it.
Lee: It cut to the very core of his Pokesoul.
Jason: Hey, even the fat kids at school had to have a Pokemon. And it just so happened that if he sat on you, you’d probably die.
Chris: As far as gym leaders went, I liked Misty, partly because of the show and partly because I like water types. But Blaine…what a beast.
Lee: Seconding Blaine. Koga could have been cool, but I could actually see those invisible walls. What a sham!
Jason: Sabrina was maybe my favorite gym leader, if only because she was so dang creepy.
Chris: You know who I didn’t like? Whitney. You win, she cries. You try to leave, she cries and some other chick stops you. It was emasculating.
Jason: I liked Lt. Surge. He was just so intense and had a cool look. and a Raichu.
Gary: Lt. Surge was pimp!
Lee: Lt. Guile J Surge?
Shaun: The show made Surge pretty awesome too.
Gary: I dunno about best gym leader, but lance was my favorite of the Elite Four.
Chris: Agreed. You couldn’t top that guy. I loved how he rolled with you a couple times. For some reason Team Rocket doesn’t run away when Lance comes busting in, and they pay dearly for that mistake.
Jason: I almost consider Lance more of an ally and fellow trainer then a gym leader.
Shaun: His dragons were awesome, too. Made me want to go catch them.
Gary: I’mma jump him later and take his dragons. Wanna come?
Jason: He had a cape. You can’t jump people with capes. They are too epic for you.
Lee: Now that you mention it, I don’t think I ever saw Lance eat. He may have been a daywalker. That explains the cape.
Chris: Memory lane time: What’s your favorite music from the game?
Gary: Battle theme. No song is better. Na-na-na-nana-na.
Lee: The healing machine music. You had to love it, and you were going to hear it anyway.
Jason: The Champion battle theme and Team Rocket theme are epic, but I think just the basic battle music wins for me. You heard it ALL game, and it was always awesome.
Shaun: My sister likes Cynthia’s battle theme. Therefore, Cynthia’s battle theme is my favor — no, wait, I like the final battle from the original. The battle with Gary. Final answer.
Chris: Champion battle theme (from G/S, although R/B was also solid) is my pick as well. Two people got it: Lance and Red. Both fights were epic, and the music was the perfect accompaniment.
Shaun: Really, all of the sound effects are so iconic, even back on the older Game Boy systems.
Chris: I also loved the bike music in both games. Not only did you get to travel faster, but you got tunes to go with it.
Jason: The bike music was fun as well.
Gary: Favorite item? Escape Rope. Because caves sucked in R/B. Really though, the best item was Revive.
Jason: I second that caves sucked.
Chris: True. You just didn’t want another damn Zubat to show up. Enough was enough.
Shaun: My favorite item had to be max repels, especially when I would get lost. When I’m wandering through a dark cave and triggering battles every five steps, I lose my patience.
Chris: I’ll cheat and say Sacred Ash, the item that Ho-oh had that revived your whole team.
Jason: Is it cheating if I say the Master Ball was my favorite?
Jason: Well too bad. it let me catch Mewtwo with no work, so I love it.
Shaun: It’s not cheating, because it wasn’t my favorite. Its ability to only be used once caused me way too much anxiety. It was a relief when I used it, just to get it out of my inventory. That probably says more about me than the item though.
Gary: That was the hardest choice until you figured out how to duplicate the ball: who would I use the Master Ball on.
Chris: Besides, the Master Ball always had to be explained somehow, especially when the villains started having it for no reason in the later games. Like, how in the hell did Cyrus get it? It breaks my mind.
Lee: Poke ball. Always catch the legendary birds with a Poke ball if you want a real challenge.
Heart and Soul
Chris: With HeartGold and SoulSilver on the horizon, all of our favorite games from the past will have a remake, but it begs the question: What about the fifth generation? With Diamond/Pearl/Platinum behind us, there are already rumors swirling about the next games in the series. What does Pokemon need in new games?
Jason: It needs to be an MMO. I’m only half joking..
Chris: A good dream, but it won’t happen. Not while the franchise can make money hand over fist by doing the same thing.
Jason: Well in that case, cooperative adventuring would be great.
Shaun: MMO is not a bad idea, but like Chris said, they won’t do it, especially with Nintendo’s inexperience with online. I’m thinking a 3-D version, but done well, and taken seriously. Not a half-assed Pokemon Stadium thing, where you can catch other people’s Pokemon (It’s as broken as it sounds), but a real, next-gen entry.
Gary: An MMO of Pokemon would make me buy into MMOs. It would be amazing.
Shaun: What about a new formula? They won’t do it, but a new formula needs to be implemented. I love the series, but I don’t know if I can do another rehash-sold-as-a-sequel. Incorporate Wii control, I don’t care, but bring it to 3D. The transition to a major console would also allow for them to somewhat recycle the same formula for the time being.
Chris: Unfortunately, I feel like the ideal setup might be the PSP/PS3, because of the connectivity. You could keep the portable nature somehow (training/battles on the go) while bringing in a new 3D title. But Nintendo has a stranglehold on that market, so that won’t happen either.
Jason: I’d like to see a “geographic” set up. instead of a gym, you have like, and “underground Pokemon tournament” and you have to go from city to city taking on and defeating the champs. Plus, fend off rivals and avoid all those security guards with flashlights. Less of a big gym setup, and more of a “home-grown champ” feel.
Chris: Hmm. That could work, but I’m not sure if Game Freak would want to stray from their core audience (aka youth). Then again, half their audience is our age now.
Jason: The one thing I don’t want to see, are more damn Pokemon. Flesh out how the current ones live and interact with each other, build an ecosystem off of them. That was something the show did that the games never really managed to carry over.
Gary: I completely agree with that actually. Maybe add one new Pokemon. Something awesome and special. And make it possible for you to catch all the Pokemon in the same game series.
Shaun: Yeah, I really don’t want more. Again, if you move to 3D, choose the best…I don’t know, 300 or so, and put them in the “region.” Introduce only a handful or so, and make them inspired designs, not fillers.
Jason: Plus, I’d like more detail in the world itself. The cities, the people… how does it all work with Pokemon around?
Shaun: Exactly. Integrate the Pokemon more deeply into the world itself. Last time I checked, animals can’t control fire or spew ice beams.
Jason: Exactly, the mythos is strong. And for us older fans of the series, showing that extra level of detail would go a long, long way.
Chris: I don’t know if the eight badge thing holds up anymore. I liked it when it first happened and it’s still okay, but we need something different. I’m not sure what that is. At the very least, I think you have to take away the linear nature of it. Maybe let the player go to whatever cities/gyms he/she wants to and adjust the levels of the enemy Pokemon accordingly. At least that way you wouldn’t feel like your hand was being held the whole time.
Shaun: I have to say, though, the non-linear approach is a turn off for me. That sounded sexual. Maybe it is, I don’t know, but I do appreciate a certain sense of direction. At this point, a Pokemon game that is almost a remake of the original, but done in 3D, would suit me just fine.
Chris: At the very least, we can agree that there’s a lot of untapped potential here. Whether GF/Nintendo decides to actually explore any of it or just keep counting their millions of dollars is anyone’s guess.
Gary: They’ll laugh all the way to the bank no matter what they do. But hopefully this revamp of old games will inspire some new ideas. There is an expansive universe here that should completely be explored.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.