Pokémon Evolution: The First Generation
Has it really been twenty years since the original Pokémon games were released? Pokémon is one of my earliest video game memories; I received a copy of Pokémon Red alongside a Game Boy at Christmas in what must have been 1999, when I was seven years old. This was the year that Pokémon finally hit European stores; released in 1996 in Japan, Red & Blue came to North America and Australia in 1998 – over a year before we would get our hands on them.
Today, it’s quite terrifying to imagine a Pokémon game having a release date that long after its Japanese release. But it’s even more surreal – for my 24-year-old self at least – to remember when people weren’t aware of Pokémon. It’s strange to think that there was doubt at Nintendo over Red & Blue’s international release; Red & Blue were introduced towards the end of the Game Boy’s lifespan in the west, and there were even recommendations to change the Pokémon designs, to appeal to western audiences. While it’s amusing to imagine what a buff Jigglypuff would look like, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi insisted that the designs be kept. Despite the tentativeness, Red & Blue came to North America in 1998 and it’s safe to say that the rest is history.
There have been many names involved with Pokémon over the years but when discussing early important figures within Game Freak, three people spring to mind. Satoshi Tajiri is Game Freak’s founder and Pokémon’s creator. In his youth Tajiri had an interest in insect collecting, which would become the main source of inspiration for Pokémon combined with the idea of linking Game Boys together by link cable. The link cable provided an excellent platform for battling and trading with other players, the latter possibly something that Tajiri would do in his collecting days. It’s unconfirmed whether he and his fellow collectors would also have their insects fight each other until one faints.
Ken Sugimori is the original artist, and is still at Game Freak’s drawing board today. He designed the original 150 monsters , and has been involved in the design of just about every Pokémon to date. Junichi Masuda is the composer, and the Gen-I soundtrack will likely remain the most well-known in the series. Masuda also did some minor programming, and his role at Game Freak has continuously expanded over the years. Special mention should also go to Tsunekazu Ishihara. President of The Pokémon Company, Ishihara has been involved with the production and management of many Pokémon products, including the games, anime and trading cards. He also presented the Pokémon Direct broadcast on the 26th February.
With some background info, let’s dive into the first generation. This was the first time we set out into a world of Pokémon, choosing a starter, battling with trainers, raising our team of companions, earning gym badges, feeling frustrated by Psychic-types, and cheating for infinite Rare Candy. It’s quite difficult to discuss what the first generation will be remembered for because there is so much there. A lot of the concepts introduced in Red & Blue have remained constant throughout the series.
After you name yourself and remind Professor Oak that his grandson is called “Nerd” (I was such a rebellious child), soon comes the first Pokémon trope that players would be shown: choosing your starter Pokémon.
The Pokémon introduced in Gen-I are naturally the most recognised amongst the public. Pikachu will forever be the face of the franchise, made famous by the anime series before becoming the only starter choice in Pokémon Yellow. Then there are the Kanto starters – Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle – with their adorably simplistic designs that made it easy for us to fall in love with them.
Early encounters included Rattata and Pidgey, two Pokémon that aren’t too different from their real-life inspirations. In a way, it was a pleasant and comfortable introduction for trainers before the more stylised Pokémon get introduced. The Bug-type Pokémon found in Viridian Forest were an excellent way to introduce the concept of evolution to players, especially with real-life insect metamorphosis being common knowledge. We’ll ignore the fact that cocoons can’t really do any fighting.
Later in the game we would see our first legendary Pokémon, and Gen-I kept it quite simple. The first ‘legendary trio’ – Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres – were three birds roosting in locations spread across the region. The only other obtainable legendary Pokémon was of course Mewtwo – an extremely powerful, artificially-created specimen that has probably seen a fair few Master Balls thrown at it during its time.
Other notable Gen-I entries include the only Dragon-types to be found, the first ‘pseudo legendary’ line of Dratini, Dragonair and Dragonite. Zubat and Golbat forever continue to irritate players with their common appearances in caves. Butterfree and Beedrill are amongst the first fully-evolved Pokémon that trainers will see. No one can forget the pathetically weak Magikarp evolving into the incredibly powerful Gyarados either. Eevee, another fan-favourite, was the first Pokémon to offer a choice of evolutions via one of three Evolutionary Stones.
Besides levelling up and using Evolutionary Stones, there was another way of evolving Pokémon: trading. One of the biggest draws of the original games was their ability to connect to another game via link cable for battling and trading. It tied in perfectly with releasing two versions of the game, as players are required to trade with different versions in order to complete their Pokédex. Having Pokémon evolve by trading was another incentive to interact with other players.
The game’s story is where we start seeing most of the series’ tropes. After choosing a starter and obtaining the Pokédex, the main task is to defeat the eight Gym Leaders before taking on the Elite Four at the Pokémon League. Along the way, a rival continues to challenge the player at various points to test their skill. There’s also a crime syndicate to take down all by yourself. Team Rocket – with their all-black clothing and eerie hideout music – were a sinister presence, and darker implications surrounded the organisation’s activities. Their leader Giovanni took on the appearance of a genuine mob boss, which didn’t help matters.
With the Pokémon TV show gaining popularity, a special version was released two years later called Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition. Bridging the gap between the first two generations, Pokémon Yellow introduced some more concepts that would be explored in future games. It’s the only core game that has taken inspiration from the TV show; Pikachu is the mandatory starter Pokémon, Jesse and James are part of Team Rocket, and the Gym Leaders base their Pokémon teams on their anime counterparts.
The awkward Pokémon sprites from Red & Blue were remade for the Yellow version to resemble Sugimori’s artwork more accurately. Some notable concepts were introduced with the game’s mascot. Rather than the traditional game cry, Pikachu was given its anime cry, in which it shouts its own name. It also followed the trainer around on foot, and the player could talk to Pikachu to check their mood. This happiness mechanic was implemented and expanded in future titles, and ended up having further influences on moves and evolution.
The battle system introduced players to a 4-move limit and the elemental ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’ system, providing the basis for strategy. The Gen-I mechanics were primitive at best, and there were a fair few technical issues that hindered its performance. It was still enjoyable of course, and it’s amusing now to think about the numerous glitches that existed in the system.
As a fun bit of trivia, here are some things that didn’t quite work right back then:
- Focus Energy normally boosts a Pokémon’s critical hit chances. In Gen-I, it actually reduced the critical hit chance by 75%
- Using Explosion or Selfdestruct on a substitute would not cause your Pokémon to faint, but their sprite still disappears
- Ghost-type moves were ineffective against Psychic-types, even though they were supposed to be super-effective.
- Attacks used against dual-type Pokémon only took one of their types into consideration. This meant that Ground-type attacks were super-effective against Grass/Poison types, despite being weak against pure Grass-types. Conversely, Fire-type attacks were weak against Water/Ice types even though they are super effective against Ice.
Psychic-types were considered hideously broken due to their lack of weaknesses and their strong stats. This was helped by the Special Attack and Special Defence being represented by a single ‘Special’ stat in the Gen-I games. The chances of getting a critical hit were measured by the Pokémon’s speed, so faster Pokémon were more likely to land one.
These were games that pushed the Game Boy to its limit, cramming as much content as possible in the available space. The amount of glitches and lack of balance can most likely be blamed for this, as the programmers cut corners just to fit everything in. The source code was in fact so fragile that the entire game had to be reprogrammed for its western release, rather than simply translating the text. In a recent video posted by the Pokémon Channel, Junichi Masuda recalled how his computers would be constantly overheating and crashing when developing Pokémon Red & Green. A lot of his time was dedicated to fixing them, and he went through a few computers before the game was completed.
The terrible balance epitomises a game of its time, and a series in its infancy. What’s beautiful about it is that this only adds to the adoration for the original games; nobody criticised the discovery of Glitch City or Missingno more than they excitedly discussed them, and the unstable balance is easily forgiven. The strange glitches only generated wider conversation, rumours and hype – a tactic deliberately employed by Tajiri when he revealed the existence of Mew, the first ‘Event Pokémon’.
Mew was created by Shigeki Morimoto, another long-running member at Game Freak (fun fact: he appears as an opponent in the later stages of Black & White and it’s sequels). The elusive Pokémon is well known for having a genetic composition of all other existing Pokémon, being able to learn every move that can be taught, and for the infamous truck rumour.
Morimoto discreetly added Mew to the game near the end of development – naughtily after the debugging stage too – as an internal joke amongst the staff. To the surprise of Morimoto, it was revealed to the public primarily through a competition. The winners would send their game cartridges so that Mew could be uploaded. The contest and subsequent hype proved a phenomenal success; sales drastically increased and word-of-mouth continued to boost awareness. Unsurprisingly, Mew could end up being obtained through various glitches.
Pokémon Red & Blue, and later Pokémon Yellow, had a delightful simplicity to them that made it easy for players to enjoy. They were games of broad appeal. Collectors were challenged to complete their Pokédex, and competitive types could build a strong team to battle others. Exploring Kanto, even with its simplistic graphics, felt like a uniquely grand adventure.
The Gen-I games are still a joy to play, and it’s not difficult for me to go back to them. These are the games I keep my Game Boy around for.
Well, these and possibly its Game Boy sequels, to be discussed another time!