Every time I think I'm done with Pokémon, it pulls me back in. Except this time it's not a remake or a new permutation of the competitive metagame; it's the game that started it all in the U.S.: Pokémon Red.
Playing Pokémon Red last week for the first time in years, I was surprised to feel pangs of nostalgia. It probably shouldn't be a shock that I should have warm feelings about one of my formative games growing up, but I figured that I was well past Pokémon Red and Blue. After all, this isn't exactly the first time I've picked up the series in 20 years. I've been a certified (and at times, certifiable) Pokémaniac through pretty much every generation. I mean, this is the tweet I have pinned on my Twitter account.
A lot of PokéNostalgia is fueled by a childhood loved for the anime and the original monsters, but it goes without saying that my own experiences go well past the original 151. In fact, two of my favorite monsters didn't even show up until the fourth and fifth generations respectively. At times I've even kind of looked down on people who have said things like, "I only recognize the original 151." The games have gotten so much more interesting over the years, and there are so many great designs out there, I've thought to myself. How can you limit yourself like that?
What's more, the original Pokémon Red, Blue, and Green were quite primitive, even by the standards of the day. When they came out, they relied on their terrific art, free-form postgame, and the sheer novelty of trading and battling via the Game Boy's link cable for their appeal. These qualities belied Pokémon's static sprites and rather buggy gameplay systems, captured most famously in the unofficial 152nd monster - Missingno. With the series having evolved long past that point, I wondered if I would be able to tolerate going back to the original Red and Blue.
To my surprise, the answer is that I can. I'd even go so far as to say that the comparative simplicity of the original game is a breath of fresh air after years of dealing with EVs, IVs, and optimal party setups. I've always said that Pokémon's story is immaterial; that the real game doesn't begin until after the Elite 4 is defeated. It's effectively an extended tutorial for what comes later. But every adventure has to start somewhere, and when Pokémon came out in North America back in 1998, I was totally invested in Red's quest to defeat Kanto's gym leaders and become a master.
When I played Pokémon for the first time, I was overwhelmed by a sense of wonder and excitement as I stepped into the world for the first time. All of the monsters were new and interesting, and my Charmander was my trusted companion as I explored it all. I still remember my awe the first time Brock sent out an Onix - a massive rock snake that could absorb my Charmander's Ember attacks with ease. In pretty much every version since, poor Onix has been relegated to the "Neverused" tier, but it was an impressive sight in the original Pokémon Red and Blue.
In revisiting it, I dealt with Onix with ease, but some of that old awe remained. I turned up the volume so I could listen to that awesome gym leader music and just sort of let myself get into the moment. It was the most fun I'd had with the series in years.
When Pokémon Red and Blue was confirmed for the Nintendo 3DS last year, I wrote that I was interested to play it again; but privately, I wondered if I would follow through. A part of me felt that Pokémon Red and Blue was surely way too dated. No running shoes? No animations? No connection to the current games? No traits or breeding? It would be a fun novelty, I thought, but it would grow tiresome quickly.
Instead, I found myself become surprisingly emotional as I delved back into Pokémon Red. It moved a lot faster than I remembered - even with the animations turned on - and it had a kind of minimalistic stylishness to it that I had forgotten. Moves like Surf and Hyper Beam may not be as attractive as their modern day peers, but tricks like inverting the screen colors and using powerful sound effects nevertheless make them feel impactful. It actually looks and sounds pretty great for a 20-year-old Game Boy game.
The Nintendo 3DS version also has a funny way of making old Game Boy games look even better than you might remember. If I recall correctly, Pokémon was a kind of muddy yellow on the original Game Boy, while the Game Boy Color would tint it red for Pokémon Red and blue for Pokémon Blue. On the 3DS, though, it's a pure, unvarnished grey, putting it in line with the more obscure Game Boy Pocket. It actually looks quite sharp, especially if you're playing it on the New 3DS.
One of the 3DS eShop version's touted additions is the inclusion of wi-fi functionality to make up for the loss of the link cable. With that, Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow are functionally complete Pokémon games and not just neutered ROMs. I asked another event attendee if they would battle with me; and with the new interface, I was pleased to find that connecting and playing was a cinch. No more precisely timing the button presses to sync up the link cable. It moves faster, too.
I don't know if I'll actually go back and play Pokémon Red in its entirety. Honestly, I've got enough to play. I will say, however, that I walked away from experience on the 3DS with a new appreciation for the original games. In my mind, I've always framed Pokémon as an inexorable march forward, with no real time to look back. Every generation brings with it new rules, new monsters, and new conceits, causing past versions to fade back into history. I still have an old copy of Pokémon Blue lying around the house somewhere, but I honestly never thought I would play it again. Going back to an old Pokémon game is like going back to an old sports game. It's fun to revisit the past, but the novelty is short-lived.
Divorced from the expectations of the modern games, though, Pokémon Red and Blue hold up better than I ever thought possible. Playing it again, I saw the spark of what made me a lifelong fan of the series when I picked it up for the first time back in 1998. That alone makes revisiting them one of the sweetest gaming experiences I've had in years.