Pokèmorphosis: From Red to Alpha Ruby

What began as the aimless hobby of a young Satoshi Taijiri, tempting tadpoles and snaring hapless insects in the ponds of suburban Tokyo, quickly became the inchoate suggestion of a pocket monster catching franchise that would appear on many christmas lists and ledgers of accolade in gaming. Like many of Nintendo’s memorable labels, (who can forget the quaint parable of Pikmin or the almost-tragedy of the converted Radar Scope machines?) Pokèmon is a delightfully simple idea combined with a voluble sales pitch by Shigeru Miyamoto and a menagerie of animated montrosities – flying lizards and levitating magnets and mushroom crabs – jumping to life from the pen of Ken Sugimori were soon to be on many a christmas list and lunch box the world over. A game that rides on its combat system, cursory examination yields quite simple mechanics, the history of the title is one of innovation from progenitor to progenitor imbuing the system with subtle tinkerings, element compatibility and item mastery that require an ongoing thesis level expertise to truly become a Pokèmon Master.

It’s hard to imagine any Pokèmon release without the thousand deep lines at the Pokèmon center, the tears of ecstasy and Pikachu onesies that line street corners on the day of a Pokèmon drop. But not even Mario started as the polished finesse of mustache majesty and interstellar back-flipping athleticism that he is now famous for. The original release of Green and Red, staggering onto the Game Boy in ’96 with crippling glitches (glitch city, missingo etc), was to a lukewarm reception. What saved Pokèmon from mediocrity and obsoletion? Given the praise that the franchise has received in retrospect, one would like to say peerless design. Starter Pokèmon in hand, bag full of pokèballs and the wilds of Kanto awaiting, it’s something of a core atmosphere, if not specific elements, that have survived the complications and the longueurs – the inviolate formulaic components are what we think of when we imagine Pokèmon. But in reality, it was perspicacious marketing that resuscitated Game Freak’s pet creatures. And of course, a certain flying cat. Mew’s legendary largesse was enough, spear-headed by a target consumer push to amplify the range of Pokèmon. The alluring bragging rights of owning a somewhat unique gravity-defying feline was too much for the average Game Boy fan to resist. The addition of title exclusives like Oddish and Scyther for Red, and Ninetales and Pinsir for Blue also manafactured the need for player connectivity and in doing so, precipitated a thriving multiplayer culture of battles and trades that still flits across Link Cables and wireless the world over. With the salvaged popularity of a once precarious foray, the series witnessed its own explosive expansion. Manga, Anime, merchandise, Pokèmon events, trading card games, catchy slogans, a modestly successful animated film franchise and spin off series all quickly sprouted from the fertile earth of a premise with limitless possibility.

Red, Green and Blue, were palpably scarce offerings. Only a vulgar puritan like myself would prefer the simplicity of somewhat attainable triple digit pokedex requirements and tit for tat battle mechanics to the new Michael Bay-esque grandeosity and mega evolutions of the franchises’ latest achievements. Pokèmon has always been a handheld title, and with the exception of oddball creations like Stadium, Snap or Colosseum, it’s always felt more natural in its indigenous pocket environment. As endearing as the title may be, it certainly couldn’t have survived such a protracted period, well into the present generation, without a few face-lifts and whacky re-imaginings. First off the blocks, we had the tag-along Pikachu of Pokèmon Yellow – a tie-in from the successful anime that engendered a long inheritance of ambitious additions to the title.

With Gold and Silver, the pokedex was diversified with an additional 100 friendly ball-bound critters to collect, battle and trade. Gold and Silver are what Red and Blue should have been, regarding a largely glitch-free play-through and a story that didn’t feel truncated or protracted to the extremes of boredom. The noon point of Pokèmon, if you ask many fans, is Third Generation. By the time Emerald was released, buoyed by the arrowhead wake of Leaf Green and Fire Red, fans felt they’d hit the ceiling of pocket monster innovation. If you can look past the lack of a day-night feature and the incomplete Pokedex of many Hoenn-goers, the Third Generation was, in my opinion, the penultimate highlight of the Pokèmon universe; a perfect equilibrium of tradition, accessibility and longevity across the five releases. The Fourth generation then, kow-towing the franchise into 3D, in my opinion, the last title with an acceptable number of legendaries, was the event horizon before pocket monsters were whipped away into a singularity of increasingly more eccentric designs and gimmicky gizmos. Again, showing my vulgar puritanism, Diamond and Pearl, and the fruitful remakes of Gold and Silver, were the last Pokèmon titles I could honestly say I completed with any of the ravenous conviction that the historiographical backlog of Pokèmon titles inspired. Gameplay was crisp, the Pokedex was satisfyingly expansive without feeling saturated, legendaries were exclusive, my adorable leaf-adorned turtle was happily stomping and nibbling at opponents that didn’t include floating soft serve – life was simple. Commercially, the Pokè-Juggernaut steamrolled criticisms and continued through the next two generations. It brought Black and White, with their teetering stack of legendaries, floating candelabras and overwhelmingly obfuscated plot, a trend that continued into the venal re-hash bonanza of Black and White 2. But against the clarity and clemency of earlier, more acerbic titles Pokèmon had entered on night and more night.

Morning came, however – X and Y, selling now over 13 million copies, has been the critically acclaimed revival for an ailing franchise. For me, grumbling away here in my puritanical commune of Charizards and Celebis, it was still more tawdry spectacle than memorable experience, but I can’t help reveling in the refreshed franchise. Mega evolutions and Fairy types may be a step into the ridiculous and inane, but horde battles, sky battles, and the familiar faces of Kanto starters were enough to endear the latest installment as a return to the much lauded dynamics of earlier titles.

Then, the best news in years for puritan Pokèmon fanatics like me, was aired to the public. Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were coming to 3DS. X and Y going a long way to be the door-man of the franchise, ushering in new players with enticing gameplay plurality, Omega and Alpha are a welcome return to tradition for gamers who are disenfranchised with the spiraling trend of perplexing peculiarities that Pokèmon had become. Not a lot has changed at face value. The region layout is the same, the battles are the same – save for a much-needed longevity infusion with a Deoxys-centric side-quest. The dry plot and tedious mini-game based training modules in the new release encumber it somewhat, but the tactful re-touching shows what Game Freak can do to satiate consumer demand for more authentic Pokèmon adventuring while maintaining momentum behind the snowball of conflicting creative mandates. It’s the same old for most of the jaunt, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. With a competitive mechanic that compells you through the intermittent boredom of level crunching and dull commuting, I hope this trend – symbiosis of nostalgia and evolution – buffs up into a refined patina for the ageing pocket-sized juggernaut.

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Austin Small

Austin Small

If not writing about or playing the latest offerings of over-dressed simians and over-enthusiastic plumbers, can be found still trying to conquer the Ghost Ship in Super Metroid.