Pokémon has been a cultural phenomenon since its inception. Sweeping the globe with its cute mascots, addictive trading card game and of course, the legendary Game Boy cartridges that would go on to amass sales of 300 million units, all told. It's the latter which sits fondly within my heart, I can remember so clearly collecting my Pokémon Red game from the store, along with a pack of trading cards (ironically I got a “shiny” Blastoise out of the pack, who was Pokémon Blue's mascot) before heading to the British Museum with my mother.
It's not just this fond childhood recollection that puts this franchise at the top of my gaming list though, there are a plethora of reasons as to why this game is arguably the greatest of all time and today we're going to delve into what makes Pokémon so special, to so many.
When you first play the game, you're introduced to your guru for the duration of your experience; the Professor. This varies from generation to generation, but the premise is the same. He'll spout some rhetoric about the wonderful world of Pokémon, ask you to enter your name and you're in, spawning by your house. The game doesn't then throw a “here's what to do” bulletin at you, instead you're allowed to explore a little and wander around, but as soon as you attempt to leave the town, you're halted by the aforementioned Prof. and your journey really begins.
Immediately, this is great game design. You don't feel like you're being forced into a tutorial, or having your hand held, instead it's a natural way to introduce the game mechanics and in the Red/Blue version, you get to duel your Rival right away, getting you familiar with how battle works in a non-pressured environment, but in the heat of the moment, you desperately want to win. When the duel is over, you stand victorious with your new Pokémon and right away, there's a connection to the avatar and his cute little creature; you want to succeed and grow your companion in the correct way, getting stronger and stronger.
A unique aspect of the series is that in order to truly complete the game, you need to capture all available Pokémon within the game. However, the twist is that not everything will be available in your version; you need to find someone with the mirror copy of yours (i.e. if you have Red, find someone with Blue so you can trade game exclusive Pokémon across). This opens up an entire new channel of gaming and back when this first came out, it was simply revolutionary and actually aided in helping kids make social connections, as you would soar around the playground trading and also, battling!
As you traverse the vast, expansive region (again, varies from different versions of the game, but the premise remains the same) your Pokémon will level up and gain power. The game leads you down the garden path in that, there's certain areas you can't visit until objectives are completed and side quests ticked off, but it never feels obnoxious; instead it furthers the story and gives you more exploration options, as well as opportunities to capture new and exciting monsters for your team. This is one of the game's greatest achievements; it manages to keep you aligned with the story, yet you never feel boxed in. Circling back to your team of Pokémon, the more time you spend with them, battling and winning, a curious bond develops. Seeing them “faint” in battle is genuinely heart wrenching. The game gives you the freedom to naturally garner this connection, again free from tutorials or “how-to's”, it's all through organic game play and doing things on your own merit.
As for the battle mechanics, it's so crisp and the formula has remained the same since the game's inception and for good reason; it's flawless. So simple in design, the turn based combat can be as complex as you make it. Once again, the game allows you to develop your own style, you can enhance your Pokémon with items during battle, switch your team in and out to gain a type advantage (e.g. water type vs. fire type) or inflict status impacting moves to paralyze, poison, freeze or put your opponent's creature to sleep. So diverse are the tactics, that one is constantly changing in order to suit the situation; no opponent (either AI or human) will ever be the same, so the battles are always kept fresh and interesting.
By extension of the battles, your quest is two fold; capture all the Pokémon and conquer the Elite Four. How is the latter achieved? By collecting gym badges. These tokens are granted when you defeat a town's gym leader and each one is a memorable encounter and character, which has the knock on effect of giving the towns themselves an essence of being their own personality in a way, for example, especially memorable is the creepy Lavender Town from the Kanto region in Pokémon Red/Blue. The fights with the gym leaders always feel like a big occasion, but the game subtly makes sure you're ready for the big fight by littering the gyms with trainers who will be stronger than those you've met in the nearby routes and serve as a good litmus test; if you can't beat them then you're not ready, but by comparison if they're easily swept aside you'll likely leave the gym with the spoils you came for.
Great games are not just about the game play, the music is extremely important too. It can supplement the setting and create a memorable location, or it can detract from the environment and take you out of the immersion if it's too jarring. Pokémon have always got this correct, in that the music fits the towns, routes and events (surfing, cycling, fishing) perfectly. One of the most memorable tracks across all iterations of the game is the theme that plays when you hop onto the bicycle; it's carefree and joyous and truly evokes the feeling you get when you ride a bike for real.
Out of the versions of the game, my top choice remains HeartGold, for the Nintendo DS. It perfectly captured the essence of the original Gold Version for the GameBoy Color, whilst adding in so much more content and of course, ramping up the graphics. The formula hasn't changed from the very basic days, but instead expanded upon. HeartGold has this in abundance, with secret events (making use of tools such as the radio), new generations of Pokémon to capture that range from the first series right up to the modern day and fusing two of the most iconic regions, Kanto and Johto into one game, with the final addition of the big boss; Red.
If you haven't played a Pokémon game and you're looking for a fun, immersive and challenging game, then I urge you to pick up one of the titles, specifically HeartGold if you have a Nintendo DS. I've sunk hours (120 to be exact) into my current save file and I've still yet to truly complete the game. There is so much to do and the best thing is you can put it down and pick it up at your leisure; no DLC, no awful tutorials, just plain and simple fun.