Archive for July, 2007

Pokémon: Winning

Well, I’ve won. The endgame consists of a sequence of elite trainer battles in which all of the opponent pokémon were substantially higher level than mine. Between battles, you get to apply any healing items you’ve brought with you, but you can’t alter your team. Fortunately, the elite trainers make the same mistake as all the other bosses: specializing. Lack of diversity makes your team weak. My final team consisted of Blenkinsop the Alakazam, Ellington the Dragonair, Stirbridge the Gyarados, and the three Legendary Birds: Loolah, Hoagie, and Brenda. That’s Psychic, Dragon, Water, Ice, Electric, and Fire types covered; despite the level gap, most of the enemies could be dispensed with in one or two hits from the right one. Ellington is pretty much the only one who didn’t pull his weight. Loolah actually gained a level and learned a new attack in the middle of one of the battles. It’s a good ending: it shows off how powerful you’ve become without actually being all that difficult.

After you win, Professor Oak, who sent you on the whole adventure in the first place, informs you that the reason you won is that you treat your pokémon with care and respect, or something like that. I suppose there’s some basis to this: in gameplay terms, it translates to training pokémon by hand, rather than taking shortcuts like catching them at high levels, or using Rare Candy or the Day Care Center to raise their level without combat. Doing things the hard way results in more powerful pokémon at a given level.

Not long ago, I mentioned how collection elements are shoehorned into games where they don’t really belong in order to provide “replay value”. Pokémon really stands in contrast to this. The collection is a natural part of the game; if anything, it’s “winning” that’s grafted on artificially. From a collector’s point of view, though, there’s still a point to finishing the story: it grants access to the Unknown Dungeon.

I had found the entrance to the Unknown Dungeon during my revisitng-everything phase. At the time, there was a guard standing in front of it saying that only the reigning Pokémon League champion was allowed in. Well, that’s me now. I’ve only explored the dungeon a little, but it’s full of high-level wild pokémon, including evolved forms of things that I had only seen unevolved in the wild previously. So suddenly there’s the option of completing my pokédex (to the extent possible) by catch-and-release means rather than through the level grind. After all, it’s “gotta catch ’em all”, not “gotta keep ’em all”.

At any rate, I’m going to take a break from this game for a while, but I don’t consider it to be off the Stack yet, even though I’ve won. I’ve still got a Master Ball with Mewtwo’s name on it. I haven’t decided yet what that name is, but there’s plenty of time for that later.

Pokémon: Penny Arcade musings

Coincidentally, the ever-popular Penny Arcade has been doing a whole lot of Pokémon-related strips lately. I note in particular that the latest strip makes a joke about a player trading pokemon with himself. This is something that reads differently if you’re familiar with the game. As I’ve pointed out, there are legitimate reasons in the game to prefer a traded to an untraded pokémon, and there are probably people who really do buy two gameboys and two Pokémon cartridges in order to take advantage of this. To one who doesn’t know the game, trading with yourself seems pointless. To one who is, it just seems sad.

They’re presumably into it because of the recent release of the “Diamond” and “Pearl” editions for the Nintendo DS. From what they say, it’s clear that the complexity has been kicked up several notches from the original: they talk about things like breeding pokémon. In the version I know, pokémon are just generated spontaneously from grassy areas by the friction generated when you walk through them. There’s a variety that comes in what are identified male and female forms, but there’s no real reason to believe that they do anything about it. But apparently nowadays breeding your own pokémon is an essential way to get specimens with certain special properties. I remember a sub-game like this in Final Fantasy VII, breeding chocobos in order to get ones that can win races more easily, but also to get special ones that can fly over mountains and oceans. But that was a minor aside in a larger game, whereas Pokémon is all about acquiring special creatures, so it sounds like this is a core part of the game mechanic now. The whole idea seems daunting, but it’s probably more intellectually involving than the level grind.

It also raises the interesting possibility that chocobos might be a lost tribe of pokémon. Must investigate further.

Pokémon: Repetitive Activity

To expand on the last thing I said in the previous post: Pretty much all CRPGs reward repetitive activity to some degree, allowing the player to get by on effort alone if they can’t work out the efficient way to do things. This is an important part of the genre: it’s the thing that makes it possible to still make progress in every play session even if you’re stuck in the plot and puzzles (if there are any).

But few games are repetitive in the way that Pokémon is. In most games with a level grind, there’s an expectation that you’ll pass through each level only once. You go hunting for gnolls in Blackburrow or whatever, and eventually you’ve got enough experience that you can take on something stronger than gnolls, and so you leave Blackburrow behind. But in Pokémon, there’s a separate grind for each pokémon you capture. You can have everything in your party up to level 30, and then suddenly catch a new guy who’s level 15 and evolves at level 28. You can put him in a party with a bunch of strong guys, have him never actually participate in combat and just leech XP off the others, but he’s going to level faster if he can win fights by himself. Eventually, you’ll want to take him off to an area that’s appropriate to his level.

(Come to think of it, this is kind of what Wizardry was like. Except there, the reason you kept having to level up new characters was to replace the ones who died.)

Or consider the case of Georgeson the Sandslash. Georgeson is one of the first pokémon I caught, back when he was just a sandshrew. I levelled him up to the point of evolving, then just stuck him in storage and forgot about him. It was only when searching for a team to take on Zapdos that I found a new use for him. See, part of my plan (as detailed in the last post) was to use an accuracy-reduction attack, such as Sand Attack, to keep the fearsome avian from knocking out my guys in a single hit. I had used McNaughton the Pidgeotto for this purpose in the battle with Articuno, but flying pokémon are really vulnerable to electrical attacks. Whereas ground pokémon seem to be completely immune to them. Georgeson was the only ground-type I had that knew this attack — his time to shine! Except he was only level 22, hardly capable of hitting a level 50 flying opponent. I took him out, intending to level him up to 30 or so.

I still think this would have worked, too, if I hadn’t been so impatient. I got him as far as level 23, then threw caution to the wind. It all worked out well — Georgeson was taken out with a single non-electrical attack (Drill Peck), and without his protection, a couple of other members of the team went down as well. But I had brought a certain amount of redundancy along, two pokémon with sleep attacks, two with wrap, so it all came off regardless.

I’m still impatient, though. And I still have a lot of pokémon to evolve. I’m thinking that I’ll spend maybe a day or two more on this and then give it a break regardless of whether I’ve found Leader #8 by then or not.

Pokémon: Catching the Birds

Seven Pokémon Leaders down, one to go. The first seven have their names and locations listed in the manual; the eighth is something of a mystery. I could find out where he is by reading spoilers online, but for the moment, I’d rather search for him myself. After all, I’m going to have to spend some time just wandering around in order to level up my team. I might as well have a goal in mind while I do it.

Thus begins the phase of the game wherein one revisits all the previous areas and looks for places that were previously impassable, but which one now has the tools to pass. This is always a fairly satisfying part of a game, for the same reason that hunting for secrets is satisfying — indeed, in many games this is the secret-hunting phase. Here, I’m hunting not for secrets but for the last remaining plot token. But in the process, I’m finding secrets. In particular, I’ve found Zapdos, another of the Legendary Birds.

Now, since my TPK, I’ve managed to capture Articuno (who, thanks to the trainer’s naming privilege, is now known as Loolah). Capturing a pokémon is much harder than defeating it, especially if it’s stronger than your own pokémon. At bottom, all you have to do to capture a pokémon is get into a fight with it, then throw an empy pokéball at it (by selecting the pokéball in the “use item” menu). But there’s a chance that you’ll miss, and even if you hit, there’s a chance that the victim will break free and continue the fight. More expensive balls are harder to break, and you can get an advantage by beating up on it first: the lower you get its hit points, the lower its chance of breaking free. But you have to be careful not to do too much damage and inadvertently end the battle. (I’d say that they’re useless to you dead, but technically, pokémon never die as a result of fighting; they just “faint”. This makes more sense of the ability to revive your fainted pokémon, but less sense of the fact that you can’t capture them in that state.) So you’re pulling your punches, but your opponent isn’t.

After a couple of failures, I bagged Articuno with a team that, between them, had the following crucial abilities:

  • Sleep attacks: not only does a sleeping opponent not attack, it’s a lot easier to hit with the pokéball.
  • Accuracy-reduction attacks: to make it less likely that it’ll wipe you out when it wakes up.
  • Wrap: This is a move learnable by things with vines or tentacles. It’s an attack that lasts multiple turns, until you decide to break it off or the opponent breaks free; while wrapped, the opponent doesn’t get to attack and receives a small amount of damage every turn. I had almost written this off as useless — why do a small amount of damage over multiple turns when you can do a whole lot of damage all at once? But turns out to be ideal for edging the opponent’s hit points down to just short of fainting.
  • Surf: needed just to get to Articuno’s hideout in the first place.

Also, of course, the team had to minimize vulnerability to Articuno’s cold-based attacks. Even with all this planning, the sleeping bird managed to break six or seven Ultra pokéballs before it stayed caught.

Capturing Zapdos will probably be broadly similar, but with the additional constraint that I need both Surf and Cut to reach it, and the attacks are electrical this time. A glance at the vulnerability chart shows that my best bet here is probably ground-type pokémon. Do I even have any ground types with the abilities listed above? I don’t know; I haven’t had to face situation like this before.

On the whole, I’m enjoying the challenge of the difficult captures much more than the XP grind: reviewing my lists, picking out a team with just the right skills like it’s Mission: Impossible or something. Unfortunately, the game is really geared more towards the grind. There’s an XP reward for defeating the same enemies over and over, but no real motivation to capture more than one of each species. You’re even punished a little for capturing a difficult high-level pokémon instead of capturing a low-level one and levelling it up: the latter results in pokémon with higher stats. I’d call this a flaw, but it’s probably part of what made the game a success. The fact that persistence is more valuable than skill or cleverness makes the game more accesible.

Pokémon: Trades

There are three reasons to trade pokémon. First, as I’ve said before, there are some species that can only be obtained in a specific version of the game. Pokémon (Red Version) provides oddishes but not bellsprouts, Pokémon (Blue Version) is the reverse. Since oddishes and bellsprouts fill similar niches, it’s reasonable for two people with different colors to trade the one for the other. There are other similar cases.

Second, there are some species that are native to no version of the game. I’ve talked about how some species “evolve” into new forms in response to some stimulus. In most cases, the stimulus is reaching a certain experience level. In a few cases, it’s being exposed to a special object. The eevee is notable in that it can evolve into three separate forms depending on which of three objects is used on it: fire stone, thunder stone, or water stone. But in four particular cases, the stimulus that triggers evolution is being traded. You give someone a graveler, and it immediately starts turning into a golem. At one point, an associate and I traded a kadabra for a haunter, then immediately traded the resulting alakazam and gengar back, giving us both the benefit of having “caught” all four species.

The third reason is that traded pokémon get a substantial bonus to all experience they earn, making them advance faster than non-traded pokémon. This provides a motivation to trade even when you don’t gain a species you didn’t have otherwise. Interestingly, there are several non-player characters in the game who will trade pokémon with the player — there are even some species that can only be obtained from trades with NPCs. The pokémon obtained this way are treated by the game as obtained in trades, and thus get the same experience bonus as ones obtained in a real trade between two players. 1 Or at least two Gameboys. There are probably people who trade with themselves, but that’s getting into “what’s the point” territory if you ask me. Cinnabar Island, which I have just reached, has at least three NPCs who trade pokemon, making it the densest trade center in the world; the rest of the traders are just scattered around on roadways and the like. I haven’t been taking advantage of the offered trades, because pokemon that are raised by hand from an early level get better stats than ones produced by the game. But maybe I should. When I’m racing to get the entire collection to their final evolutions, that experience bonus would come in handy.

At any rate, my trade list is now online.

1 Or at least two Gameboys. There are probably people who trade with themselves, but that’s getting into “what’s the point” territory if you ask me.

Pokémon: TPK

Exploring the Safari Zone yielded the two HMs that I was missing. In fact I really only needed one of them, as I had acquired in a trade a pokémon with the Strength skill. But the other one held the secret of Surf, which allows a swimming pokémon to carry its trainer over water. This is a pretty big deal, because it opens up the few remaining unexplored corners of the map. Choosing a random direction, I found myself at the Seafoam Islands.

Now, in this game, when you enter a new area for the first time, you immediately start encountering new types of pokémon. I picked up several new specimens in the water, and another in an island cave. Every single one of the new finds is a species that can evolve with experience, so it’s clear that I’m going to have to spend some time XP farming. An exploration into that cave shows that the random encounters are around level 30, the highest level I’ve seen yet, which makes it the ideal place for this. I go back to the nearest pokémon center 1 The pokémon centers are like your base camps. There’s one in every town, and you can access your stored pokémon and alter your party roster there, as well as heal your wounded pokémon for free. and pick out some water-resistant pokémon in in the 20-30 range that I want to advance. Blenkinsop I leave behind. He doesn’t need the exercise.

My first few sallies go according to the usual formula: I wander around looking for stuff to beat up until my own guys are significantly hurt, then fall back to the pokémon center for healing. But the center is inconveniently far away. What I really want to do is find a way through the cave, in the hope of finding a route to Cinnabar Island, where the next Pokémon Leader lives. I figure there’s got to be a pokémon center there, like in every other town I’ve been to. So I start delving deeper.

The caves contain a puzzle involving pushing boulders around to ultimately block a stream so you can get across it without being carried away by the current. There’s a little bit of Sokoban action involved, but mainly there’s a part where you push a boulder down a series of holes to successively lower levels, then climb back up to the first level, then push another boulder down a different series of holes. All the while fending off level 30 pokémon. By the time I finished this, a couple of my pokémon were down for the count — pokémon never really die in this game, they just fall unconscious until you revive them — and the rest were at least somewhat hurt. But it was a long way back, so I kept going.

Reaching an unexplored level, I spied a little bird sitting on a rock. I did what you always do on seeing something novel: I walked up to it and pressed the A button. It turned out to be Articuno, one of the three Legendary Birds, each unique. It’s level 50, and quite capable of wiping out anything I have with me in a single blow. So do I flee? Goodness no. This is a one-time encounter! If I flee, I’ll never get another chance to catch Articuno.

I suppose I should have used the unescapable Master Ball at this point, but it didn’t even occur to me. Instead, I had my first TPK 2 Total Party Kill in quite some time, and switched the Gameboy off without saving.

A TPK in Pokémon isn’t as bad as it is in most games. It doesn’t end the game, and the only consequence is that you get sent back to the last pokémon center with half your cash gone. If I had less cash, I might be willing to accept that price. My pokémon had gained a lot of XP in that last adventure, after all. But I’m saving up for a porygon. The porygon is a pokémon that can only be obtained from a Team Rocket casino as a prize. It costs 6500 coins, where coins are either obtained from slot machines (the only game the casino runs) or, if necessary, purchased outright from the casino, 1000 units of money 3 I don’t think the monetary unit in this game has a name! Strange that I never noticed this before. for 50 coins. Now, the slot machines have a skill element — it’s one of those things where pictures go whizzing by very fast and you press a button to make them stop. But this is difficult enough for me that I’ve pretty much given up on the prospect of ever winning 6500 coins, and have decided to just pay 130000 moneys for them. Which I’ve been very close to being able to afford for a while.

In fact, now that I’ve checked, I see that I now actually have enough. Next stop: the casino, where my wad of cash will no doubt help to fund Team Rocket’s nefarious activities well into the next year. And then: exploration without fear of death!

1 The pokémon centers are like your base camps. There’s one in every town, and you can access your stored pokémon and alter your party roster there, as well as heal your wounded pokémon for free.
2 Total Party Kill
3 I don’t think the monetary unit in this game has a name! Strange that I never noticed this before.

Pokémon: Saffron City

Six badges now. Blenkinsop is level 46, and the only thing I’ve faced that posed any difficulty for him (or his assistant, Pratchett the Hypno) was Sabrina, Pokémon Leader of Saffron City. She specializes in psychic pokémon, and has a high-level alakazam of her own. Mine was bigger, but the key problem is that her alakazam knows Recover, a move that lets it heal itself in battle. At first, I was powerless to do more damage than it could recover in a single round. I eventually managed to give it the “paralysis” status effect, which makes it randomly skip turns, and then reduced its “special” rating, which seems to govern how much it can heal in a turn. After simply overpowering things for so long, it was nice to have a battle that actually required some tactics.

Before I could challenge Sabrina, I had to chase Team Rocket out of town. Team Rocket is one of those things that was drastically changed in the cartoon, which turned them into bumbling comic villains. Here, they’re more sinister and menacing, or at least as sinister and menacing as you can get when you’re displayed in a severely chibi style most of the time. They’re somewhere between gangsters and nazis, and their stated goal is to take over the world using an army of enslaved pokémon. I’m not quite clear on how this enslaving pokemon differs from what the player character does, but presumably it’s somehow worse than beating them up until they can’t resist being imprisoned in a pokéball from which they’re only taken out to fight other captives for their master’s amusement.

Before I kicked them out, Team Rocket was infesting the headquarters the Silph Company, which does pokémon-related research. The Silph Building is an eleven-story teleporter maze. As such, it constitutes a puzzle unrelated to the game’s core mechanic. I noticed a couple of other sections like that when I was wandering around trying to figure out what to do. For example, one town has a building with a maze of arrows, where stepping on an arrow tile makes you keep going in that direction until you hit an obstacle. I had solved that maze during my first Pokémon kick, but had completely forgotten that it existed. The memorable thing, the distinctive thing, in this game is obviously the pokémon. Mazes of this sort have nothing to do with pokémon; they could be shoved into any game, and often are. You can call it variety elements, varying the gameplay to keep unrelieved fight scenes from getting tedious 1 Speaking of tedious, unrelieved fight scenes, I saw the Michael Bay Transformers movie recently. Is there a videogame adaptation of this flick yet? Such a thing would be an oddity to rival Lego Star Wars: an adaptation chain that goes toys — cartoon — movie — game. , or you can call it filler. If you ask me, what it shows in this particular game is a certain lack of confidence on the part of the designers. I mean, Pokémon took risks. For all that it’s based on established RPG mechanics, it was a new paradigm, and no one knew how successful it would be, so can they be blamed for hedging their bets by throwing in some relatively safe generic content? I know that something of this sort happened in the development of Thief: The Dark Project, resulting in the combat-oriented “monster” levels that are generally regarded as the game’s weak spot. It’s not even really a phenomenon unique to games. Consider Don Quixote: Book 1 contains numerous digressions, essentially embedded novellas detailing the backstories of various secondary characters and the like, apparently because Cervantes didn’t think that the satire of chivalric romance would maintain the reader’s interest. By the time he wrote book 2, he knew better, and the digressions disappeared.

1 Speaking of tedious, unrelieved fight scenes, I saw the Michael Bay Transformers movie recently. Is there a videogame adaptation of this flick yet? Such a thing would be an oddity to rival Lego Star Wars: an adaptation chain that goes toys — cartoon — movie — game.

Pokémon: Plans

I’m in a bit of a hurry to get today’s post up, so I’ll be brief. I have already had several acquaintances on the east coast say that I should have picked Pokémon up again before moving, that they would have been willing to trade with me at that point. Unfortunately, I was saving Pokémon as something to play during the move — something I could play while my other gaming devices were packed up. But as it turned out, moving occupies enough of one’s attention that I didn’t do any gaming at all until I had the PS2 set up, so that was futile.

Well, I do intend to come back east once in a while. I have parents out there, and will probably come back sometime around Christmas, if not sooner. Will I still want to trade pokémon then? Quite possibly; I’m seeing this as something of a long-term project. Catching ’em all can’t be done all at once. If you try, you’ll be bored to tears.

Beating the eight Pokémon Leaders and completing the plot of the game is another matter. I’ll probably make a run for that soon — I think I have the fighting power to do it, and just need to find the rest of the HMs to get past the obstacles on the way. (HM stands for Hidden Machine; they’re a variant of the TM, or Technical Machine. Both varieties are used to teach special moves, but HMs teach skills that can be used outside of combat, such as cutting through brush or lifting heavy rocks.) I could be wrong about having the power, of course, but my toughest contender, a level 42 alakazam 1 Blenkinsop, as you may remember from the previous post , is currently defeating everything he meets with a single blow of his psychically-endowed brain.

So, my plan right now is to get through the story, become the ultimate trainer or whatever, and then put Pokémon on the back burner for a while. When I have a chance, I’ll post my list here to facilitate arranging trades. It’s probably going to be tricky to get unevolved charmander and bulbasaur, which can only be gotten once, at the very beginning of the game — there’s an initial choice of three, and I chose the squirtle. The point being, if you haven’t turned yours into a charmeleon and/or ivysaur yet, you probably aren’t into the game enough to dig your cartridge out of storage and arrange a time and place to meet. But hey, maybe you saw someone playing the DS version and got nostalgic for your first Pokémon experience. Maybe you want to start over, classic-style. And if you do, maybe you want to start over with a golem or a gengar or a level 42 alakazam instead of that wimpy bulbasaur.

1 Blenkinsop, as you may remember from the previous post

Pokémon: The difficulties of resuming play

I’ve been slowly easing myself back into this game. Refamiliarlizing myself with the combat mechanics didn’t take long. It’s pretty simple: first, you choose one of the pokémon that you’re carrying with you at the moment (you can carry at most six at a time); if you’re facing another trainer rather than a solitary wild pokémon, he does the same. Then, in each round of combat, both sides choose an attack, and watch the results. Every attack, even the mundane ones equivalent to throwing a punch, can only be used so many times per sally, like D&D spells. All pokémon are, in effect, magic users.

A more difficult issue is trying to remember where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Up to a certain point, the game is linear, providing a single clear path ahead and a single subquest at every juncture. I’m well past that point. It pretty much ends the moment you teach one of your flying pokémon to carry you from town to town. Still, in my current state, wandering over my traces is no bad thing. I’m still trying to level up my weaker pokémon, after all. Not so much because I want to use them in battle — the ones I’ve already levelled up can pretty much take care of that — but because I want them to “evolve”. You see, some kinds of pokémon go through multi-stage life cycles, with each stage counting as a separate type of pokemon. A squirtle, for example, turns into a wartortle at level 16, and then into a blastoise at level 36. The magikarp, the booby-prize of pokémon, famous for its complete uselessness in battle, possessing at the beginning only a “splash” attack that never does any damage, transforms at level 20 into a gyarados, one of the most fearsome creatures in the game, capable of learning the “dragon rage” attack. “Evolution” is a clever trick that the game designer uses to make the player voluntarily use many different pokémon, with different capabilities, rather than settling on a single favorite. But it also means lots of grind as you try to level everything up evenly.

Another obstacle to picking up from where I left off is simply remembering all the pokémon. Twice already I’ve seen what I believed to be a previously-unseen variety in the wild, only to discover after catching it that I already had one in my collection. I suppose I should write these things down rather than rely on the lists available in the game, which can’t be accessed during an encounter. I’ve kind of made this unnecessarily hard for myself, too, by giving all my pokémon names. Whenever you catch a pokémon, you’re given the option of naming it. I get the impression that most people don’t bother, calling their pokemon solely by their species name like in the cartoon, but it seems like it would be useful if you decided to catch multiple individuals of the same species. I’m not doing that — not deliberately, anyway — but I give my pokémon names anyway. It just seemed more proper that way. So I’ve got Godwin the Wartortle, Sheridan the Butterfree, Blenkinsop the Alakazam, Vivien the Snorlax, Morgoth the Pikachu, and so forth. But even ignoring that, I currently have 61 pokemon in my collection, and I don’t remember what they all do. But I imagine I’ll get used to them all again as I trot them out and give them their five minutes in the arena. Pokémon is one of those games that’s also a body of knowledge. The more you play, the deeper that knowledge goes into your brain.


Gotta catch ’em all! What better expression of the completist urge is there? But, for reasons I’ll go into later, this is something of a cruel joke applied to Pokémon.

Let’s back up a moment. Even though it’s well-known, or at least well-heard-of, Pokémon requires a little explanation. A lot of people know of it primarily from the cartoon show and the card game, unaware that the Gameboy cartridge came first. I suppose this is because it only came first in Japan. By the time it hit the West, it was already a multi-channel media phenomenon that would change the way videogames are developed and marketed. A phenomenon, moreover, that the original game didn’t fit into all that well. The original Pokémon game was released in two versions, Red and Blue 1 I speak of the American versions. Apparently things get more complicated when you consider the Japanese versions: the blue version is called green and there’s a third version called blue, or something like that. , essentially differing only in their wandering monster tables. (I have the Blue version.) After the cartoon became such a hit, a third version, Yellow, was released, which altered things a lot more in order to make it more similar to the cartoon based on the Red and Blue versions than the Red and Blue versions themselves: changing the artwork, adding characters, giving the player Pikachu 2 If you don’t know what Pikachu is: Picture a pokémon right now. That’s Pikachu. It’s the one that you’ve seen even if you’ve only had minimal Pokémon exposure. right at the beginning, etc. An unusual development indeed! The only thing similar I can think of is Earthworm Jim 3D, which drew more heavily from the Earthworm Jim cartoon show than the original game. (And, as with Pokémon, I’ve encountered people who didn’t know that Earthworm Jim was a videogame first.)

In format, Pokémon is basically a party-based RPG with abstract turn-based combat. You play the part of an 11-year-old pokémon trainer, wandering from town to town in a tile-based world (conspicuously similar to Zelda: Link’s Awakening in graphical style), fighting monsters for treasure and experience points. Except you don’t fight personally — you have monsters of your own for that. And sometimes the treasure is the monster itself. There are two types of encounter: against wild pokémon, and against other pokémon trainers. When fighting a wild pokémon, you have the choice of vanquishing it for XP or attempting to capture it for your collection, from where you can swap it into your party.

There are 150 3 Mew doesn’t count. species of pokémon in the original game, although sequels have expanded this greatly. There are 15 broader types that the species belong to: normal (which seems to just be the null type, assigned to any species that doesn’t fit any other types), fire, water, electric (that’s Pikachu’s type), grass (plant life in general, really, but they call it grass), ice, fighting (they all fight, but this means martial arts stuff), poison, ground (dirt-based or burrowing animals), flying, psychic, bug, rock, ghost, and dragon. A species can belong to either one or two types, so you can have flying bugs and poisonous vegetation and the like. You’ve probably noticed that several of the types are traditional RPG “elemental damage” types, and yes, the various types determine the kinds of attacks the pokémon can do, as well as their special vulnerabilities: a fire pokémon is weak against water-based attacks, a flying pokémon is nearly immune to ground-based attacks, and so on. Psychic pokémon seem to be really strong against everything except bugs. There’s a chart in the manual. So it’s an extended rock-paper-scissors, except that the difference can be overwhelmed by sheer force of experience level; instead of “paper covers rock”, it’s “paper covers rock, unless it’s a really big rock, in which case it can slowly grind the paper into pulp”.

Speaking of slowly grinding, there’s enough XP-farming in this game that I’ve decided to continue from where I left off years ago rather than starting over from scratch. I was pretty far advanced in the game, having beaten four of the eight Pokémon Leaders that form the game’s other overall goal. It really is a pretty well-designed game, and I can see why it was such a hit with the junior high set. It’s got complexity to master, if mastering complexity is your thing. If not, you can just level up your favorite pokémon until it’s nearly unbeatable. It’s designed for a lengthy campaign, but can be played in short sessions, with tangible progress each time. And it’s social. If you really want to achieve the stated goal of catching ’em all, you can’t play alone. The red version provides the possibility of capturing pokémon that are never seen wild in the blue version, and vice versa. The only way to get the ones not in your version is to trade with other players (which you do by linking your Gameboys together). Even worse: one of each cartridge won’t do it. There are multiple points in the game where you have to choose between three different pokémon, so unless you have a friend who’s willing to play through a large portion of the game twice in order to supply you, or are willing to buy two Gameboys and play through the game three times yourself, you need multiple friends who are playing Pokémon at more or less the same rate as you. So there’s an abnormal incentive to get people around you to play it.

Alas, this is easier for its target audience. When I was first playing this game, I was well beyond normal pokémon age, but was fortunate enough to be working at a game-oriented dot-com, where two other people were also curious enough about the Pokémon phenomenon to give it a try. But I’m far from catching ’em all, and have more or less lost the opportunity for casual lunch-break trades. This is what I dislike most about social games: the difficulty of resuming them years later. Maybe I’ll put an ad on Craigslist. In the meantime, if anyone reading this blog is in the San Francisco area and has both the will and the equipment to do some trades, feel free to post a comment.

1 I speak of the American versions. Apparently things get more complicated when you consider the Japanese versions: the blue version is called green and there’s a third version called blue, or something like that.
2 If you don’t know what Pikachu is: Picture a pokémon right now. That’s Pikachu. It’s the one that you’ve seen even if you’ve only had minimal Pokémon exposure.
3 Mew doesn’t count.

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