I’ve got Pokémon on the brain. Who doesn’t? Nintendo released a Pokémon direct announcing Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon as well as Pokken Tournament DX and 3DS ports of Pokémon Gold and Silver. Last year, Pokémon enjoyed its seventh entry in Pokémon Sun and Moon as well as Pokken Tournament and 3DS ports of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow.
Developer Game Freak’s Pokémon is without a doubt one of the biggest gaming franchises to ever rule the Earth. We have the aggressive marketing campaign to thank for that, but the games wouldn’t have seen such immense success had it not been for their clever game design.
Once you peel back the cutesy surface of the original games and look under the hood, you’ll see many clever game design decisions. It is these decisions that have made the games the classic adventures that we all know and love even back in 1996. You can see these decisions work their magic in the first few hours of the games. And with each new game in the series, the decisions are often further improved upon.
So let’s take a look back at some of the most important game design decisions that made the original Pokémon Red and Blue classics.
1. Type Strengths and Weaknesses
Let’s start with an obvious game design decision. Pokémon may not be the only or even the first video game to implement an elemental rock-paper-scissors system in its combat, but its implementation in the game is one of the most famous examples. You all know it by now: fire beats grass which beats water which beats fire and so one and so forth.
The simple roshambo concept meshes with all of the other mechanics of Pokémon battles to create a deep pool of strategy that’s always inviting to dive in. You could switch out a Pokémon weak to fire with one resistant to it so that you take less damage on an opponent’s attack while switching in. You could trick your opponent into thinking they have the upper hand with their fire-type Pokémon by sending out a grass-type Pokémon and then hit their Pokémon with a rock-type move. Like all the best competitive games, there’s a whole different metagame in reading your opponents and making smart decisions that’s separate from the actual game. And it’s all thanks to type strengths and weaknesses.
The elemental system also encourages a diverse team of Pokémon. Even if your Pokémon is several levels lower than the opponent, you still have a higher-than-average chance of beating them if you have a type advantage and a smart strategy. No matter what Pokémon you encounter, they’ll always be valuable in some way. It also allows lover-level Pokémon to grind against higher-level ones and catch up to their higher-level teammates, further making the game accessible to younger players.
Of course, type advantages are only one part of the strategies in Pokémon so the game makes you learn the basics of Pokémon battles before introducing type advantages. In Pokémon Red and Blue, your Pokémon start out with normal-type moves with no elemental strengths. They don’t learn a move with another type until around level 10 or above. But with these few moves, you start to learn when to use status moves, when to switch out Pokémon and more. And when you finally get a move with more type strengths and weaknesses, it’s opens up so many more possibilities. Now Pokémon you struggled against are much more manageable. But because you were able to learn the core strategies first, you’re able to develop strategies incorporating type advantages at a much quicker and more confident pace and be a more effective trainer as a result.
The elemental system is so intricate and essential to Pokémon that it’s undergone a number of improvements. Not only were more types introduced, but each type’s strengths and weaknesses were adjusted so that no one type dominated the others (I’m looking at you, psychic-type). Some Pokémon even became immune to certain moves as time went on, such as grass-types being immune to “spore” and “powder” status moves in Pokémon X and Y.
However, the latest games don’t give you a chance to get used to the core of the game before being introduced to the elemental system. In fact, in X and Y and Pokemon Sun and Moon, your starter Pokémon has their first same-typed move right when you get them. You get some instant gratification, but you can’t learn type advantages before learning how to actually play the game.
It’s like, “Hey kid! You want a pet fox that doubles as a flamethrower? Well now you have one! What’s that? You want to know how to play the game first? Just spam ‘Ember’ and you’ll get through just fine, kid. Trust me.” Thanks, Nintendo and Game Freak, but I want to work for my flamethrower canine.
2. Rare Pokémon
Grinding sucks. Repeatedly fighting the same enemies for experience points in order to get past a tough section of the game or to keep low-level teammates from falling behind is a deal with the devil that even something as progressive as Pokémon can’t escape from. But Game Freak sweetens the deal with rare Pokémon.
While basic Pokémon are easy to come by, the more useful Pokémon need to be diligently searched for. Rare Pokémon are not only the most competitively viable but can also be used to trade for other rare Pokémon or Pokémon you need to complete the Pokedex. It also adds to the excitement of reaching each new area as you wonder what kinds of rare Pokémon you’ll find next.
Pikachu, which has a five percent chance of being encountered in Viridian Forest, are not only adorable but are useful early on in the game as they’re the only electric-type Pokémon you’ll have access to for a while and will help you against tough flying-types and water-types. Abra, which not only has a 15 percent chance to be encountered on routes 24 and 25 but will also teleport away if your Pokéball toss fails, evolves into one of the most powerful Pokémon in the game with by far the most powerful type. The later games in the series also continues this trend; not only is there a small encounter rate for powerful Pokémon, but there is also a microscopic encounter rate for Pokémon of an alternate color palate also known as “shiny Pokémon”.
Grinding turns from a chore into an opportunity to catch new, rare Pokémon, and your efforts are almost always rewarded.
3. Memorable Characters
As anyone who has played Pokémon knows, the NCPs tend to be a bit… interesting. If you talk to any of the NPCs, you’re bound to encounter some silly dialogue about said NCP’s love of comfy shorts, their claims about a white hand on your shoulder, or some other quirky exchange. Not only does this add to the overall charm and shared nostalgia people have over the game, but it also has an application to game design.
Certain NCPs bestow useful items such as fishing rods and attack-granting TMs when you talk to them. This means that, unless you know where the NCPs are or you were one of the few to have reliable internet access in the 90s, you need to talk to everybody you meet. Can you imagine how much of a chore it would be to talk to all of the NCPs if all of their dialogues were boring and generic? Just like with finding rare Pokémon while grinding, the act of talking to each NCP becomes a reward in itself that’s second only to the reward of obtaining a useful item.
But of course, there’s one NCP who outshines them all. He goes by many names: Gary Oak, Blue, John, Shigeru, and pretty much whatever name you want.
Your rival is the most important NPC in the game because defeating him becomes your main goal throughout the entire adventure. In fact, the goal of becoming the Pokémon league champion becomes secondary to beating your rival. I did a search for the mention of the word “Pokémon League” in the game’s script, and the first time you hear about it is if you optionally interact with the computer at Oak’s lab. You’re not directly told about the Pokémon League until you reach the Sliph Co. building in Saffron City later into the game. And who tells you about it? Your rival!
You instantly develop an adversary in your rival, someone to continuously test your skills against and rub shoulders with. Not only is he constantly rude and condescending to you, but he also chooses the starter Pokémon with the typing that’s strong against yours.
His presence is also constantly felt, just like any adversary worth his salt. He always seems to be one step ahead of you and shows up when you least expect it, often running after you when you move into a new area and immediately battling you.
It is his constant pressure along with your desire to beat him that drives the adventure. You’re always improving so that in the event that your rival comes charging towards you, you’ll be ready to prove yourself once more. And when you discover that your rival is the champion and you need to beat him in order to beat the Pokémon League, the final fight is all the more intense.
While rivals in subsequent Pokémon games aren’t nearly as memorable, it’s been made up for in offering more complex and memorable companion characters. Sun and Moon offered the most likable characters in the entire series with the strongest character arcs, with one highlight being the pacifist and determined Lillie. Even when there wasn’t anything happening story-wise, I kept my eye on these characters (as opposed to hammering the “A” button to skip the dialogue) because I genuinely loved them and wanted to see them interact with each other and grow.
4. Pokémon Faint Instead of Dying
Think about the last time you failed in a video game. You probably died. Whether you’re decapitated in Mortal Kombat or plummeting to your doom in Super Mario Bros., death is nearly synonymous with failure in video games. But as series creator Satoshi Tajiri stated in a 1999 article in Time, that may not be a good thing:
I was really careful in making monsters faint rather than die. I think that young people playing games have an abnormal concept about dying. They start to lose and say, ‘I’m dying.’ It’s not right for kids to think about a concept of death that way. They need to treat death with more respect.
In many cultures, death is a transitional or transcendental phase rather than an immobilizing one and is celebrated as such. That’s part of what Tajiri means when he says to treat death with more respect. But another part of what Tajiri is getting at is if death is constantly paired with failure, we might begin to think of death to be the only outcome of our failure. That’s why it’s important to divorce failure from death and instead look at failure as a means of improving oneself.
Having Pokémon faint instead of dying reinforces the idea of learning from failures and improving ourselves. If Pokémon died instead of fainting, then new players would be too afraid of trying new, risky strategies and will be too distraught when failure occurs to continue playing the game. But since Pokémon can be revived after being defeated, we’re allowed to experiment with different strategies and see which ones work and which ones don’t. And as fainting occurs less and less often, we start to get a sense that we’re genuinely improving at the game.
But then there’s the idea of the Nuzlocke Challenge, a fan-made rule where players intentionally release Pokémon after they’re defeated in battle as if they died. I’m not saying that the challenge isn’t a valid way of playing Pokémon. In fact, I tried the challenge myself and had a lot of fun with it. The challenge, especially for experienced players, can provide even more satisfaction in one’s abilities if you manage to get through the game with minimal casualties. There’s no wrong way to play Pokémon. Finding ways to tailor the experience for all kinds of players, even if they aren’t officially supported by Game Freak or Nintendo, is a very good thing.
But having your Pokémon faint instead of dying is best for experimenting with strategies and obtaining a genuine sense of one’s improvement with minimal stress, especially for new, young players. Once you remove the threat of death, failure becomes just as engaging as success.
5. Adventurous Pacing
If you break down your journey across all of the different areas in Pokémon Red and Blue, you’ll start to see a pattern. You first start off in a town where you meet the main characters and learn how to play the game. Then you start your adventure properly by travelling through a route, a linear area with low level Pokémon to fight. Then you end up in what I call a dungeon: a forest, cave, or building that is more mazelike and has tougher Pokémon. It’s also much harder to head back to the Pokémon Center to heal your Pokémon, making the challenge of dungeons even greater. Then you head back out into another route before heading into a new town where you can rest your Pokémon, talk to people and acquire items. Then it’s off to the gym, an area similar to dungeons that also incorporates puzzles and has a few formidable trainers with one “boss” trainer at the end. This pattern of town-route-dungeon-route-town-gym is repeated throughout your adventure, and it’s a pattern that’s generally followed in each new installment in the series.
This is the bit of game design that contributes the most to the feeling of adventure you get from every Pokémon game. The game varies its pacing by raising and lowering the difficulty as you move from area to area, mirroring the rising and falling action of storytelling. The music also changes when you enter each area to emphasize the change in mood, such as when you go from the cheery and encouraging music of routes to the foreboding and harsh music of dungeons. And because the shifts in moods have a set pattern, you can occasionally subvert the pattern to further surprise the player. When heading to Lavender Town, you’re greeted not with the peaceful mood of other towns but with a haunting and unsettling one. Because of the variety in moods, no one mood overstays its welcome and the adventure remains engaging and captivating throughout.
To me, Pokémon is all about discovery. Whether it’s a new strategy for battling, a rare Pokémon, a quirky NCP, foreboding yet exciting new areas to explore, or your own potential as a trainer, Pokémon is full of surprises. And it’s one of the few games I played where I genuinely believed I was in my very own coming-of-age journey. And it’s all thanks to the wonderful game design decisions that have persisted since the very beginning.
Of course, there are still many improvements for the series that still need to be made (let’s not have an unskippable tutorial for catching Pokémon please). But that’s the other exciting thing about Pokémon. With each announcement for a new entry in the series, we always get excited for a new adventure with even more things to discover and even more clever design decisions to make the adventure even better.
It’s a testament to the art of game design that a few simple decisions can make a series last for decades. So thanks for the adventure, Game Freak and Nintendo, and here’s to another great 20 years and beyond.