Welcome to the second entry in Dungeon Crawlers, a series of features all about RPG dungeon design. This time we’re taking a deep dive into the localized versions of Pokémon Red & Blue. While Yellow is also part of the first generation of Pokémon games, it does not add anything of substance where dungeon design is concerned. I find Pokémon Red & Blue are master classes in how to introduce the RPG genre to first-time players, as they offer simple dungeons that gradually grow more complex as the game progresses.
Before We Get Started
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Red & Blue‘s dungeon design, I must bring up the concept of Hidden Moves, or HMs. These are attacks that can be taught to Pokémon that allow you to navigate the world in unique ways. Think of them as the game’s “key items.” There are five of them in Generation 1: Cut, Fly, Surf, Strength, and Flash. Three of them are often used to navigate the dungeons, and if you do not have a Pokémon in your party with these moves, you are out of luck until you do. To make matters worse, most of these attacks are simply not useful in combat, and there is no way for Pokémon to forget HMs in Generation 1. While this is a problem that has since been resolved as of Pokémon Sun & Moon, it is one aspect of dungeon design in Generation 1 that has not aged well.
Another concept that must be mentioned is the idea of wild battles and random encounters. More often than not, random encounters in RPGs are associated with the monotony of slogging through a dungeon with a high encounter rate. While this is also true for Pokémon (save for a handful of dungeons that do not have random encounters, like the Rocket Hideout and Silph Co.), this series benefits from the quality of your party being tied to the wild Pokémon you encounter. A new dungeon often means more opportunities to find cool new Pokémon, which in turn translates to opportunities to add new party members. It is an interesting dynamic that is not present in many RPGs and one that plays an important part in any Pokémon dungeon discussion.
Early-Game Dungeons: Caterpies and Clefairies
When Game Freak set out to give life to Satoshi Tajiri’s vision, it was clearly done with younger players in mind. This approach makes Red & Blue remarkably accessible to all, even those unfamiliar with the RPG genre. The debut generation of Pokémon titles seek to encourage exploration through increasingly complex dungeons with the onus placed on treading far off the beaten path—a practice that eventually yields great rewards in the form of new items, more powerful attacks to use in combat, or rare Pokémon to add to your party.
This beginner-friendly design philosophy can be seen as early as Viridian Forest, the first official dungeon of Red & Blue. Viridian Forest, like most RPG dungeons, has a critical path that leads to the exit. Due to its nature as the first dungeon and its theme as a forest, this critical path takes the form of close-quarters corridors, many of which lead to dead ends with items. In this way, the forest avoids overwhelming the player with options while also relaying the message that going off the beaten path can lead to rewards.
In stark contrast to Viridian Forest is Mt. Moon, the second dungeon, which has vast open caverns and multiple floors to explore. Mt. Moon is the first dungeon where players might find themselves wandering around in circles looking for the critical path, and while there is only one path forward, it is often difficult to find due to the many distractions thrown your way. One such distraction is the massive amount of random encounters. Players are finally introduced to Zubat, a fast and incredibly frustrating Pokémon to fight against, especially when it uses Supersonic to confuse your team. For every 10 Zubats you knock out, however, there are some rare Pokémon to find, including Paras and Clefairy, both of which can be useful for your team after evolving.
Mid-Game Dungeons: We Herd U Liek Warp Tiles!
The middle section of Pokémon Red & Blue has perhaps the longest and most frustrating slogs of dungeons in the game. The Rock Tunnel takes Mt. Moon’s open-cavern concept one step further with the inclusion of dark rooms that must be illuminated by using Flash. While you can technically find your way through without the HM, it’s certainly not advised unless you want an exercise in frustration. That said, Rock Tunnel is about as exciting as Mt. Moon in terms of rewards within, just with the added frustration that comes from having to use Flash.
After the player successfully navigates the Rock Tunnel, they find themselves in the central portion of Kanto without a clear objective. No matter which way they go, they find themselves with a dungeon of some sort to explore. They can enter the Pokémon Tower, but this haunted locale filled with unidentifiable Ghost-type Pokémon requires the Silph Scope to complete. This directs players to eventually head west to Team Rocket’s hideout in Celadon City.
And holy crap, the Rocket Hideout is annoying to navigate. It has multiple floors, movement tiles that force the player to move in specific ways, and a plethora of Trainers to battle. To make matters even worse, the movement tiles are very unforgiving; if the player makes one mistake, they often find themself retreading the same paths just to find the way forward or to seek out additional items. The ultimate goal of the Rocket Hideout is to find the elevator key, which is cleverly hidden at the end of a labyrinth of movement tiles. After discovering the key, the player can freely move up and down between the floors to find the many hidden items scattered around the hideout and challenge the boss, Giovanni, who hands over the Silph Scope upon defeat.
After the nightmare that is the Rocket Hideout, the player can finally climb the Pokémon Tower, which is a straightforward gauntlet of battles. There isn’t much to discuss here besides the fact that the player can catch rare Ghost-type Pokémon, and Gengar is widely considered to be one of the better Pokémon available in Generation 1, provided the player has a way to trade Haunter to evolve it. Upon completion of the tower, the player earns the Poké Flute, allowing them to progress further on their journey by awakening the two sleeping Snorlax on both sides of the continent.
After obtaining the Poké Flute, the player has one of three options: head south from Lavender Town and approach Fuchsia City from the east, head west from Saffron City and approach Fuchsia City from the west, or completely ignore Fuschia City for the short-term and try to take down Team Rocket in Saffron City. Players who opt for the latter are not only in for a major challenge, but are also missing one of the more interesting dungeons in the game: the Safari Zone (yes, I am calling it a dungeon). In the Safari Zone, players have a set step count that ticks down the more time the player wanders around aimlessly. Players do have to go there eventually for HM03 (Surf), which allows the player to traverse water, but it is possible to put it off for the time being and explore other parts of the world.
The Safari Zone is interesting because it encourages the player to build a mental map of the area and master navigation to get as deep into it as possible. Thus, they are rewarded with more opportunities to catch rare and elusive Pokémon, like Tauros, Chansey, Scyther, and Kangaskhan—all of which can only be found in this location. The catch mechanics are also different in the Safari Zone: players can agitate Pokémon by throwing rocks, attract them by throwing bait, or attempt to catch them by throwing Poké Balls. If the Pokémon gets too spooked, it will flee the battle, forcing the player to hunt them down once again. This stands in stark contrast to the usual methods of catching Pokémon like lowering their HP and inflicting status conditions on them.
Perhaps the most frustrating dungeon in Red & Blue is the Silph Co. building, a sprawling maze of Trainers, warp panels, and dead ends. In a way, you can say that the Rocket Hideout prepares the player for their jaunt through the Silph Co. building. They are very similar in nature; they are both filled with Trainers to battle, items to find, and a key item that is mandatory for completion (in this case, it’s the Card Key for opening specific doors). Unlike the Rocket Hideout, however, the Silph Co. building’s warp tiles teleport the player around. Understanding which tiles spit you out at specific locations becomes key to completing the dungeon. Realistically, this can be done in a short period of time if you know what you are doing and skip out on the hidden items—and honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to do so here.
It’s not all bad in the Silph Co. building, though. The dungeon itself is filled with some fairly memorable moments, including a gift Lapras (the only way it can be obtained in Red & Blue), as well as two challenging boss fights against your rival and the Rocket Boss, Giovanni. Your mileage as to whether or not these moments stand above the monotony of navigating through the building may vary.
Late-Game Dungeons: Both Bizarre and Boring
The final two dungeons in the game—Cinnabar Mansion and Victory Road—are two different sides of Pokémon’s design philosophy. One represents a complex dungeon filled with puzzles and switches, while the other is yet another cave filled with dead ends and linear progress.
Perhaps the most interesting mandatory dungeon in Red & Blue is Cinnabar Mansion, even if the reason you have to explore it is pretty stupid. Blaine, the Cinnabar Island Gym Leader, has locked the door to the Gym, and the only way to open the door is to find the Secret Key deep within the mansion. Unlike the other dungeons in Red & Blue, Cinnabar Mansion has… ahem… deep lore. By reading through the journals found throughout the lab, the player has the opportunity to discover the origins of the Pokémon Mewtwo, as well as the progenitor of all Pokémon, Mew, which does not even appear in the games without glitching it in. Cinnabar Mansion also has a lot of character for a seemingly random dungeon in the middle of a town. It’s filled with bandits and robbers looking to make a quick buck off of the goods found within, as well as Poison- and Fire-type Pokémon.
The primary way to navigate Cinnabar Mansion is through the use of one-way shutter switches that open doors. Hitting a switch opens one corridor but closes others. This dungeon also has a unique soundtrack. Even the infamous Victory Road borrows music from previous dark and spooky caves, but the track that plays while exploring Cinnabar Mansion is erratic and unsettling, emphasizing that the player does not belong there.
The home stretch—Victory Road—consists of several large, fairly linear caves filled with Trainers and boulder puzzles. These puzzles open up stone doors that reveal the path forward. You’d think the boulder puzzles would be interesting, but due to the slow speed at which the player pushes the boulders, they are more frustrating than fun. The same tired cave music echoing in the background doesn’t help, either. Despite these frustrations, Victory Road is a multi-level dungeon with high-level wild Pokémon, strong Trainers to battle, and plenty of optional goodies to find at the ends of its corridors, including the legendary Fire/Flying-type Moltres. It all culminates in the endgame with the player challenging the Elite Four, the four most powerful Trainers in Kanto, as well as the Champion.
Optional Dungeons: Hunting for Legendary Pokémon
In addition to the many mandatory dungeons in Red & Blue are a handful of optional dungeons that house powerful legendary Pokémon. These include the Seafoam Islands, home of the chilling Ice/Flying-type Articuno and the Power Plant, where the Electric/Flying-type Zapdos roosts its static-filled wings. The Power Plant is nothing special beyond the fact that it can very easily be missed if the player doesn’t go out of their way to find it. It is a linear dungeon filled with dead ends and powerful Electric-type Pokémon, a type that is pretty helpful due to their innate base speed stats and helpful move coverage against some of the more powerful Pokémon in the game, like Gyarados and Aerodactyl.
In comparison, the Seafoam Islands are a whole other beast. Similar to the Power Plant, the Seafoam Islands house powerful Water- and Ice-type Pokémon, both of which are helpful during the main campaign, though at this point the player has likely already invested resources into training a different Water-type. Unlike the Power Plant, with its linear design, the Seafoam Islands are a bit more complicated. Throughout the dungeon, there are places where the player must use the Strength HM to push large boulders into holes. These boulders then alter the water flow and allow you to descend deeper and explore further into the caves.
The final challenge of Red & Blue is spelunking through Cerulean Cave, a hotbed of powerful and rare Pokémon that culminates in the final showdown with Mewtwo, the strongest Pokémon in the game. Mewtwo is a powerful Psychic-type Pokémon, and the Psychic type is insanely overpowered in Pokémon’s first generation. Thankfully, like all the other legendary Pokémon in this game, Mewtwo’s out-of-the-box moveset is subpar at best, so you won’t have to worry about it steamrolling your team as long as you have enough items, but the act of hunting it down and catching it makes for a difficult endgame challenge that rewards player exploration with perhaps the most broken party member of all.
It cannot be understated how important finding some of these late-game legendary Pokémon is to the social experience of Pokémon Red & Blue, as well as the series as a whole. Pokémon was built around the concept of connecting with your friends, duking it out for bragging rights in Pokémon battles, or trading with others to complete the Pokédex. Having these legendary Pokémon in your arsenal is extremely valuable for this purpose; they provide players with more opportunities to perform well in battles and more leverage to get Pokémon they may be missing in their ‘dex.
All in all, while none of Red & Blue’s dungeons are mind-numbingly complicated or difficult to navigate, they were designed with an increasing level of complexity in mind. The game builds on the player’s previous experiences and incorporates them into later dungeons in a way that makes for a great entry point for players new to the RPG genre.