Note: This review covers all three Gen 1 versions: Red, Blue, and Yellow.
Do you remember a time where there were only 151 Pokémon? Where Mankey looked like an onion, or when you didn’t have the luxury of roller skates or even running shoes? So much has changed in the last two decades with the Pokémon series, but it wouldn’t feel right not revisiting the series’ roots for it’s 20th birthday bash. Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow (RBY) are the very reason we’re still playing this series today after all, and Nintendo have relaunched the games on the 3DS’ Virtual Console as a celebration. While these re-releases will stand as a quenching drop of nostalgia for some, for others it’ll be a reminder of just what was wrong with the original games, and how far the series has come.
Generation 1 of the Pokémon franchise has long been held dearly in fan’s hearts for starting the franchise and introducing some of the most loved fictional creatures ever. Over the years we’ve seen the series grow and develop, but each entry owes much to the original games. The formula of picking your starter, beating the gyms and becoming the Pokémon Champion has remained strong all these years because it captures your imagination — you can never get bored of being the best at something. The series has never been one for dazzling plots, but you can tell just where each and every new game has built on these foundations and expanded the story, even if in just minute ways such as additional rivals or character development. Even so, I don’t go into Pokémon expecting a dazzling story, and despite the basic plot here, I feel comfortable retreading the steps I took 16 years ago.
What’s most amazing about RBY is how well they play by today’s standards. We might be more used to Effort Value training and intricate Pokémon party planning, but the Game Boy games still hold up today — after all, the basic turn-based formula hasn’t been altered since these games, but it doesn’t feel outdated in the slightest. Traversing Kanto and battling Pokémon is just as fun and addictive as it is in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire today! As soon as I booted up Pokémon Yellow, the first time I’d played the game since I first finished it, the music transported me back in time. I felt like Ash putting his cap on for the first time. The music to these games is catchy and unforgettable — there’s a reason I’ve been humming the theme to Celadon City for years — and its helped create an enduring world that’s stayed with us for years.
Where RBY comes unstuck is merely due to time. These games still look and feel like Game Boy Colour games, and this adds to its charm but also acts to its detriment. It’s hilarious to see just how some of the original Pokémon have changed since RBY — just who can forget Golbat’s hideous tongue? The sprites look worlds away from the original box art and anime counterparts, but they pushed the Game Boy to its limit back when they were first released. It’s more the case that we’ve been spoilt over the years by varied designs, shiny Pokémon and, beyond just the Pokémon themselves, new and exciting locations with much more variation. Even so, these re-releases have a nice little secret, where you can give your games a green Game Boy screen tint, or reduce the resolution to match their original releases.
Mechanically, Pokémon might look like the same beast now, but back in Generation 1 things were very different. I’m ashamed to say it took me at least five Magnemite encounters to finally remember that Double Kick isn’t super effective against it because Steel type Pokémon didn’t exist in RBY. The new mechanics have been so effortlessly built into each new generation that going back 20 years can be a bit jarring, especially for players who’ve never experienced the first games: moves have changed types and hit rates have been altered, so in many cases you’ll have to alter those strategies you’ve been using in the 3DS games. It’s easy to see why and how the formula has changed since these games, but RBY still plays excellently, so long as you remember the difference.
One thing Game Freak and Nintendo have changed with these ports is the ability to trade wirelessly. No need to save up for a link cable in the 21st century, these incarnations of RBY allow players to connect with their friends wirelessly to trade, but only locally. This means you have to be in the same room or at least in the vicinity of someone else with RBY to trade with. It’s a shame you can’t trade over the Wi-Fi network, but also understandable because there’s been so many new Pokémon since these games who aren’t compatible due to new types or moves, but the feature is not missed here; you’re not desperately struggling to get 700+ Pokémon, rather you’ll often just be hunting down the last stragglers to hit that 151 and finally call yourself a Pokémon master. These beloved Pocket Monsters can also be stored on the Pokémon Bank, ready for Sun and Moon’s eventual release, so you can take your very first Pokémon party with your ready-made team into the newest generation without the stress of hunting them down by trading with others. It’s these neat little additions that make this purchase that little bit sweeter.
All in all, Pokémon RBY are still wonderful games that hold up well today, but with how much the series has evolved, it’s an occasionally awkward trip down Route 1. Yet these re-releases weren’t meant to clean up and polish the original games — if Game Freak had intended to do this, they would’ve removed the famous glitches and maybe even added in the newer types. Instead, RBY have been left, glitches and all, as they were so fans could relive their childhood adventure for the first time in nearly two decades. People will choose the game they hold the most memories with, but if you can’t decide then Yellow is the way to go because it offers all three starters in one playthrough. Even though they haven’t aged the best, it’s okay because RBY represent the beginnings of one of the best and most addictive RPG series ever, and these stand to show how much the series has evolved over time.