Pokeymans first hit Japan in 1996, but it would take over two years for it to make it to the United States, get the anime on the air and become one of the biggest sales bonanzas of all time. The hype has cooled off quite a bit from the days when you could walk into a Walmart and see an entire section of Pikachu-themed merchandise, but the games are still pretty popular to this day and Nintendo churns out new versions regularly every two years or so.

The beginning batch might be the most confusing to actually start with, though -- you got Red, Blue, Green and Yellow versions of the game for some reason. Red and Green were the original releases in Japan in '96, when they were localized to other territories Nintendo decided to swap Green with Blue for whatever reason. The only difference between Red and Blue/Green are that each has 11 unique Pokemon that only appear in the wild in that particular game. Yellow came out after the anime blew up with a few minor graphical tweaks like having a Pikachu sprite follow you around if he's in your party. It also alters the story a bit and changes the names of the main characters to make it more like the anime, but it's pretty much functionally identical to Red/Blue otherwise.

The original Red/Blue releases actually didn't follow the journey of Ashy Catsup, and Pikachu is only a generic enemy that a handful of trainers throw out against you along the way. Instead it tells the humble tale of Red, a young boy who Wanna Catch 'Em All and become the Pokemon Champ, but has to deal with his obnoxious rival Blue along the way. The world is bizarrely obsessed with Pokemon, it's all anyone talks about and the tiny handful of buildings in every city are all related to them somehow. Not a grocery store to be found. Aside from the primary demographic for this being young kids, who Nintendo assumed wouldn't notice or care about such fine details, this also stemmed from Nintendo originally viewing the concept as kind of niche and a risky investment. Game areas are lean, compact and re-use a lot of assets simply because the Game Boy was kind of floundering at the time and Nintendo wasn't sure this idea was going to sell either. So they didn't give it their usual lavish budget and polish, yet managed to stumble ass-backwards into cartoonish sacks full of loot anyway.

This does make the single-player experience a bit of a repetitive grind, and it's at its worst at the very beginning when there's only a tiny handful of Pokemon available to you with very samey attacks. The only way to get through the first Gym (and thus out of the first city and on with the game) is basically just to wander around in the tall grass Grindan Forever until you out-level the gym leader. As the game goes on, more Pokemon types are introduced and you're a little more free to roam, so a fair amount of depth in the combat unfolds. But the game never really does break out of the core pattern of "go to new city - defeat Gym leader - follow mostly linear path to next city fighting obnoxious trainers en route - arrive at new city - repeat". There's a side dungeon to liven things up here and there, but again the initial lack of budget and Nintendo confidence rears its head as you fight heaps of the same Pokemon over and over. Even the random trainers you encounter tend to have samey groups of Pokemon and never really alter their strategies or lineups in an interesting way. Challenge in the later reaches also mostly stems from CPU-controlled Pokemon having obnoxious 100% success rate confusion or sleep attacks.

While the single-player experience was mandatory, the gaps were supposed to be filled in by hot multiplayer action. Battling with neighborhood kids via link cable, negotiating trades with that asshole Tommy down the street because no way was Mom going to buy you two versions of the same game just because they have a different cover. The social aspect added a lot to the game, but for these particular original releases, that aspect is almost entirely gone now, unless you know some old pedo down by the river who still has an old Game Boy in the back of his van somewhere.

I'm also impressed by Nintendo's hacked-together chain of backwards compatibility throughout this entire series. It's possible to actually transfer your Pokingmans from this game all the way up to the newest installments. It'll be an expensive proposition if you don't already have all of their handheld systems and a Gamecube and Wii on hand, but it is actually possible.

These particular games suffer from obsolescence more than any other entries in the series. They were remade for the Gameboy Advance as FireRed and LeafGreen with spiffier graphics and more modern accoutrements, as well as making it a little easier to transfer Pokemon up to future generations. Also, though literally millions of copies of these games were pressed and sold, somehow the secondhand market has still gone bonkers and you'll probably pay in the hundreds for a working copy of any of these games now. Most people will want to jump straight to the GBA games, but I did enjoy the sly, Engrishy mid-90s sense of humor in this installment and wonder if it survived into the post-anime hypebeast games.

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