The ’90s in gaming: Playing Pokémon Red for the first time
On this day in 1996, the very first pair of Pokémon games was released, kicking off what is now one of the most iconic video game franchises. The series was an essential part of my childhood. I remember being in the third grade and pestering my parents for weeks to buy me a copy of Pokémon Diamond because all my friends had it. There are few moments in my life that match the sheer excitement of starting the game for the first time, watching my mute, 8-bit avatar wake up and knowing that just outside his little bedroom, a world of adventure and endless possibility awaited.
In that moment, I was at a new beginning. I felt this despite knowing that the game I was playing was just one iteration of a series older than myself. Though I’ve played most of the games since then, I never experienced the place where it all started, the foundation upon which an integral part of my childhood was built: Pokémon Red and Blue. Two weeks ago I decided to change that. I fired up a Game Boy emulator on my laptop, downloaded a copy of Pokémon Red from a shady website and began my Pokémon journey one more time.
The rattle of a drumline punctuated by the immediately recognizable first notes of a trumpet that played over the opening cutscene sounded different in my mind than they did in real life. The tiny speakers on a Game Boy could not be expected to perfectly reproduce the sounds of these instruments, yet there is no way to listen to the music on the title screen and not hear a live marching band ready to follow you every step of the way. In that opening, there’s both a reserved humility and an understated promise of more to come — a promise Professor Oak confirms as he welcomes you to the world of Pokémon.
I picked Charmander as my starter, turned my back to Pallet Town and embarked on my journey through Kanto. Knowing what the game could look like with today’s advanced graphics didn’t makewalking through Viridian Forest any less daunting or battling monochromatic sprites any less exciting. I was ready to immerse myself in such dated graphics despite being able to turn on my Nintendo Switch and play an almost photo-realistic version of essentially the same game. I battled through all eight gym leaders, and, after some hard work, reached the Champion, my life-long rival, Blue. A subdued version of the opening music played as I waited to begin the final battle, a reminder of where it all began.
Why am I able to feel such intense nostalgia for a game that I never played? Part of it may just be my nostalgia for the Pokémon series itself, but I think there’s more to it. There’s something special about playing an old game like Pokémon Red or Blue. Though the technology available by the time I started playing video games had theoretically rendered the 8-bit aesthetic obsolete, that same aesthetic became the basis for hundreds of contemporary games. Stardew Valley, Terraria, Undertale and the like all play on our shared nostalgia for the 8-bit role-play game. The same aesthetic that was a limitation for the developers of Pokémon Red and Blue is now a worthwhile style in its own right. 8-bit games persisted and remained competitive with AAA titles whose scenes looked like they came out of a film. While one might be in awe at a screenshot from a cinematic moment in Grand Theft Auto V, no image from Pokémon Red and Blue in isolation will produce such an emotional response. Yet somehow countless people still feel a genuine sense of triumph when they finally get to wipe the smug look off their rival’s face as they claim the title of Champion.
Games like Pokémon do so much with so little. A pixelated dark splotch may look nothing like a tree, but let yourself think it does and see how easily you’ll be lost in a forest of them. Pikachu’s thunderbolt may just be a flashing screen, but when it deals the final blow in a tightly contested battle, it feels explosive. It’s our imaginations that elevate these scenes to where we feel they are. The ’90s have thus produced, perhaps by accident, an ethos around video games that allows for an unlimited potential for emotional investment. Pokémon and its modern counterparts offer us the permission to imagine.