Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition review
IP Review: Yellow Edition
Many years ago a certain pair of games landed on the humble Gameboy that would win the hearts of countless fans in an instant. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that Pokemon Red and Blue (as well as their followups) have contributed greatly to solidifying Nintendo's dominant position in the handheld market. After these two games came Pokemon Yellow, a special edition that used the base set up by the originals and tweaked it, bringing in game engine reworks, altered events and elements lifted straight from the anime.
In a broad sense the gameplay changes are not too drastic but for those unaware of how the Pokemon series works (and where have you been exactly?) then here's the gist. You take on the role of a 10 year old trainer that you name and are given a pokemon - a creature with special powers that you can pit against other similarly powered creatures. You'll explore the world duelling other trainers and defeating gym leaders to reach the ultimate test - the Elite Four.
At the beginning of the game you get given the title star Pikachu as your pokemon (a setup that would go against every other handheld Pokemon RPG since by totally omitting the three choices). Pikachu presents some cosmetic changes to the previous games by walking around behind the trainer and refusing to evolve. By turning around and checking Pikachu you can check his emotions, which has little effect on gameplay (outside of one instance where a happy Pikachu nets you a new pokemon) but is a nice visual touch.
Anyway, Pikachu is your first partner to join you in your journey. After a brief set of events you are given a set of pokeballs, which are used to catch new pokemon. Finally your journey can begin in earnest.
Battles in Pokemon Yellow are carried out in a turn based format where two pokemon are in battle at any given time. Pokemon turn order is based on the speed stats, although some moves alter this (e.g. quick attack acts first). During each turn you can pick from four options consisting of attack, item, switch pokemon and run.
The fight command lets you pick an ability your pokemon knows to use, limited by the amount of remaining PP each move has (which can be restored at a pokecenter or using an item). Many of these are attack commands that inflict varying amounts of damage with varying hit rates. Typically some of the higher up techniques will hit hard but won't offer full accuracy so you'll run the risk of missing. One issue with this is that the game doesn't actually tell you anything about these damaging attacks other than they are damaging attacks and their type so working them into a strategy generally involves a lot of trail and error.
Damage inflicted is also influenced by types. Each pokemon can be either singular or dual type, which determines what kinds of attacks they are strong or weak against (as all moves also have an associated type). Super effective moves inflict double damage while ineffective attacks only strike with half their power. This requires a strategic approach as you will naturally want to hit the enemy for maximum damage while covering your own weaknesses, thus making pokemon team setups important.
There are fifteen types in all and most of them are spread out well, but there are some balance and availability issues involved. Psychic pokemon are ridiculously overpowered as their only weakness is against a type that has very poor attack moves and generally weak pokemon. Ghost and dragon are largely neglected, with very few pokemon and moves for either one.
In addition to straight out damage dealers you also have a selection of status and support techniques. Pokemon can be inflicted with effects like sleep or poison that either restrict their ability to fight or drain their health. Support moves can be used to raise stats, lower enemy stats or recover health. Incorporating these kinds of moves into your strategy can really help battles.
Stats are pretty straightforward, although once again suffering from some balance issues. Speed determines turn order, while attack and defence determines damage done by physical attacks. The odd thing is the special stat, which governs damage done by special based attacks and acts as both the attack and defence. This was changed in later generations, but it resulted in some pokemon being somewhat overpowered.
Away from picking attacks you can switch to another pokemon on the team at the cost of a turn, or dip into items to use mid battle in the single player game. Being able to top up your fighters health can be a lifesaver. There's also the option of running, although you can only do this from wild pokemon.
Whenever a battle ends in success all participating pokemon earn experience points that go towards increasing their level, which in turn boosts stats and may offer new moves to learn. Many pokemon also gain the opportunity to evolve at certain levels, opening up even more stats, moves and some may even gain new types. Evolution can be stopped, which brings the benefit of learning new moves earlier, so players get to choose between earlier attacks or better stats. In the case of a trainer battle you will also gain pokedollars. Lose a battle and you'll find yourself back at the nearest pokecenter minus half your cash.
Adding new members to your team is primarilly done by catching them. All wild pokemon you face can be caught, which is done by weakening them with attacks and using the special pokeball items. Once caught you can then command them in battle. Some pokemon are earned via events in a similar fashion to how you get Pikachu in the beginning. Finally there is trading. Essentially touted as the biggest factor of the game is the ability to trade pokemon with friends with their own pokemon game. You can trade with versions Red, Blue, Yellow, Gold, Silver and Crystal (although the latter three can only send Generation one pokemon and moves). In an effort to make it seem less of a gimmick you'll find that some pokemon cannot be caught in Yellow and must be traded in from another version, which still makes it seem like a gimmick when you realise that Yellow requires you to know people with both Red and Blue in order to "catch them all" (although this is admittedly better than later generations).
Anyway, the ultimate goal of Pokemon Yellow is to travel the land defeating gym leaders and then onto the Elite Four as the ultimate challenge. You start off in the small Pallet Town, but after receiving Pikachu you can set out. All major towns and villages are connected by routes literally filled with wild pokemon, scattered items and other trainers. Engagements with trainers occurs when you cross their line of sight, with the difficulty varying depending on the trainer.
Trainer battles can be a blessing and a curse. On the one hand they will provide the core of the challenge you'll face, often fielding pokemon at a higher level than the local wildlife bring which will test the strategies you've built up and netting you valuable money and exp. On the other hand, trainers have no sense when it comes to battles and will randomly pick attacks even when they won't do anything (you know something's wrong when an Elite Four Dewgong tries to use Rest at full health). Wild pokemon also attack randomly but you would expect it from them, not from trainers that should ideally know what they are doing. It can also be an issue when travelling along routes with an excessive number of trainers and wild pokemon areas as this can drain your team's health enough to either suck up a healthy supply of potions or warrant multiple trips back to the nearest pokecenter.
At least the world of Kanto has been crafted well. Bearing in mind the limits of the humble Gameboy the various towns and cities have nice communities where you can check out the local points of interest and just chat with the residents. Routes between locations have their own appeal with winding paths and challenging obstacles. Sometimes the routes aren't just a case of going from A to B as you need to open the path up. Clearing special quests like quenching the thirst of a guard and giving the local crime outfit a beating are amongst these and help deviate away from the usual grind. Other times you may find more natural obstacles in your way that require the use of HM moves, which are techniques usable outside of battles. An interesting way to tackle it, with the big problem being that HM moves cannot be forgotten once learned. Usually this resulted in adding a team member whose only purpose was to take on the HM moves the rest of the team didn't want.
Then you have the optional areas that added that little bit extra to do. The Safari Zone gives you the chance to catch some rare pokemon in a fairly unusual manner, or you can go explore places like Seafoam Islands for a certain icy bird. Having these extra areas helps pad out the length of the game quite well.
During your travels you will pick up and use many items. As well as the previously mentioned potions and pokeballs you can use grab others including a bicycle, item finder, stat boosters and even TMs and HMs used for teaching new moves to your team. Actually managing items can be a bit of a pain as you can only hold 20 items at a time and you only have the one pocket but really it's no worse than many other RPGs of the time so it's not an issue. The wealth of goods is nice.
Pokemarts fit into this, where you can purchase common items for use later. Generally you have to be much more careful with money in this game as the only source that you can repeatedly access is defeating the Elite Four over and over at the end or teaching Pay Day to a pokemon, and this can lead to some tricky issues if you end up overusing your item supplies. Careful planning will avoid this though.
Graphically it's decent with some issues. It's obvious that some things have been tweaked from the original games and the changes show. Pokemon sprites have been altered and improved so that the critters you're facing look a lot more like they should do. Character designs have been fleshed out a little. There is also some minor colour support, although given the extremely limited colour palette in place it does come off as fairly half-hearted and a far cry from the full colour support brought in with the second generation games.
Locations are fleshed out as well as the Gameboy could manage and although I found myself questioning the way certain elements had been built (are you sure that's grass?) I nevertheless didn't let it bother me greatly and found the land of Kanto to have been crafted well enough. Character overworld sprites, although potentially a little squashed, still bring about enough clarity and detail to work. The in battle pokemon and trainer sprites also possess plenty of charm.
My complaints here involve the behind view of pokemon (for those on your own team). In contrast to the front view, the back view of pokemon are absolutely ugly, with some sprites not even resembling the pokemon they are supposed to be for. Special effects for attacks can sometimes be underwhelming at times too, although for the hardware this is less common.
The music in the game is pretty catchy in pretty much all circumstances. The battle music is pretty intense and full of the kind of energy you would expect, while the overworld has a wealth of background music tracks that hum along as you explore. Pokemon cries are still more or less the same as before with their strange cries echoing around, except Pikachu has gotten a cry more in line with that of the anime, which is yet another nice touch to make it closer to that.
The story is the same thing as before with some minor tweaks here and there. It's you heading for the Elite Four while stopping organised crime in your spare time. The idea of a 10 year old solving the world's problems may seem a tad silly and it hardly has the depth of regular RPGs but it has what it needs to work and gives you all the motivation you need to train your own team. Changes involve things like your starter pokemon, your rival, Team Rocket etc. Ultimately though it heads along the same route.
As part of the starting foundation to the series Pokemon Yellow works with the core basics but it also has balance and AI issues. Later installments of the series work to iron out these issues but if you want a taste of where it began with an extra anime-inspired theme to proceedings then Yellow is still an enjoyable experience.
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