SummaryTruly a landmark game of its generation, even if it just lacks focus
The GoodWhat Pokemon ultimately was back in 1996 was a game completely unlike anything the medium had seen up to that point. Here was a game that used its multiplayer component not solely as a way for people to prove how much better they were than each other, but designed so that players could work together for that 100% completion goal that's been hanging over games since the invention of saving. Truly it was a moment of genius deciding to release two versions of the game, with no single copy allowing access to the complete package.
And the game is certainly constructed well enough to hold up that significance. This was the point when Sugimori and co had just enough ideas to give us a variety of colourful creatures to catalogue but not so many that it unbalances the game. An admirable feature is the restriction of each pokemon to 4 attacks which (in theory, anyway) should give the player plenty to consider when putting their team together. Of course, the limited resolution of the Game Boy screen meant that Tajiri-san needed to design an interface for the battle screen that was straight-forward and had no real learning curve, freeing up the player's time to mull over their attack plan while Junichi Masuda underscored the tension.
The BadThe ultimate problem with this game, and the series as a whole, is that it just doesn't know what to focus on. There's this plot about an organised criminal gang running around abducting other people's pokemon, but the team of four writers considered that to be a diversion. The end credits only roll when you win a tournament up on a mountain. Throughout the game, it feels like actually interesting events are happening when you're not around. It is entirely possible for a game like this to have a clear and present narrative and still be a good time sink, so it feels like a missed opportunity.
The Bottom LineYou can't help but admire what this first set of games ultimately were. A uniquely socially-oriented phenomenon that, while somewhat lacking in overall direction, is spot-on in terms of design and complex enough to make for an engaging experience.