A Pokéretrospective on Creative Limitation

A Nintendo 2DS playing Pokémon Red

I have recently come into possession of the absolutely stunning AAA game Mass Effect: Andromeda. And while it’s absolutely incroyable (no spoilers, please, I play video games very slowly), I have also found myself in possession of something considerably less welcome: a sinus infection.

This is a more or less annual event that likes to crop up at the most inconvenient times: directly before an out-of-state trip, in the final stretches of NaNoWriMo, or shortly after the release of a game that has been on my “to play” list for probably two solid years.

When I get sick, there are a lot of things I don’t feel like dealing with. People, for instance. Personal hygiene, also. And, last but not least, complexity.

Which means that, for the duration of this sinus infection, the vast interplay of all of Andromeda‘s interconnected game systems and customization options is entirely out of bounds.

What I do look for, when I’m sick, is familiarity, simplicity, and the ability to interact with my entertainment while I am in bed levered up by two pillows to reduce the amount of mucus pooling in the back of my throat. These requirements (and a recent rewatch of the Game Grumps’ Beedrill domination tour of Pokémon FireRed) is how I came to drop ten bucks to download the original Pokémon Red to my Nintendo 2DS.

Because we live in the fucking future where I can magick a game from 1998 (North American version) out of the wireless ether to enjoy on my space Game Boy.

This tells you a lot about me as a person. One, that I’m the kind of backwards jackass who bought a 2DS instead of a 3DS because fuck stereoscopic 3D, I prefer my images to be entirely flat thank you very much; and two, that I am very, very old.

In the very late Nineties, I finally saved up enough scratch as a middle schooler to purchase a Game Boy Color—the translucent purple model, naturally, because, if I am anything, I am predictable.

A purple Game Boy Color
This tasty-ass shit right here.

And, naturally, the first game that I purchased for it was Pokémon Blue, because I always go for the cool colors in the spectrum by default.

Sabrina sprite from Pokémon Red/Blue
Sabrina/Natsume, the Psychic Gym Leader. My crush on her lives on.

The number of memories I have of sitting around like an absolutely useless creature is incalculable, slowly grinding my way through the eight Gym Leaders to reach the Elite Four (who were literally called the “Four Heavenly Kings” in Japanese, which sounds baller af) before reaching a climactic one-on-one confrontation with my inveterate rival (who, if memory serves, I had named “GARY” in a fit of absolutely zero imagination).

Then, even after that, plumbing the depths of the Cerulean Cave in order to reach the greatest and most powerful Pokémon of them all: the genetic experiment Mewtwo, whose escape from Cinnabar Island left the Pokémon Mansion in ruins.

My team from that original excursion is still emblazoned in my brain. Kadabra, who is still my favorite Pokémon to this day. My Gyarados, which was unironically nicknamed “Vegeta”. A Gengar evolved via trading thanks to the help of a gal at a Pokémon trading card game tournament. A Vaporeon named “Mistwraith” because I was ass-deep in Janny Wurts’s Wars of Light and Shadow series. A beefy Clefable that knew the move Mega Punch and could wreck shop. And, last but not least, Articuno, the legendary ice bird.

Pokémon Blue was my first experience with a (by the standards of the day) modern RPG. It was a bizarre, alchemical mix of Rock, Paper, Scissors and bug collecting and exploration and storytelling. It even featured that most classic of monomyths: the Bildungsroman by way of disassembling an organized criminal cartel from the ground up. Because Team Rocket is the fucking Pokémon mob and they are goddamned everywhere. Cerulean City is CRAWLING with Rockets, and Misty just doesn’t give a shit.

A Pokémon Red/Blue Mewtwo sprite
Back in the day, this motherfucker was the baddest dude in the universe.

Anyway, all of this is to go toward explaining why I opted to pick up Pokémon Red as I have been convalescing when I had the graphically and narratively superior Andromeda on tap. There was a lot of shit to like about the first generation of Pokémon.

I may not be the only one, or even someone particularly unusual, to say that these first entries, Red and Blue, are probably my favorites in the series. There is something deeply elemental about them, and I think a lot of that magic stems from the principle of creative limitation. Game Freak, the company the developed (and continues to develop) Pokémon games, had a big fuckin’ dream to pull off and the tiny, tiny playground of the Game Boy in which to manage it.

Now that I’m older and playing Pokémon Red through the eyes of someone who knows a bit more about game design, software logic, the limits of older consoles, and the tips and tricks used by developers to get the absolute most out of a limited platform, I can appreciate how much work went into it. And I can see how they manage to evoke so much with so little.

To start with, the world is huge. But, much like the original Legend of Zelda, the tileset (that is, the visual building blocks for environments) used to create the world is very small. This meant that the storage space required to have a world that size was vastly reduced; once you have the building blocks, you just need to track the coordinates on a Cartesian plane where they need to be planted on-screen. Suddenly, you don’t need to track pixel-by-pixel: you just need to have an X value, a Y value, and a tile ID.

Similarly, there are only a handful of animations for attacks, and those animations get mixed and matched for different effects. The moves “Screech” and “Sing” both use the same animation of floating musical notes. The moves “Fury Attack” and “Horn Attack” both use the same vague “spikes getting poked in the general direction of your opponent” animation. “Thundershock” and “Thunder Wave” both appear as a crackling ball of black lightning superimposed on the target despite having distinct in-game effects. The primary difference is that “Thunder Wave” also incorporates a “squeezing” animation that is also used for the move “Wrap”. It’s really ingenious how much mileage they get out of the limited number of move animations.

As with the environments, the sprites for other trainers and Pokémon were made to be as evocative and interesting as possible within the constraints of the Game Boy’s monochrome display. In most cases, they knocked this outta the park (see the Mewtwo and Sabrina sprites, above). In other cases, they did a… Well, a less than ideal job.

Ekans sprite from Pokémon Red/Blue
I know “Ekans” is just “snake” backwards, but way to phone it in, guys.

For the most part, with space-effective and completely static battle sprites for Pokémon and trainers—and they are static, as the only animations for characters in battle literally just shift the entire sprite laterally or vertically—Game Freak managed to create a whole mess of gaming icons. Even the animated sprites in the overworld have two, maybe three frames of animation at the most. They crammed as much visual goodness as humanly possible onto that fucking cartridge.

The thing that’s really impressive, though, is how the original generation of Pokémon juggles the scant four sound channels supported by the Game Boy. I mean, the jams from the original Pokémon are carved into my soul. Just listen:

And that is, I believe, only using three of the four available channels, because one of the channels is reserved for sound effects. To make it more complicated, some of the in-game sound effects (such as Pokémon cries and some moves, such as “Sing”) actually need one of the musical channels, so the developers had to choose which musical channels to keep and which ones to replace for the duration of those sound effects. Add into that mix the presence of the low-HP alert beep that can kick in at literally any given moment you fuck up badly enough and a few sound effects that make use of two channels, and you have a game that really should’ve had somewhere in the realm of six sound channels having to make do with the Game Boy’s measly four. But somehow it all works out, and the only reason I even notice it nowadays is because I know to listen for it. Which, of course, my middle-school self had no idea to do. He only knew to panic when the low-HP beeping started.

The long and the short of it is that I think the limitations of the medium at the time Pokémon Red and its contemporaries were released are one of the reasons they were (and continue to be) so great. Game Freak had to really sit down and say to themselves, “What exactly do we want this game to be? We have less than a megabyte of space on this cartridge and a shitload of ideas. We need to laser focus our design.”

This, I think, is a key aspect to a lot of creative endeavors. I talked in a previous post about how Disney animated films from the Nineties were lean, mean, storytelling machines, and I think that the first generation of Pokémon has a lot in common with them. In both cases, the medium required the bare minimum to be sufficient—in the case of Disney, it was due to time and labor constraints. For Game Freak, it was space and hardware constraints. In both cases, something magical came out of those limitations.

Which isn’t to say that limitations are the only path to greatness. You can be great even if you have the fucking world at your fingertips (or, in the case of Mass Effect: Andromeda, an entire star cluster). But it’s certainly something to consider.

So how about you guys? Have you had enough chatter about Pokémon to last you a lifetime? Do you have other examples of how limitations can result in remarkable creative results? What’s your preferred activity when brutally ill? Do you just want me to just shut up already? LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS.

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