If your Growlithe doesn’t tear children apart on sight, then forget about it

Pokemon Stadium

Pokémon Stadium (2000)

One thing that always amazed me about the Pokémon series is that, for all the controversy it garnered from things like causing seizures or being satanic or requiring you to buy 50 games to catch ‘em all, nobody ever really seemed to care that it was essentially about pitting two cute animals into a fight to the finish with each other.

I think it’s rather easy to draw comparisons with Pokémon and that film Amores Perros – if you want to become a serious, competitive Pokémon battler, then you’ll be doing much the same thing as those vicious muchachos: breeding Mons in foul conditions, slaughtering those whose genes won’t quite cut it, drugging up the best monster you have and forcing it to battle almost from the moment it’s born. If it wins, great: you get the plaudits while the beast gets the larrups. If it loses… the slaughter begins anew.

As if trying to force this controversy, Game Freak and Nintendo saw fit to release a dedicated Pokémon battling simulator. Now, the twee elements of exploring the grassy fields of Kanto and having a buddy-buddy adventure with your Pokémon, that was all gone out the window. Pokémon Stadium is where the frivoloties are put aside: dinner is over, the laughter subsides and the discussion turns to matters more serious. Everyone sits up, and suddenly it becomes cold, forensic.

You’re faced with dozens of battles against tough Pokémon with mean stats. What are your own stats looking like? Is yours the best Alakazam around? What about those hidden values that determine whether your Pokémon is a winner or not? The type of things that even the official player’s guides never tell you? What about its moves? Type coverage? You can pick only 3 Pokémon for the battle out of your 6 on hand, so who do you pick? When do you switch?

You’re crazy if you think Pokémon is a simple battling game. Throwing your Charizard in against every single enemy Mon in Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow and getting it to Level 100 by Celadon City was all well and good, but that won’t wash here. In Stadium, you’ve got several Cups and difficulties to get through – gauntlets of 8 trainers that you’ve got to beat in a row. It’s pretty tough, and as you go on, the enemy Pokémon and AI gets better and better.

So what do you counter them with? Well, in keeping with the Pokémon cashgrab theme, playing this game without having your own team to upload from RBY is just about impossible. You can use Rental Pokémon, 150 of the different species at the time. You’re wasting your time here though, because using these critters is like having to resort to the communal PE gear or musical instruments you used to have in school: middle of the road at best, foul to behold at worst, and the fully evolved forms tend to have the lower rent moves which means they’re handicapped right from the off. You’ll get a few Cup wins, but soon you’ll be swallowed up by Mr. Mime and his pals.

This makes the Transfer Pak just about necessary to get the most out of Stadium. It’s a big doohickey that you can stick into your N64 controller, and it’s got a slot for the Game Boy Pokémon games to pull your savedata through. A few problems here, though: in addition to weighing down the hell out of the controller, it tended to be hugely sensitive and you were buggered if anything was knocked loose during gameplay – it was straight to the error handler screen for you. It might just have been my one that was a bit hypochondriac, but I lost a savefile to this sensitivity, so tread lightly.

I should hate Stadium for killing my savefile really, but the chance to see your own creatures in 3D was an incredible sell at the time. It was genuinely thrilling to have your  own Pokémon come to life and duke it out on the big screen, just as you always imagined. You also have access to the GB Tower, which allowed you to play the Pokémon game on your TV, Super Game Boy style. You could even unlock 2x and 3x turbo options to speed up the grind, and that was a big selling point too – this was well before a lot of people knew about emulators and ROMs with a fast-forward feature.

All 151 Pokémon of the time are given decent 3D models, but also many unique animations, which you won’t get from Pokémon Let’s Go and you’re certainly not gonna get from Sword and Shield either. Each monster also has a far nicer cry than the 8-bit efforts, and nicer again than Game Freak’s ghastly attempts to gentrify their sounds from Generation VI onwards.

There’s a nifty soundtrack as well, with remixes of the RBY games, although this is often drowned out by the infamously excitable announcer (voiced by Eric Stuart himself from the anime), screaming your Pokémon’s moves and getting properly caught up in the action. You can hardly fail to get hyped up when you’ve used a mild move like Wing Attack and the announcer starts passionately yelling “Whooaaaaa!” as if he’s just seen all of his enemies evaporate at once in a colossal earthquake.

I have no proof, and it’s probably confirmation bias, but by golly is the AI and RNG in cahoots and out to get you in Stadium. Get hit by the ubiquitous Body Slam move and you are paralysed immediately. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it being only a 30% chance to paralyse – it’s Chinatown.

And heaven forbid you get confused, paralysed, put to sleep, or even use a move that’s less than 100% accurate, because you simply will not believe how often the game will gleefully tell you that the move failed to connect. You will lose countless battles to this, you will rage, the Transfer Pak will come loose, your once-proud team will be lost to the memory ether, and you will cry.

No, the battles just aren’t good for your blood pressure. There isn’t much left beyond battling unfortunately, except probably the most fondly remembered part of the game: the nine minigames featured. Play against Easy, Medium, Hard or Hyper AI, or go against three pals as you play Lickitung Buffet, Ekans Toss, Magikarp Splash and more. I’m making those names up, but you get the idea. They’re a lot more playable than they look, and they make a nice change from being ripped off by the computer AI.

At its heart, all Pokémon Stadium does is simulate Gen 1 battles, with a few of the sillier glitches cleaned up. There’s no massive bones about it, but the added functionality and juice it gives to an otherwise severely limited Pokémon RBY is clear. You can store many Pokémon, win the uncatchable ones as rewards (i.e. the Hitmons, Fossils or Starters that you didn’t pick), store items, trade Pokémon between games, and more.

Above all, it allows you to battle with proper rules, using correctly functioning moves, and against opponents with Pokémon higher than Level 65. These are all features that pretty much became standard in future instalments, but at the time, the popularity of RBY was such that all of these benefits made Stadium worth it. Which is just as well, because it means them poor doggies didn’t die for nothing.

12 July 2019

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