What’s pocket-sized, bundles of fun and never out of a young man’s hands?

Pokemon GSC

Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal (2001)

I was cleaning out my room the other day, always a thankless task that ends up getting cut short by many a distraction. You’d need a team of top archaeologists to sift through everything in my room, and even if they got past the first few layers of clothes, they’d have to resort to using proper Carbon-14 dating to detail everything else that’s buried in here.

On this occasion, I found my first ever mobile phone: a Mitsubishi Trium Geo flip phone. It’d probably still be working too, if I’d had the charger for it. Actually, I’m surprised it wasn’t still holding on to an inkling of battery. This was a phone from the days when they were designed to last through a nuclear war, if they had to. Well, let’s be fair – their large battery packs didn’t need to power highly complex operating systems, architecture and dozens of applications. Still, WAP was a pretty intense deal, right?

Even before I got the Trium as a hand-me-down from my brother, it had the hell of a lump taken out of its screen. It was a chunk so deep that it actually exposed the black and green goo inside the screen, but do you think that stopped it? Not a chance. Unlike modern iPhones, which shatter as soon as you look at them, and which give you nowhere near the durability that you might expect from watching drop test videos, these old phones were tough enough to eat nails and ask for seconds.

Texting was the big order of the day, and indeed there was a time when sending SMS messages was completely free. That kind of thing became simply unimaginable as personal mobile phones really started to take off. Then, ironically, it mostly came back around in the form of WhatsApp, Line, Viber and whatever your own regional variant of always-on connectivity is.

Naturally, you could also make and receive phone calls using these phones – they weren’t that old, and they were radioactive for a reason – although I maintain a strict policy of not answering the phone in most circumstances. And I’d certainly never do someone the disrespect of ringing them, so phone call capabilities never meant anything to me.

Still, just holding those early clamshell phones in your hand puts you back to the turn of the millenium, when phones were getting ubiquitously popular, but not so much that they became an extension of one’s arms, or legs if you’re Christy Brown. Phones can do anything for you now – they can be your own TV, music player, camera, fitness aid, and strobe light if you get the right app for it. For better or for worse, it keeps you always connected – even to your working life, most unfortunately. How did we ever manage before? Doesn’t it make you wistful for the days before iPhone, Galaxy, and whatever the hell they’re coming out with in China?

Listen, if you put a gun to my head and asked me if I really, truly, positabsolutely wanted to go back to an era where there were no smartphones, I’d say no. But one can’t help wondering what if. What if Pandora’s Box hadn’t been opened? What if the art of conversation hadn’t died? Or has it really died, since we’re now more connected than ever before? Just how would the porn industry struggle on without having their product in your pocket?

Giving the character their own mobile phone was probably one of the few times the Pokémon series found itself on the bleeding edge of technology. The games were Pokémon Gold, Silver, and surprisingly not Bronze but Crystal – Pokémon Platinum would come a little bit later. This was the second Generation of Pokémon, and you won’t believe it, but Game Freak’s focus at the time was improving absolutely everything they could from that iconic first Gen of Pokémon.

If you were around at the time, you’ll know how mind-bogglingly popular Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow were, so you can get a bit of an idea of how much the next instalments were hyped. Indeed, I first attempted to play Pokémon GSC in horrendously translated Japanese, a version that was originally released a year and a half before the localised games came out over here in 2001. Imagine a release delay like that now?

Well, no matter when it came out or what the hell the onscreen text was saying, Game Freak definitely achieved their aim. I can hardly think of a single facet that Pokémon GSC didn’t improve, in addition to a legion of new features. The most obvious of these is an ingame clock that brought with it a full day/night system, with different characters and events happening on different days of the week. Long term, this did have a most unfortunate effect in that it turned the onboard battery to mush only a short number of years after the games hit shelves. You mustn’t expect this game’s battery to have lasted as long as your old Nokia 3210, that’s for sure.

Hidden away at the end of the game, a proper old fashioned gaming secret just before the internet rushed to spoil everything before you’ve even played it, is the fact that the entire region of Kanto is replicated in this game, or as near replicated as possible. They delivered this with not a single bit of pre-release hype, and you can stick the words ‘DLC’ where the sun don’t shine.

It was a feat of programming and engineering, and it’s never something that Game Freak have bothered to try repeating outside of the excellent DS remakes of these very same games. Giving you that exciting opportunity to revisit the old region simply must rank as one of the greatest gaming surprises in history. It means you’ve got 16 badges to collect on your quest to become a Pokémon master. Beyond that, the flow of the game is broadly similar to Generation 1: pick a starter Pokémon, and journey through two regions, catching wild Pokémon (251 on offer this time), battling trainers and building your team.

There’s only two criticisms or strange aspects I’d have to level against Pokémon GSC: firstly, the difficulty curve is a bit off. By the latter stages of the game, you’re up against Pokémon trainers whose teams’ levels average in the 50s. You might find them a bit tough to beat, so you elect to do some grinding – but you’re left grinding against Pokémon that might be Level 28, meaning this takes an awful long time.

Secondly, while there may be 100 new Pokémon on offer in this generation, they’re a bit stingy about showing them to you. Some of the new class, you don’t even see them until the last wee hours of the game. Part of Game Freak’s reasoning for this was to not alienate Gen 1 players, in case they got triggered about not seeing enough Ratattas or something. It shouldn’t spoil any of your enjoyment of the game or anything, but it’s worth mentioning.

It was suggested that Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal would be the denouement of the series, because the boys and girls at Game Freak couldn’t conceive of a way of topping the improvements of this generation. Arguably, they haven’t managed to better Gen 1 or 2, remakes aside, and they’re still hugely playable games.

Still, you wouldn’t retire your cash cow and keep it as a statue just like that, would you? Nintendo could never allow that. So the Pokémon song and dance continues to this day, getting a bit sameier and staler each time. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the newer generations of Pokémon had some sort of planned obsolescence… no, I’m being silly. What industry would do a thing like that?!

7 July 2020

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