Is Pokemon the most Influential RPG of all time?
When I was in third grade, there was nothing in the world that seemed more important than the fantastical whozits and whatzits of the Pokemon franchise. My friends and I devoured everything even minutely related to the game inside the red and blue cartridges: card games, toys, the cartoon show, the proper console games. Every single physical item was enhanced by the mere presence of the Pokemon property ( I’ll bet marketers at Nintendo still remember the “good ol’ days” when that shock mouse was raw electric money ).
But , despite that merchandising whirlwind that encapsulated our young minds, it was the actual Game Boy games that we latched onto and obsessed over. I think a substantial portion of 1998 was devoted to figuring out if you could breed Pokemon and raise babies, if there were wild Mews near the truck outside of the cruise ship, and if Missingno was some “super Pokeman”, or just Raichu’s dad( I kid you not.) In the days just before we fully embraced the internet, my friends and I discovered, passed on, and made up rumors about that most mysterious of Game Boy games. Trying to separate the fact from fiction in those heady days without forums or communities, I found myself gain an enormous appreciation for the Pokemon franchise; I invested so much of myself and my time into those first two games, trying to become “the Pokemon master” that I found the series to be tremendously interactive, and one of my most potent early gaming memories.
What the hell is that thing?!
Flash forward to middle school, and to the moment where my nostalgic memories of the Pokemon franchise began to crumble. My new friends were dead set on convincing me that Pokemon wasn’t a “real RPG”. No, these new kids were playing real RPG’s, real games that told real stories real serious(ly). They introduced me to their definition of a “real RPG”, a game franchise that I knew in name but had no experience with: Final Fantasy. With a taste for “real RPG’s” I embraced the console franchise wholeheartedly, and continued enjoying JRPG’s from Squaresoft and other “real” Japanese developers.
It’s a little shocking, in retrospect, to see how adamant my old friends were that Pokemon couldn’t possibly be a real “RPG” franchise. ….Actually, I take that back; It may be shocking in our modern context, where the Pokemon franchise has outlasted it’s detractors and haters, it’s jokes and it’s memes. I imagine, in the minds of those old compatriots, that the Final Fantasy games they were enjoying seemed like adult fare; they were playing games with “stories” and “subject matters”, with “characters” and a “plot” and “shocking events”. Compared to the non-existent story of the Pokemon games( “Go catch ‘em all! Alright, late!) those Final Fantasy games must have seemed like the first time anyone had taken their gaming past time seriously. The “realistic” story totally characterized what the RPG genre was able to deliver, and games like Pokemon seemed mentally stagnant by comparison.
All these years later, I finally understand where my friends were coming from, and why I latched onto their line of reasoning; I wanted to see video games taken seriously as an artistic medium, and treated with the same kind of reverence people held for movies and literature, and so I bought into the “serious” nature of video games.
But in the 200-NIIIIICE, I’ve finally manage to outlast and contain those middle school impulses that forced me down the endless, dirty road of Final Fantasy worship and Square Enix adulation. I’m finally ready to say what I’ve known in my heart since 1998.
Pokemon is the most influential RPG ever made.
Now, allow me to clarify the above statement. I’m not here to argue that Pokemon Red/Blue(we’ll stick with the original games) is the best RPG ever made(though it’s my personal top 10). Nor am I here to argue that other RPG’s aren’t important (I would be remiss to toss away the influence that games like Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, and Chrono Trigger had on game player’s expectations of the RPG genre. Rather, I am here to assert that the fundamental structure of Pokemon was more influential than any other RPG because it was the first RPG that prioritized the gameplay over the story. In particular, I’d like to take to task older console RPGs rather than newer ones(you can’t argue that games like Oblivion and Kotor are “better” than those old Game Boy Pokemon games). While the quality of those older games should be noted, it is their supposed “influence” that I address.
One of gaming’s great incongruities is that so much love is bestowed upon Snes and Playstation RPG’s like FF 6 and FF 7 and Chrono Trigger as great games but these products are not fundamentally “game like”. Video games are, inherently, defined by their interactivity(and I use interactivity to label any connection that the player can have with the game). However, whenever people talk about the great RPG’s you won’t often here them describe moments that YOU, the player, were allowed to interact with. Some people may remember a particularly memorable boss(the Sephiroth fight, the Kefka fight), but you’ll rarely hear anyone mention the things they were able to do in a game. These RPG’s are predominantly made up of moments, and these moments are usually events that take place outside of the users control.
This gameplay section only serves to give you something to interact with! It has no bearing on the point of the game!
So, if the best moments in a video game happen during cutscenes or dialog, how does the player interact with the game? Why, in the random battles, of course! Older Japanese RPG’s revolved around the bulk of your gameplay experiences occurring as random battles against random enemies. Progression in these games was dependent on you grinding your various characters against enemy after enemy until they were powerful enough to advance the plot. Nothing that ever happened in those actual “gameplay” sections ever had any importance to the game. There was no random battle that ever completely changed the game and the events in the story. No fighting move or magic attack you ever used in combat was useful for more than simply allowing you to “advance the plot”.
Take the most obvious, common contender for “the best RPG ever made”, Final Fantasy 7. Ask yourself this: what are the parts of that game that you remember and enjoyed the most? Was it fighting random enemies on the map? Was it casting Fire-2 on a Shinra Soldier? Or, perhaps, was it the scourging at Nibelhelm, the death of Aerith, and the death of Ultima Weapon? The best parts of these games are not the meager interactions you have during random battles, but, rather, the actual moments relevant to the progression.
This is an awesome moment....but you don't really play the moment. You watch it. Shouldn't a video game actually be about the moments you ARE playing?
So, do you see what I wish to take to task in those older RPG’s? Those games separate gameplay and story entirely. Gameplay is a swamp, a murky, muddy barrier to keep you from crossing through and reaching the other side too quickly. Gameplay is, in many of those older RPG’s, an artificial lengthening measurement to assure that you don’t blow through the game’s story too quickly. The gameplay is an afterthought, a chores which must be completed in order to see the next exciting part of the story. The product is the story, and all your attention and actions are directed towards the story as opposed to the gameplay.
“But, hold on just a minute here!”, you might be thinking. “Everything you just described here applies to those early Pokemon games! Red and Blue also have the same grinding you complain about, the same constant slogging through random battles in order to complete the story. Hell! There’s not even much of a story to complete, so all you’re left with is the gameplay that you hate so much! How can you sit there and tell me that Pokémon’s gameplay is able to succeed where Final Fantasy 7’s gameplay fails?”
It’s an astute observation, and one that bares clarification. I’ve attempted to argue about the overall game play in terms of it’s structural elements in this blog entry, but I’ve never made any statement claiming that these Japanese RPG’s aren’t fun. In fact, I think they ARE pretty fun. Even games like Final Fantasy 6 and 7, which I’ve just spent 1200 words decrying, is a game that I enjoyed when I played it. But the point that I decry here is that the way that the gameplay is treated over the course of Final Fantasy 7: a second class citizen to be stepped on. Those old school JRPG’s make very little effort to focus on the gameplay, instead devoting the majority of your playtime to showing a particularly compelling story.
Pokemon Red and Blue are, on the other hand, ALL ABOUT GAMEPLAY.
Everything you do over the course of Pokemon Red/Blue is designed to keep you focused on the actual interaction between the various types of Pokemon. The game’s meager story attempt at a story ( go kick ass and teach Gary a lesson) insures that you won’t spend your time focused on character relationships or the political intrigue. No, Pokemon is 100% about the gameplay, and everything goes back to the gameplay. The whole point of the game is to fight, and to get the opportunity to fight, you have to FIGHT. BADASS.
Okay, it might not be badass, but the point I’m trying to outline here is that Pokemon Red and Blue is one of the few RPG’s released that is ACTUALLY about the gameplay. The majority of Japanese RPG’s released around the Pokemon franchise are merely opportunities for trying to tell a story. Those RPG’s aren’t’ about the gameplay. Like adventure games, the RPG genre is a story telling “platform”, a means of controlled, measured interaction where a story can be inserted. The actual plot and character development of an RPG occurs around the actual gameplay.
15 Types. 6 Slots. 4 Moves. GO.
But the Pokemon franchise NEVER attempts to distract you from the actual interaction you have with the game. Unlike other JRPG’s, the star of the show IS the Pokemon on Pokemon violence. Everything in the game is designed to keep you thinking about what you can do to your Pokemon team to handle a certain opponent/type of enemy. The gameplay is the star of the show in Pokemon, instead of the story.
That’s the reason why Pokemon is the most influential RPG in recent memory. Every other “important” JRPG that we see lauded on message boards or blog posts inevitably talks about the story in those games, the events that you see taking place over the course of a game. But we’re talking about video games here, and, as such, we need to measure games based on the interaction you have with them. Ultimately, Pokemon Red/Blue has the fewest number of barriers between the player and the game itself. You play Pokemon to PLAY it, while other RPG’s are played in order to get to the next cutscene. Pokemon is the game responsible for embedding the RPG gameplay elements into the minds of game players because the game was primarily ABOUT those gameplay elements.
Again, I don’t necessarily think that Pokemon is “better” than those other games, or even more fun that those other JRPGs. However, Pokemon is the one game that is actually about the gameplay interactions you have, rather than the story the developer is trying to tell. While I believe that a great story or really novel interactivity is certainly preferable to really deep, compelling gameplay, Pokemon Red/Blue is perhaps the “purest” JRPG ever created, as it uses the RPG genre for its specific gameplay elements rather than a means to see a bunch of cutscenes.
What do you guys think? Is the meager interactivity in games like Final Fantasy 7 overshadowed by it’s fantastic story and memorable characters? Do you think that the Turn based/ATB systems of those games actually have an effect on the story so you feel like a participant in the game’s plot? Are you someone who will ignore gameplay for a really well told story? Do you think Squirtle is awesome? Let me know in the comments!