No, I don’t play Pokemon Go. I’m still not at the point of having a smartphone, so it would be a bit difficult….

But Smudge has been playing. And over the last couple weeks, I’ve started playing assistant. We often go out to lunch and on errands together, and since she likes driving more than I do, she drives. So I’ve taken to hitting the pokestops as we go by, helping her keep supplied with pokeballs and the like. I’ve also done a little catching for her, but I generally prefer to let her make the decision to waste a few balls catching a pigey.

But it’s certainly gotten me thinking again about a franchise that I’ve never quite gotten around to checking out. It’s been part of the background radiation for 20 years now, and a there’s always been some very nice creature design. It’s in the pool of ‘games to check out because they’re different’ (Nintendo’s handheld consoles have been good for generating a lot of those).

Pokemon-Crystal-EncounterSo, anyway, yeah, I’m now working my way through Pokemon Crystal (yeah, I stuck with an earlier, and hopefully simpler, game). For some reason, I hadn’t expected it to have so much JRPG feel. The premise is so far off of the usual quest-to-save-the-world, that I expected it to be a different genre mechanically as well. But, you travel around the world doing things, talking to NPCs, and having plenty of random battles in a reasonably complicated menu-driven system.

There’s some very interesting refinements to the usual format. Instead of the usual ‘have to deal with a random encounter every few steps’, random encounter areas are clearly marked. You generally can’t keep out of them while traveling, but you can minimize it, and of course go seeking them out when you need to. Capturing different pokemon for use in battle allows for a wide variety of approaches. The number of different creatures, moves, and types (eighteen different element types is too much, but at least they started large and have been very conservative about adding more) is overwhelming, but it boils down nicely (at least at first) into a few decisions, and you have enough backup available to be able to get through any single fight.

The plot is the weakest point of the game. There’s three general things going on at the early stage of the game where I’m at: There’s your ‘rival’, who’s definitely bad news (having stolen a pokeball from Professor Elm, who gives you your first one), but while he appears on occasion, there’s very little time spent on him. There’s the goal of becoming a Pokemon Master, which involves traveling around to different dojos to take on their masters to gain recognition. This is very much a Japanese trope, and just feels artificial to me, though its a great excuse to have some themed fights that you have to craft your team around (the first dojo is all bird types). And then there’s the exploration of the system and world. ‘Catching them all’ is a secondary goal, and one you can’t really do without some help, but I am indulging my obsessive side and getting as many as I easily (or not so easily) can. And its another place where the design stands out again. All the different types of pokemon seem to have their own niche, which is impressive when there’s so many of them.

Like most RPGs, I probably won’t get around to finishing it, but it is surprisingly good. I can see why the series has done so well for so long.