Pokémon sure has come a long way since it was first introduced in 1996 twenty years ago, and along the way it picked up a myriad of features, some good and some not-so-good (I can’t think of anyone who cared about those contests). Today, we’re talking about my favourites!
These come in the chronological order that they were introduced, but in the effort of full disclosure I have not played any Gen IV or V titles. This list also doesn’t include online battling/trading because, well, that just goes without saying, doesn’t it?
1) Visible XP Bar
XP is one of the core fundamentals of how Pokémon works. You battle Pokémon until they level up! But one of the most immediately jarring things about returning to Gen I for me is the lack of a bar representing this progress during battles. It effectively acts as an invisible stat, because the only way to see it is via a Pokémon’s Summary screen (and even then it’s a number, not a bar). Gen II introduced the visible XP Bar for battles, and made appreciation of the XP you were earning much easier.
A smaller but still note-worthy addition to the battle HUD is the Pokéball icon appearing next to a Pokémon’s name, allowing you to tell at a glace if you’ve caught a particular Pokémon already.
2) Backpack Pockets
This is one of those ones that I can’t believe they didn’t have in the first place. The Bag in Generation I was basically one long list of all the items you had, in the order you acquired them. This made it incredibly frustrating to, say, apply the Hyper Potion you just picked up and then jump on your ol’ Bicycle. Gen II introduced the concept of pockets, neatly organizing all of your stuff by Items, Balls and Key Items. Gen II also upped the item count from Gen I’s limit of 20 (o_O’) and included descriptions for the first time!
3) Day/Nite Cycle
This one was initially included in the games sporadically since its introduction in Generation II, but stuck around as a permanent feature in Gen IV. The Day/Night Cycle introduces visual changes to the in-game lighting, and changes what Pokémon are available (for example, HootHoot and Spinarak only appear at night). We still haven’t gotten perfectly smooth lighting transitions yet, but we’re getting close!
Shout-out of course goes to time-based events such as the Bug-Catching Contest, but they don’t make the full inclusion here because they can be annoying at times and lock-off content more than I’d like.
Another one of those “I can’t believe they didn’t originally have this!” features, the Register allows you to map any Key Item to the Select button (or Y button in Gen IV on), allowing for quick access to Key Items such as the Bicycle. This feature only got better in Gen V, as pressing Y now bought up a list of all Key Items, effectively giving us a R&C-style Quick Select for Key Items. No more juggling between the bike and the Item Finder!
They say that gameplay matters over graphics, and coming out in the tail-end of the Game Boy’s life cycle in 1998/9 in the West, during a time when gamers were looking earnestly towards the PlayStation 2, Pokémon is perhaps the ultimate expression of that. That said, Gen I can be pretty hard to go back to due to its extremely limited graphics, being in monochrome for Red, Green and Blue and having battles seemingly taking place in white voids with static cards in place of actual Pokémon.
Pokémon Yellow first introduced colour palettes to the series, and Gen II truly introduced coloured sprites for the first time. But the biggest leap came with Gen III and the jump to the Game Boy Advance. All of a sudden Pokémon became an incredibly beautiful game with gorgeous and colourful sprites. This co-incided with a new approach to the art style, and while it has been the cause of many questionable Pokémon designs, the designs for everything else such as items, buildings and characters has been flawless.
Addendum: As The TAY-Gamer Guy points out, Gen IVs shift into 3D is a pretty revolutionary aspect as well! For me though, it didn’t quite work having 3D geography and buildings by 2D everything else, so it never fully came together until Gen VI. This is when Pokémon went full 3D, featuring battles in actual environment sets like forest clearings, letting you walk diagonally and presenting sweeping vistas with a dynamic camera.
6) Running Shoes
Generation III introduced what is for me the most hands-down useful item in the game: Running Shoes! Holding down B with these on allowed your character to dash like they’re late for getting a Pokémon from Professor Oak, and it made the wait for a Bicycle much more bearable, as well as adding a bit more energy to your character. In the pre-Gen V days it also made it easier to switch out the bike for a Fishing Rod!
The graphics and Running Shoes are the primary reasons why I’ll always prefer the Gen III remakes over the Gen I originals. Later Gens however have made Running Shoes available from the start, and while that is very helpful, it removes the sheer joy of getting the shoes for the first time and dashing up Routes that were previously a chore to get through.
Addendum: Nach adds that Gen VI added Roller Skates, a Key Item that combines the one-button-equip usefulness of the Running Shoes with the speed of a Bicycle!
7) EXP Share (Gen VI)
The EXP Share has technically been around since Gen I. It’s a useful device, allowing you to divide up battle experience from one Pokémon across all those in your party. For me however there has always been one drawback; the division effect. Gen VI solved this problem by still giving Pokémon who battled their full XP, whilst still only giving half that to non-participants. This streamlines much of the training aspect and removes a large amount of XP grinding that has always put me off Pokémon on some level (and if you don’t like it, you can switch it off!).
The DexNav is probably the best feature added since the Running Shoes. With this menu on the PokéNav Plus, you now have a visual representation of all the Pokémon you can catch in an area! This makes the whole “Gotta Catch ‘em All” aspect of the game much more manageable as you now have an effective checklist of Pokémon to catch, encouraging you to do it far more than the ambiguity of not having the list did. As an added bonus, the graphics used are taken straight from the original Gen III games!
A smaller but much-appreciated feature is the DexNav detecting stronger variants of Pokémon in the grass and allowing you to sneak up on them for a catch, adding some much-needed variation to the catching business.
Doubtless, because of my playstyle and the fact that I effectively skipped Gens IV and V, I’ve probably skipped over some of your favourite features. Lemme know what they are in the comments!