Now that I have laid out these three ways of thinking about games, an important question remains: What is the best way of thinking about games? Instead of arguing for any one way abstractly, I think that it is best to apply each method and think about Pokémon Yellow using each method in turn. That way, we can see each method in action and what each method yields.
Let’s start by examining the game ludologically. Like every other game in the series, Yellow has you recruit adorable Pokémon and use them to defeat the eight Pokémon Gym Leaders and become the Champion. The game has a fundamental problem right from the start. In most games in the series, the player is given a starter Pokémon by a Professor at the beginning. The player chooses either a Water, Fire or Grass type Pokémon. In Yellow, the player is forced to start with a Pikachu. Pikachu is by no means a bad Pokémon: it is quite fast and hits hard with its electric attacks. However, this Pikachu cannot evolve, just like the Pikachu in the cartoon. Carrying around a Pikachu is unviable from the mid-point of the game onwards. Now, the only way I know to make a Pikachu useful in later stages of Pokémon games is to give it the Light Ball item (or maybe an Eviolite? I think that the Light Ball might be better) and to teach it the powerful move Volt Tackle. However, neither option exists in this game and so Pikachu is a huge drag on your party. While you can always place it in storage, Pikachu will complain loudly if you do, making you actually feel bad for it. Even if you do place it in the PC, you still have to catch and train a whole new Pokémon to replace it. The first Pokémon you obtain is often one of your most powerful in these games and so giving you a starter Pokémon which is useful for only half of the game introduces serious balances issues from the start. I love Pikachu as much as any Pokémon fan but I would take a Raichu over a Pikachu any day!
The balance issues get worse as we consider the type-system in the game. Each Pokémon has one or two types which are strong or weak against other types. Similarly, each move in the game has one type. Ideally, each type has its pros and cons, forcing the player to balance their party with a wide diversity of types. However, this is not how Yellow plays out. The Psychic type is the game’s best type. Psychics are only weak against Ghosts. However, there are only two Ghost-type attacks in the game. One is Lick, which deals low damage. The other is Night Shade, which deals fixed damage. Even worse, all three Ghost-type Pokémon in this game have Poison as their second type, which is weak against Psychic moves! Psychics are almost unstoppable! There is one more issue which adds to the Psychic problem: the Special stat. In most Pokémon games, the Special stat is split between Special Attack (how much damage moves which are designated “special” do) and Special Defense (how well a Pokémon resists special attacks). These two stats are governed by one value in Yellow, meaning that a Pokémon cannot resist special attacks unless they already are special attackers. Guess which moves count as special? Psychic.
The battle system, aside from types and stats, mostly plays out well. The turn-based combat allows you consider your next move before executing it and the animations for each move were charming for the time. There is a wide variety of different Pokémon to use in battle and a variety of different moves they can learn or be taught (although each Pokémon can only learn four moves). There is a very solid underlying design for battle in this game which the series went on to improve. However, there are still some hiccups in this early iteration. The Sleep status aliment is atrocious. When your Pokémon falls asleep, it typically stays asleep for four to five turns (perhaps I’m just unlucky or I had some lazy Pokémon but they never woke up). Worst of all, when your Pokémon wakes up, it uses its turn, allowing your opponent to simply lull your Pokémon back to sleep. The move Wrap has a similar problem. It both causes damage over time and prevents its target from doing anything at all for five turns or (I believe) until you switch the Pokémon out. These two status aliments slow battles to a tedious crawl and the worst part of it is that these aliments are very common in the game.
I mentioned that Pokémon can be taught moves. While this introduces strategy and variation in the game, there are two problems with how you teach Pokémon new moves. The first is that TMs, the items which actually teach a Pokémon a move, are good for one use only. This severely limits how much you can diversify or improve your team. For instance, let’s say that you have two Pokémon, one is a powerful Ground type and the other is weak to Electric type moves. Neither one learns the move Earthquake by leveling up but both can learn it through the TM. Which one do you give it to? The Ground type so that it might reach its full potential in damage output or to the one weak to Electric moves so that it might have good type coverage? If only you could use TMs multiple times! The other problem are the HMs. These moves are almost all poor moves which are only good for clearing obstacles on the world map. HMs can be used indefinitely but they cannot be removed by TMs or leveling up. You have to either waste precious slots on your team’s move roster or take along Pokémon designated only to use HMs. What an annoyance!
The game has serious problems when it comes to item and Pokémon management. Your bag has very limited space for holding items so you often have to make trips to the PC in order to store your items. All items count towards the space in your bag, including Key Items. There have been many times when I have tried to buy Potions or Revives only to find that my bag was full of once-useful Key Items and of various trinkets which I picked up on the game map. Even more irritating, you have to manually switch your boxes of stored Pokémon on the PC. In other words, if your box is full and you forget to switch it to an empty box, you cannot catch anything. Unbelievable!
Now that we have considered the game ludologically, let us think about it narratologically. I will also now consider the game’s art design, graphics and music since I think that Yellow uses these things as a means to convey its narrative. There’s not much of a story in this game: the player character is a blank slate while the other characters have no complex backstories or motivations. The game’s villains, Team Rocket, are evil for the sake of being evil and even say so. However, even though there is no plot, there is ample world-building. All of the Pokémon have memorable and appealing designs (in fact, I could name all 151 of them as a child and I can name quite a few of them today!). The music and sound effects are charming and the sprite artwork requires you to use your imagination to flesh out the world (oftentimes you’ll look at various sprites in the game and wonder what they represent, prompting you to imagine the answer). These two elements combined, the barrenness of the actual writing and the appealing art design/sound, make the game succeed narratologically, especially with children. Children are imaginative and the game encourages its players to fill in the blanks that it (I think) purposefully leaves. The player imagines themselves in the role of the silent protagonist, crafting a narrative using the scattered bits of context and dialogue that the game gives you (for instance, the player learns little about Professor Oak, Blue and the protagonist. Why do Blue and the player character have a rivalry? What does the Professor think of it? A child could definitely dream up something to explain all of this!). I derived pleasure from the game even now because of my immersion in it (although I was obviously much more immersed in it as a child).
Let us finally consider Yellow critically. Pokémon has been the subject of controversy over the years. In the 1990s, religious leaders condemned the games as the work of Satan. Teachers and parents argued that the games distracted children from their studies. Recently, PETA released a satire game which argued that Pokémon promotes cruelty to animals. While I don’t think that Pokémon is the work of the devil, I do think that it can be a distraction for children (and adults like me!) from their studies and other responsibilities. However, I don’t think that it is right to completely dismiss Pokémon because it is distracting. It is important for people to balance play and work, allowing neither one to consume all of one’s time. I find that my own work suffers if I don’t balance it with leisure time. I also find that indulging in too much leisure causes that leisure to no longer be enjoyable. Time management and moderation are essential life skills and perhaps playing Pokémon is a useful way to learn these skills. As for PETA, I sympathize with their position. The game does have the player pit animals to do battle with one another and certainly represents Pokémon as subservient to their masters, invoking cruel images of cockfighting and other forms of animal abuse and even making such things enjoyable. I do think that Pokémon has the potential to advocate animal abuse. However, I also find that the games advocate the opposite. The games show intimate relations between humans and animals, emphasizing their co-dependence and mutual love for one another. The games can inspire its players to respect and love animals just as they do their Pokémon. Ultimately, I think that both positions hold true. The games present both messages at once and it is up to the player to decide whether or not the bad outweighs the good, to decide at what point it becomes a moral imperative to refuse media which has negative aspects, regardless of their positives.
Now I can return to the question which started this whole post: How could I enjoy a technically bad game? I did not enjoy it very much ludologically but I did enjoy it narratologically and also critically, to some extent.
Let us now return to the question I posed right before I analyzed Yellow: which method is best for thinking about video games? I think that each method is important and each yields important insights. However I think that the third method, the critical method, is most important. I’m not an advocate of ars gratia artis or art for the sake of art (or perhaps I should say ludus gratia ludi, a game for the sake of a game?), as I don’t think that we should understand art as isolated from the rest of the world. The first two methods that I discussed, ludological and narratological, only give us insight into the game as a self-contained unit. I think that it is more useful to see games as coterminous with and not outside of the rest of the world. So, I think that the best way to think about games is to combine all three methods, with the emphasis being on the third.