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Red Shields and Blue Swords: How the Pokémon Series Has Evolved Over the Years

Almost 24 years from its first entries, the Pokémon game series have undergone dozens of changes to appeal to a new player base. From graphics to the range of Pokémon available, this article investigates the differences between Red/Blue and Sword/Shield

Randen Banuelos, Blogger

January 22, 2020

11 Min Read

Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green, the Japan-exclusive first entries in the Pokémon series, celebrate its 24th anniversary next month, and with the recent releases of Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield last November, the series has come a long way from the GameBoy days. In terms of graphics, number of Pokémon available, and more, the games have become larger than ever before. But how exactly have the games evolved since their first installments? Let's explore the major ways that the Pokémon series has changed by comparing the latest games to the first games released in North America, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue.



Credits (left to right): Neoseeker, Bulbapedia


The most obvious change between the first and latest games is the graphical quality. Red and Blue's graphics embraced the diversity that pixel art had to offer through its range of Pokémon shapes and expressions. The overworld sprites, such as grass, water, and ledges, are simple, yet clean, dictating enough information to the player to understand the difference between things like grass and paths, and doing the job well. Even in monochrome palettes, the sprites still felt alive, and the later FireRed and LeafGreen remakes took this a step further and depicted the various towns and routes in beautiful color. Even if the graphical quality from the first games might look dated from today's perspective against other pixelated games like OwlBoy or Celeste, infusions of nostalgia make the graphics stand out nonetheless.


Sword and Shield take advantage of the Switch's processing power to create giant, beautiful landscapes full of Pokémon to catch. The overworld is simply stunning, from the lush plains and different biomes of the Wild Area, to the charming towns the player visits like the mystical Ballonlea or regal Hammerlocke. NPC's look amazing, with each Gym Leader conveying emotion and personality from their models alone, not to mention the dozens of options available to the player to customize their own outfits. Although there are multiple gripes from fans about certain aspects about the graphics, such as recycled animations for Pokémon from earlier entries or low quality textures in certain areas, Sword and Shield, as a whole, look incredible with its graphical attention to detail and unique designs.



Credits (left to right): Serebii, AiPT!


The music of Red and Blue has the retro flavor to it that dozens of other GameBoy games had at the time. Some of the most memorable music tracks to ever come from the Pokémon series originated from these games, such as the infamously ominous Lavender Town music. Although none of the songs were from live orchestration, they still sound great with its computer-generated notes. In a nutshell, Red and Blue's retro music became the staple style for the course of the Pokémon series, becoming one of the most famous game themes in the world. 


Sword and Shield uses a mix of live orchestrated and electric notes, creating a nice blend of both nostalgia and new-age musical love. Like its graphics, the games use a variety of influences for its tracks, with some songs emulating rock, sci-fi themes, and even a haunting choir and strings for a major battle later on. Each rival's theme feels appropriate for their character, like Hop's bright and colorful theme, Bede's complex yet fascinating track, and Marnie's punk rock-inspired song. The music fills the world with even more character, creating an atmosphere that captivates players to keep on playing.


Pokémon Available

Credits (left to right): Pokemondb.net, Dot Esports


The original 151 Pokémon from Red and Blue set the standard for Pokémon designs for generations to come. The majority were based off of real animals with a twist, like the iconic electric mouse Pikachu or plant-reptile hybrid Venusaur. Some of the truly unique characters take inspiration from inanimate objects or history, like the fossil Pokémon or the PokéBall-look alikes Voltorb and Electrode. Adding to this are the legendary elemental bird trio, as well as the enigmatic mythical Pokémon Mew, who, alongside its clone Mewtwo, are some of the most well-known Pokémon outside the fanbase next to Pikachu and Eevee. This original cast set the bar high for future generations of character designs, and their iconic nature will forever be memorialized in the PokéRap.


Sword and Shield took a highly controversial departure from the other mainline games by drastically reducing the number of available Pokémon, from almost 900 characters to 400 in the now infamous "DexCut." Despite fans' passionate opposition to this decision, the games offer plenty of new, unique Pokémon in this entry. Living whipped cream, sniper chameleons, and ghostly dragons that shoot out its pre-evolutions like missiles can all be found throughout the Galar region. While the games also scratch out the popular Mega Evolution and Z-Move mechanics, it introduces an almost hybrid of the two in the form of Dynamaxing, turning Pokémon into giant kaiju; a variant on the mechanic, Gigantamaxing, also alters the appearance of the Pokémon, creating colossal cakes and UFO's on the battlefield. Although Sword and Shield's inventory of Pokémon is still a large topic for contention, the Pokémon that do reappear, alongside new and creative entries, create a fun, diversified environment to explore. 


Storyline and Characters

Credits (left to right): Game Informer, GamesRadar


Red and Blue has generally not been regarded as the most narratively intricate Pokémon entries (that title seems to belong to the Pokémon Black and Pokémon White generation), the story is nice and simple: catch every Pokémon, beat every Gym Leader, and stop Team Rocket from stealing people's Pokémon. Straight to the point, the game speeds you along to the next gym one after another, with occasional rival fights against the snarky Blue or intrusions by Team Rocket's antics. To children playing this game for the first time, however, the story felt much more alive, as they traveled throughout Kanto with their Pokémon ensemble to achieve their dream of becoming the regional champion. The narrative is not complex, and neither are the characters arguably, but the game still does a tremendous job at capturing the imagination and embracing the notion of childhood wonder.


The games following the original fluctuated in narrative depth, seemingly peaking with Black and White and its sequels, but varying in quality from there; Sword and Shield, in its entirety, tries to be more on the in-depth side. The game goes to great lengths to set up the lore of the Galar region and the cataclysmic Darkest Day event, but this can sometimes feel hamfisted with how much it tries to push these details towards the player instead of letting them learn more naturally through open-ended exploration. Nevertheless, the characters have some nice complexity to them, like the internal struggle of rival Hop as he tries to live up to his champion brother Leon's legacy, or the comeuppance-turned-redemption of the snooty character Bede. This treatment is not given to every character, like Leon's linear personality of being the "unbeatable champion" that is prone to getting lost, yet this intricacy is nice to ponder after rival battles as players continue throughout the rest of a route. Even though the games may try too hard in some cases to make its story feel bombastic and energized, not to mention the tendency to feel "hand-holding" at first for the sake of aiding new players to the series, Sword and Shield still forms an intriguing storyline that is pushed forward by characters with multiple facets to their personalities.



Credits (left to right): Switchaboo, Serebii


Back in 1996, the notion of connecting to people from around the world in video games was still a bit far off from widespread reality. As such, Red and Blue employed the classic Link Cable system to connect to other players. This method required two people, or one person with two GameBoys, to be physically near each other and connect their game consoles together with the Link Cable, after which they could trade Pokémon or do battle if they both had either Red or Blue. This, clearly, severely limited the connectivity of the games to other people, but still created a nice, personal connection when trading or battling with others.


With the integration of the Internet, the Pokémon series became much more advanced in terms of trading and battling, with in-game mechanics even expecting this aspect to be done for things like the Masuda breeding method or the regional variants of the Pokémon Vivillon. The Sword and Shield games do take some strange turns with their connectivity, like the surprising removal of the useful Global Trade System mechanic, but substitutes this with the ability to play alongside three other players in the form of Max Raid Battles. This new inclusion provides fun new ways to play alongside other players besides typical trades or battles, which can now take place across the globe and support battle types like Double Battles. The connectivity of Sword and Shield is an almost undisputable upgrade from Red and Blue, and despite some peculiar design choices in the new titles, the connectivity of Pokémon games nowadays makes them even more enjoyable. 



Credits (left to right): ZEROLucario on YouTube, GameWith


Red and Blue were no joke when it came to the difficulty. By no means were the games arbitrarily challenging, but limited move pools and Pokémon options, alongside Gym Leaders' frequent usage of healing items, made it difficult to move through the game at a quick pace. The Elite Four and Champion provided a particularly challenging time for players that did not grind for experience prior, meaning backtracking or spending a few hours battling wild Pokémon was common. The games would not push you to your limits, but they would catch you off-guard if you started to slack off on training your partners. Fans of the games relished in this difficulty, making it even more laborious by introducing artificial challenges, such as popular Nuzlockes, Wedlockes, or trying to beat the entire game with a single Pokémon.


The Sword and Shield entries introduced many new ways to increase the experience Pokémon would gain without having to grind for multiple hours. These changes include having the effect of the Exp. Share item become an always-on mechanic and the creation of the Exp. Candies, rewards for completing Max Raid Battles that give Pokémon large fixed amounts of experience. This makes leveling up Pokémon surprisingly easy, allowing players to sweep through Gym Battles quickly if they've played a few Max Raid Battles. Adding to this is the aforementioned "hand-holding" nature of the early game meant to ease in newcomers, where Hop and NPC Sonia guide the player through various towns and show the basic mechanics of the game. While many players, especially competitive Pokémon players, adored the easier methods for gaining levels alongside new items that can change the Nature of a Pokémon, some fans felt that the game was far too easy compared to earlier games. This is an interesting shift in the Pokémon games, but it seems to match the vision that Gamefreak has been trying to embrace for the past few entries; the games have seemingly become more "easy" not because players are bad at the game, but because Gamefreak is trying to appeal to a wider audience of players who may have only experienced playing games from mobile apps, thus this "hand-holding" nature and new ways to grind levels are meant to entice newcomers into picking up their first Pokémon game. Sword and Shield embodies the new vision of Gamefreak for challenge, and there are still many battles in the late game and postgame that prove tough unless players have diversified their type coverage. While some may complain regardless and wistfully reminisce in the challenge of Red and Blue, Sword and Shield nonetheless provides a good challenge to both new and experienced players, and new methods for obtaining levels only serve to help their journeys.


Overall Presentation

It is no understatement that the Pokémon games have drastically changed in many ways since their first entries almost 25 years ago, but the heart of the series still lives on in full bloom. Beautiful graphics, vibrant music, and lovable new Pokémon and characters abound in the latest games, but the nostalgic qualities of the first entries still live strongly in the hearts of people everywhere. Although the games have taken many different turns and added (or removed) several features or mechanics throughout the years, from seasons and Pokémon Contests to in-game movie studios and hotel management, Sword and Shield seems to be the current pinnacle of technological progress for the game series for its connectivity and a multitude of online options, even if many fans may feel very strongly otherwise in other aspects. Both Pokémon Red/Blue and Pokémon Sword/Shield shine in their own ways, and despite the staggering amount of differences that the newest games incorporate, the same thrill of catching and battling with beloved Pokémon remains all the same.

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