Opinion

Opinion: Pokémon FireRed and its Place in the Evolution of Games-As-Service

Pokemon FireRed

Ultra Sun and Moon are coming out soon, promising a slew of updates on the original games beyond a graphical re-jig.

But there’s precedent here, and it goes a long way back.

In a recent birthday-fuelled fit of nostalgia, I went and bought the one console I always lusted after, but never actually got; a Game Boy Micro. I picked up a load of my old favourite GBA titles too.

Now, anyone who knows the Micro knows you can’t play old-school Game Boy cartridges on it. Not a huge problem in itself, but I couldn’t go retro and NOT have one of the major games from my childhood; Pokémon Red.

Enter – Pokémon FireRed.

Pokémon FireRed (2004) Credit: IGDB

Tweaks and Changes

First things first, a quick note. FireRed came out at the same time as a re-release/ remake/ port of Pokémon Blue, LeafGreen. I’ll only be referring to FireRed in this piece, simply because A) it’s easier than typing both, and B) it’s the one I’ve actually played.

Now, I never played FireRed first time ’round, but I sunk countless hours into the original Red when I first got it.

Pokémon Red (1996) Credit: IGDB

So it was strange to wade in and see updated graphics, sound and even some different mechanics; I mean, it was released 8 years or so later, so you’d hope there would be some progress. But still…

The surreal thing about going back to the Game Boy like that was the realisation of how my expectations had changed when it came to the sheer amount of game I get for my money nowadays. Not only that, but how so many of the sorts of updates and tweaks I saw in FireRed could well come from patches and DLC nowadays.

Sure, you get re-releases still, usually to port a title to a new platform (take a bow, Ultra Sun and Moon), or packaging in DLC but, generally speaking, it’s easy to get these sorts of updates beamed to you over the ‘net, rather than having to release the damn game all over again. I mean, look at the recently-released Game of the Year update existing Hitman players can buy.

Of course, titles like Street Fighter have always been synonymous with re-releases, ports, incremental updates and tweaks. So a Pokémon game being re-released and updated in this manner was nothing particularly new.

However, FireRed (and this is what – for me – gives it an understated role in the evolution of games-as-service on consoles) simultaneously was and wasn’t a port to a new system.

You see, original GBA and GBA SP models could still play the original title. There was absolutely nothing stopping you going out and getting it; unless you had a shiny new Game Boy Micro, which couldn’t support the larger carts.

So it didn’t strictly need to be ported, even if it was 8 years and a couple of hardware revisions down the line.

Yet, that said, the update gave you more of a feel for what, say, a SNES version of Pokémon would look like, with graphical and audio overhauls to take advantage of newer hardware. Not only that, but it came out alongside the other generation 3 titles; anyone who caught ‘em all in the originals was going to have to do it all over again in FireRed and LeafGreen if they wanted their collections to be compatible with the other new GBA-focused games.

Nintendo’s handheld families have a tendency to get a little crowded with different variations of similar hardware, so it’s understandable that there would be some overlap when it comes to releases and compatibility. As a result, in hindsight, it feels as though a re-release like FireRed with its various tweaks and changes – on a console that could happily (for the most part) play the original – was a major step on the road towards what we take for granted now; games as an ongoing service.

The Waiting Game

Thanks to Doom’s 6.66 update, you can buy a pre-owned copy for a tenner, and get a hell of a lot of game for your money. If I had bought it new and splashed out on the season pass/ DLC I would be pissed.

Doom (2016) Credit: IGDB

Same with Star Wars Battlefront; content-light for a full-price launch, but wait a bit, pick it up second hand with a season pass in a sale, and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Madden ‘18’s Longshot mode was unexpectedly fun, but once I was done I spent ages trying to find a way to replay my favourite parts; the smaller 7v7 games. I had no joy then, within a few weeks, a patch came out that let me do exactly that.

These examples aim to highlight a couple of things. First, in a pre-net world, I would have had to wait for a sequel, or a FireRed-style re-release, for the changes I was after. Second, the Internet makes it easy for these sorts of changes to be made to games – and, what’s more, we’ve grown to expect them.

Sometimes it can seem like we’re buying a game as an investment, or playing the waiting game; it might be good in a year or two. So many games now don’t seem to ‘feel’ finished, or like complete packages, until some time after their release. If ever.

And yet Pokémon Red was complete.

FireRed was just a way to give you more; better graphics, different content, updated mechanics. All that jazz.

Sure, it was wrapped up in this arguably-possibly-slightly cynical way to get fans of the older games to commit to the newer generations of GBA handhelds, but still, it seemed to bring with it the sort of changes we regularly expect from patches now. Nothing radical, necessarily, but just enough to make everything a little… better.

I can’t help but wonder if going back to the original Red now would make me feel as though something was lacking. Like it wasn’t finished, somehow.

Like we would have to wait for a patch or two to sort it out a bit.

Conclusion

There is, naturally, a huge problem with presenting an opinion piece like this in hindsight; that 8 year gap between the releases of Red and FireRed, looking back, feels tiny. It wasn’t – it was 8. Freakin’. Years.

No wonder things had moved on, and it was possibly time to give the older titles a fresh lick of paint.

However Pokémon, as a series, has seen so many iterations in such a relatively short space of time that it seems as though it – debatably – has this unusual ability to be seen as a microcosm of broader tech changes and developments in the industry, simply because it can keep pace with things like hardware updates.

Obviously, when it comes to gaming, the Internet changed everything. That’s been well documented. Nowadays it feels as if we can get all sorts of tweaks and updates in weeks that we previously may have had to wait years for, largely thanks to the Internet.

Once playing online with other people, social options, and patch delivery was cracked on PC, it’s easy to see (again, in hindsight) where the road was heading when it came to offering these sorts of enhanced services to console players too. Back in the pre-Internet days, though, it seemed as if console developers could finish a game, send it out into the world, and move on to the next thing.

It can sometimes feel like today’s set-up has spoilt us gamers a bit, and piled pressure on developers – their work is never quite done, and we’re always clamouring for more. Developers have to keep working on titles for a year or more after release to satiate players’ appetite for content and respond to their feedback – and that’s not even considering titles in early access.

Yet FireRed seems, to me, to have altered that black and white divide a bit. Red came out, and suddenly the technological goalposts moved and the developers found themselves trying to appease Nintendo and old fans alike, while adding various quality-of-life improvements and enticing newcomers. All without the Internet to help with distribution, even though it was just starting to make its presence – and usefulness to the gaming industry – felt.

Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition (2003) Credit: IGDB

Sure, the likes of Street Fighter may have gone through countless updates and ports and re-releases before, but the timing of the releases of FireRed and LeafGreen, arguably on the eve of the spread of the Internet to consoles, seem to make them great examples of the start of some seismic shifts in the broader industry. Shifts towards players, developers and publishers seeing games as an ongoing service, rather than a project to be finished, released and forgotten.  

 

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