Review: Pokémon FireRed & LeafGreen

The start of a longstanding remake tradition.

Console: GameBoy Advance

Exactly a week from now, on February 27th 2021, it’s Pokémon day. And not just a Pokémon day. It’s Pokémon day in the year that the franchise will celebrate its 25th anniversary. Thus, many people expect that this year's Pokémon day will be quite big. That it will have the announcement of many upcoming goodies and games of course. The biggest rumoured Pokémon game for the year is the long-awaited remakes of 2006’s Diamond & Pearl. It would make sense. Remakes of the older games have been a tradition since 2004, a tradition that has been very well received by fans. With how controversial Sword & Shield have been, a well-executed remake would help win back some of the fans. Also: it’s just plain time for a remake to come around again.

With all of this in mind, I decided to review the games that started this remake tradition. Pokémon FireRed & LeafGreen. Are these GBA games, over 15 years later, still worth playing? Yes, they are. As a matter of fact, I'd say that they are the definitive games to play if you want that original Kanto region, 151 Pokémon experience. 

Let’s dive in.


The story of Pokémon FireRed & LeafGreen is the traditional Pokémon story. It’s the remake of the games that started everything after all. You’re a 10-year-old kid who, after receiving their starter Pokémon from Professor Oak, sets out on their Pokémon journey across the Kanto region. You travel across the region catching and training Pokémon to both defeat the eight Pokémon gyms so you can challenge the Elite Four and become the Champion as well as complete the Pokédex. All the while, you’ll have to keep up with the Professors grandson and your rival, who always seems to be one step ahead of you. In short: you set out to become the very best there ever was. Along the way, you’ll not only have to deal with your rival but also encounter the nefarious criminal organization Team Rocket who use Pokémon to further their goals.

The plot of FireRed & LeafGreen is (surprise) nothing special. It’s very basic, with not many developments across the 30-hour campaign. You’re mostly just focused on getting from gym to gym while your rival and Team Rocket pop up occasionally to make life difficult for you. There’s no strong narrative that will keep you engaged, just a string of well-designed characters with fun dialogue that’ll point you along your journey. It’s the core gameplay and the Pokémon themselves that keeps you engaged, but I’ll get to that later. As remakes, FireRed & LeafGreen do very little in terms of expanding the plot. It’s a near one-on-one translation from the original Red & Blue with only a small change here or there to correct errors that were in the original.

Your "friendly" rival Blue. Back in the days when using quotations with friendly was necessary.

It does have one significant change and that has to do with the brand new post-game content. FireRed & LeafGreen introduces the Sevii Islands, a group of small islands located south of Kanto. A group of islands akin to the anime’s Orange Islands. These are first introduced at the end of the campaign, briefly interrupting your gym challenge at a point in which the originals didn’t have anything going on. The added post-game story and area is welcoming, it gives you something to do after becoming champion, but its sadly also disappointing. The post-game story is really short and not that interesting. It’s more a means to introduce the Sevii islands then anything else.

The gameplay of FireRed & LeafGreen is, well, it’s Pokémon through and through. It is split into two sections: journeying across the overworld and the battles. In the overworld section, you travel across Kanto using your trust running shoes and later bike. You get from city to city, talking to people, getting into battles finding items etc. You know how it goes. The HM’s is one of the ways the game hinders your progress. To keep you from entering area’s you aren’t supposed to go yet. A Pokémon needs to have learned a specific move to, for example, cut down a tree and progress. This system has always been annoying with fans as the system feels archaic and outdated these days. There are many downsides to this system, not least is the fact that these HM’s can’t easily be removed from a Pokémon’s move set. FireRed & LeafGreen are almost 20 years old, so while the HM system is annoying and hindering, you do have to get that in mind.

That said, FireRed & LeafGreen does offer the player free-er exploration than most Pokémon games. Even more so than Pokémon Sword & Shield, in a way at least. Just like the original Red & Blue, you can tackle the middle-section of Gym Leaders, in any order you want. The level caps for the gyms aren’t really adjusted for this for all gym leaders, so do keep that in mind.

When encountering a Pokémon in the tall grass through a random encounter or enter a trainer when coming in their line of vision, you enter a battle. The battles are quite simple and as such, I won’t go into them too deeply. It’s a turn-based battle system in which you, well, take turns attacking your opponent. A Pokémon faints AKA is defeated when its HP is reduced to zero. Who defeats all of the opponents Pokémon first is the winner simple. When encountering a wild Pokémon, you can also try to catch it by throwing a PokéBall at it. The lower the HP of the Pokémon, if they are under a status condition and the effectiveness of the PokéBall all factor in if the catch is successful or not. There are more nuances to it but this is the gist of it. I’m fairly certain most people knew all of this already but it’s a review after all. Got to at least explain it a little bit.

A typical wild Pokémon battle.


Also: it provides a good jumping point for something I want to highlight. Yes, the Dark & Steel types are now present in the game, unlike the originals. However, this doesn’t have too much of an effect as there are very few moves and Pokémon of these types available during the main campaign. It’s more something for the post-game. No, what I mean are the changes that have been made to the battle system. More accurately, the changes that have been since these games released and how that makes the battles different here then they are in, let’s say, Sword & Shield. One of the changes is that the special/physical split hasn’t happened yet for the moves. That one is less important to a general audience I feel as the lack of this change won’t be affected by this. Some Pokémon will be more or less useful then you remember them being, but that’s about it. No, it’s the change in how attack effectiveness that I want to talk about.

One of the biggest complaints about modern Pokémon games is their difficulty. Many feel that they are way too easy. Yes, the Pokémon Company have indeed taken steps to make the games more approachable but FireRed & LeafGreen aren’t really any more difficult I find. What difficulty is there is more so due to the lack of polish/lack of quality of life updates. For example: even when my Pokémon were heavily under level, I still managed to get one-hit KO’s when I had the type advantage. The difficulty more came from large level gaps and such, requiring me to do some heavy grinding to keep up. Modern games have made steps to make certain aspects less difficult. But, they've also adjusted others in the opposite direction, like reducing the bonus you get for landing a super-effective move, to balance it all out.

So in short: FireRed & LeafGreen aren’t necessarily more difficult than the modern Pokémon games, they’re just difficult in a different way.

As the Pokémon themselves are always the main attraction for many for these games, let’s briefly talk about them. The 151 Pokémon that make up the Kanto region are the original and by now iconic ones. From Bulbasaur to Mew. The original 151 have never been my favourite crop of Pocket Monsters but they’re designs are all strong. Basic, but good. Not much to be disappointed about.

After you’ve finished the game, you’ll be able to evolve Pokémon into their ‘new’ evolutions as well as find Johto Pokémon in the Sevii Islands. That’s were another criticism of mine lies. That the evolutions of Pokémon from the original 151 that were released in Gold & Silver are only available after the main game. It’s a decision I don’t understand, but I digress before I start a rant. I feel it’s unnecessarily limiting is what you need to know.

The graphics of FireRed & LeafGreen matches those of the other Pokémon GBA titles, Ruby, Sapphire & Emerald. It runs on the same engine as those games after all, so there not that different from those games. The games are far from taxing for the hardware, so they run very smooth. No staggering or screen tare or anything like that here. The entire look of the game is sprite based, unlike the 3D models you see nowadays. The graphics are a marked improvement over those of the previous generation of games, Gold & Silver, with much better colour and more details. The Pokémon sprites aren’t yet animated sadly, so that’s a nit-pick of mine. The moves are still fully animated though and are remarkably better then they have been in previous titles.

A look at Pallet Town, you're starting point, in the GBA engine.

Finally, the soundtrack is OK. It’s not my absolute favourite though for two reasons: one is that almost the entire sound design is lifted from Ruby & Sapphire. These tracks have a distinct sound that doesn’t match with the Kanto region. The tracks that have been re-recorded form the original Red & Blue also suffer from, in my opinion, trying to match which it does so poorly.

Conclusion

Are Pokémon FireRed & LeafGreen worth playing nowadays? Yes, they are. As I already said in the opening, I would even go as far as to say that they are the definitive way to play the original Kanto region. Unlike the original Fire & Blue, the game looks much better and are much more stable. None of those weird bugs and glitches here. They also offer the traditional Pokémon experience and not the simplified, Pokémon Go-style gameplay that the 2018 Let’s Go games have. It also offers unique content to the player, most prominently the Sevii island. This content might not be as good as it could have been, but it’s still nice to have in here.

If you want to play through Kanto with the original 151 crop of Pokémon, then FireRed & LeafGreen are the way to go. 

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