Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 25 September 2022

1999: Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Pokémon is one of those huge intellectual properties and franchises that has never had a roleplaying game. Arguably it is too big to have something as small as a roleplaying game and arguably a roleplaying game is too small a vehicle to really push the brand or really expand its reach. Yet, whilst Pokémon has never had a roleplaying devoted to its world of Pokémon Trainers catching and training Pokémon to battle other Pokémon for sport, it has had a storytelling game designed to be played by children aged between six and eight and run by their parents. Published in 1999, the Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game was designed by Wizards of the Coast with the publisher planning to release twelve titles in the series. Unfortunately, despite it be a big seller for the publisher, only the first entry in the series, Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency was released.

Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency is designed to be played by a Parent and one to six players aged between six and eight. It employs simple, easy-to-understand mechanics, makes every player a Pokémon Trainer and gives them a checklist of Pokémon to capture and train, and has them participate in a lengthy story which will take them from Professor Oak’s laboratory to choose their first Pokémon to going out into the wild to find more to facing Team Rocket and a whole lot more. Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency comes in a tiny box which contains twenty-six Pokémon ‘Power Cards’, six ‘Pokémon Trainer Checklists’, two ‘Pokécoins’, 48 ‘Hit Tokens’, a sixty-page ‘Rule & Story Book’, and a single six-sided die. 

For the players or Trainers, the twenty-six Pokémon ‘Power Cards’ are the heart of the game. Bar a double or two, each one represents a different Pokémon and designed to be look like a data entry on a Pokédex. Each is double-sided. On each side there is a picture of the relevant Pokémon, an ability and how much damage it does to another Pokémon, its Hit Points, an extra effect when the ‘Pokécoin’ is successfully flipped (though not all Pokémon have this), and a little information. For example, Pikachu is depicted on his happy side as having nine Hit Points, a Thunder Wave attack that hits on a roll of five and six, inflicts more damage if the Pokécoin’ is successfully flipped, and a note from Professor Oak telling the owner that Pikachu does not being inside Poké Balls. On his unhappy side, his Growl Roll attack hits on a three, four, five, or six, and inflicts a point of damage, allows an extra attack if the Pokécoin’ is successfully flipped, and Professor Oak telling the owner that Pikachu can be moody and shy. 

For the Parent, as the Narrator, there is the sixty-page ‘Rule & Story Book’. This is not as intimidating as it sounds as the rules run a few pages and the bulk of the book is devoted to some sixteen stories or episodes which would enable the Narrator to run a mini-campaign. The ‘Rule & Story Book’ even opens with with ‘A Note to Parents’ explaining what the game is, and that is a game in which they and their children tell a story together, the children exercising their imagination and their minds, with the game emphasising reading, mathematics, and creativity. It advises the parent to encourage questions and interaction, to praise everyone’s efforts because there are no wrong answers in the game, and above all to ensure that they all have fun. Its last point is that the parent should have fun too, especially as it is time with their children and to use voices and to get into character. So it is pitched very much as a collaborative storytelling game in which everyone has fun, but not as a roleplaying game. In fact, roleplaying is never mentioned in Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency, and so the spectre of Dungeons & Dragons is avoided…

Play starts with each Trainer selecting their Pokémon from the basic six— one Charmander, one Squirtle, and two each of Bulbasaur and Pikachu. Each child ticks the box for their Pokémon on their ‘Pokémon Trainer Checklists’. The Narrator selects a story from the ‘Rule & Story Book’ and play begins. There are sections for the Narrator to read aloud and sections with staging advice, both of which are clearly marked, with prompts in the narration where the Narrator asks the Trainers what they want to do or say. For example, in ‘Episode 2: Gotta Catch ’Em!’, the Trainers go outside to the edge of Pallet Town to catch their first Pokémon in the wild. When they have done so, the Trainers are attacked by a Spearow flock and must work together to defeat it. Afterwards, Police Officer Jenny arrives on her motorcycle and thanks the Trainers for helping her out. At that point, the Narrator says to the Trainers, “What do you say to her?” It is designed to be simple and direct and to encourage a response.

Although play starts with the Narrator and her narration, from there it proceeds around the table, starting with the player on the Narrator’s left. This avoids any one player dominating the story and gives everyone their turn, and in addition, using the prompts, allows the players to build the world around their Trainers. Primarily, this will be drawn from their having watched the Pokémon cartoon series, but it also allows space for the players to go beyond this and bring their imagination into play.

The rules of Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency focus on Pokémon duels as you would expect. Each Trainer selects his Pokémon and chooses which side of the card he will use—this can be switched at the beginning of the round. Pokémon duels are simultaneous, both Trainers or the Narrator and the Trainer rolling to successfully activate and hit the other Pokémon with their Pokémon’s ability, inflicting hits and reducing their opponent’s Hit Points in the process. Some Pokémon have an extra ability when the ‘Pokécoin’ is successfully flipped, such an extra attack, inflicting more hits, healing Hit Points, or even doing damage to the attacking Pokémon. When a Pokémon’s Hit Points are reduced to zero, it faints rather than dies, and if a Pokémon Hit Points get too low and the Trainer has other Pokémon in his Pokédex, he can bring one of them into play instead.

The ‘Rule & Story Book’ is sixty pages long, but it is a small rulebook and the rules—such as they are—take up less than a quarter of the book. The rules for sixty-page Pokémon duels are clearly explained and are supported by a good example of how they work. The remainder of the ‘Rule & Story Book’ consists of stories, ranging length from one to four pages. Depending upon the number of players the playing time for can be as short as five minutes or as long as thirty. Essentially, none of these should challenge the attention span of the players too much and the chance to explore the world of Pokémon and capture more Pokémon to add to their collection should keep them interested (this essentially also being the equivalent of Experience Points in the game).

Physically, Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency is bright and cheerful. The various Pokémon ‘Power Cards’ are nice and sturdy, as are the game’s various counters. The rulebook uses lots of illustrations from the cartoon and is well written, its language direct and simple for the then-Parent with no previous experience with the storytelling type of game to grasp the rules, understand how the game is played, and run it for her children and their friends. Then in a few years, an older child could easily read through the rules and run Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency for his friends. An obvious issue with Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency is that there are only twenty-six Pokémon ‘Power Cards’. Enough to play through the stories in the ‘Rule & Story Book’, but not beyond. Had there been more entries in the Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game series, then that would have solved that issue, but it was not to be.

Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency is a bright, cheerful, and simple game. It uses the basic elements of the Pokémon cartoon to draw the players into the world and get them imagining themselves doing all of the things that they see Ash and his friends doing on screen. It obviously then uses these to inspire both the Parent and the children interact and work together to tell a story and develop a world as they play the game. In the process, it gets everyone roleplaying very quietly and without even mentioning the word. Two decades on in 2020s, there are more than a few roleplaying games designed to introduce younger players to the concept, but what got there first was Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency—and with little in the way of fanfare. It might have very different had the Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game series not been cancelled. It might have been a case of Pokémon Jr. Adventure Game #1: Pokémon Emergency having been many players’ first adventure game, first storytelling game, and first roleplaying game.

No comments:

Post a Comment