The Special Pikachu Edition remains a great game to this day
The year is 1999 and Pokémon is doing very, very well. The Game Boy games Red, Green, and Blue are best sellers in both Japan and the United States. Well, Red and Blue are best sellers in the United States. Green would remain a "DID YOU KNOW THAT IN JAPAN, THEY HAVE A VENUSAUR VERSION?" schoolyard myth for a few years in my neck of the woods. And the Pokémon anime, which premiered in the U.S. in 1998, was a smash success. In the New York Daily News, George Harrison, who was Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Nintendo of America at the time, "said he "expects the Pokemon 'true consumer phenomenon' to last through 2000 and 2001" in a 1999 interview. Ya know, considering that Pokémon has been a pop culture titan for over two decades since its birth, saying "I'm sure it will continue to thrive for two more years" almost seems pessimistic.
And then, twenty years ago today, North America saw the release of Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition. Originally yeleased in Japan to coincide with Pokémon: The First Movie in September 1998, it was a revamped version of the original games, taking influence from the anime and letting you start with a Pikachu that follows you around while you encounter anime-specific characters like Jesse and James from Team Rocket.
Everything else in the game, though? Aside from new monster sprites and the ability to pick "Ash" as a name, it's an incredibly similar experience to Red, Blue and Green. Same story, same gym leaders, same goal. So even with Pokémon's incredible rise in prominence, it still seemed like a bit of a risk to say "Hey kids. I know you may have had to buy two versions of the same game in order to get all 150 Pokémon, but how about a THIRD version...that's almost the same game?"
Now, as a kid, this was very appealing to me, as the anime had always kind of informed how I played the games. For example, when I started Red for the first time, I hung around Professor Oak's lab for thirty minutes after he asked me to start my journey because I was waiting for him to hand me six Pokéballs. Ya know, like he did in the first episode of the show. But I don't know if everyone else was that prime of a demographic.
Nowadays, Pokémon having an "improved" third version that comes out after a set of main series games is somewhat expected. And these third versions are never just excuses to pump out a new game, as they usually amend a few things and make the entire playthrough a more seemless excursion. But we didn't know that back in 1999.
So while Special Pikachu Edition did have the benefit of literally being a special Pikachu edition (the best part of the game is turning around while you're walking and seeing if Pikachu loves you, hates you, or simply tolerates your existence), it seemed like the very definition of overkill. Former Nintendo President Satoru Iwata even said that since everyone was ready for Gold and Silver, "there was a sense that people were thinking: "I'm not sure they should be putting out Yellow."
Even counting on the immense popularity of the anime, there was a chance that Yellow would be nothing but a pit stop, a cash-in for kids that watched the show, hadn't gotten their hands on a game yet, and wanted Ash Ketchum's blue ribbon electric mouse to tag along with them. I must admit that on paper (and looking at it from a 1999 mindset) it all sounds redundant. It's a game based on an anime based on a game.
And then it got 150,000 pre-orders, which, while not nearly as high as Gold and Silver, is still a sizable number. It would go on to be the fifth best selling Game Boy game ever (two other Pokémon titles are in the top five). And even the more negative reviews at the time admitted that while it wasn't a drastic departure from Red/Blue, it was still very fun.
That said, is Pokémon Yellow a great game to this day? Oh, absolutely. There's still something amazingly charming about it, and it's my go-to when I want to re-experience Generation One. Before I wrote this article, I put about ten hours into a new game just to make sure that it wasn't a total disaster or that my old purple Game Boy Color wouldn't just burst into flames as soon as I switched it on, and I had a great time. It had me hooked from the beginning, when Pikachu runs toward the screen and surfs and kicks through lasers, as Pikachu does.
The music in the first few Pokémon games has always been supremely underrated, and their melodies are inspired and infectious. The world design for Kanto does a lot to create a sense of immersion, and some of the locations (like Viridian Forest and Celadon City) remain the standard by which all other Pokémon locations of a similar nature are judged. And I loved that it immediately made me consider strategy in a way that Red/Blue didn't in the beginning. You couldn't just power through Brock's Rock types with your starter. Instead, you had to catch a Butterfree that could learn Confusion, or, if you're the raddest dude alive like me, you picked a Mankey and Low Kick'd that Geodude dude to death.
And its legacy? Well, while Pokémon had already proven itself as an appealing series, Pokémon Yellow: Special Pikachu Edition proved that that series had staying power. It also proved that, even in circumstances where it could've gone with the laziest option possible, Game Freak still delivered a finely crafted game. And 20 years later, it remains a top tier Pokémon experience.
Did you play Pokémon Yellow when it first came out? What do you think of it? What's your favorite Pokémon game? Let us know in the comments!
Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Crunchyroll. You should follow him on Twitter!