The Pokémon games have done wonders for defining the roles these monsters play in our virtual lives. We’ve seen the characters as protectors, workers, heroes, villains, tools and even unique individuals with defined personalities. But the one role the series constantly attempts to drive home is that of a friend. Pokémon appear everywhere as constant companions, but it was one game that really helped establish the idea that these critters were something akin to a pet, and that’s Pokémon Yellow.
Pokémon Yellow came after the debut of the anime series. Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green introduced Japan to the series in 1996, the show in 1997 and Yellow followed in 1998 to capitalize on the sudden superstar that was Pikachu. The game was rewritten to make the electric mouse the central focus. You can’t catch him in the wild; he can’t evolve into Raichu. He becomes a stalwart companion, forever following the player.
This went beyond cashing in on the show’s popularity, though this adventure did take care to add Jessie and James as the Team Rocket villains and bring Nurse Joy and Officer Jennys into the world. Pokémon Yellow was the first game to make friendship a gameplay element. Pikachu, your starter, would walk alongside you so long as he was in the party. Your relationship with him could improve or deteriorate as you would play. Keeping him with you, using items on him and taking him into major battles will improve the bond; letting Pikachu faint, trading him away and putting him in storage hurts his feelings. Speaking with him allowed you to check on his emotions and the status of your relationship.
Pokémon Yellow offered an opportunity to connect with a Pokémon for the first time. We had been traveling with the creatures since 1996, but they weren’t always present. They were summoned for battles, to help us cross oceans and to fast travel to towns. There was no reason to see them as anything other than a tool or servant, despite seeing other people’s Pokémon standing or sitting alongside them in towns. This installment showed us the sort of friendly and comforting relationship we could enjoy with such an animal.
Especially since Pokémon Yellow injected levity into the series. Checking in with Pikachu wasn’t just an chance to see if he liked us or not. He behaved as an actual pet would. In the Pewter City Pokémon Center, a Jigglypuff can put Pikachu to sleep with its singing. He’ll remain fixed in place until you wake him up. If you fish, then turn to look at Pikachu, he’ll have a bucket on his head. That certainly sounds like something a dog would do, as he’s getting into your thinks when you’re distracted by another activity. When he learns Thunder, he’ll show off his new move by using it the next time you talk to him.
These behaviors showcase a more docile and domesticated side to the character. You don’t picture a wild Pokémon or one used for battle engaging in frivolous behavior. They wouldn’t be so tame. Pokémon Yellow’s Pikachu is. He’s calm, relaxed and trusting enough to act like an ordinary animal. It’s a softer and friendlier side. It makes you feel like you’re making precious memories and bonding with him.
It’s a feature that’s aged remarkably well. Friendship systems are a given in Pokémon games at this point. Gold, Silver and Crystal included characters like Espeon and Umbreon, which only evolved when they were friendly with the player. Diamond, Pearl and Platinum offered an Amity Square, which would let some of the series’ most popular Pokémon walk around a part with you. HeartGold and SoulSilver even went so far as to mimic Yellow, letting any Pokémon in your party walk alongside you in the field. It’s even a precursor to the Pokémon-Amie system introduced in X and Y.
Pokémon Yellow set a trend. It’s treatment of Pikachu let us see a different side of the character and creatures in general. By experiencing a more friendly partnership with him, rather than making him just like your other minions, we’re able to connect with him and enjoy endearing moments where he acts like a more typical pet. Even now, it remains refreshing, as it’s one of the few installments that does allow a constant companion. Our in-game relationship with Pikachu may be damaged every time we put him into storage, but our real world bond with Pokémon Yellow will never dull.