Back in 1996 we were introduced to an aspiring young trainer named Red. Amazingly, the first trainer who ever set out to catch ‘em all still has a greater presence in the portable games and console iterations than any other, even as he approaches his should-be 28th birthday. Red’s large presence in the Pokemon world has always intrigued me, so I want to go on a journey deep into his character.
Red was the default name of the playable character in Pokemon Red version. He had a basic design: A young boy in jeans with short, dark hair, a backpack, and a baseball hat. That’s it. That’s everything we know about him, other than his back story from the Red and Blue handbook that basically says “He grew up in Pallet Town…and Blue was there too.” He never talks once in the games, even when he’s an NPC. Yet he has appeared in more Pokemon games than any other main character, except for Blue.
Red is formless, to let the player completely identify with him. Other role playing games like The Legend of Zelda series, try to make you link with the character, even going so far as to name the character “Link”. But it’s always Link’s destiny to be great. He’s the reincarnation of the same hero that’s been saving the world for millions of years. Other RPGs, like Final Fantasy construct a magnificent story where you control a character who already has a personality, a philosophy, and a specific role to play in the plot. You’re just an actor in a play. This works great for those kinds of games, but it wouldn’t work for Pokemon.
Red isn’t some “chosen one” who’s destined for greatness. He’s just an average boy from a small town. He doesn’t talk in the games; he only says what you imagine him saying, or whatever you’re yelling at your Game Boy screen. While Pokemon games do have a plot that you have to follow, the games aren’t about leading a character named Red, or Ethan, or Brenden through that plot. They’re about you finding your own way, playing as yourself. That’s what Pokemon has always been about. I think it’s one of the games’ most important elements.
Red’s timeless popularity comes partly from the fact that he established that trend in the first games, which are arguably the best in the series. He’s come to symbolize all of the games because he is the embodiment of their origins, and of their essence.
Then there’s the other side of Red we get to see in Pokemon Gold and Silver. You play as another young trainer who you can also identify with easily because he follows Red’s character formula. After beating the whole game, and defeating two Pokemon leagues, you go to Mt. Silver (because there’s nowhere else you haven’t been). And there, without any warning, you meet Red. I remember the first time I reached the summit and saw him. I definitely didn’t see it coming, yet I instantly knew it was him. After playing through two regions full of trainers who talk about how badly Red trounced them (Team Rocket, Blue, etc.), I was terrified to see him in action, and he didn’t disappoint.
You walk up to him, and without a word he engages you in the highest-level battle in the entire Pokemon series, only topped by the same battle in the remakes. All while just barely acknowledging your existence from beneath the brim of his hat. It was that game that established my love for Red. His lack of emotion, his silence, and his overwhelming power, along with the reputation that preceded him; it gave him a personality that I couldn’t describe without using the word “badass.”
Gold and Silver turned Red into his own character, with feeling. This was the Red that beat Team Rocket, who defeated the Pokemon League. He is the manifestation of the potential Pokemon master in all of us. His silent persona that made him easy to connect to now gave him a stoic, dangerous attitude, like he was anti-social, or possibly deranged.
The battle with Red is easily the hardest one I remember. I didn’t feel like a Pokemon Master after defeating Lance, but I did after defeating Red. He made a perfect ending for my favorite games in the series.
Gold and Silver was where Red made his last major appearance in a Pokemon game. He is one of the final battles in Pokemon Stadium 2, and he helps represent the Pokemon franchise in Super Smash Bros. Brawl alongside Pikachu and Jugglypuff. In Brawl, Red is back to his empty personality. He’s just there as a conduit for you to control your Pokemon, and most of the time you forget he’s even there. But he is there, shouting orders whenever you press a button.
Red was in the Generation II remakes, which made me happy, but I saw it as a final homage. With the release of the fifth generation, I figured we had seen the last of Red. However, Nintendo surprised me when they had him and Blue represent the Kanto region in the Champions Tournament in Pokemon Black 2 and White 2. This means Red has been present in every generation of Pokemon games; something no other protagonist can claim. It seems like Nintendo just doesn’t want to let him go.
Soon, Red will be starring in the upcoming Pokemon Origins anime, which will be based a lot more closely on the Pokemon games than the current anime is, and I’m really excited to watch. It pleases me to know that the original trainer isn’t going to be forgotten any time soon.