When Pokémon became an international phenomenon of outrageous proportions, I wasn't surprised. I knew its success hinged on being able to tap into childhood past-times like my own. During my adolescence growing up in the culturally diverse town of Jackson Heights in New York City, my friends and I spent a summer in the outdoors hunting for crickets. This was extraordinarily strange when you consider that Jackson Heights is an urban district with little greenery. Yet that did little to deter us as we scavenged through abandoned lots, the backyards of rundown homes and distant parks in neighboring towns. We overturned plenty of rocks and uncovered many a bush in search of the noisy critters. Amazingly and against all odds, each of us managed to accumulate our own little squad of feisty bugs.
We each constructed housing in the form of shoeboxes or box-shaped containers and continued to raise them by providing food for the crickets. Then each weekend, we would each bring our team of crickets to the local playground and make them do what? Fight, of course! For whatever biological reason that we couldn't care less to understand, crickets were particularly aggressive insects and once two crossed paths, it was not uncommon to see an entertaining sparring match take place for the right of way. The bouts were relatively harmless as no cricket was ever maimed or killed during these little claw-wrestling confrontations. This of course made for frequent battles and plenty of rematches. Trading the insects and picking favorites (mine was a particularly small, but tough, three-legged paraplegic) also helped to make this little cricket-fighting activity of ours quite popular during that time.
So when the red and blue Game Boy paks of Pokémon came into worldwide prominence, I quickly identified with its fine digital recreation of such a popular childhood activity (especially among little boys like myself). The developers at Game Freak took the very premise and expanded it beautifully to include many types of creatures and the ability for friends to have their own Pokémon pitted against one another, but, this time, across a virtual landscape instead of a real one. Sadly, what was so brilliantly executed on the Game Boy, was not as impressively treated here in the Nintendo 64 creation, Pokémon Stadium. Rather than trying to recreate that childhood past-time in another shape or form appropriate for the now-fledgling Nintendo 64 system, Stadium is nothing more then a companion piece for Pokémon trainers who already own the Game Boy version.
The idea is to let these trainers import the Pokémon currently in their possession from their Game Boy pak onto the Stadium pak. This process is handled through a device that comes packaged with the game called the Transfer Pak. The Transfer Pak acts as a mediator between the two platforms by allowing the Game Boy pak to plug into the Transfer Pak, which, in turn, is then plugged into the Nintendo 64 controllers memory card port. Once the Pokémon have been transferred over, they can be used to compete against other trainers who have also imported their own Pokémon or against computer-controlled trainers. The battle system (minus the use of items) and control interface remain largely the same, but a new and full color 3D polygonal representation replaces the old monochromatic Game Boy look.
This new visual 3D representation of the Pokémon is not to be underestimated because its impact on the overall experience is worth mentioning. The 3D Pokémon are well animated, incredibly expressive and closely resemble their cartoon counterparts. Attack moves during battles are fleshed out beautifully with more animation and tons of special effects. The overall presentation is rounded out with varied sound effects, serviceable background music and an exaggerated (but in a good way) play-by-play commenting. With all the visual flash and energetic sounds, a breath of new life has been infused in the many battles that take place in Stadium, especially when compared to the technologically minimalist approach found on the Game Boy version. Yet, all the visual and animated improvements arent enough to disguise the overly familiar battle system and lack of any options outside of the gimmicky appeal of being able to import Pokémon and watch them fight in 3D.
A real one-player mode in Stadium is pretty much non-existent. Players can form squads of Pokémon and make them compete in various tournaments against computer controlled trainers. The goal of defeating all opponents remains the same in the four possible tournaments, but different rules and regulations govern each one. For instance, in Pike Cup, only Pokémon between the levels of 15 and 20 can be used and the total combined level of any three being used in battle at the same time cannot exceed 50. Prime Cup, on the other hand, has no limits and Pokémon of all shapes, sizes and levels can be thrown into the fray. The only other one-player mode is the Gym Leader Castle. In it, players can square off against familiar faces of the Boss characters found in the Game Boy version. Whichever mode is chosen, though, in terms of gameplay structure, there is little difference and the whole experience gets repetitive quickly. Minimal effort is put into actually conveying a sense that there is a real and dynamic tournament that is taking place. In other words, there are no simulated battles or randomization on the part of the computer. Players monotonously square off against identical computer opponents one after another and in the same order.
Of course, the real attraction behind Stadium isn't the one-player mode, but the multiplayer modes. In Stadium, there are two major modes to accommodate human versus mayhem. There's the Free Battle and the Event Battle modes. Both modes offer players the opportunity to compete under rules and regulations similar to the ones found in the various one-player tournaments. Aside from that, the two modes differ only in that Free Battle allows four-player tag team style battles and Event Battle offers more options in terms of time restrictions. There's little distinction between the two modes and I wonder why they even bothered separating the two rather than combining them to begin with. Now that I've established that the one-player mode is lame, the real question is, are the multiplayer battles worth the price of admission? That depends.
You see, if you already own the Game Boy version and have captured tons of Pokémon ranging from all sorts of levels and have plenty of friends with a similar disposition, you're fine. In this case scenario, I'm sure these groups of Pokemaniacs will have endless hours of fun competing against one another and see who comes out of top. If you don't fall under that category and range from having only a solid amount of Pokémon (like me) to not even owning the Game Boy pak, then you're screwed. Not only is Stadium pretty adamant that the owner already possesses the Game Boy version, but that owner must also be in possession of an incredibly diverse set of Pokémon that can match the peculiar rules and regulations for each of the tournaments. Without such, certain modes of play simply remain inaccessible unless you retrain old or capture new Pokémon from the Game Boy copy to fulfill those requirements. This situation can also be alleviated by the use of pre-trained 'rental' Pokémon offered in Stadium by default, but that really defeats the whole premise and attraction behind the Pokémon concept.
Even those in possession of hundreds of diverse Pokémon may find the gameplay to be too much of the same or simply too repetitive. It's as if Nintendo sensed this and included more arbitrary features and options to remedy the situation. For example, theres a Gallery mode, similar to the one found in Pokémon Snap, which is a feature that allows players to take pictures of Pokémon in their possession and then store them or have them printed out as stickers at local video stores. There's also the Kid's Club area that serves as a diversion for trainers to compete in multiplayer mini-games that seem right out of Mario Party. Rounding out the remaining features is a PC file storage system that allows trainers to organize, sort and trade Pokémon through an intuitive interface and a Game Boy emulator that allows trainers to play the original Game Boy game on a large TV screen courtesy of the Nintendo 64 system and Transfer pak.
Yet all these extra bonuses doesn't tantamount to a new gameplay experience and rather only reinforce the notion that Stadium is nothing more than a companion piece for owners of the Game Boy Pokémon games. Its a shame that the innovative and wonderfully original premise of Pokémon that inspired such fond childhood memories couldnt continue on that path with the Nintendo 64. Instead, Stadium feels more like a half-baked add-on.