In this article, I will tell the story of what I went through to catch a level 15 Dragonair in the Safari Zone in the Nintendo 3DS virtual console version of Pokémon Yellow back in 2019. But before I tell the story, an introduction is in order.
I recently wrote two frustrating video game stories. My first story was about what I went through to bring you a review of a 2006 visual novel translation called Midsummer Haze – specifically, how I had to re-do the same thing 43 times to unlock the second half of the game. That story reminded me of how I had struggled to withstand the AI spamming a powerful attack in Persona 3 FES in 2010. One thing those stories had in common was that my suffering was necessary to complete the games. I needed to endure Midsummer Haze’s random trigger mechanic in order to write my review, and I needed to survive the Persona 3 FES battle to advance without re-doing the battle. But not all frustrating video game stories are required to complete the game. Sometimes we make lives harder on ourselves for no good reason.
Now to the Safari Zone.
Pokémon Yellow is the third version of the generation one Pokémon games. It is very similar to the first two versions, Pokémon Red and Blue, but it has the player start with a Pikachu (which cannot evolve) instead of the choice of Bulbasaur, Squirtle, or Charmander, it tweaks the enemy trainers, and it adds a few flourishes to make the game slightly more similar to the anime. Pokémon Yellow presents the definitive generation one Pokémon experience.
Nintendo re-released Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow for the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console in 2016 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the release of the original Pokémon Red and Green in Japan. My New Leaf Journal colleague Victor V. Gurbo and I had both played the generation one Pokémon games many times as kids. However, we never battled since we did not meet until high school. We decided to buy the Virtual Console version of Pokémon Yellow and have the battle we could never have as kids.
(Note: I won our three battles taking advantage of the fact that I had a much better understanding of generation one battle mechanics than did Victor at the time.)
We did not make haste in building our teams. In 2019, as I was recovering from surgery (see my game stories on Pokémon Trading Card Game and Mario Party from that period), I decided to complete my play-through Yellow and work on putting together my team to take on Victor. The process went slowly, in part because I was debating which Pokémon I would use (we were not trading with other games, so I had to be careful about my move choices since most moves can only be taught once). But I made steady progress, reaching the Safari Zone in Fuchsia City around April of 2019.
Before continuing, I will offer a brief explanation of the Safari Zone. This is a special area in the generation one Pokémon games wherein the player can catch many Pokémon, but catching Pokémon works with different rules than it does outside of the Safari Zone. A player ordinarily battles wild Pokémon with his or her own Pokémon and tries to weaken the wild Pokémon (without making it faint) before throwing a version of a Poké Ball at it. Various factors affect the likelihood that the player will catch the Pokémon. These factors include:
- The type of ball the player throws (Poké Ball, Great Ball, or Ultra Ball – Master Ball, of which there is one, has a 100% catch-rate)
- The amount of health the wild Pokémon has (closer to 0 increases the odds that it will stay in the ball)
- Status effects on the wild Pokémon (these increase the catch probability)
- The wild Pokémon’s level and natural catch rate (some wild Pokémon have high catch-rates, which make them easier to catch, while other wild Pokémon have low catch-rates)
While many factors go into catching Pokémon, the process is ultimately simple. Many Pokémon with high catch rates are amenable to capture by throwing a Poké Ball without actually engaging in battle. One unique aspect of the generation one Pokémon games is that it is possible to “miss” the Pokémon with the ball. This occurs when the catch probability is very low. In all subsequent games, the Pokémon always breaks out of the ball if it cannot be caught instead of dodging the ball entirely.
Things are different in the Safari Zone. The player pays for a round of the Safari Game and leaves his or her Pokémon outside. In return, the player is given 30 Safari Balls. The player can only use Safari Balls in the Safari Zone. Safari Balls cannot be used outside of the Safari Zone. A player’s Safari Zone run ends either when he or she takes a certain number of steps or runs out of Safari Balls.
Now one may wonder how the player is supposed to catch Pokémon in the Safari Zone if battling is impossible. In each battle, the player is armed with Safari Balls, Bait, and Rocks. Throwing bait at a Pokémon makes it harder to catch but less likely to flee. Throwing a rock makes it angry, which increases the catch rate but makes it more likely to flee. It should go without saying that throwing a Safari Ball in the direction of a Pokemon is an attempt to catch the Pokémon. A wild Pokémon encounter ends either when the player catches the Pokémon, the player runs from the encounter, or the wild Pokémon flees.
As I noted, every ball in the Pokémon games has a catch rate. The catch rates are relative to the basic Poké Ball. Safari Balls are 1.5x as effective as a Poké Ball, making them equivalent to the regular second-tier Great Balls. They are less effective than Ultra Balls, which are the best regularly-obtainable balls in Pokémon generation one. Ultra Balls have a 2.0x catch-rate.
One can crunch the numbers to determine the optimal Safari Zone catching strategies. An article on The Cave of Dragonflies breaks down the Safari Zone math and lists all of the potential strategies. While there are many approaches, the simplest strategy is the most optimal in generation one. I quote from Dragonfiles:
You may think, as I did when I was initially working this out, that the fourth strategy has the most potential. However, as it turns out, the R/B/Y Safari Zone is broken: the balls-only strategy nearly always wins by a considerable margin, at least in terms of your overall chance of catching the Pokémon per encounter. Wasting your time on bait and rocks is only worth it in a couple of very exceptional cases.Cave of the Dragonflies
The Pokémon development team clearly put a great deal of thought into the Safari Ball/Bait/Rock system in the Safari Zone. But in the end, players are generally well advised to just chuck Safari Balls at anything they want to catch and hope for the best.
There are a very small number of “exceptional” edge cases. One notable example is a level 7 Chansey, albeit a level 7 Chansey only has a 1-in-100 chance of appearing in a specific area of the Safari Zone, which is low enough that I did not know the Pokémon Yellow Safari Zone contained level 7 Chanseys until I conducted some research for this article. I will note that every Safari Zone Pokémon I reference in this article going forward has the best odds of capture with the Safari Ball-only strategy.
The majority of Pokémon that one will encounter in the Safari Zone are relatively easy to catch. However, there are some extreme cases on the other end of the spectrum…
Once I cleared the one story objective I had in the Safari Zone, I attended to practical business. By that stage, I was not 100% sure about the final team I would use against Victor, but I had two definite targets in the Safari Zone: Dratini and Tauros.
Tauros is one of the best Pokémon in generation one (if not the best behind Mewtwo and Mew).
Dratini is part of the sole dragon-Pokémon evolution line in Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow, evolving into Dragonair at level 35 which in turn evolves into the iconic Dragonite at level 55 (the rarity of dragons gave rise to some urban legends and April Fools jokes). I had a plan for what I wanted to do with Dragonite, but that plan could not begin without catching a Dratini. The only place this can be done in Pokémon Yellow is the Safari Zone.
Most Pokémon in the Safari Zone are encountered randomly in tall grass (some are common while others are scarce). Dratini is one of the minority of Pokémon that is exclusive to fishing. The player can fish and catch a Dratini in select areas. Dratini only appears in certain bodies of water at a 10-20% rate (20% in one area with the Super Rod), but that is not too bad. I took advantage of the area which yields a level 10 Dratini at a 20% clip to catch a Dratini without too much trouble. According to Dragonfly Cave, I had a 6.64% chance of catching Dratini every time I threw a Safari Ball and Dratini had a 12.5% chance of running.
I caught Tauros surprisingly easily (on my second attempt) despite the fact that it is one of the harder Pokémon to keep in a Safari Ball. I recall catching Dratini on my fourth or fifth try. While there were a couple of other Pokémon that I had some interest in considering for my team if I caught them – namely Chansey and Pinsir – I was not invested enough to devote a great deal of time to the project if I did not happen to get lucky with an encounter.
Having cleared my main objective, my work was surely done.
It was not.
I noted before that Dratini evolves into Dragonair at level 35. Dragonair happens to be high on my list of favorite Pokémon. Dragonair, like Dratini, can also be caught in the Safari Zone (note: only in Yellow). However, despite the fact that Dratini evolves at level 35, wild Safari Zone Dragonair come at level 15. To be sure, this does not seem to make any sense. It is one of a small number of cases in Pokémon games where a wild evolved Pokémon is available at a lower level than it evolves, and the only such case in generation one.
(The Elite Four Champion in the second generation Pokémon games, Gold, Silver, and Crystal, has two level 47 Dragonite and a level 50 Dragonite. This is very impressive in light of the fact that Dragonair evolves into Dragonite at level 55.)
Before continuing, note that I had no intention of raising a Dragonair I caught in the Safari Zone over the Dratini. While Dragonair has better stats than Dratini, Dratini was the better choice for my long-term project. Both Dratini and Dragonair are in the slow level-up group, meaning they are in the group of Pokémon that require the most experience to gain levels. I will submit for the record that I became acutely aware of this as I slowly raised my Dratini, which was way under-leveled compared to the rest of my team at the time of capture. This process would have been even worse if I was starting with a wild Dragonair. Thus, I had already decided to go with raising the Dratini for my battle against Victor.
However, I liked the idea of catching a level 15 Dragonair. Thanks to Pokémon Bank and Pokémon Home, I could transfer it to the modern Pokémon games on Switch and feel special having an evolutionary anomaly (I still need to transfer it…). I figured that not too many people go through the trouble of catching a Dragonair in the Safari Zone since, given the availability of Dratini, there is no reason to do so unless the player is determined to add a Dragonair to the Pokédex without raising a Dratini (that would only make sense if the player could trade for a Dragonite, however). In fact, without consulting a guide, it would be easy to go through the Safari Zone multiple times without knowing that there were level 15 Dragonairs swimming around.
Acquiring a unique version of one of my favorite Pokémon was like acquiring a neat collector’s item. Moreover, I know how to make use of a Dragonair in the modern Pokémon games, meaning I could find something productive to do with my curiosity.
There was only one problem with my ambition. The problem was actually catching a level 15 Dragonair.
Dragonair is only available through using a Super Rod in one area of water in one area of the Safari Zone. It only comes in the level 15 flavor and it only appears while fishing in the right place with the right rod at a rate of 10%. Thus, as a threshold barrier, every time I cast my Super Rod in the correct body of water, I had a 10% chance of engaging a Dragonair.
(I caught a few extra Dratini during my struggle since they appeared at a 20% clip in the same body of water.)
Now while I said that Dratini was not too difficult to catch, it was far from a sure thing. I missed more than I caught on the whole. Recall Dratini had a 6.64% chance of staying in a Safari Ball and a 12.5% chance at the end of each turn of running. Let us compare it to its evolution:
|PKMN||Catch %||Run %|
|Dratini (lv 10)||6.64||12.5|
|Dragonair (lv 15)||3.72||21.88|
(Note: These stats are for Yellow. Moreover, they are stats for throwing Safari Balls while ignoring bait and rocks, which is the best strategy for both Dratini and Dragonair.)
You may wonder how big a difference this is in reality.
Spoiler: Very big difference.
My determination to catch a Dragonair kept me in Fuchsia City for a long stretch as I made repeated trips to the Safari Zone. I spent a few train rides indulging my interest in catching a Dragonair. Things were not going swimmingly (pun unintended).
Dragonair is a pain to catch because of a combination of factors. While its 10% encounter rate while fishing with a Super Rod is low, it is actually easier to encounter than many of the rare Pokémon that haunt tall grass, some of which have 1% encounter rates. In addition to the fact that 10% is not bad for a rare Pokémon by Safari Zone standards, the player can stand in one spot while fishing and thus not accrue steps toward the Safari Game’s step limit. Conversely, if you are walking around tall grass trying to trigger an encounter with a 1% or 5% chance of occurring, there is a decent chance your Safari Game will end on steps before finding the Pokémon. Similarly, as we will see, Dragonair’s run rate, while high, is not extreme by Safari Zone standards. Its catch rate of 3.76% is, however, absolutely atrocious. It is the combination of its uniquely bad catch rate with its high enough run rate that makes it easy to burn through Safari Balls without coming close to catching one. Below, I present every Pokémon with a catch rate of under 10% and a run rate of more than 20% (note that all of this information is for Pokémon Yellow only):
|Pokémon||Catch %||Run %|
|Chansey (lv 21)||4.12||22.66|
|Dragonair (lv 15)||3.72||21.88|
|Kangaskhan (lv 28)||6.44||46.09|
|Kangaskhan (lv 33)||6.48||53.91|
|Pinsir (lv 15)||6.66||25.00|
|Pinsir (lv 25)||6.66||39.84|
|Scyther (lv 15)||6.50||29.69|
|Scyther (lv 25)||6.54||47.66|
|Tangela (lv 22)||6.75||25.56|
|Tangela (lv 27)||6.48||32.03|
|Tauros (lv 21)||6.54||42.19|
Dragonair has the lowest catch rate of any Safari Zone Pokémon in Yellow, but due to the fact that it is encountered through fishing and it has a lower run rate than all of the other Pokémon that met by dual criteria, I would not say that it is the hardest Pokémon to catch in the Safari Zone. Despite my spending a good amount of time in the Safari Zone while trying to catch Dragonair, sometimes wandering around the grass when I ran low on Safari Balls, the only other Pokémon I caught from the list in my Yellow run was Tauros. I recall having a few Chansey and Kangaskhan encounters and a combined five or six Pinsir, Scyther, and Tangela encounters, but I never came close to getting one of them to stay in a Safari Ball.
However, regardless of how you rank Yellow’s Safari Zone selection in terms of difficulty, catching Dragonair is a pain. Just trust me. I am speaking from experience.
Firstly, while I explained why encountering a Dragonair is not difficult – if you are patient with your Super Rod, you can guarantee using all 30 of your Safari Balls on Dragonair catch attempts – repeatedly going into the menu to select and use your Super Rod and then waiting for something to bite is time consuming. It is especially time consuming when you bear in mind that 90% of the bites will be something other than a Dragonair. Every non-Dragonair triggers a battle animation. There are also times when you do not get a bite, which triggers a message.
The real fun began when I actually encountered a Dragonair. That is when I was able to experience the joy of chucking Safari Balls at the aquatic sea dragon, knowing that each one had a very high chance of failing (I am not sure that I knew the failure chance was 96.28%). I noted at the top that in most cases when your catch odds are absurdly low, the generation one Pokémon games will have you miss the Pokémon with the ball. I became very familiar with the animation and message as I missed Dragonair after Dragonair over and over again.
I caught the very first Dragonair that I did not miss with a Safari Ball.
How many Dragonairs mocked me and swam away before I caught one?
I kept an unofficial count of Dragonair failures over the 10-14 days I spent chipping away at the project, including a couple of entire 30-minute subway rides. I recall being of the view that I caught the 31st Dragonair I fished out of the Central Lake of the Safari Zone. While I did not keep track of how many Safari Balls I lost on the project, I will guess that the final number was in the 110-120 range. Most of the Dragonairs sat there taunting me while I missed with 3 or 4 balls. I recall at least one case where I was able to throw eight or nine before Dragonair swam away. But there were more than a few one-and-done and two-and-out cases to balance things out.
I got into a rhythm of not expecting much when I fished out a Dragonair. I would commence throwing Safari Balls and waiting for the Dragonair to flee so I could repeat the process. I held my breath on Dragonair 31 (or 33 or 35, I could have been wrong) when it went inside the ball. To be sure, I would not have been surprised if it broke out.
The ball shook once. Shook. Shook again.
I caught a Dragonair. The very first time the ball actually hit the Dragonair, it stayed in.
I took a picture of my screen at the moment of capture with my old BlackBerry Classic. Sadly, I lost those pictures on one occasion when I had to reset my phone, but you can see proof below that I am in possession of a level 15 Dragonair:
Consider the fact that this Dragonair is level 15 proof of my triumph. As I explained, because Dratini evolves at level 35, the only possible way to have a level 15 Dragonair in Pokémon Yellow (other than cheating) is to catch one in the Safari Zone.
I found one YouTube video wherein user Dragonite Trainer (fitting) catches a Dragonair in the Yellow Safari Zone. I suppose someone who goes by Dragonite Trainer would be one of the rare people interested in catching a Dragonair in the Safari Zone. Dragonite Trainer is using an emulator at 3x or 4x speed, which would certainly accelerate the process (I played at normal speed). One interesting point is that Dragonite Trainer used a rock to make Dragonair angry and thus easier to catch.
As I explained earlier, using rocks does increase the catch rate. In almost all cases, it is not the best statistical strategy because of the effect it has on the run rate. The best statistical play for Dragonair is to just chuck Safari Balls at it. However, while rocks are sub-optimal in a sense, they do represent a potentially high reward in any given encounter. Regardless of the strategy, the odds for catching Dragonair in any individual encounter are very low, so I suppose someone who feels lucky can make a case for the rock strategy.
What did I take away from the experience?
I knew going in that catching a Dragonair would be a pain, although I was not armed with the specific odds when I began my journey. While I do not recall what precisely I expected, I probably did not expect to miss 30 consecutive Dragonair, especially having come off catching a Tauros on my second or third attempt. I had slightly worse luck with Dragonair than even the terrible odds would have predicted.
When I realized that Dragonair was going to be more stubborn than I anticipated, I mixed up my Safari Zone sessions. For example, I might fish up three Dragonair and, after burning a good number of Safari Balls on those, wander around the Safari Zone a bit to see if I could catch any other rare Pokémon after having caught Tauros. As I noted, I had a particular interest in Chansey, but my small number of Chansey encounters were even less successful than my Dragonair failures.
Interestingly, I came to find the process somewhat relaxing. My expectations were low (I started to figure out Dragonair was even more luck-based than I thought going in), and I mixed up my Safari Zone adventures to keep things from becoming too repetitive. I felt a sense of accomplishment – albeit it was a testament to my willingness to grind through failed Dragonair encounters rather than any skill – when I finally caught my level 15 Dragonair. It is something of a trophy Pokémon and I can (and will) transport it to the new Pokémon games on Switch.
While my telling this story was inspired by my Midsummer Haze nightmare, catching a Dragonair was more enjoyable and rewarding than doing the same thing in a visual novel 43 times in a row. Besides the fact that wandering around the Safari Zone is not a bad way to pass the time when you are not hopelessly lost like I was in 1999 during my first Pokémon Red play-thru, the Dragonair safari was a quest that I took on my own initiative. Conversely, I needed to actually get through Midsummer Haze in order to publish a full and complete review of the visual novel, and there was no way other than through brute force. I think of the comparison as the difference between learning for pleasure (Dragonair) and doing homework (Midsummer Haze).
While writing this article, it occurred to me that it is odd that Dragonair was added to the Safari Zone in Pokémon Yellow.
Dratini was available in the Safari Zone in Pokémon Red and Blue as well as in the Celadon City Game Corner (as an expensive prize). Exempting the Game Corner option, Dratini was one of a few Pokémon only available in the wild of the Safari Zone. This made some sense in that Dratini was one of only three dragon Pokémon and thus special in that respect.
But what was the reason for adding Dratini’s evolution?
This I know not. There are many cases in the generation Pokémon game wherein it is only possible to catch a Pokémon’s pre-evolution and not in its final evolution. Dragonite is a relevant example here. Even in Yellow, it is not possible to catch Dragonite. The only way to obtain it without trading is to evolve a Dragonair at level 55 or higher. That Dragonite was still locked to evolution seems to remove any purpose for going out of one’s way to add Dragonair to the Pokémon Yellow Safari Zone.
I will add that, in theory, there were some other somewhat rare water-bound Pokémon that could have been added to the Safari Zone. For example, Game Freak could have added Gyarados with a low catch rate (for those people who are too lazy to raise a Magikarp to level 20) or a Pokémon that would not otherwise appear until later in the game such as Seel. Why Dragonair?
In the end, I could not find an answer to my question. I suppose Game Freak just thought it would be fun to add the majestic Dragonair to the waters of the Safari Zone. But this leaves us with an additional question: Why is Dragonair at the seemingly impossibly low level 15? It is not as if this was necessary to balance the game. Dragonair itself is not particularly strong and at level 35 (its normal evolution level), it is still a very long 20 levels away from evolving into a Dragonite.
I have formulated a theory on the level 15 point.
According to Cave of the Dragonflies, a level 35 Dragonair would have had a 46.09% chance of running to go along with its Safari Zone-low 3.67% catch rate. It seems possible to me that Game Freak decided that a level 35 Dragonair, without additional intervention, would be too difficult to catch.
Of course, this is just a theory. Perhaps someone at Game Freak simply liked the idea of a level 15 Dragonair raising questions by merely existing.
If you have Pokémon Yellow, whether an original copy, the 3DS Virtual Console version, or a ROM, I am not sure that I can recommend taking time out of your life to catch a level 15 Dragonair, but if you are a Dragonair fan who enjoys repeatedly casting your Super Rod and seeing the message that your Safari Ball missed the Pokémon, there are worse ways to have fun.