I have been a huge Pokémon fan ever since I received my Pokémon Blue cartridge and I picked Charmander to embark on my first trainer journey. Ever since then I have followed every main game, sometimes the spin offs and definitely Go, to take each of my silent trainers along their tried and tested journey; Pick grass/water/fire, beat the gyms, beat the bad team and then become champion. Rarely have the games deviated from this path over the past 20 to 25 years and up until recently I would argue they haven’t need to but that brings me to the point of this ‘little’ piece of writing; for a game about evolution and becoming the best you can be, why has Pokémon failed to make a significant evolution in its formula and not reached its full potential in recent games?
For those who know me, this may sound like I am back tracking on my thoughts around Pokémon as I have typically been a staunch defender of the series and always optimistic about the series, even up to Sword and Shield the most recent additions to the franchise. However, as I play through my nuzlocke of Shield, I am beginning to agree with some of the criticism of the games as I begin to see the same formula repeated over and over. The game has failed to evolve with its fanbase who, unlike the main games, has been growing up over the past two decades and these fans have been exposed to a variety of different games and difficulties meaning that Pokémon still feels very early 2000s in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that as a 29 year old, I am unlikely to be their primary audience, but there are many games out there that cater to a huge age variety (take Breath of the Wild or Mario) and they are still able to keep it entertaining and fresh for everyone. There have been changes to the games, don’t get me wrong, and the games feel a lot more polished and user friendly that earlier versions but they have also lost a lot of their charm along the way. I am going to go through what I think the fundamental issues are and how, I think, they could be inspired by other games and franchises to refresh the series. When I started writing, it was intended to be a single post however as I write I want to give fair detail and time to each point so instead this will be a series of posts detailing both the positives and negatives I see in the games, with this one being the first looking at the difficulty levels, the world itself and the maturity of the games. I also want to touch upon the DLC of the game as well. I write this with my thoughts in mind and not in an effort to tear the games down but instead look forward to see how I could imagine these games growing to loftier heights in the future. Also, despite what I say here and if the future games will contain these changes, I will always buy these games as I love Pokémon (As mentioned, I will write about this separately) but I want to be someone who is not blinded by excitement to recognise flaws in these games.
I am going to start with the difficulty as that is something that is often criticised and it is becoming painfully obvious as to why. The games become progressively more handy-holdy, with the tutorials on how to catch as well as throwing beneficial but also difficulty-dumbing items at you early on such as the EXP share that allows for your whole team to level up as you battle. Yes, these can be tweaked and sometimes turned off, but it practically builds your team for you whereas in early games you needed to train your team ahead of a gym, consider you strategy and sometimes even go and seek new Pokémon that you wouldn’t have previously considered. It also allows you to, once you have encountered a Pokémon, know what moves will be effective against it and what won’t. This, in turn, strips away the need to learn about your opponents and also make mistakes that can sometimes be costly to the battle. I am sure that as a youngster it was through this research and trial and error that I learnt to keep trying and keep going. In making it so accessible (and I never thought I would complain that accessibility was a bad thing) it has stripped away any challenge from players who have 1, being playing for decades or 2, simply have played different games with harder difficulty curves. The community has resorted to making their own rules to account for the lack of challenge, for this I refer back to my nuzlocke challenge. For those of you who don’t know, this involves me playing with self enforced rules (if the Pokémon faints it is dead for example and can’t be used again) and these are often used by the community to increase the challenge. However, GameFreak could simply put a difficulty modifier in… and this way keep it accessible for new players while providing a challenge for fans. This could involve higher level trainers, less items or even slower Pokémon exp growth. Hell, even throw in a nuzlocke mode!
My Starters for each Generation
- Gen 1 – Red & Blue – Charmander
- Gen 2 – Gold & Silver – Cyndaquil
- Gen 3 – Ruby & Sapphire – Torchic
- Gen 4 – Diamond & Pearl – Chimchar
- Gen 5 – Black & White – Tepig
- Gen 6 – X & Y – Froakie
- Gen 7 – Sun & Moon – Rowlet
- Gen 8 – Sword & Shield – Scorbunny
It is always worth remembering on this next point, that Pokémon is an Eastern game, dreamt up and created in Japan and therefore influenced and shaped by JRPGs. I, however, grew up influenced largely by the Western style of RPGs like Skyrim and the Witcher. I do think that this contrast means that the series is unlikely to change too much in this direction but I do think they need to be mindful of the now global popularity of the franchise and take this style into consideration. I love open world games, with me currently taking the human form of a Bethesda/Skyrim tap meaning that in whatever form they release the game in, I am likely to spill money on it. One of the reasons I love Skyrim is that you have your own control over your actions; you choose where to go, what to say and so on. Pokémon has recently dipped its toe into the concept of open worlds with the Wild Area which allows you to free roam around dedicated areas but other than that it is largely still a linear experience while you follow route after route. Adversely, Breath of the Wild has shown that Eastern franchises can embrace more freedom in its story telling successfully which is why when Pokémon was limited in its offering there was a lot of disappointment from the fans. I agree that the story sometimes requires an element of shepherding however imagine a Poke-world where you could tackle the gyms in whatever order you liked, explored what you wanted from the get go and not be so limited by the formula that has come before. I am not asking or expecting a drastic BotW style change but it would be great to be given larger freedom to explore a deeper, more expansive world in your own way. When you come across a new town you could be encouraged to stay as there with side quests, mysteries or simply points of interests that draw you in. The story you experience would be your own, Currently though, the towns may as well be just a gym and a Poke-centre. These worlds have such an amazing opportunity to be filled with life and lore; I mean look at the anime where you can see this sprawling adventure that Ash has been travelling on. He meets exciting characters and gets drawn into side activities all with the aim of growing his character and his team, all while fundamentally still aiming towards the lofty goal of becoming the Pokémon Master. Give us this scale! Give us the Witcher length game where you can get lost in towns for hours on end and really form that bond with your team. It is also worth noting, that this is something Final Fantasy does very well so maybe this influence needs to be drawn in to future games too. Ultimately, the game is struggling to stand up to other triple A games and arguably even some double A games. GameFreak needs to have faith in its fans and players that they are ready for this adventure to truly become the champion of whatever reason they choose. I think a lot of the charm I experienced as a child with Pokémon Blue was because my imagination filled in the gaps and built up this world. As these games become more detailed and visually striking, they can ironically feel emptier as it is harder to fill in these gaps. That and maybe my childish imagination has been battered by life.
My Dream Team
Following this, I wanted to talk maturity in general and this is a very difficult one to balance. As the target audience is clearly aimed at young players the way that the game is positioned is also, by its nature, very immature. It can discuss dark and mature themes sure but on the surface still remains immature. I mean I get it, you also need to sell the merch etc alongside the games – makes total sense. But as someone who has grown up with this series, the game NEEDS to give us something too or it runs the risk of losing the older generation of players. And this becomes problematic if you can’t onboard more younger players than the older ones you lose. I am not asking for a dark, gritty reboot of the game but instead a game or version that offers an older playable character, even a teenager will do, with different priorities and challenges. Create a game where the post game is instead about setting up your very own gym, hiring other members, training the teams and competing in the gym for example. Make some of the threat a little more threatening. We are a huge segment of older players who have legitimate purchase power and influence and as it stands we buy in through nostalgia and optimism but this dries up. You can already see that this is drying up with the most recent games. The anime tackled this in a way a few years back with its mini series Pokémon Origins which recapped the original games in a slightly more mature way and was met with great approval as it tapped into the nostalgia glands of the likes of me. Its a hard line to balance for sure, but what is effectively a game about capturing animals with the ability to create fire and bend space and time and then fighting them against each other. you would figure there is an element of maturity to tackle here.
DLC – The right direction or not?
I appreciate that I have rambled up till now and thank you for sticking with me so far – this will only be a short piece. The DLC suggests a change in the mentality of the Pokémon Company but I am unsure if it is the right one. I will touch upon this on each of the blogs, but it is also timely as the Crown Tundra, the second part of the expansion pass has got its release date of 22nd October. You can see the trailer for it below:
As for the question around the DLC itself – is it the right move? I think if done properly, I think it could be but I don’t feel like yet they have nailed it yet. For example, on my Sword file I went into the first part, the Isle of Armour, with an incredibly powerful team meaning the entire expanded experience was a cake walk for me. It can be played from the start and when I played it on my Shield file it was a much more entertaining experience as it offered a challenge as the Pokémon were a similar level and it felt scaled. The Pokémon do scale to a level but cap out around level 60 meaning my Sword team still has no issue. I fear that the Crown Tundra will have the same issue. Although it offers new areas to explore and returning Pokémon to catch, the charm of travelling these lands with your team and still facing the challenges together has gone. For something like this, I would look more to a Destiny 2 style expansion… one where it shakes up the meta and also puts restrictions on you. Make every Pokémon level 50, even my level 100s, meaning that it is all at least a level playing field. Make these worlds wonderful by giving you the ability to discover it and struggle along the way. By doing so, it may well excite some returning players.