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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, November 18, 2021

An Appreciation of Pokémon, for the Series' 25th Anniversary

Back in January, in my 2020 Video Game Round-Up, I made a brief, non-indie game digression to talk about Pokémon, specifically the expansion content for Sword & Shield versions. I was a pretty big fan of both the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLCs, but then again, I am also a much bigger fan of Generation VIII than most people. So, with new Pokémon games on the horizon (both the Generation IV remakes Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl later this month, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus in early 2022), plus the added context of a few other games I’ve been playing lately, I figured I would expand a little more on what I like about Gen VIII* and the series as a whole.

*I have no idea what the breakdown of the readership of Out of Left Field looks like, so for anyone who needs a quick primer on which years and games each generation refers to, the series’ Wikipedia page breaks it down in several ways.

It’s come up a few times here (most recently in that 2020 Round-Up, and as background for my review of the wonderful Lenna’s Inception*), but I am a huge fan of Pokémon, going all the way back to the days of Red and Blue. I started right when the Gen I games came to America, and have played every generation of games since then, as well as a number of spinoffs. And as you may have picked up from my discussion of glitch-hunting and such from the Lenna’s Inception article, I was reading different fan sites and forums about the series for a lot of that time as well.

*Speaking of, some good news on that front: Bytten Studio’s follow-up, the monster taming RPG Cassette Beasts, was picked up by publisher Raw Fury (they’ve published some solid titles; I believe I’ve mentioned Dandara and Townscaper here in the past) and will be coming to consoles as well as PC. I’m still super excited for this one!

I say all of that not as any sort of brag, but 1) to emphasize that the series means a lot to me; and 2) because I know my opinion on Sword & Shield is not at all common among fans, although it is partially the result of that long relationship with the games. There are a lot of changes Gen VIII brought that elicited fan ire, but one thing that stood out to me as I read a lot of it was how familiar it all seemed, usually in stark contrast with how it was presented.

Most of the things in Generation VIII that often got cited as “franchise ruining” felt a lot like reiterations of past changes and disagreements within the fanbase. Complaints about an incomplete Pokédex? Gen III received criticism at its launch when there was no ability to transfer your Pokémon from Gen II, and Gen V received similar criticism when it tried to focus on an entirely new set of monsters. Complaints about the graphics? Possibly even more common, from long standing complaints about the games remaining in an overhead, 2D spirited style, to complaints any time the games introduced-then-removed motion in battle sprites, to complaints the moment they switched to a 3D style, with an understated resurgence in opinions that they should just return to a 2D style (although I’ve even seen disagreements there on whether such a switch should be back to pixel art or to animations).*

*My own, long-held opinion on graphics in video games (in general, not just Pokémon) is that the industry as whole is way too concerned on graphical performance and “realism”, especially at the highest level, and that we have long passed the tipping point at which the effort and money still being dumped into achieving these things are not worth the marginally better visuals that result (especially given how many other aspects of the game could use that extra focus). The Pokémon games could do better here, of course, but their greatest constraint at this point is probably more related to short turnaround times for the developers, rather than any sort of commitment to a house art style or graphical engine on Game Freak’s part.

I could go on about the variety of complaints, but my larger point is that each of these complaints has existed before, usually across multiple generations, and it hasn’t stopped people from determining different entries are their personal favorite. Any belief that Gen VIII will break from this pattern strikes me as unlikely. And as long as the series remains committed to its aggressive release schedule (of new Generations every three years, with remakes and third versions or DLC in the intervening years), each new generation is going to be more iterative, with its own new flaws, failed experiments, and successes.

As a result, in my opinion, the different entries are all fairly equal in quality, and your opinion of each entry will heavily come down on how much you liked or disliked the tweaks and fixes it brought in that specific iteration (as well as some degree of personal nostalgia). So, with that said, what personally do I look for in my own rankings? Generally, a decent number of new Pokémon, with preferably not too heavy a focus on legendaries.* A well-thought-out, engaging region to explore. Some interesting new features and quality of life improvements. An installment that mostly stands on its own, without leaning too hard on past games. A lot of these are kind of vague, but it’s really kind of a “know it when I see it” situation, rather than a hard-and-fast rubric, and I’m fine deviating from it to give extra credit for other aspects that each game does well.

*I’m not totally opposed to legendary Pokémon, but since they are mostly one-offs and tend to be gated behind story events, it can make the new creations feel a little too sparse within the region. I like it when the newest Pokémon get the majority of the focus within the games and aren’t overwhelmed by old standbys throughout the games (which is also why I really liked Gen V’s bold initial call to not include any older monsters in Unova and bypass this pitfall). And in the worst cases, too many legendary Pokémon can also lead to a sense of bloat, where every single monster feels like it’s super-special and powerful (although Gen VII dealt with this a little better than some past ones with their Ultra Beast storyline). You need some sense of balance here.

By all of those standards, Gen VIII is up there with Gen V, in strong contention for the title of “best installment of the series”. The 89 monsters introduced is not the most the series has ever brought in at once, but it is the largest batch since Black & White, and it has a much less overwhelming focus on legendaries when compared to Sun & Moon (not to mention that it has some of my personal favorite designs in a while). The quality of life improvements were vast and, in retrospect, long-needed. New mechanics from the last two Gens that I had been sort of indifferent upon their introduction, like Mega Evolutions, Z-Moves, and regional variants, got refined (in the form of Dynamaxing, for the first two) or applied in much better ways (the new Galarian forms basically did everything I wished the Alolan forms had done in the first place). The Wild Area was a great new introduction, and it was much more interesting to roam and explore than past routes (especially the two new Wild Areas released in the DLC). And between the Wild Areas, the strong theming (Pokémon arenas as soccer stadiums was an especially brilliant stroke), and even-better-than-normal character design, the Galar Region stood out to me.

And thinking about all of those things that made Sword & Shield stand out within the series got me thinking more about the series as a whole. Well, that and a few other things; more specifically, the growing number of indie games in the Monster Taming genre (I’ve already reviewed Monster Sanctuary, and I hope to have a review on another take at the genre up before the end of the year), and a few good pieces I’ve seen looking at the series (HeavyEyed’s video essay and KingK’s Pokémon Retrospective series being the most notable ones).

One of the big realizations is appreciating the scope of what Pokémon manages as a series. Some of that is obviously the result of their longevity, as they celebrate their 25th Anniversary this year and eight-plus iterations of their main series; there are a lot of things you can learn when you’ve been at something for that long (granted, the games are widespread enough that most of their modern competitors have also had the time and opportunity to learn from them over that time as well). But at the same time, a lot of the things they did right were even apparent in the earliest games, as unfinished as Red & Blue could feel at times.

And one of the biggest elements of that nature is the monster designs themselves; I’m hardly the first person to observe this, but every Pokémon is unique, memorable, and appealing enough that it could be somebody’s favorite (and almost certainly is, given the series’ large fanbase). And this goes back all the way to the earliest days of the series; some of the most popular Pokémon are from the first games. Sure, some of that is nostalgia for what came first, but even as someone who has tried to look at it objectively and decided that I like a lot of later Generations’ designs more, there’s still a lot of solid entries in Generation I.

I wish I had a better vocabulary for determining just what makes Game Freak so good at this. I suppose I’ve tried for years, all the way back to my earliest days as a fan, looking at other fans’ creations, and I still am not positive I could verbally capture everything that makes Pokémon look like Pokémon. One thing that I’ve seen others suggest is that their designers do a good job giving everything both a clear and fairly unique look, and also some sort of niche to occupy or archetype to fulfill. I don’t know that this explanation covers every case, and I’m sure I could think of some counterexamples from among the nearly 900 creations, but it’s a pretty good starting point that generally holds up to scrutiny.

Some of it stems from the game’s greater complexity, too, I think. Even in their earliest days, Game Freak had more ideas for the series than they could fit on the cartridge, and they’ve only multiplied since then. They started with fifteen types, and have grown to eighteen in the intervening years. Monsters can have one or two types, evolve at different levels or in a host of different ways, learn their own unique set of moves that can span multiple types, and have their own unique spread of stats influenced by everything from their species to their personalities to their unique individual values.

That’s a lot to handle, but it also helps to flesh out each new creation. And not only that, but a lot of those are apparent even at a basic level. For example, I’ve played games that try and simplify typing, so that monsters can only have one type from a list of seven or eight. Knowing that a monster is “Fire Type” from a short list of options is… useful for strategy when playing the game, but that’s about it. A lot of things can be “fire type” in a video game, it’s a common descriptor.

Comparatively, that’s barely a starting point for Pokémon; a “Fire/Rock” type immediately conjures a bunch of ideas of what it might be, versus a “Fire/Bug” or “Fire/Flying” or “Fire/Dark” Pokémon. There’s still never been a “Fire/Grass” type after 25 years, and just hearing that, I immediately get so many ideas of what the first monster with that typing might be; it’s such an evocative combo. And by having so many options, just making a pure-Fire type carries its own sort of meaning apart from all of that.

It’s a lot to manage, and I can understand why so many other games forgo it. And on top of that, I can see complaints for it, too. It’s a lot to deal with; there are still type interactions that surprise me, because they come up so infrequently. And this isn’t getting into weirder, less-standardized things that are used to define Pokémon, like some of the very-specific evolution methods that the average player would never stumble upon. Ultimately, though, I think this approach allows for a lot of creativity in designs that can stick in your mind, and in the worst cases, there’s no problem in looking things up when you’re just completely lost.

And I think that creativity overlaps with and expands into other areas of the game as well. For instance, I think their character design for human characters is generally fairly strong. Like with the monsters, I have found there are at least some fans for just about every key character of the series (from the Gym Leaders and Elite Four members, to the player characters and rivals, to even the professors and evil team members). It also helps that said designs can be reinforced by the strong and unique Pokémon designs, so filling out a team for a character can even be a thing that expands upon their character.

That’s a factor that expands to the generic trainers, as well, which is probably part of the reason that you’ll even find fans for those stock characters on occasion. It probably also helps how much the Pokémon games try to build out their world and draw parallels to our own. So when you see a Fisherman with six Magikarps, or a Rich Lady with a pet-like monsters like Snubbull and Furfrou, or an Ace Trainer with a team of sleek creatures like Dragonair and Pidgeot, it connects to real world character types and helps you mentally fill in your picture of them a bit more, so they no longer feel like just a generic trainer on the side of the road.

Thinking about it a bit more, I’ve seen a few people point to the idea that Pokémon designs are supposed to exist in “the real world” or “a version of the real world” or something like that (it comes up in HeavyEyed’s video, but it’s by no means the first time I’ve seen that claim). Honestly, I don’t know if this is actually the case (since that claim might well be apocryphal), but that might be a key difference in their monster creation versus others. Sure, all of them look cool in battle, but for most of them, you can also imagine what sort of role they would fill in a real world, how they might function out in the wild, or why people would want them as a pet and how they would function as such.

Honestly, though, I would expand this world-building element beyond just the monster design. The maps of the Pokémon games have always stood out to me, and I could probably do a decent job of drawing maps of each main-game region by memory, even the ones I cared less for and didn’t play as much. And they all have a certain completeness to them? Maybe it’s just from the different ways all of the cities and routes tie together once you’ve explored more. I don’t know that any of them felt like actual real places, or rates among the best video game worlds ever designed, but “a memorable and pleasant place to exist in” is always nice for a game, in my opinion. Much like with creature design, whatever Game Freak’s guiding principles are here, they just work well.

But really, I think the biggest thing that I’ve come to appreciate about the series is how the games allow the player to express themselves. This is an idea that I had been obliquely approaching for a while, after talking about how Chicory allowed players to get creative with their art within the game, and thinking about it in other contexts. Playing some more difficult monster collecting games only made the game sink in a little more; it does feel a little rough seeing so many cool monster designs laid out before you, and then finding out that some of them are just… not great options, strategically, and might leave you stuck in the middle of the game. That’s what happens when you need to balance hundreds of character options: some are going to be worse than others.

One of the complaints that I see come up repeatedly is that Pokémon isn’t more difficult, and after 25 years, they probably aren’t going to change that formula. And on the one hand, I can understand why that’s frustrating. But in comparison with the more difficult games, that allows for a lot of other approaches in how you play Pokémon games. You don’t have to stick to just the strategic creatures, you can stick with the ones that are appealing to you, or fit your style, or help build your story, or anything else.

For difficulty, there are still options. You can get more involved in the competitive scene, which requires actual strategies and training (as well as actually knowing which ‘mons are good), and can be super interesting if you get to understand it more (it was also one of the things greatly streamlined in Generation VIII). Or you could self-impose challenges. Fans have come up with plenty; the HeavyEyed video gets into Nuzlocke runs, Single-type challenges are also fun, speedruns of the series can be pretty entertaining, I’ve spent the last few generations taking advantage of EXP sharing items to just train up dozens of creatures across the game and really feel like a Pokémon Master, picking out specific teams from my larger ranks as needed. Really, the sky is kind of the limit here, especially once you get into fan creations and ROM hacks. And maybe a new, official, in-game Hard Mode option wouldn’t be the worst idea either, but I also don’t know that it’s the most pressing need for the series (and it’s impossible to guess how Game Freak would go about prioritizing or implementing it anyway; they march to their own beat a lot of the time).

The potential for creativity, the ability to do things your way and create narratives, is kind of intrinsic to Pokémon as a series. It’s kind of a reflection of what the series is about, and I absolutely believe that was the designers’ intent going in. And I think that being a series that is so opposed to having a “right way” to get through it is part of what drew me to it as a kid. There are definitely ways you could improve things (although, again, as a series that’s constantly in development and on tight timelines, no individual entry is going to be perfect, even as they are constantly tinkering with it), and there are probably more ways they could allow customization. But as is, I definitely appreciate the games, and in a way that few of their alternatives in the industry have matched.

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