Nintendo and Game Freak have announced a pair of new Pokémon games. In other news, the world revolves around the Sun, Pluto is no longer part of our Solar System and Chuck Norris is Chuck Norris. Big surprise, right? This announcement comes not too long after the release of Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 for the Nintendo DS. The big hook here – and there must always be one for Pokémon games – is that this will be the series’ first time traversing into full 3D environments. No, Pikachu won’t be coming out of the screen to ask you to sing along to the Pokémon rap (though it IS a 3DS game), but the game’s environments, characters and battle sequences will now be lovingly rendered in polygonal environments. No more sprites, no more flat, static animations. This will finally be the Pokémon game we’ve been waiting for since, well, since the Nintendo DS first released.
The question then arises: Are we still talking about the same Pokémon game?
When I first got into Pokémon, it was from the very beginning. That’s right: Red and Blue, old-school style. Those were the days we concentrated on making our Pokémon stronger than our friends’; the days we both marvelled and struggled with the link cable system and trying to collect all 150 Pokémon; the days when finding Mew via the GameShark was a huge, friggin’ deal.
More than anything, they were the days of simply training Pokémon, and playing them against each other with a combination of strategy, understanding of our opponent and a hell of a lotta luck.
Those were the days when very few Pokémon had dual classes, and you had to carefully deduce whether to go for the straightforward power option or take your opponent by surprise.
This standard was pretty much held up for when Gold and Silver came around. Only the number of Pokémon now stood at 252. At first, I found this to be awesome. Having played the death out of Pokémon Red, and run through the game with just about every starter Pokémon, I thought a whole new world of mystery and intrigue awaited.
The problem is what came after that.
After Gold and Silver, Game Freak decided it needed to increase the de facto Pokémon count for each game. As of now, there are 649 Pokémon before the release of Pokémon X and Y, not including those within the upcoming two games. There is a point where you marvel at all the content and imagine the intrigue of the creatures that await you.
There is another point where these Pokémon seemed rushed, uninspired and just plain silly compared to the simple, unique brilliance of a Charmander, Squirtle or Bulbasaur. And not a single game till now has been able to produce an icon on the scale of Pikachu.
Game Freak also took the overall training mechanism of Pokémon and mixed in a ton of nuances. Innate abilities, natures, two-Pokémon battles, three-Pokémon battles, phenomena, beauty contests, musicals, changing seasons, varying attack types, great variety of dual classes, moods, and much more now influence your typical Pokémon experience, and your chances of catching Pokémon. And for the love of all that is holy, let’s not get into the breeding aspect of the game which would give the directors of Splice nightmares.
It’s understandable that a game like Pokémon has to evolve, so to speak. It can’t keep doing the same thing for years on end – although, essentially, it has. You still just capture Pokémon, and do battle with them in turn-based format.
For all the changes being bandied about, no one has thought about using a more intuitive battle system that takes the dynamic nature and power of these creatures into account. Can you imagine what the battles would be like if we had a Tales of Symphonia-style side scrolling action system?
Everything else just feels like dressing onto the same old experience, and this has been the major drawback of Pokémon titles for all these years: For all their claims of doing things differently, they all play the same.
Yes, there are people who love that experience and that same turn-based, “Gotta catch ‘em all” format. However, contrast to something like Mega Man Battle Network, which still incorporates a collectible mechanic and strategy into classic Mega Man style side-scrolling shooting (mixed with some interesting RPG features), Pokémon hasn’t done anything to really augment or add to its core gameplay.
There are only so many cruise liners and beauty contests I can take part in before I realize that it’s still the same game I’d played back in 1998, only with more distractions to keep me thinking that it’s different.
Hopefully Game Freak will take the creative freedom that a fully 3D game could provide and make some real sweeping changes to the game. However, the core appeal of the franchise lays not in adding more Pokémon or more bells and whistles – it lays in crafting a memorable world, full of mystery, that won’t be forgotten soon when the next iteration is out.
If the developer can combine that appeal with major changes to the game’s mechanics, Pokémon X and Y could indeed bring the franchise back to the podium of excellence it once stood on.