Pokemon Let’s Go’s daring break from the series’ longstanding formula results in one of the most refreshing Pokemon games we have had in years.
In 22 years, not a single mainline Pokemon game has appeared on consoles. Sure, we’ve received a spate of spin offs, from Pokemon Stadium to Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness, to Pokken Tournament on the Wii U and Switch, but a true blue Pokemon RPG from Game Freak, the games that lie at the center of this multimedia behemoth, and which have made the series one of gaming’s mainstays, have so far been confined to Nintendo’s portables. Your Pokemon adventures have remained firmly on the small screen.
Until now. Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! marks the first time a mainline Pokemon game has shown up on a home console. And while this isn’t the core RPG we were promised — Pokemon 8 comes out next year — it’s a game that lives up to the unenviable billing all the same. By making a series of daring decisions, a lot of which proved divisive in the run up to the game’s launch, but end up paying off in spades in the final product, Pokemon Let’s Go ends up becoming one of the most refreshing games the franchise has had in years.
Let’s Go goes back to the basics of Pokemon in every way. The game acts as a sort of retelling of Pokemon Yellow, from the very first generation of the series. Thus, we are returned to Kanto, the land the first games took place in, we are left with only the original 151 Pokemon, and we are surrounded by familiar faces, such as Brock, Misty, Jesse, James, and Giovanni. If you grew up on Pokemon, and especially with the very first set of games, there is no quantifying just how much nostalgia Let’s Go will stir in your soul—seeing that original adventure, which was monochromatic 8-bit on the blurry GameBoy screen, brought to life in glorious HD on your TV hits hard, and more than anything else, acts as a testament to just how far this franchise has come in 22 years.
"If you grew up on Pokemon, and especially with the very first set of games, there is no quantifying just how much nostalgia Let’s Go will stir in your soul—seeing that original adventure, which was monochromatic 8-bit on the blurry GameBoy screen, brought to life in glorious HD on your TV hits hard, and more than anything else, acts as a testament to just how far this franchise has come in 22 years. "
The original Pokemon adventure was a simple one—you set out to be the very best, and you tried to catch every Pokemon in the world. The world saving plots with evil villains with all sorts of tangled schemes that went on to define future games weren’t present here. Yes, you have Team Rocket, but they’re a criminal enterprise, with no grander schemes. Yes, there are still some Legendary Pokemon to be found throughout Kanto, but they’re waiting for the player who would step off the beaten trail to try and find them, rather than being an unavoidable part of the core story.
This simplicity works wonderfully in the games’ favor, because you are never bogged down with the kind of constant dialog, NPC chatter, and railroading that made the future games so tiresome. This is your adventure, and you make your way through Kanto at your own pace. And it’s a breezy adventure, too, light hearted and never overbearing in any manner.
This simplicity and breeziness is also reflected in the games’ mechanics, which are severely stripped back from the complexity of the later Pokemon games. Gone are mechanics like weather effects, abilities, breeding, and the like. Gone even are wild Pokemon battles—you encounter them directly in the overworld, and then catch them in a Pokemon GO style minigame. More than anything else, this change has proven to be controversial, and while I wouldn’t want to see Pokemon games in general move to this style of capturing Pokemon, I think it works well for this game. Kanto is just littered with trainers, and trainer battles are still in this game. By making Pokemon encounters not be battles, there’s some variation introduced in the gameplay, and it never threatens to be bogged down in some of the longer dungeons like the original games often could.
This mechanic also ties into the simplification of other mechanics I previously mentioned—for instance, Pokemon Let’s Go deobfuscates stats such as EVs (used to determine your Pokemon’s stat growth upon leveling up) and IVs (which are basically its genetically determined potential). Catching multiple Pokemon gets you candy, like in Pokemon GO, and this candy can then be directly used to control growth of certain stats for your Pokemon, without having to engage in the sort of EV training that made raising Pokemon beyond a casual level so daunting in past games. Again, this is not something I would necessarily wish for every game in the series to adopt from here on—but it works well within the context of what Let’s Go tries to do.
"wonderfully in Let’s Go’s favor. The whole adventure feels liberated from the shackles of how overwrought Pokemon had become in recent years, and takes flight by focusing on the core premise that makes this franchise so enduring to begin with—you, your journey, your Pokemon, your adventure."
Stripping away extraneous mechanics and focusing on only the core—like with stripping away hundreds of Pokemon to return to only the original 151–works wonderfully in Let’s Go’s favor. The whole adventure feels liberated from the shackles of how overwrought Pokemon had become in recent years, and takes flight by focusing on the core premise that makes this franchise so enduring to begin with—you, your journey, your Pokemon, your adventure.
And your adventure and your Pokemon come to life like never before in Let’s Go. Your bond with your Pokemon is placed firmly center stage in this game, with you receiving a starter corresponding to what version you pick up, who then stays outside of its Pokeball and perches on your head or shoulders for the rest of the game. You can play with your Pokemon, you can pet it, you can feed it, and as you do, your bond with it increases. As it comes to love you more, it becomes more effective in battle, surviving hits that would otherwise have killed it in one go, outlasting status afflictions like Poison and Paralysis, and growing quicker to try and please you. It finds items in the overworld for you, and makes gifts to present you with them. It responds to story events, and tries to catch your attention. It is literally the cutest thing I have ever seen. You can spend hours just petting your Pikachu and poking at its cheeks, and feeling your heart melt as it giggles when you tickle it, or how goofy it looks in the various outfits you can deck your Pikachu or Eevee out in.
Your Pikachu or Eevee isn’t the only Pokemon you are limited to bonding with, either. You can select a second Pokemon from your party to follow you around in the overworld. This Pokemon will find things in ther overworld, interact with them, and grow closer to you as you walk with it, with similar effects in battle as with your starter.
"Collectively, having your Pokemon out of their Pokeballs, interacting with the world meaningfully, as well as with you, and removing random battles, instead having wild Pokemon spawn directly in the world, go a long way towards de-abstracting Pokemon as a concept. The world of Pokemon, and the creatures who inhabit it, have never before felt this alive and this tangibly real."
Collectively, having your Pokemon out of their Pokeballs, interacting with the world meaningfully, as well as with you, and removing random battles, instead having wild Pokemon spawn directly in the world, go a long way towards de-abstracting Pokemon as a concept. The world of Pokemon, and the creatures who inhabit it, have never before felt this alive and this tangibly real. For the very first time, the Pokemon world feels like how the anime has always depicted it, and how our imagination told us it must be like—except now we don’t need those gaps filled, we can see it as it is in the game itself.
A lot of this comes down to the game’s visual strength. From a technical perspective, this game isn’t going to be winning any awards, and that’s not what sells it here. Rather, it is the strong artistic vision, and how striking and stunning it looks on the big screen, and on your Nintendo Switch screen, alike. Colors are sharp, lines are crisp, textures are well defined and smooth, and the whole world pops out of your screen due to a very coherent and strong art style.
The gorgeous art is backed by the iconic, classic soundtrack brought to life anew with some of the best remixing I have ever heard in a video game remake. Junichi Masuda, the director of Let’s Go, was the original music composer for Pokemon Red, Blue, and Yellow, and he deals a knowing but respectful hand to the original music, with some very smart instrumentation to make the soundtrack suitably appropriate to the gravitas, or lack thereof as and when applicable, of what unfolds on the screen.
"Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow were always a very strong core adventure, and Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Eevee! smartly update them for the modern era."
For all of its considerable strengths, however, Pokemon Let’s Go does have flaws. The game’s performance in handheld mode, for example, can be bafflingly incompetent, with frame rate perceptibly dropping in areas with heavy foliage and lots of Pokemon spawns. Then, too, is the question of the game’s controls—in docked mode, you play with one Joycon (and one Joycon only), and during wild Pokemon encounters, you must mime the Pokeball throwing motion to throw the Pokeball at the wild Pokemon you are facing. In handheld mode, it’s a bit better, as you just use gyro to aim, and use a button press to actually trigger the Pokeball throw, but it’s a bit perplexing as to why regular controls are not supported at all. You can’t use both Joycons in their grip, and the game won’t even acknowledge the Pro Controller. While the control scheme can get tiresome, it at least never gets in the way of the experience, so it’s not as bad as it could have been otherwise—but it’s a definite oversight in a game that otherwise goes out of its way to be so inclusive.
The online functions are definitely lacking, too. Now, once again, I get that this is a more streamlined Pokemon game for a wider audience, and that’s fine—but, for instance, there is no actual random matchmaking for trading or battling, and online interactions are gated behind bizarre Pokesymbolic codes that you and your friend must input at the same time to be paired up with one another, while also hoping that no one else will have that exact same code at that exact same time. Again, it’s needlessly convoluted—and flies in the face of how streamlined the rest of the game is.
Those flaws exist, yes, but in the end, they do little to detract from how strong the overall package is. Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow were always a very strong core adventure, and Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Eevee! smartly update them for the modern era. With a slew of daring changes to the formula, a focus on you, your adventure, and your bond with your Pokemon, and gorgeous graphics that bring the world of Pokemon to life, Pokemon Let’s Go represents a very auspicious home console debut for the largest franchise in the world, and the best Pokemon game we have had in years.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
Gorgeous graphics, great soundtrack, some drastic changes to the series formula, such as the removal of random encounters and wild Pokemon battles; charming and cute as all heck, and liberated from the overwrought, railroaded outings of recent franchise entries; extremely breezy, yet compelling and addictive
The control scheme is limiting and exclusionary; the online functionality is limited; the performance in handheld mode can be puzzlingly poor
Pokemon weaponizes nostalgia and embraces change in one potent package that delivers the series’ best outing in years.