Every time a new Pokemon game releases, millions of people around the world sit up in giddy anticipation. No matter how frequently we get new instalments, no matter much better (or worse) the series gets with its iterations, every new release still feels like a celebration. Like a call to adventure and a journey through a wonderful new world, full of amazing new monsters to see and befriend.
Pokemon Sword and Shield are launching later this year, and by all accounts, this is one of the most momentous releases this series has seen in years. As the first new generation of Pokemon games to launch on a console, and as a sequel that’s looking like its going to make some tangible changes which fans of the series have been dreaming about for years, Sword and Shield should, on paper, be all set to take the industry by storm.
Over the last few weeks, however, things haven’t been going as expected. While there’s no doubting that this will still be one of the biggest releases of the year and will end up selling gangbusters, the general mood in the hardcore Pokemon fanbase seems to be one of early disappointment. At a time when we all should have been waiting for the upcoming releases with child-like anticipation, many series fans are instead showing their displeasure with some of the decisions Game Freak is taking.
Since 1996, “Gotta catch ’em all” has been the war-cry of millions of Pokemon fans. With every new game in the series, Game Freak adds multiple new Pokemon species to its ever growing roster of pocket monsters, to the point where now, we’re standing at over 800 Pokemon (soon to be over 900). But even still, Pokemon fans live by that one mantra- gotta catch ’em all.
Over the last few weeks, however, the massive worldwide fanbase of the series has been up in arms over the fact that Game Freak itself doesn’t seem to be respecting that mantra. Not too long ago, it was confirmed that of the aforementioned over 900 Pokemon species, Sword and Shield wouldn’t feature support for every single one of them. For many years running, we’ve sort of taken it for granted that each new Pokemon game will support every single Pokemon species in existence, and the fact that Sword and Shield won’t be doing so has upset a lot of people.
It’s not hard to understand why. To be honest, Game Freak’s position isn’t hard to understand either, but I’ll get to that in a bit- for now, let’s speak about the fans’ side of things. For a Pokemon game to not include every single Pokemon species stings so much for fans because it seems contrarian to the crux of any Pokemon experience- because how can we “catch them all” if a Pokemon game doesn’t even have them all?
Sure, there have been Pokemon games in the past that didn’t natively have previous Pokemon species – like Black and White, for example. But even Black and White at least allowed us to import our Pokemon from other games, so that we could add the new Unova Pokemon to our ever-growing Pokedexes. With Sword and Shield, however, there will be a certain number of Pokemon – we don’t know how many yet – that simply will not be supported.
For fans, not only does that seem to go against the core conceit of the series, it also seems like its disrespecting all the effort they’ve put in over the years trying to build their Pokedexes- catching all the new Pokemon and transferring the older ones forward from game to game, from year to year, to amass a roster that represents years of progress with the series. So of course, knowing that a chunk of that progress won’t be considered with Pokemon Sword and Shield can feel a bit deflating.
There’s also the fact that this isn’t something that’s going to be exclusive to Sword and Shield- it’s just how things are going to be going forward. It seems like the days of new Pokemon releases supporting every single Pokemon species are gone. In light of that, all the disappointing we’ve discussed up to this point only gets compounded.
But. But. While the disappointing of the hardcore Pokemon fanbase isn’t without merit, it has to be said that Game Freak’s reasoning for this decision also makes sense. The reason Sword and Shield’s Pokedex will be, essentially, incomplete, is that there are just too many Pokemon now. Counting the over 800 Pokemon that already exist, plus the new ones that will be added in Galar, plus all the different forms and variations that multiple Pokemon have, the developers say there are now over a thousand Pokemon. That’s over a thousand separate characters, essentially, that they have to program, code, and animate, not to mention the fact that they each need to be balanced so that the core gameplay – and the competitive multiplayer scene – doesn’t break.
Game Freak have said very plainly that all of it has become a bit too hard to manage- which is totally understandable. If this were any other game that would be thinking of cutting down on its cast of over a thousand characters to make things more manageable and easier to develop, we wouldn’t even bat an eye- but with Pokemon, we’ve sort of been taking this granted for a while. And it’s not like this has just become an issue right now all of a sudden. The developers have stated that even with Pokemon Sun and Moon, things had been a little too complicated for them (even though they managed to make it work in the end), and that for a while now, they’ve been looking for an opportunity to put a stop to the practice of having support for every single Pokemon in a new Pokemon game.
With Sword and Shield being the first new Pokemon generation to debut on a console, Game Freak have also done things to take advantage of the Switch’s hardware. No, this isn’t going to be a visual powerhouse, but every Pokemon included in the game has been remodelled and reanimated from scratch to have higher quality animations and assets. Doing all that for the number of Pokemon we have right now is no easy task- especially not when, you know, they have the entire rest of the game to make as well.
While it’s disappointing that Pokemon may not have support for all species in a single game for a while now, there’s another way of looking at it- it’s become very much like a fighting series, with each new instalment introducing some new characters, while also having a rotating roster of older ones. You wouldn’t expect a sequel in a fighting franchise to have every single character the series has ever had (unless the sequel is made by Masahiro Sakurai). I mean, you wouldn’t expect to see that in Mortal Kombat 12, would you? Sure, Mortal Kombat never told us we have to “fight them all” or “perform Fatalities on them all”- but Mortal Kombat also doesn’t have over 900 characters.
The question that Game Freak, The Pokemon Company, and Nintendo will be most concerned with right now is- is this going to affect sales for Pokemon Sword and Shield? In all likelihood, no. For starters, the vast, vast majority of the people who’ll be buying Sword and Shield won’t even care about the whole Pokedex controversy. Dedicated, veteran series fans or people that have that kind of time on their hands will be pissed that they can’t “catch them all” anymore, but the bulk of the playerbase won’t be playing the games to do that- they’ll be looking to play through a thirty hour long Pokemon adventure in a new region with new Pokemon- and that’s it.
Could this controversy (or mini-controversy) affect sales in the long-term? Maybe- but that, ultimately, depends not on this, but on the game itself. If Pokemon Sword and Shield turn out to be an absolutely excellent new addition to the series, and if its Wild Area and its Max Raid battles and all the other new things it’s attempting are implemented properly, after all is said and done, people will find it much easier to get over its lacking Pokedex. We might be looking back at this as nothing but a momentary moment of outrage over something that ultimately mattered very little.
Conversely, if Sword and Shield don’t hit the ball out of the park, if they’re disappointing entries that don’t live up to their promise, and maybe even if they’re “more Pokemon, but on a console”- the Pokedex controversy might take on a new form entirely. If players don’t have something special to latch on to, issues with the game will become that much more glaring- and while for a series as massive as Pokemon that likely won’t affect launch sales (remember when Sun and Moon sold ten million on the day of release?), in the long term, that hypothetical sour reception and poor word of mouth might have a detrimental impact on sales.
What it all boils down to is this- Pokemon Sword and Shield need to be really, really good. I mean, sure, they needed to be really, really good anyway, especially since this is Pokemon’s console debut. And sure, Game Freak’s position and the difficulties they would face if they attempted to rectify this issue are understandable. But if Pokemon Sword and Shield aren’t excellent new entries in this long-running franchise, people might not be so willing to overlook Game Freak’s errors anymore.