Pokemon Needs To Reflect On It's Past To Evolve Into Something New

There’s a storm brewing in the Pokémon community.  It was recently confirmed that in spite of mass discontent, Pokémon Sword & Shield would not have a national dex - only the Pokémon included in the new Galar region would be available.  By itself, this is hardly a make or break issue, particularly for non-enfranchised players. After all, Pokémon games have historically subtracted as many new features as they have added.  But this change has become symbolic of the many grievances that Pokémon fans have had with the series in recent years.  

The Pokémon franchise is the king of meagre iteration.  It eschews all risk with every new entry, instead focusing on polishing, adding small new features and refining ideas.  Notably, it's not just about piling on new systems - mega evolution is being taken away in the new games, for example (and many would argue for no good reason).  Pokémon is so scared of new features that half the time they don’t even last for longer than 1 game. No-one has ever accused Pokémon of having too much innovation.

Pokémon plays largely the same as it did back when it was first released in 1996.  Sure, it looks prettier. Sure, there are new Pokémon, locations and mechanics. But you’re still doing the same old song and dance of battling trainers and gyms along a linear path, collecting and raising Pokémon all the while.  And while there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it pales in comparison to the evolutions that have taken place in other franchises over the last 20 years.

Its hard to believe this game was released in 1986. Freedom from screen 1.

Its hard to believe this game was released in 1986. Freedom from screen 1.

Let's take a look at The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  It takes the concept of freedom from the very first screen of the 1986 title (left, up, right or cave) and expands it into a freeform adventure.  You’re given the majority of your skills and abilities at the beginning of the game, rather than them being trickled out over time. The combat system has been completely changed - not only is there stealth and slow-motion sniping, but the weapon degradation system forces a kind of frantic improvisation.  If you have the skills and stamina to do so, you can immediately take on the big bad instead of mucking about in its open world. And it features an insane amount of environmental interaction that's only rivaled by Metal Gear Solid 5.

I don’t view Breath of the Wild as some flawless masterpiece like some others do - but there’s no way you can point to it and claim that its not striving for something new.  Nintendo absolutely did not play it safe with the Switch’s first Zelda title and have created some incredibly unique experiences for players because of it. People are emotionally engaged with Zelda and Link and Hyrule despite this being the millionth entry in the franchise because it inspired a sense of wonder and freshness in its systems and world.

This is what I, and many others, desperately want from Pokémon.  For those who are newer to the series, this may seem impossible. You look at the latest 4 entries and it seems to just be the same thing, over and over.  But as someone who played Pokémon Red and Blue when they first came out, I know it's possible for Pokémon to blow our collective minds.

I still get a giddy rush of nostalgia from this screenshot alone.

I still get a giddy rush of nostalgia from this screenshot alone.

At age 12, what was it that I wanted to be when I grew up?  The details are fuzzy, but there were two things I knew for sure: I wanted to get my letter from Hogwarts, and I wanted to be a Pokémon Trainer.  The Pokémon games and broader world of Pokémon captured my generation’s imagination in a way that nothing else truly has. It was just similar enough to our world that we could envisage ourselves as part of it.  The places you explored seemed normal - hospitals, shops and people’s houses - and even the early game Pokémon largely resembled ordinary animals. So when the game started to slowly introduce you to weirder locations and monsters, the more fascinated you became with the mysteries pervading the world.

I still remember how I felt upon discovering the secret strip of ocean leading to the Power Plant.  The confusion and annoyance when I couldn’t capture or do damage to the ghosts occupying the Lavender Town tower.  And the long, arduous trek through Victory Road to take on the Elite 4. Nostalgia definitely plays a part - the old Pokémon games were bug ridden messes in a lot of ways - but there’s something undeniably special about the journeys we all went on playing these games.

After watching the Trailer for Sword and Shield, I thought that I wouldn’t feel that way about Pokémon ever again.  But my co-host was kind enough to pick Pokémon Snap for the 12th episode of our podcast, and I got another taste of that feeling of wonder.  

You evolve Charmeleon by pushing him into this pool of lava. Such deep lore.

You evolve Charmeleon by pushing him into this pool of lava. Such deep lore.

Pokémon Snap bears the visible scars of a title released in 1999.  It's got ugly stretched textures, a primitive UI, and its camera movement is clunky.  Half the time, the way to find new or hidden Pokémon is through taking random actions rather than trying to achieve a particular outcome.  But to this day it is still a unique experience, something that can no longer be said for the mainline titles.

At its core, Pokémon Snap is a photography game, a genre with few titles through history.  The closest thing to it is Beyond Good and Evil, which features it as a continuous side quest/minigame, or the Fatal Frame series, where your camera is essentially a ghost-busting gun.  But despite the genre’s lack of widespread success, the core photography mechanics on display here are rock solid. You get awarded more points the better your shot is, based off size, facing and pose.  Capturing these shots is far more satisfying and skill testing than capturing most Pokémon inside a ball.

Encouraging Slowpoke to evolve into Slowbro or Magnemite into Magneton felt extremely cool, like I was interacting with them in their natural environment.  It was a glimpse into the world of Pokémon I always knew was there, hiding behind the curtain, while I fought trainers and got bottles of water for thirsty guards.  ‘Catch them all’ applies just as much to taking sweet snapshots of Pokémon as it does physically owning them inside a pokeball - it comes from a desire to document and understand the world more than anything.

Playing a modern Pokémon game doesn’t evoke these same feelings in me today.  Its a series of tutorials, cutscenes and dull quests. It's the inevitable and linear march from location to location, doing the same things in a different shade of clothing.  There are a hundred miniature distractions along the way, none of which I have any good reason to care about. And I can never escape the feeling that I’m simply filling out a series of checklists, rather than experiencing a new a vibrant world to be explored.

It might be pretty, but those are the same walled off paths that are in Pokemon Red.

It might be pretty, but those are the same walled off paths that are in Pokemon Red.

Where’s my truly open world Pokémon game?  Why can’t I battle the gym leaders in different orders, with them having different strength teams depending on how many badges I have?  Why are most Pokémon still found by running backwards and forwards through patches of grass? Why hasn’t stealth been improved upon? Why do the games increasingly double down on stupid features instead of expanding upon the good ones?

If Pokémon refuses to look to the future, then I beseech it to look to the past.  Pokémon Snap is an antiquated game from another era, but it was more of a breath of fresh air for me than anything released in the past 10 years of the series. There are a ridiculous number of ways to expand upon and improve the base game.  You could do anything from introduce multi-track rails to building an open world, off-rails photography game and it would be a stunning success. But instead we’re stuck in a swamp of mediocrity as Pokémon continues to do the same old thing for yet another entry in a row.  It’s all a little sad - Pokémon is meant to be about adventure, but the series development has been all about following a grey, brick path.

Pokémon first succeeded because it sold us an entire world waiting to be explored.  It opened our minds to the dream of a place where 10 year olds roamed the land on adventures.  Mechanics matter, of course, particularly when it comes to replayability, but the magic behind Pokémon was that it lit our imaginations on fire.  If Pokémon Snap 2 ever comes out we might just experience that one more time. I want to see the next generation of Pokémon for the future and beyond - not Call of Pokémon: Black Ops 16.

Pokémon has played it safe for 25 years now.  It's time for something new.

You can find our episode on Pokémon Snap here