2016 marks the 20 Year Anniversary of one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises, Pokémon. As expected, Nintendo and GameFreak released digital downloads of the collect-a-thon RPG’s original Red and Blue versions as well as news of an all-new upcoming Pokémon game, Pokémon Sun / Moon.
While the 2015 remakes of Pokémon Ruby / Sapphire are the latest entries in the mainstream series, fans haven’t been given the opportunity to explore a new world or meet new creatures since the release of Pokémon X / Y in 2013.
By now, fans are familiar with Nintendo and GameFreak’s tried and true marketing strategy:
- Release an all-new Pokémon game, introducing new creatures and lands to explore.
- Remake a previous game while development on the next generation of Pokémon is started.
- Rinse and repeat.
It’s a bit predictable, but so far there have been little complaints. The games are getting remakes in chronological order and many are happy to once again tackle nostalgic challenges with updated graphics and improved mechanics.
But release patterns aren’t the only predictable elements at play. The games themselves have received plenty of criticism for their repetitiveness, and despite the many types of elemental creatures at the player’s disposal, a general lack of diversity in terms of game structure have been noted time and time again.
Of course, many of Nintendo’s famous properties are known for their hard commitment to proven mechanics; Mario must save the princess by parkouring across question marked blocks, Samus Aran saves the galaxy by blowing up a hostile planet (but not before crash landing there and losing all of her powerful armor upgrades in the process) and Pokémon trainers across the world must journey far and wide to collect the eight gym badges needed to challenge the Pokémon Champion.
Oh, and also save the world from a squad of generically named goons. All while completing their Pokédex.
The Pokémon franchise is riddled with established tropes that, while engaging for their time, have quickly grown stale. Here are three PokéTropes that could use a creative reworking.
- Hidden Machines
Oh, the dreaded HM. Since the very beginning, players have had the option of empowering their Pokémon with a wide range of elemental attacks in the form of Technical Machines (TM’s) and Hidden Machines (HM’s). While Technical Machines could be rewritten in favor of newly acquired abilities, once a Pokémon was given an HM, it was stuck with that attack.
HM’s seem practical on paper. Unlike other attacks, HM moves can be used outside of battle, allowing players to interact with their environment by removing or circumventing obstructions such as impassable thickets and heavy boulders. And since HM moves are not deletable under normal circumstances, it’s an easy way to ensure that players don’t get stuck in certain areas of the game. If you need a specific HM to enter a cave, then there is no way you won’t have it when you’re ready to leave.
But the glaring downside to HM’s is the restraint it imposes upon the player. HM’s are functionally identical to Key Items common to the RPG genre, except instead of being placed into a bag when they aren’t needed, they are permanently assigned to one of only four available move slots on an appropriate Pokémon. In a game all about collecting creatures with complex combinations of elemental types and abilities, It’s frustrating for players to give one third of their teams less than ideal movesets just to progress to the next area.
Granted, HM’s do help with pacing. And in a game as grindy as Pokémon, interactive puzzle environments do a lot to immerse a player. But the veil of immersion is a thin one, and using HM’s outside of battle isn’t in itself rewarding.
Perhaps if the people and places that trainers visited were more interesting, traversing warm seas or cold mountain passes with nothing but your team’s natural abilities would be more satisfying. Speaking of making things more satisfying, when was the last time you had to truly grind for that last gym badge?
- The Gym System
The primary goal of every mainstream Pokémon game to date has been to collect the eight gym badges across the country in order to challenge the Elite Four and Pokémon Champion.
It worked in the beginning; it was the perfect premise for exploring a fantastical, nature-centric world. Giving the player the role of a young traveler set them up to expect various interesting environments such as frozen caves, hot volcanoes and sunny fields.
But after doing the same thing across six different regions, maybe it’s time for a new journey? Nintendo has a strict policy when it comes to game design: it’s about the game design.
It’s a pretty reasonable rule, when you think about it. But Nintendo and GameFreak have the Pokémon design down; they’ve created an addictive and reasonably balanced game featuring more than 700 customizable creatures and a plethora of memorable locations. If the plot of Pokémon is an afterthought, then what’s the harm in mixing it up for a change?
One of Pokémon’s biggest strengths is its world building. GameFreak cares enough about their creatures to give each and every one of them a scientific journal entry, complete with footprints and size charts. There are hidden archives about events from the Pokémon world’s past and peculiar NPC’s with sometimes sad stories.
But we rarely ever get more than third hand accounts of these events. For an RPG, Pokémon is incredibly linear. Side quests are few and far between, and most of them aren’t as engaging as they could be. The world of Pokémon is one that is ripe with potential. It is a world where humans have embraced nature despite how ferocious it tends to be. Yet we hardly see it.
Remember those shoddy HM’s? Imagine using them to save a group of hikers from a mudslide, only to realize by barreling through the environment a second mudslide has demolished the empty home of one of the stranded hikers. Imagine if it wasn’t empty.
Players love to immerse themselves in the world of Pokémon. It’s easy enough to develop a real sense of attachment to a team. With less emphasis on beating gyms and collecting badges in favor of world expansion, players would not only have the opportunity to catch more Pokémon–the top priority of most players–but they would have room to develop a greater connection to the world they love.
- You Are Destined to Save the World . . . Again
Perhaps the most cringe worthy aspect of the last three Pokémon RPG’s is the emphasis on saving the world from evil.
Since the third set of games, Ruby and Sapphire, there has been a group of generic goons with a convoluted plot to destroy the world. It worked well in Red and Blue and again in Gold and Silver because the goons were just greedy thieves. They sought money and power, but not worldwide chaos.
But since the debut of Ruby / Sapphire, GameFreak has doled out generic baddies with Bond villain levels of loathing. The blandly named teams Aqua and Magma want to flood and burn the world, respectively. Team Galactic wants to literally recreate the universe. And with only one exception, every new crooked threat is up to a ten year old to thwart.
The Pokémon franchise is obviously aimed at young children—except when it isn’t. In Pokémon Black 2 / White 2, the protagonist is 15 or 16 (it’s left vague). In Pokémon X / Y, creatures from the 20 year old original games are made readily available throughout the game in an attempt to attract older players back to the franchise. The competitive Pokémon scene is insanely complicated, with hidden stats and a wide range of items and equipment to formulate complex strategies. Your average ten or twelve year old isn’t interested in any of that, and it’s obvious that GameFreak is catering to a more mature player base on a fairly basic level.
The prospect of saving the world sounds pleasant, especially to a younger player. But it would be a relieving breath of fresh air to face a threat that was more tangible. Just as the gym system is shallow and, at this point, somewhat forced, the sudden climactic battle to save the world—halfway through your quest to become the Pokémon Champion—feels archaic and contrived.
It would be nice to battle a common gang of thieves in one city and face an environmental disaster in the next, with the consequences of each side quest stacking on top of each other as the game progresses, as opposed to a sudden crime fighting spree that is totally detached from the rest of the story.
While Nintendo and GameFreak deserve all the critical acclaim they’ve seen with the Pokémon franchise, there’s still a lot of room for improvement—and a lot of ways to approach any sort of redesign. And while it’s risky to tweak such a successful model, the next level of immersion may be just what the Pokémon series needs to expand its audience and keep the attention of new and old fans alike.