The Legendary Pokémon are an interesting facet of the Pokémon games, if only for the fact that they become the face of their respective games, driving a marketing blitz of new information and movies starring them. As a gamer who’s dedicated a good 13 years of my life playing Pokémon, I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the generational cycle and what the new Pokémon mean. I’m going to offer up my own opinion on them- in recent years we have had Pokémon that become the focal point of the game to such an extent that it actually damages the games. Before I can properly criticize the new Pokémon, however, I must establish the history behind them.
Let’s travel back to the ancient year of 1998. This was when Pokémon had first arrived in the US, and boy was it big. Pokémon was everywhere. Additionally, there was a lot that players did not know (at the time) about the games. Misinformation and rumors spread like wild-fire, and those that played were perplexed by the secrets the games had to offer. The Legendary Pokémon appeared as mysterious creatures, unseen to anyone except those that bothered to brave the dungeons found around the Kanto region. Between these monsters and the games being infamously glitchy, stories of Poké Gods took on a life of their own, and the Legendary Pokémon really did become something of a legend among players.
But, more importantly, from a gameplay perspective they weren’t required to be encountered. Players could read about Mewtwo’s origins and meet a bird keeper that knows about the legendary birds, but they were never told to seek them out. We were told of their existence and that was that. Actually encountering them was a reward for playing through the game’s extra content and in the case of Mewtwo, for making it to the end of the game.
Things changed somewhat afterwards, however. Gold and Silver versions were released in 2000, and with them brought a new set of Pokémon. For the first time, the covers were adorned with a Legendary Pokémon: Ho-Oh and Lugia, respectively. Despite this, their status in the games did not change much. There was more back story to the Pokémon, with some characters, rather fittingly, telling legends of the duo. Players were given items to encounter them, but outside of that they weren’t compelled to actually battle them. However, with the advent of Pokémon Crystal, the legends began to take greater importance in the game.
Crystal introduced the character Eusine, a man whose specific goal is to find, battle, and (presumably) capture Suicune. The player runs into Suicune and Eusine often, which ultimately culminates into battle against Suicune at the Tin Tower. Yet again, the battle was optional, though the player was outright encouraged to move the story along.
Seems pretty good, right? But then we have Generations 3-5. In every game since the start of Generation 3 save for Fire Red, Leaf Green, and Emerald versions, the player was forced into battling a Legendary Pokémon in order to move the game along. No longer were they content staying on the sidelines as simple world building. Legendary Pokémon seemingly became a major focus of the games. And that’s overall a bad thing.
Admittedly, the weather trio is pretty badass.
Granted, it was a fresh approach to the idea when Ruby and Sapphire did it. It makes sense that the nutty teams Magma and Aqua would believe in these Pokémon and would attempt to use them to expand the landmass or the sea. Yet at the same time the Pokémon began to lose their prestige. Rather than being simply powerful and rare Pokémon or the subject of myth, Groudon and Kyogre have an immediate impact upon the ecosystem, with powers that put them beyond older Pokémon in an attempt to make them appear more impressive. By making their encounters required, there isn’t much room for interpretation. Every player encounters them, and any sense of mystery is quashed when we are handed a Master Ball and told “here, go fight that Pokémon.” Even the remakes of Gold and Silver were not exempt from this, by completely stopping the player from progressing until he ran off and did some ritual to summon Ho-Oh or Lugia. Contrast this with how the original games handled things, and you can see a clear obstruction of player agency.
Even worse, Black and White felt the need to take things a step further- players literally cannot progress through the game without capturing either Reshiram or Zekrom. Inevitably, players will capture one. Rather than being a unique Pokémon of myth like the game wants us to believe, we are instead presented with the stark opposite- everybody has one. Or, to put things in perspective: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
Thanks for your wisdom, Syndrome!
Another problem presented by this is the feeling that Game Freak is trying to top their previous legendary Pokémon. What was wrong with Ho-Oh and Lugia being simply Pokémon that were revered, much like the spirits and monsters from Shinto*? Why is it that we now have Pokémon that control land and sea, time and space, and even a supposed Pokémon creator? This in of itself isn’t necessarily a large problem, but “bigger and stronger” doesn’t always translate into “better.”
In spite of this, we can see some Legendary Pokémon treated with the same care that those of the earlier games were. The Regi trio is a fantastic example of this, having been hidden away across the Hoenn region and only available to those able to go the extra mile. Then in Sinnoh, we meet Regigigas, the Pokémon that the legend from Hoenn was apparently talking about. There is no reason for these Pokémon to exist except to build up the world and make the Pokémon universe even more rich and entertaining than it already was. I can only hope we’ll see more Pokémon of this type in the future.
*Shinto is one of the two major religions in Japan, the other being Buddhism. You might be familiar with it via the tanuki (racoon) and kitsune (fox), both of which are rather well represented in various media.